Venezuela at a Crossroads

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By Maria Luisa Olavarria

I miss Venezuela. I’ve thought about it every single day since I left in 2013. I wish I could wake up to have a cafecito with my mamá, have an arepa for breakfast and be able to share my dreams and goals with my childhood friends. I daydream about the warmth of its people and its weather. I reminisce over time spent in my family’s home, when we all lived nearby, and my siblings and friends were just a call away. I miss the sense of community and the feeling that I belonged. Painful as it is to accept,  I miss a country that no longer exists.

I’m not alone. Recent data show that almost 2.2 million people have left the country, while a poll conducted at the end of 2017 indicated that the Venezuelan diaspora  reached 4 million worldwide. This statistic accounts for between 7 and 12 percent of the entire population, which has left both willingly and unwillingly, in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Venezuela recently opened the border with Colombia for 12 hours to allow Venezuelans to purchase food and medicine; 35,000 people crossed the border in order to gain access to basic goods. In the early 2000s, the exodus was mostly made up of medical professionals, IT experts, oil and gas engineers, and students, which led many to label it not a brain drain, but a “brain hemorrhage.” Surveys indicate that 90% of expatriates are university graduates, 40% hold master’s degrees and 12% hold PhDs.

The main reasons to leave Venezuela are physical insecurity, financial instability, economic devastation, lack of job opportunities and lack of basic freedoms. Allow me to unpack this a little further:

Studies have found that  1 in 5 Venezuelans have been victims of violence. 2017 marks the 14th consecutive year that the government  has censored armed violence and criminality data, forcing NGOs to carry out their own studies. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimated that 26,600 violent deaths occurred in 2017, a homicide rate of 89 per 100,000 residents.  As a means of comparison, the global homicide rate average is 5.15 per 100,000 . In 2017,  an average of 106 people died every week at the hands of military or police forces in Venezuela. Every single day of that year, 15 people died for “resisting authority” –  60% of victims were between 12 and 29 years old, 95% of victims were male, and 90% of the deaths were caused by firearms.

It’s not surprising to hear that 50% of those who left Venezuela, myself included, did so as a direct result of a robbery or assault, or due to the violent death of a family member.  

Financially speaking, life is made nearly impossible between spiking inflation rates, shortages and Venezuela’s vulnerability to external shocks. Inflation in Venezuela in 2017 reached 741%, and the IMF predicts it will surpass 3,700% by the end 2018. This level of inflation means that prices in supermarkets currently increase on an hourly basis. The bolivar (Bs.F) has lost 99% of its value in the past five years. The current minimum wage in Venezuela is equivalent to a little over USD $6 in the black market, even after a 50% increase in January of this year. Only a small minority of Venezuelans can afford to buy food on the black market. A bag of imported rice can sell for about 280,000 bolivares , which is equivalent to almost USD $1 on the black market, but represents a day’s wage for an ordinary Venezuelan. Studies indicate that 4 out of 5 households are in a state of poverty (earning less than USD $3.1 a day) and more than half of households are in extreme poverty (earning less than USD $1.90 a day). A majority of the households in extreme poverty are unable to afford basic needs. Not surprisingly, Caritas International has reported  a 14.5% increase in child malnutrition in 2017.

These are statistics that shouldn’t be true of  the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

On top of all this, Venezuelans deal with acute shortages. The government has less cash to import food and medicine due to its woeful mismanagement of the oil sector (where production has fallen to a 28-year low)  and an all-time low in oil prices. Stands at supermarkets are often empty, and even when stocked, the prices of goods are disproportionate to the purchasing power of the majority of the population. Millions of people spend their days waiting in line for the possibility of buying subsidized goods. Desperation to find food has recently led to lootings, and people scavenging for food is an everyday sight.

If you have the misfortune of falling ill, you will most likely be forced to fend for yourself. The national pharmaceutical association estimates at any given time there is a shortage of 85% of drugs. Doctors usually request that patients purchase their own medicine and other medical supplies, leading sick Venezuelans to fend for themselves, scouring pharmacies and the black market.  It is not uncommon to read desperate pleas for drugs on social media. Recently a diphtheria outbreak was reported and other infectious diseases have started to re-appear due to the absence of vaccines.  

A final but  very important reason for migration is related to basic freedoms. Almost 70 media outlets closed in 2017 alone. Freedom House ranks press freedom in Venezuela as “not free,” with journalists facing violence, obstruction and detention by security forces while covering demonstrations and politically motivated persecution. In November 2017, the government passed a media law that prohibits anyone from sharing content that “promotes fascism, intolerance or hate (…) on social media or digital platforms” with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly reported political intimidation, arbitrary arrests, corruption and abuse of power. By the end of 2017, there were 214 political prisoners in Venezuela. The right to peaceful assembly is also not guaranteed. Amnesty International states that at least 120 people were killed in 2017 and 1,177 were wounded during mass demonstrations. A Venezuelan NGO, Foro Penal, has logged and reported hundreds of cases where the government repressed intimidated, tortured, and  harassed political prisoners, denying them medical attention, trials before military tribunals, and judicial detention release. It’s not surprising to learn that the Corruption Perception Index ranks Venezuela 169th out of 180 countries, scoring 18 out of 100 points total. The scoring indicates the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

All these statistics represent a factor, either big or small, in the daily struggle of surviving in Venezuela. Despite the brain drain of millions who have left, there is still hope: a generation of young dedicated entrepreneurs who are sticking it out despite the adversities. There are those who manage to find opportunities within the crisis, those who are reporting despite crackdowns, fighting armed violence despite overwhelming statistics, and providing food, healthcare and education to underprivileged children. There are those who promote tourism of Venezuela’s beautiful hidden treasures, using technology to build smarter cities. Talent, determination and resourcefulness are everywhere. Those who have migrated have an enormous commitment to our country as well, and I believe we can all play our part: we can use our voice to create awareness about the gravity of the situation as well as to demystify the realities of the socialist revolution.

We can use our time and money to make sure we support Venezuelan charities working on areas we believe in. We can use our skills in our field of work to represent Venezuela with pride and lift the name of our country.