Tuesday, May 26

The Quad: Vacating Venezuela

(Lauren Man and Ashley Kenney/Daily Bruin)

Venezuela is in crisis.

It’s hard to believe that, a couple of decades ago, the country had the largest oil reserve in the world and stood as the wealthiest nation in Latin America. However, under the authoritarian leadership of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and rampant inflation, Venezuela’s people are suffering from hunger and disease at an alarming rate.

The Latin American country’s recent history is one of unparalleled struggle: The strife of capitalism and socialism, the oscillation of power between two presidents claiming legitimacy, the clash of the armed and the unprotected, and increasing pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.

These battles can seem pretty far removed from UCLA, nestled away in a separate continent, but their reaches take a personal turn for some members of the UCLA community who hail from the country. Here, the Quad attempts to contextualize the politics and history behind the political situation, while also documenting those very stories.
Sanctions, socialism and stagnation

Anina Roche returned to Venezuela after living in the U.S. for a year, when she went to buy a meal that would have cost her just 10 bolivars back in her childhood.

The second-year statistics student was aghast to find that she’d have to pay 15,000,000 bolivars.

This example just goes to show that the economic crisis in Venezuela is undeniable.

One Venezuelan bolivar is currently worth about as much as a dime in the U.S. and is practically devoid of its intrinsic value. The currency’s lost so much value that some Venezuelan citizens are even weaving bolivars into self-aware art pieces, rebelling against an obsolete, relatively worthless currency. This is all due to an inflation rate that will probably land at 10 million percent at the end of 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Although it seems easy to blame the current administration under Maduro for the overarching economic crisis, the issue dates back to 1998 when socialist leader Hugo Chavez was elected.

Barbara Geddes, a political science professor who specializes in authoritarian transitions of power with a focus on Latin America, said Chavez contributed to the current hyperinflation when he set up a whole system of social welfare dependent on oil revenue. When oil prices crashed in 2014, Venezuela’s oil production had already significantly decreased. This not only resulted in a period of recession but also deeply affected people and their ability to access health care, housing and groceries.

“Chavez’s social reforms really made a difference in the poverty rate: They were running subsidized grocery stores and free clinics,” Geddes said. “However, this took a turn at around 2011 because the government was not reinvesting on capital or infrastructure, and Chavez had replaced all the knowledgeable technocrats with loyalists that would support his popular project.”

The economic downturn is plagued by a deep sense of polarization. There is a significant population of left-leaning individuals who do not believe socialist policies resulted in such a situation for Venezuela, but that it’s a byproduct of U.S. and European imperialism. This argument holds that the United States’ economic sanctions are part of a long history of an interventionalist approach to foreign policy.
Roche sits on Janss Steps.
Second-year statistics student Anina Roche hails from Venezuela – when she returned to her home country after a year of living in the U.S., she had to pay 15,000,000 bolivars for a meal that cost her 10 bolivars in her childhood, due to extreme inflation throughout the nation. (Ashley Kenney/Daily Bruin staff)

Jeanette Charles, a Ph.D. student at the history department of UCLA and a political analyst for nonprofit Venezuela Analysis, said she believes the main reason behind the struggle of the Venezuelan economy is the aforementioned economic sanctions that have been put in place by the U.S. to pressure Maduro and his supporters into giving up power.

“Venezuela is a country that has been targeted because it’s trying to build a socialist process,” Charles said.

On the other hand, Geddes said she believes the U.S. sanctions before 2019 were not the only factor involved and that there’s more context needed to fully understand the situation; instead, she believes it is the general mismanagement of the economy and astonishing levels of corruption that have lead to Venezuela’s economic collapse.

“I really don’t think you can say that this is all caused by northern imperialism. … That is not the whole story,” Geddes said. “In fact, I don’t think it’s even the main story.”

Geddes said Maduro’s inefficiency became evident when he hired a camera crew and police officials to monitor him as he closed all of the shoe stores in Caracas, the nation’s capital, and gave away the shoes to citizens in an effort to gain support.

As businesses were taken from their owners and nationalized into a system heavily reliant on the central government and the price of oil, Venezuela’s economy began to plummet.

Isabel Roig, a second-year applied mathematics student from Caracas, said her family was almost exiled from the country.

To maintain his subsidized housing program, Maduro threatened to expropriate some of her fathers’ buildings without any retribution. Even though her family stayed in Venezuela, her father’s business partner and other business owners were exiled as the leading policy approach became the nationalization of industry.

It doesn’t seem like things will get much better.

Venezuelan oil production hit a 16-year low in March. To put things into context, Venezuela’s GDP has fallen more in the last six years than the GDP fell during the Great Depression in the U.S.

Much like the U.S. in the 1930s, Venezuela’s middle class has virtually disappeared. This educated ex-middle class now lives in poverty, on the streets of a foreign country or working low-skill jobs that don’t always require documentation.

Mariana Gonzalez, a second-year political science student who was born in Caracas but raised in Colombia and the U.S., said she has seen her family deeply affected by the decline of Venezuelan economies.

“One of my cousins moved to the U.S. for a while, and even though she had a degree to practice law, she was working at a pizza shop in Florida. She has had to grasp the idea that she might never be a lawyer again,” Gonzalez said.

Roig, who goes back to Caracas any chance she gets, said it’s been difficult to explain this kind of economic crisis to her non-Venezuelan peers at UCLA, since it is so bizarre and uncommonly large.

“How is it possible that cash has less value (than) toilet paper? It’s hard to explain to people that haven’t been exposed to it,” Roig said. “How do you explain that all you know and believe to be true is not real in Venezuela? How do you explain that here everything is turned on its head?”
Venezuela minus 5 million

The lack of economic opportunities coupled with political persecution account for the mass migratory movement out of Venezuela that began in 2015. The statistics are often difficult to break down accurately because of the unreliability of government sources and lack of documentation. However, the United Nations estimates that 5 million individuals will have left the country by the end of 2019.

Most of these immigrants go to the neighboring countries of Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, while some seek asylum in the United States. However, most of the countries receiving these immigrants are developing nations with already-complicated institutions, strains on budgets and corruption problems of their own, which means the massive influx of Venezuelan immigrants further complicates systems of poverty all across Latin America.

Geddes said that even though the migration process is full of people in need of medical attention and aid, most of the people who do choose to uproot are somewhat stronger and healthier and are able to make the trek across the border.

“Many of the people that were most likely to lead the opposition have left,” Geddes said.

The lack of official sources and Maduro’s distrust of the foreign media have left a feeling of uncertainty over the actual statistics of the migration. An article published on left-leaning website venezuelanalysis.com claims that the number of immigrants estimated by the media represents both an underestimation and have exaggerated the idea that Venezuela is unlivable.

Manipulation of migration numbers and motivations, in the article’s point of view, represent a U.S. imperialist narrative that wants to end Maduro’s administration. Instead, it believes that migration is an essential part of the modern world, not linked in any way to a crisis in the socialist political system.

The actual certainty of statistics means very little to Gonzalez, Roig and Roche, who have seen their friends, family members and neighbors relocate from their homes in search of a better life.

“People leave with a horrible sense of fear because it is essentially starting over. When I go back, it feels different. It’s not the same people I grew up with,” Roig said.
Suffering in the dark

In examining the ongoing situation in Venezuela, it’s crucial to look at the experiences of the people who don’t leave. Again, these dimensions can be difficult to measure because of journalist persecution and the anti-U.S. narrative of the government.

In the last few years, Venezuelans have seen a collapse in their food availability, health care system and policing. But in March, they had a different problem:

They were literally in the dark.

An intermittent case of electricity loss affected 70% of the population and left about 20 people dead from issues like lack of electric plants in hospitals.

In line with his anti-Western narrative, Maduro declared the United States and its economic sanctions as the cause of the fall of the electricity grid.

Some believe this is a false claim.

“What caused (the blackouts) is a lack of maintenance of Venezuelan infrastructure going back to Chavez,” Geddes said. “Historically, oil revenue in Venezuela was diverted toward the country’s socialist programs. Thus, they weren’t investing in its electricity grids or the hydroelectric plants to the main cities.”

Geddes also said that, as Chavez replaced scientists, technocrats and electricians with loyal, but less technically skilled individuals, Venezuela’s infrastructure and revenues decreased significantly.

As the darkness went on, soon came death and suffering. The blackouts are perhaps the most visceral physical embodiment of the failure of systems in Venezuela. They shed light on a contemporary authoritarian government, in which the loss of electricity essentially means the loss of life.

Statistics show that two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed had lost weight at an average of 25 pounds per year in 2017. Similarly, 11.7% of the Venezuelan population was undernourished between 2015 and 2017.

“One day, my grandmother called me crying, because she had gone to the supermarket that day and found milk. My heart was breaking, but at the same time I was so happy for her,” Gonzalez said.

Roig said coming back to the U.S. after being in Venezuela has been especially jarring because of the abundance of food. Living in two distinctly different environments has given her a different perception of the meaning of food and wealth.

“When I came back here for my second year, I had spent the summer in Caracas and I went to the grocery store in Westwood,” Roig said. “I ended up spending four hours there because I did not understand what to buy. There were just too many options.”
Roig poses with the flag of Venezuela.
Second-year applied mathematics student Isabel Roig’s family was almost exiled from the country amidst the political strife throughout the country. (Lauren Man/Daily Bruin staff)

Human Rights Watch also reported an increased level of maternal and infant deaths, as well as the spread of diseases such as measles, diphtheria, malaria and tuberculosis. They found that between 2008 and 2015 there was only a single case of measles reported. However, since June 2017, more than 9,300 cases have been reported. This surge of the measles, an illness made almost obsolete by vaccination practices of a developed world, represent the chaos of Venezuela’s institutions and a social welfare system in peril.

Roig said her grandfather developed tuberculosis a couple months ago – a disease that’s curable in most parts of the world. However, due to a lack of medicine and the resources to ship it, her grandfather’s condition grew worse and worse. He was only able to survive thanks to someone who was able to enter the country without getting the medicine confiscated at airport security.

“When you arrive to Venezuela, they scan your bags for food or medicine, as if the country wasn’t already dying of hunger and curable diseases,” Roig said.
Two presidents too many

The interactions between the U.S. and Venezuela further contribute to the downward spiral.

Trump’s economic sanctions and endorsement of Maduro’s opposition have only deepened the multiple failings of Venezuela’s system. This was especially exacerbated by opposition leader Juan Guaidó swearing himself in as president in January to overthrow Maduro. The U.S., as well as about 50 other nations, recognized him as legitimate president, which angered Maduro.

Geddes believes that about 30% to 35% of the population still support Maduro, and that his supporters are mostly the military and government officials that benefit from a system of corruption as the government turns its cheek away from the illicit ways these individuals earn profit in Venezuela. These people who would probably be imprisoned and held accountable for a number of crimes if the current government fell.

In light of the system of mutual benefit of the current administration and the military, it seems highly improbable that this conflict will come to an end soon.

“As long as the military remains with Maduro, it is also impossible for civilians and Guaidó’s peaceful protest to get rid of him. It will probably get worse before it gets better,” Geddes said.

April 30 was Guaidó’s boldest attempt to regain power from Maduro, which he called Operation Freedom. It marked a crucial moment for the opposition movement as some members of the military declared their lack of support for Maduro and released prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopéz from house arrest.

Even though the coup was unsuccessful and the number of military officials that surrendered was not enough to overthrow the government, the two days of demonstrations by the Venezuelan public that followed marked a sense of unity behind Guaidó.

These demonstrations are not new to Venezuelan citizens; they have been happening since 2015 and have thus been assimilated into the Venezuelan experience.

“It was bizarre – we were taking our IB exams at school and crying at the same time because of the abundance of tear gas outside the classrooms. We are talking highways full of people protesting,” Roche said.

When the opposition’s protests began in 2015, Roche, Roig and Gonzalez said they approached it with a degree of hope that is now only replaced with uncertainty.

“At one point, I really believed that the protests were going to get us our country back because the Venezuelan people were united,” Roche said. “Yet, these previous protests didn’t work and it’s hard to believe that they will do anything now. It’s just a big question mark.”
Over 3,000 miles from home

For Roig, Gonzalez and Roche, being away from home and loved ones during this period of uncertainty is troubling.

“This is not a matter of political beliefs, ideology or economic models. This is a reality that I live every day,” Roig said. “The extra swipes I don’t use each quarter I always use to take back food and distribute it at the Caracas airport to hungry children. I wasn’t able to speak to my family for two days during the blackout. I am in a constant state of anxiety waiting to see what is going to happen next.”

Venezuela’s blackouts, poverty and volatile politics do not only affect those enclosed in its legal borders. Being far from home produces a sense of helplessness as those who live in the U.S. but have strong ties to Venezuela try to breed light amid blackouts.

“It’s hard because the reality is that you can’t do that much. You can protest and post on social media and donate, but how much can I really do?” Gonzalez said.
Timeline graphic detailing the political crisis in Venezuela

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