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.
The statistics paint a dire picture
- The country’s GDP has dropped by almost half over the past three years.
- Venezuela’s economy is expected to contract by an additional 18% this year, the 3rd year in a row of double-digit declines.
- Unemployment and crime rates are soaring. In 2017, a Gallup poll named Venezuela the world’s most dangerous country for the second year in a row.
- The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that the price of basic goods in Venezuela will rise a staggering 1,000,000% in 2018.
- Basic foods are in short supply with rising prices forcing many Venezuelans to skip meals which, in turn, is causing malnutrition and premature death.
- Birth control pills and condoms are in short supply and cost on average a full month’s salary which is leading to unwanted pregnancies and a rise in STD and HIV infections.
- Since Maduro was elected President in 2013, many families have gone from middle class to living on less than US $2 per month.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wish Jorge all the success he so richly deserves!