It is a nation caught in a fever dream, the nightmarish kind that not only does not end but repeats as if on an endless loop. That is the reality of daily life in Venezuela, a country where economic and political collapse have reshaped what was once South America’s most vibrant economy. It now teeters on the edge of collapse.
For Ledy Linares, one of approximately 2,500 Venezuelan expatriates who call the Denver metro area home, the anguish over family and loved ones still in Venezuela is daily heartbreak. “I’m very worried,” she said. While she and her husband try and help economically, just getting the basics in today’s Venezuela---food, medicine, even electricity---“is very difficult and expensive.”
Infant mortality has soared. Medicine and baby formula are in short supply. Pediatric intensive care units have been shut down in many hospitals. The number of children dying before their first birthday is up by as much as 30 percent. Maternal mortality---dying while pregnant or within weeks of the end of a pregnancy---is also up. Childhood illnesses, including measles, have soared.
For Linares, a sales associate in a Denver department store, today’s Venezuela is a light year from the country she once called home. “Twenty years ago, Venezuelan’s lives were very different.” Food was not a black-market commodity; hospitals were staffed, had medicine. “We didn’t have militias shooting people just because they don’t agree with the government.”
Today in Venezuela, who’s in charge of the government is a mystery. Two men claim the title. Nicolas Maduro, a one-time bus driver, union leader, was elected president in a highly suspect vote. He won by 1.6 percent of the vote, but his election was not recognized by the National Assembly. Since January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly, has served as interim President of Venezuela. The United States, along with a score of countries, recently recognized Guaidó as President. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea support Maduro.
The decision to recognize Guaidó resulted in Venezuela breaking off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Maduro also ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours. He has also barred American aid---including medicine and food---from entering the country.
The genesis of Venezuela’s plunge into economic chaos began under the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who, in 2002, ordered the firing of more than 18,000 engineers, technicians and refinery workers. They were replaced by a workforce not nearly as productive nor proficient. Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves and is economically dependent on its revenue. Chavez move undermined the country’s prime source for money.
Daily realities and the hope that things will turn around have convinced up to three million Venezuelans to flee the country. “My mother is 83,” said Venezuelan expat Veronica Figoli, “and she has no home, no place to live her last years,” in Venezuela.
In conversations with her mother, she realizes just how much Venezuela has changed. “My mom used to say, ‘eat your food; there are kids in Africa who have no food.’ I tell my kids now, ‘eat your food, there are kids in Venezuela who have none.” For now, returning home for her mother remains an unsettling prospect. All but one of Figoli’s siblings have also left the country.
Since the upheaval began, an estimated three million Venezuelans have fled the country. Up to a million now live in neighboring Columbia and 500,000 in Peru. About 290,000 Venezuelans have sought refuge in the United States.
Former Univision anchor and Venezuela native, Rodolfo Cardenas, hosts a daily talk show on Denver’s KNRV Radio. Cardenas is in daily contact with family in Venezuela. Luckily, they live near the Colombian border. “They can go and get medicine for my mom and can buy food,” he said. “It makes it a little easier.”
But for those in Caracas or far from friendly borders, food is a daily challenge. Hyperinflation has made basics, including eggs, nearly unaffordable. A dozen eggs can cost as much as $150 in a state-run grocery store. Getting them home without being robbed is another daily issue. Militias and gangs roam the streets.
“It’s all downhill,” said Cardenas who blames the late Hugo Chavez for the decline. “He was like King Midas,” said Cardenas. “Only everything he touched, he damaged.” Chavez experiment in government control of everything from oil and gas to farms, ranches and private industry changed the course of the nation. “He fired thousands of oil engineers and hired unqualified people.” Cardenas also said Chavez rewarded personal friends with top jobs in the country’s petroleum industry.
Chavez recklessness, said Cardenas, created criminal militias. “Things are out of hand,” he lamented. “Still, there are a lot of people loyal to the government and willing to die for the revolution.” But there are cracks in Maduro’s armor. A few top generals have defected from the Maduro government and now publicly support President Guaidó.
Like so many expat Venezuelans, Cardenas has watched helplessly as his native country spirals downward. “It breaks my heart and it’s painful to listen to the stories,” he said. “Kids are dying from diseases that were eradicated. People are dying of hunger. It’s hard not to cry.”