Putting a Face on Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis

For those who have been paying scant attention to the news-worthy articles tucked between Trump headlines, the on-going humanitarian crisis in Venezuela may be but a blip on an already disorienting radar screen. However, with the pending collapse of President Nicolas Maduro’s government looking more inevitable as the days pass, along with limits to immigration being high on the agenda of many countries, this is a crisis to which we should all be paying attention.

Each day, Venezuelans are dying from malnutrition and treatable diseases due to hyperinflation that’s driving up prices and causing severe shortages of basics like food and medicine. The callous mindset that rules in Caracas was once again placed on international display this past week when President (and dictator) Maduro and his wife dined on the finest cuts of beef at an expensive soirée in Istanbul while his own people were starving back in Venezuela.

Venezuelans having their bags checked before crossing the border into Colombia. Photo Credit: Colombia Reports.

The statistics paint a dire picture
Desperate refugees

For all these reasons, Venezuelans are fleeing their country and creating a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring South American countries of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Colombia alone has taken in an estimated one million Venezuelans since 2015, while Ecuador has admitted more than 500,000 and Peru more than 400,000. Some sources report even higher numbers, but with the human toll mounting, it’s difficult to pin down up-to-date figures.

Although some countries such as Colombia are providing a refuge for their Venezuelan neighbors–just as Venezuela did for Colombians during decades of armed conflict–these new immigrants are encountering walls of prejudice. They’re being blamed for rising levels of violent crime, for taking already scarce jobs and for contributing to falling wages.

Venezuelan refugees crowd the border hoping to gain entry to the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Photo Credit: Colombia Reports.

Over the past year, Venezuelans have filed the highest number of asylum applications to the USA of any country. The Trump administration recently began denying and even revoking tourist visas to Venezuelans fearing they would seek to stay indefinitely in the country.

It seems that after years of bloody civil war and mass displacement in countries such as Syria and Myanmar, there’s little international appetite to take on yet another humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. However, from both a humanitarian, as well as a cost-saving and practical point of view, the international community must step up and see that the needs of the Venezuelan people are being met.

Putting a face on the crisis

Over the past two years while living and traveling in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I’ve met displaced Venezuelans everywhere I’ve gone. The diaspora stretches past the limits of large cities like Bogotá, Quito and Lima and filters into the small towns along the coast and high in the Andes.

On a recent visit to Cusco (also spelled Cuzco), Peru, I met a delightful young man who only a few years ago faced a future that looked bright and promising. Unfortunately, after 5 years of Maduro’s economic  mismanagement, that bright vision of his future has forever changed, just as it has for millions of his fellow Venezuelans.

Jorge’s Story

I met Jorge (he prefers using the English pronunciation “George”) for the first time when he came running across the plaza to meet the taxi I’d taken from the airport into Cusco’s historic center. My taxi driver wasn’t sure of the specific location so had called the hotel’s number for more information. Jorge’s smile and greeting as he rushed across the cobblestone street to the taxi was the same welcome I would see him extend to all who checked into the small hotel where he works as night clerk and handles all the front desk duties.

Almost immediately, we began chatting about our lives and I quickly realized the situation in which Jorge found himself. He and his older sister had left Venezuela at the urging of their parents after the situation became intolerable. Their father sold his prized possession–the family car–in order to finance their escape from the country’s problems.

Jorge behind the front desk of the small hotel in Cusco, Peru where he works as night clerk.

The journey from their small city in eastern Venezuela to Cusco had taken Jorge and his sister 9 long days of walking and riding a variety of buses while they dealt with immigration authorities each time they crossed one of the 3 international borders–Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Based on what I’d been reading in the Colombian press, I knew they were luckier than many because they had all their identification papers. Only weeks before my trip, both Ecuador and Peru had refused entry to Venezuelans without proper documentation. That had resulted in hundreds of Venezuelan refugees being trapped at the borders of those 2 countries.

Jorge and I sat in the hotel’s courtyard for more than 3 hours chatting that evening. He said it was the first opportunity he’d had to tell anyone his story and seemed to hold almost nothing back as though the experience of relaying the details of his life over the past few years was a way of healing some of the still-open wounds.

From upper middle class to poverty

Jorge’s parents are both doctors–his father a retired hospital director and his mother still works as a public health physician. Their lives had been very normal until Maduro took power after the death of President Hugo Chavez. Slowly, things began to change. Prices for food and other necessities began to climb as the Venezuelan government flooded the economy with more currency in a failed effort to keep the economy aloft.

At the same time prices were skyrocketing in the supermarkets, people were losing their jobs or continuing to perform their public service positions (like Jorge’s mother) with little or no pay. It was a phenomenon that has only spared the wealthy elites and top government officials who sent their assets offshore while they still had value.

Over a period of several years, Jorge’s family went from a normal diet of meat, vegetables and fruit to one where bare subsistence was the rule. Initially, they were able to still eat 3 meals per day, even if what they were eating changed dramatically. Eventually, that was cut to 2 meals per day, each meal consisting of white bread, cassava, an occasional fruit and water. Luxuries such as meat and coffee had to be eliminated completely.

Along with the tanking of the economy and spiraling prices for necessities came a constant increase of street robberies and violent crimes. Desperate people often resort to desperate measures when their noses are pushed up against a wall. Jorge said that if you went outside your house anywhere in Venezuela, especially at night, you only took what you were willing to lose since it was simply assumed there was a high probability of being robbed or mugged.

Jorge was in his last year of medical school when the bottom really dropped out for his family. His mother believed he was being fed a meal at his university so graciously accepted when Jorge began giving his home rations to her. After all, she was dedicating her energy each day to helping those who were sick and couldn’t afford to pay for services at a private medical clinic. Only after Jorge became very sick did his family learn the truth about his sacrifice–he hadn’t been eating. He also had to leave his studies due to lack of family resources to pay tuition.

Shortly after he began eating again and had gained a bit of strength back, his friend’s father was kidnapped and murdered. Because Jorge’s father had devoted most of his time to his career and was rarely at home, his friend’s father was the man that Jorge had looked up to as a father figure. His brutal murder was more than Jorge could handle in his already weakened condition. In a desperate attempt to escape the misery in which he found himself, he attempted to kill himself by cutting his wrists.

It was this series of tragic events that made Jorge’s father come to the realization that his children must leave the country. He had finally lost all hope that the situation in Venezuela would improve. Since his father had doctor acquaintances in Cusco who were willing to provide initial shelter, he made arrangements for his children to have a place to stay while they sorted out immigration matters and looked for jobs.

Almost immediately upon arrival in Peru, Jorge and his sister encountered the prejudice being directed at so many Venezuelans that have been forced to leave their country. The two interviewed for and were promised jobs at a bakery in Cusco. All they needed to do was purchase the required uniforms and show up for work the next day. After spending almost all their remaining cash on the uniforms, they were turned away by the same owner the following morning for ‘being’ Venezuelan.

Eventually, Jorge’s sister was lucky enough to find a job in her field of industrial engineering, but the salary is very low. Around this time, Jorge met the very nice owners of the small hotel where I stayed. They immediately recognized his talents–bright, English-speaking and possessing a determined work ethic–and hired him to be the night clerk, working the 7 PM till 7 AM shift.

Mind you, Jorge isn’t spending his nights in a plush, warm hotel lobby because the front desk is located in the open courtyard of the hotel. It gets very cold at night in high altitude Cusco and this will only become more of an issue when rainy season sets in this winter. The night we sat in the courtyard chatting, I was wearing multiple layers of clothing but still found myself shivering. The guest rooms have heaters, but there’s no such modern conveyance behind the front desk. Still, Jorge is very grateful to the hotel’s owners for giving him an opportunity to prove himself and wants to be worthy of their trust.

Both Jorge and his sister had to spend much of their first few months of salary traveling to Lima in order to apply for legal working visas. As Jorge puts it, being fully legal is their only defense against discrimination. This has meant living on very little themselves while trying to send as much as possible back to their parents for food and medicine. Their father suffers from diabetes which has gone untreated for many years.

Jorge’s dream is to be able to finish his clinicals so he can practice medicine. He’s already taken the entrance exams at a university in Cusco that offers a highly rated program. The only problem is saving enough money to pay for tuition. Jorge believes that by fulfilling this dream, he will help give meaning to the suffering his parents have endured in order to give their children a better life.

In honor of his own new quest for life, as well as in memory of the man he once thought of as a father, Jorge proudly wears the symbol of the ‘tree of life’ which he had tattoed over the scar on his right wrist.

The ‘tree of life’ on Jorge’s right wrist.

I wish Jorge all the success he so richly deserves!


Categories: Human Rights, PoliticsTags: , , , , , ,


  1. And to think I grumble about what Trump is doing to our country. What an incredible story of just how a dictator can cause such torment wherever he/she is. Jorge and his sister are so brave. Thank you for sharing this, Earl

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane,

      Yes, I feel that same sense of guilt when I grumble about small things in my life. We are very fortunate indeed. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!


  2. I wish Jorge much success as well.

    I always admired Hugo Chavez because I do think he was a genuine man of the people who loved and cared about the people.

    He was sadly mistaken in his choice of an economic system- Marxism.

    As long as there were petroleum revenue dollars coming in, Chavez could afford to fund the Marxist Workers’ utopia he envisioned for his country and did much to help the nation’s poor.

    However he died about the same time that world oil prices collapsed in the wake of Saudi Arabia glutting the market at Washington’s request in order to economically damage Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

    And Nicolas Maduro took over as Venezuela’s President.

    Maduro- a man who could best be described as the Venezuelan Stalin.

    Just as Stalin only cared about Stalin, so Maduro only cares about Maduro.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Very true Dracul; Marxism has never worked in reality. Along with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Maduro is simply one of the most despicable characters in power on our planet at the moment–and there’s strong competition for ‘most despicable’ these days!

      It was interesting to witness firsthand the fall in oil prices while living in Oman in 2014. While many countries scrambled to diversify their economies to avoid such future corrections, Venezuela did nothing. It’s just insane to watch one’s country collapse without making substantive changes to bring about a correction in the economy. Like many leaders, perhaps Maduro has sent sufficient personal funds (from his government’s coffers!) offshore to secure his future once he no longer holds the reigns in Venezuela.

      Thanks once again for sharing your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Dracul Van Helsing and commented:
    An excellent blog post about the catastrophic humanitarian disaster currently unfolding in Venezuela 🇻🇪 .
    Written by my good friend and fellow blogger Henry Lewis.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great story and a wonderful reminder that these people are all around us from many countries. The only thing separating them from us is our luck at no fault or credit to anyone. We have been traveling in South America for several months and see Venezuelans often, always working hard to earn enough to continue their necessary travels or to eat. We have been blessed to hear many of their stories in taxis or on the street. They didn’t choose to be “Venezuelan” and more than we chose to be “Americans”.

    Liked by 2 people


    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi henry, i am the sister to jorge. I have to say thanks you so much for meet him and hear my little brother and for take it your time to tell our history to the world, the story that not everyone knows. I loved everything you wrote, from Venezuela to the world God bless you always.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello Gabriela,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. My heart goes out to all those Venezuelans suffering both inside and outside your country. I would like to do my small part in educating people in other parts of the world about the hardships Venezuelans are facing. I’m wishing you and Jorge all the best (and your parents back in Venezuela) as you try to build new lives in Cusco.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. By telling Jorge’s story you just made the Venezuelan crisis all the more real to me. I hate to admit that. It’s easy when living in the USA to lull myself into thinking all’s mostly right in the world (except our stupid ass President). Thanks for the wake-up!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Kristy,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. My aim with this post is to make the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela personal. For those of us who regularly follow the international news, it’s easy to develop a callous exterior as a way to deflect some of the negativity in order to not internalize too much human suffering. As for heartless leaders like Venezuelan President Maduro, I never cease to be amazed at man’s inhumanity toward fellow human beings.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. la historia de cada uno de los venezolanos que han tenido que buscar un mejor futuro y me da nostalgia ver como a cambiado nuestro pais estoy orgullosa de mis hijos de su valentia de mantener la fe y fortaleza de seguir siempre adelante vencer todo osbtaculo y asi sera siempre gracias por el tiempo que compartio con mi hijo por sus palabras soy la mama de jorge dios no abandona el tiempo de dios es perfecto

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Jorge’s story, as presented by you, is not only heart-wrenching, it is also fully representational of the stories of millions of Venezuelan refugees (at present, there are approximately 5 million who have fled the country). In our little town of Guatapé, it is easy to know several of these refugees, because there are so many. They work for very low pay, grateful for the income, and somehow manage to send money back to family members in Venezuela. Without exception (in my experience), they are hardworking, super friendly, and, most definitely, contributing a positive energy to the town.

    A couple of days ago in conversation with a local, he told me that he thought Trump was doing good things. I burst out with an incredulous “HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” He, with a smile on his face, said that Trump was doing good things to restrict the flow of immigration to the country. He went on to talk about how the Venezuelans were a big problem for Colombia, and how they should be stopped from coming in.

    Counting on the local culture’s connection to Christianity, I responded by saying “What would Jesus say about that?”

    He shrugged.

    It brought the conversation to a close. He couldn’t get out the door fast enough.

    Fear-based inhumane thinking and behavior is reaching tidal-wave levels….expertly manipulated by governments (such as Trump’s, for instance).

    I am very grateful for your posting to raise awareness of the appalling plight of the Venezuelans. It touches my heart deeply that Jorge’s sister and mother both read and commented on your article. Bless you, Henry, and THANK YOU!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks so much for noting the personal experiences you’ve had with Venezuelans in your area of Colombia. I too was aware of the exceptionally friendly welcome I received in Cusco hotels and restaurants from Venezuelan immigrants who are working there. Their excellent customer service and language skills were far superior to most of the local Peruvians I encountered who appeared to be jaded by having dealt with too many tourists over the years.

      While it’s an easy shot to blame increases in crime rates on the most recent spate of newcomers to a country, statistics don’t always support these claims. As is true of the vast majority of Latinos who have immigrated to the USA, Venezuelans will undoubtedly add value to their South American host countries in their zeal to prove themselves worthy hard-working citizens.


  10. Very informative well written article

    Liked by 1 person

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