by BEN RICHARDSON - As hyperinflation, starvation and political ruin devastate lives, a war on democracy has taken center stage in Venezuela.
WESTFIELD, Ind. (March 15, 2019) - Roughly 2,355 miles south of Westfield, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas lies in turmoil. Deadly protests have erupted in the streets of a nation currently gripped with a harsh reality: someone has undermined their democratic process. In Jan. 2019, the entire world watched as Nicolas Maduro claimed the title of acting president amid a fierce majority of opposers led by partially recognized president Juan Guaidó. At a time when the US, an oil-dependent superpower, wants to secure the future of both the economy and the people of Venezuela, Maduro has taken drastic measures to prevent any humanitarian aid of any kind from getting to the starving people within his borders.
On Feb. 8, 2019 Maduro announced to the world, “My people are not beggars.”
Since then, violent clashes against Maduro’s military have broken out in working-class neighborhoods and slums. The same demographics that famously hoisted predecessor Hugo Chavez to power are beginning to realize that the novelty of socialism wears off when a full year’s salary can’t even pay for a single chicken breast. Conditions in Venezuela have declined so much so that about one in ten people have fled the country, primarily seeking refuge in western neighbor Colombia.
Westfield students from Venezuela know of the horrors that their family members back home face each and every day and try to do anything in their power to help. Due to the severity of their situations, the names of the students who were interviewed will not be included in this story. They have been given fake names for their protection.
“It’s hard for my family because they can’t find medicine. The food is really expensive so we send money,” Ana said. “People in Venezuela die every day because they can’t find medicine, and when you walk in the streets, you can see kids, teenagers, adults, old people looking for some food in the trash.”
Other WHS students who hail from Venezuela, like Siana, feel that it’s still important to remind students of the positive aspects about their home country that the media tends to leave out. There’s more to Venezuela than what the nightly news reports show the rest of the world during this exceptionally rough patch in their history.
“I want Westfield students to know how Venezuela really is, from its landscapes, food, culture and people,” Siana said. “Something positive that all Venezuelans in and outside the country have is that we learn to value our family and everything we have. Because no matter where we are, or what we are doing, we can always start again.”
To understand how “The Land of Grace” fell from grace, let’s look at how Venezuela became what it is today. Let’s look at why many economics professors coin the term “Petrostate Paradigm” when talking about its unique economy.
The rise and fall of Venezuela’s modern history pans itself out as a tragedy. The plot begins with a glorious fight for independence from Spain, a few decades of strict military rule, several coups and the climax being the discovery of the largest oil reserves on the planet. Until recently, nearly all of Venezuela's mostly urban and educated population had accessible drinking water, plumbing and electricity. It was an affluent country; in fact, the most affluent in all of Latin America. Then, a socialist revolution under Hugo Chavez at the turn of the second millennium began the plot’s descent into the scarring depths we’ve seen the economy take today.
According to the CIA World Factbook, nearly all of Venezuela’s export earnings lie in the petroleum industry, and the United states remains its most loyal customer. Thus, economists refer to it as a “Petrostate.” Chavez used Venezuela's booming oil wealth to set up social programs, known as the Bolivarian Missions, to combat poverty and lessen inequality. It was, as many claimed, a much-needed bridge in the gap between the wealth of the top one percent and the dwindling middle class.
Despite exponential social and democratic reforms over the years, the current executive branch of Venezuela has become increasingly more authoritarian, often making corrupt business and military deals with global antagonists like Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Venezuelans of all backgrounds suffer as a result of this poor leadership. Ninety percent now fall below the poverty line, murder rates stand at a whopping 56.3 people killed per 100,000, and 75 percent of people have lost an average of 19 pounds since the crisis in Venezuela began in 2010. Crime has run rampant due to the lack of basic consumer resources like medicine and food.
“Criminals in Venezuela are the biggest fear of my family and the people there,” Ana said. “When they go out to the streets, people can’t be protected because people called ‘cops’ are criminals too. [Families] have no one to protect them, because nobody enforces the laws. It’s very usual for people to walk in the streets and the criminals assault them and steal things like phones, shoes, even cars.”
What happens next in the plot of Venezuela’s history is unclear. Guaidó has offered Maduro amnesty if he steps down peacefully, but if history is any predictor, Maduro probably won’t go easily. Though the odds of economic healing are slim to none with Maduro in power, it’s easy to forget that the Venezuelan people are a resilient people. In their own words, they are not the kind to lose hope in the wake of adversity.
“The people are speculating about how Guaidó is going to oppose Maduro but there’s a high probability it will be a military intervention,” Ana said. “But we're 100 percent sure about one thing, and it's that Guaidó is going to restore democracy in Venezuela.”