By now you have probably seen the photos documenting the protests in Venezuela. Perhaps you have taken the time to research what caused them, and what is happening now. Or maybe you, like me, glanced at headlines and read a few articles so you knew just enough.
And you know there is tragedy there.
The crisis in Venezuela is complicated and it didn’t happen overnight, though it may feel that way to the casual observer. From the start, I knew that things were bad, but I didn’t quite understand why. But since moving to Colombia for a year, a country that is a major destination for Venezuelan migrants, the crisis in Venezuelan has been on my radar in a new way. As I have witnessed more firsthand and researched on my own time, I have realized just how devastating this crisis is for the country, and what its implications are for its people.
This article is going to break down what has happened so that you can understand it, too.
Former President Hugo Chávez and Current President Nicolás Maduro
Venezuela is a democracy, and up until now has been one of the most financially stable countries in all of South America. The former president, Hugo Chávez was part of Venezuela’s socialist party and served as president from 1999 to 2013. What Chávez did as president is important for the current crisis. Chávez was well liked, and did great things for Venezuela; under his presidency, poverty and unemployment were cut in half, he improved the education system, and the economy flourished. Venezuela is an oil-rich country that the economy depends on. Luckily for Chávez, during his time as president, the global value of oil was high, meaning that there was lots of money flowing into the country.
When Chávez died in 2013, he was succeeded by the Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Maduro claimed he was going to continue Chávez’s practices, but it has become clear that that is not the case.
In fact, Maduro became more authoritarian and dictatorial as time has passed. In 2016, the Supreme Court took over the National Assembly. This is Venezuela’s equivalent of the United States Congress or the British Parliament. It’s composed of people from multiple political parties, and at the time the opposition to the socialist party, AKA Maduro’s party, was in control. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, was filled with Maduro supporters. Once they took control of the National Assembly, the democracy effectively became more like a dictatorship.
Since then Maduro has taken advantage of the current economic crisis to gain more power, and tensions between the socialist party and the opposition have escalated.
Oil and Inflation
As mentioned previously, an important part of the former presidency was the high value of oil. Shortly after Maduro was elected in 2014, the value of oil sharply declined. Venezuela’s economy crashed along with it. Suddenly, the economy that depended on oil, a dependency that Chávez’s presidency created, had nothing to sustain itself. Inflation, which is expected to reach 13,000% this year, has made the prices of basic items like food and medicine skyrocket.
You probably learned about inflation in your high school social studies class. If you’re a little fuzzy on the details, all you really need to know is that inflation occurs when prices of items go up, but income stays the same. In Venezuela, inflation has been extreme. Now, a standard income can barely cover the cost of basic foods items, if those food items are available at all. One comparison showed that a box of pasta in the U.S. costs about $2.50. The cost in Venezuela would be about $300.
People still in Venezuela are desperate. Food shortages have led to a malnutrition crisis and an increase in crime. Many Venezuelans have fled the country, heading for neighboring ones like Colombia and Brazil.
As a foreigner in Colombia, I can’t tell the difference right away between a Venezuelan and a Colombian. But Colombians certainly can. Oftentimes I am told by taxi drivers that the people you see selling candy and other items on the road during red lights are Venezuelans. I met a woman who told me about how she recently moved to the town I live in from Venezuela, and that while right now they are struggling to make ends meet in Colombia, it’s better than what was going on back home.
Generally, the Colombian government is accepting of Venezuelan immigrants. After all, Venezuela was a country to which Colombians fled during their period of violence. But the sheer number of Venezuelans entering Colombia are high, and Colombia is struggling to accommodate all of them.
This crisis has rendered a once affluent, stable country in total danger of collapse. It has forced families to flee their homes in the same way citizens of war-stricken nations must. The western view of South America is often one of violence and instability. But for Venezuela, the current violence and instability are realities that that surpass their worst nightmares.
Venezuela may feel far away from you, but there are things you can do to help. You can donate to non-profit organizations that focus on providing food and medical supplies like Cuatro por Venezuela or Share for Life. You can also donate to organizations like this one that help simply to document what’s going on, as the government is failing to publish information about the severity of the hunger crisis.
As always, stay updated on the issues and aware of what your political representatives may be saying about it. You never know when you might be able to help.