Venezuelans Bear The Brunt Of Political Turmoil

Let’s be blunt about it- the situation in Venezuela is dreadful. On January 10, President Nicolás Maduro began his second term following a controversial, widely-disputed election. Last year, Maduro’s campaign survived violent protests across Caracas, nationwide marches led by the opposition, and even a drone assassination attempt, The Guardian reports. Venezuelans largely blame President Maduro and his socialist government for the economic turmoil caused partly by hyperinflation, and the consequent decline in living standards. The legitimacy of his presidency has also been questioned, as many opposition candidates were prevented from running, jailed, or fled the country out of fear. Hence, many civilians and foreigners consider Venezuela’s ‘democratic’ process unfair and label Maduro a dictator, BBC reports. Fortunately, this week’s events have proven Maduro’s presidency may be short-lived. On Wednesday January 23, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly opposition party, declared himself interim president- a decision supported by the US.

The media frenzy around the Maduro-Guaidó power struggle has largely ignored the 32 million people of Venezuela, who are bearing the brunt of the chaos. Hyperinflation has rendered Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, basically worthless, and caused a 155,000% increase in prices from 2017 to 2018, Al Jazeera reports. A recent documentary by the media company Real Vision, titled “Venezuela: State of Disaster,”  depicts the heart-breaking reality of Venezuela’s population, 90% of which are living in poverty. The minimum wage is five million bolivars; three million bolivars as salary plus a two million bolivar food voucher. According to one local, Luis, this is enough to buy only bread daily, as the cost of food has risen by over 50% every month. To put this in US dollars, $1 million worth of Venezuela’s currency in 2013, when Maduro came to power, would be worth $2.50 today. As a result, in 2017 the average Venezuelan lost 20 pounds (9 kilograms). Eduard Solano, a young computer scientist, told The Guardian, “This situation is unbearable. It doesn’t matter if you earn bolivars or dollars, it’s not enough.”

Costs are not the only obstacle to survival. There is insufficient water nationwide, and virtually no food in stores as the government reduced imports drastically to balance their budget. This also makes it very difficult for business-owners to break even, as buying goods to sell (or use in production) is so expensive that no one can afford to purchase them. This is also true for hospitals, which are broke and unable to provide adequate service to patients. Carlos Leone, a doctor at the Caracas University Hospital, met with Real Vision in his car out of fear of government retaliation. He said there is no medicine, water, or electricity, and patients sometimes must bring their own light bulbs. Carlos feels helpless, stating, “To know you could have helped them and you didn’t because…you didn’t have just the basics, they’re probably going to die.” He added that the hospital is worse than refugee camps he has seen around the world.

Venezuelans’ responses to the humanitarian crisis tend to be one of the following: stay but focus on survival, stay and risk their lives to protest Maduro, or flee. A lot of locals are too busy simply trying to survive to worry about the election. Maria Rios travels for two hours into the capital every month to receive her pension, like many other elderly civilians. She told Al Jazeera, “I don’t care if the president is Maduro or Guaidó, I just know that with the money the bank will give me today, I will be able to buy a kilo of cheese and another of rice, half of what I would have bought last week.” Others are determined to incite political change. Early last week, there was a confrontation between protestors called the “young patriots” and security forces. The young patriots and other protestors support Guaidó’s attempt to replace Maduro until new elections. According to The Guardian, Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, backed the “national guard boys” in her tweet: “…We must support military rebellion.” However, protesters face the threat of ‘colectivos’- armed gangs loyal to Maduro described as using “violence with impunity,” Human Rights Watch writes. Security forces are just as ruthless, killing 20 people- including a 16-year-old- and detaining over 350 in the last week, according to RTÉ Ireland. BBC writes that while Guaidó called for all armed forces supporting Maduro to abstain from violence in exchange for amnesty, it seems unlikely this will happen anytime soon, as they too are afraid of the repercussions. However, there is hope the United Nations (UN) will investigate violence against protestors. Despite the violence, protesting does seem to be sending the message that Maduro’s government is not supported by the masses or recognized as legitimate. The world watches as Maduro’s position weakens while Guaidó gathers support abroad and at home. He might just replace Maduro as president in the near future.

The third viable option for Venezuelans is to flee. Approximately 3.3 million have already left to neighbouring countries since 2015, with two million more expected to leave by the end of the year, Voice of America reports. 365,000 of them have sought asylum due to “pure hunger…violence and lack of security,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said. Last week, the UN appealed for $738 million to aid neighbouring nations with the influx of refugees and migrants in 2019. Columbia has taken in one million, while the other 2.3 million have been split between Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. The UN aid plan presented to donors aims to assist Venezuelans in accessing the labour market and social services in these countries, including health, education, and housing, Channel News Asia writes. This is an appealing choice for many Venezuelans, who are offered the chance of a better life. Luis, who quit university in order to work, told Real Vision, “I talk to my family members who live abroad and who live a normal life. Honestly, their lifestyle is what every youngster in Venezuela dreams for.” However, many Venezuelans are not ready to give up on their home, and do not see fleeing as an option. Fatima, who works in her family’s shop, told Real Vision that it is very difficult to sustain her business, but “it is more than continuing a business, it is about the love we have for everybody” – the same love that motivates many to protest.

Behind the clamour of the Maduro and Guaidó face-off, it is important to remember there are millions of people who must continue to earn minimal wages to barely survive each day. Their lives are deeply affected by the government and opposition decisions, and their lives worsen as costs continue to rise. Whatever comes of the political conflict, the people of Venezuela have three choices at hand: fight for political change, remain unpolitical and focus on surviving, or leave. Whichever course of action they choose will have its drawbacks, but unlike other facets of Venezuelans’ lives, it is one decision that the government cannot control.

Emma Appleton