Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The escalating humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the country’s economic and political issues have been causing turmoil for its citizens. Venezuela is quickly becoming a failed state. There have been extended shortages of water and electricity; undernourishment rates have quadrupled since 2012, and treatment and medications for those in need have become limited. Maduro’s Socialist movement is continuing to grow and has caused displacement throughout the country, affecting almost everyone in Venezuela. Now, over 4 million Venezuelans are searching for refuge in neighboring countries. Those still in the country suffer from generalized violence, often carried out with the complicity of government security forces, which makes Venezuela one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
History of Humanitarian Crisis
After being elected in 1999, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry and used its profit to fund food subsidies, education, and health care programs. Under the Chávez administration, unemployment and poverty rates halved, and income per capita more than doubled.
However, while Chavez aimed to diversify the Venezuelan economy, his strategy only increased the dependence upon exported oil. Chavez strived to build Venezuelan influence, providing subsidized oil to Cuba in exchange for the services of Cuban doctors and teachers. He sold oil to other South American countries along with China at below-market rates, in order to boost relationships and trade between them. At the same time though, Chavez neglected to spend money maintaining oil facilities, leading to declined production. Soon, economic progress under Chavez reversed, with Chavez declaring an “economic war” in June 2010 after food shortages increased and basic necessities became scarcer.
In March of 2013, Nicolás Maduro, a member of the Socialist Party, was quickly elected into office after Chávez died of cancer at the age of 58. In November of the same year, Venezuela’s legislature, the National Assembly, granted Maduro special powers that allowed him to govern unchallenged by any person or group for one year. At the time, the country was facing high inflation rates and food and medicine shortages, which were caused by the largely unrestrained spending in trade and debt, and the decline of oil prices. The spending created a massive deficit that sent the country into a downwards economic spiral.
Following Chavez’s death and Madura’s assumption of new power, unrest resulting from the economic crisis reached new heights. Protests began in February of 2013 as student groups voiced anger mostly at the lack of security in the country and high inflation. Extensive demonstrations against Maduro’s government in the cities of Merida, Valencia, Cumana, and Caracas soon became substantially violent, leading to as many as 14 deaths.
52% of the demonstrations were in protest of the newly revised government, but 42% of the demonstrations were in protest of the extensive labor, utilities, insecurity, education, and shortages of food and basic necessities that many Venezuelans were facing.
Demonstrators block a street with signs as they shout anti-government slogans to protest the detention of four students in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 8, 2014 (The Atlantic)
Despite demonstrations, the economic situation in Venezuela continued to worsen. On Dec. 30, 2014, Venezuela’s Central Bank confirmed that the country had entered a recession due to plummeting oil prices. The inflation rate that year surpassed 63%, making it the highest in the Americas, and the government was forced to make cuts in public spending.
The Local Committees for Supply and Production scheme, known by its Spanish acronym CLAP, was created by the Maduro government to distribute food boxes at subsidized prices. Maduro put local committees of the Socialist Party in charge of food distribution. However, only members of the Socialist Party received the bags of food and groceries that were distributed, while the rest of the public had to work with whatever it had left. Hence, poor Venezuelans weren’t able to access food and medicine. As per reports, the average Venezuelan lost an average of 19 pounds in weight between 2015 and 2016.
In January of 2016, Maduro called for an Assembly to rewrite the constitution in a blatant effort to undermine the opposition-controlled National Assembly. This was amongst confusion over a recall vote against Maduro in 2016 by the opposing party. This recall vote was caused when regional courts in at least four states had ruled that there was fraud during the first voting round in June. In 2017, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which had consistently sided with the Socialist Party announced that it was going to be taking over the functions of the National Assembly. The decision sparked months of anti-government protests that ultimately left more than 50 people dead.
By 2018, Venezuela found itself in a complete state of disarray, having declared numerous state and economic emergencies over Maduro’s first term. Even so, Maduro was reelected with 68% of the votes in 2018. Despite recent and past events, about six million people voted for Maduro with a turnout of 46%, which is considered to be the lowest in the Venezuelan democratic history as shown by the graph below.
Graph of the Percentage of Voter turnout in Venezuelan presidential elections since 1960 (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)
The United States, European Union, Human Rights Inter-American Commission, and many other countries and national organizations were quick to denounce the presidential election as rigged and fraudulent. In November of 2018, the United Nations Refugee Agency announced that over 3 million people had fled Venezuela due to the continuous shortages of food and medicine. While people continuously took to the streets in protest for Maduro to step down, Juan Guaidó claimed the presidency of the National Assembly in 2019, which the U.S. and many others quickly showed support for. Guaidó, an industrial engineer and one-term lawmaker for the part of the Popular Will party, fought for the freedom of the people from the government, saying, “We will stay in the streets until we have freedom for Venezuela.”
Maduro was quick to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S. after this. Maduro ordered American diplomats out of the country in 2019, while the U.S. and Colombia unsuccessfully tried to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela at its border. On Feb. 21, 2019, Maduro closed the border his country shares with Brazil in order to block aid from coming into the country.
Venezuelan Aid and News Coverage
Despite its magnitude, the Venezuelan crisis has only received a fraction of the international attention and funding that have previously been dedicated to other conflicts. This is due to the fact that the conflict is still seen as a regional problem. Additionally, not much funding has been given to the country because the country’s officials reject the money, as they feel that they have the situation under control. The UN has aided refugees that have escaped Venezuela by providing them humanitarian aid and safe shelter. In May 2020, the UN refugee and migration agencies have welcomed $2.79 billion pledged by donors aimed at supporting Venezuelan refugees, where some $653 million of those funds will be provided as grants aimed to provide help and humanitarian aid to Venezuelan refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in coordination with the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration has been working to provide COVID-19 help and relief to some refugees.
News outlets around the world are not sure whether the information that they’re hearing about issues and events in the country are entirely true or not. Venezuela has prohibited politicians and the media from entering the country. It’s also difficult for people in the country to hear about issues outside of their country. Authorities regularly block news outlets and social media and arrest critics who speak out online, while underfunded web infrastructure has slowed connection speeds to near unusable levels.
In the four years since the start of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, 16% of the population has fled the country. The Venezuelan refugee crisis has surpassed the scale of the Syrian crisis, with about 4 million Venezuelan refugees and about 2.98 million Syrian refugees. There has been a lack of medical attention toward the malnourished and ill; this is especially evident in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, an estimated 85% of medical drugs are affected by the shortage, and the lack of basic vaccines and antibiotics has led to a comeback in illnesses like measles and diphtheria. 70% of hospitals have reported power outages and a lack of available drinking water, and 25% had no water in 2018.
The coronavirus has pushed both healthcare and economic systems beyond their limits in Venezuela. On Mar. 14, Colombia officially closed its Venezuelan border in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. 33,755 Venezuelans have the coronavirus as of August 2020, and this making it dangerous for refugees to cross borders due to the risk of transmission between people. Though the migration rate between these two countries has increased heavily these past couple of years, Colombia is now having difficulty accepting more refugees as cases of the virus spike in the country. However, the closing of official border crossings has done little to nothing to stop the flood of people leaving Venezuela.
The number of Venezuelan people who continue to flee their country is increasing every day. In addition to those qualifying for refugee status based on fear of being persecuted, many are unable or unwilling to return because of the humanitarian emergency they face at home, which includes difficulty accessing food, medicines, and medical treatment. Many who have relocated often face more trouble in their new country, as their living and social status often sabotages their chances of getting work permits, sending their children to school, and accessing health care.
While many Venezuelans have successfully exited the country, the vast majority has been forced to stay in the nation’s violent and unsafe streets. Venezuela’s violence and crime rates have steadily increased since the early 2010s and are a contributing factor towards the insecurity that the country faces. One cause of this uprise of violence, besides the conflicts with the government, is the decreasing value of the bolívar, the national currency of Venezuela. Inflation was projected to grow to 10 million percent in 2019, up from 112 percent in 2015. The hyperinflation of the bolívar was created by mostly two factors: the vast overprinting of money and the belief that the Venezuelan currency’s worth would decrease in the future. Since the decrease in oil prices, the Venezuelan government started to print more money to try and pay off their national debts. The money value eventually went down over time because of the overproduction, leaving the economy in ruins.
Because of this process, the people of Venezuela are under the impression that they have to spend their money as soon as possible in order to get the best that their money has to offer. Because many civilians still live without a sufficient amount of money to pay for their necessities, people have started to rob others on the streets or break into homes to scavenge for valuables that could be sold for a decent price. These actions turned into a trend, and in 2020 the Venezuelan Crime and Safety Report said that “Venezuela has one of the highest numbers of violent deaths in the region and the world.”
Through Teen Lenses: Have you heard about the Venezuelan humanitarian and refugee crisis through the media? How well do you think the situation is being dealt with?
“I have heard about the Venezuelan humanitarian and refugee crisis through social media and news outlets, and I think the situation has not been dealt with at all. Foreign countries send food to the border, but the Venezuelan government doesn’t let the trucks in. None of the Venezuelan people have sufficient amounts of food or water, and the Venezuelan currency is now worth almost nothing. It has not been resolved and the situation has actually worsened since the coronavirus outbreak. I also know that the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions but they don’t really do much and everyone is cutting ties to Venezuela, so everything is taking a turn for the worst.” Olivia Kim, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“I haven’t heard much about the Venezuelan humanitarian and refugee crisis, but if it really is as bad as I’ve just learned I think there needs to be more attention brought to it through the media, rather than focusing on American topics concerning the presidential election or the economy. I feel as if there was more attention brought to how it’s being dealt with, there would be a unified international effort to present strategies to resolve any impeding issues facing the country.” Lucas Frischling, 18, Rising Freshman at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
“Honestly I have heard very little about the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis in the media recently, which is concerning especially because it has been going on for so long. I heard more about the political struggle in the media over a year ago but it’s concerning that the humanitarian side of it isn’t being talked about in mainstream media. I don’t think that the crisis is being handled well at all. Over a year ago one of the biggest issues happening in Venezuela was that Maduro’s political corruption was keeping valuable resources from getting to the Venezuelan people and now with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the withholding of food and medicine and supplies is literally killing citizens. The government refuses to acknowledge that there are humanitarian problems going on within the country, let alone taking active steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.” Aashna Singh, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland