Venezuela: Is there hope for my 'country of the absurd'?
Jimy Beltran of Fredericton revisits his home country
It's 7 a.m. on a Tuesday and Nhyrda Caraballo, a 77-year-old retired dentist, has minutes to shower. She gets water for 40 minutes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, half in the morning and half in the evening.
"In that space of time, you have to quickly shower and store as much water as possible to use during the rest of the day … to clean dishes and cook, but only by boiling it because it comes dirty," she said.
"At least I have water, but there are thousands of families in Caracas who receive water every 15 days or simply never. How can a family live like that?"
Later in the morning, Caraballo makes her way to the market, where she joins a long line.
She tells me how people get their food stolen when leaving the market, how elderly people have died waiting in line, their bodies left exposed for hours until an ambulance arrives.
Caraballo is one of the lucky ones. Her son, who lives abroad, supports her financially. But for the average retired person living on a pension of 18,000 bolivars — $9 Cdn a month — buying four chicken breasts can represent more than a month of savings, if meat is even available.
Food, medicine, public transportation, appliances, spare parts, tires, car batteries, and tools can be too expensive or simply not available.
What happened in Venezuela?
Venezuela's oil-dependent economy has suffered economic challenges for decades. But after the decline of oil prices in 2014, the economy tumbled into recession, causing large fiscal deficits. The government ran down its foreign reserves from $30 billion US billion in 2013 to less than $10 billion in 2018.
Meanwhile, direct investment declined and sanctions imposed by Washington restricted Venezuela from selling its debt in the U.S. The government resorted to printing more bolivars, causing the currency depreciation and the highest inflation in the world at 80,000 per cent a year in 2018.
At the same time, political instability rose, as the opposition won support, resulting in massive protests and violent confrontations in the streets of cities like Caracas. Crime skyrocketed throughout the country.
The situation has now morphed into a humanitarian crisis as millions of people suffer from food insecurity and lack of medical care because of shortages, deteriorated services and unemployment. According to the United Nations, more than 3.3 million people have left the country in the past three years.
President Nicolas Maduro, whose party came to power under the late Hugo Chavez in 1999, blames the recession on an economic war imposed by the U.S., but government policies haven't helped.
These include price controls, introduced by Chavez in 2003 to make toiletries, flour, cooking oil and other products more affordable. They led to shortages of these items when businesses could no longer afford to produce them. Oil production declined because of inefficiency at the PDVSA, the state oil company. Foreign currency exchange controls helped a dollar-based black market flourish.
Maduro's presidency is now being contested by National Assembly opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself interim president on grounds of illegitimate elections and mismanagement of the economy.
'Welcome to the country of the absurd'
I watched the crisis in my country unfold from Fredericton while I attended university and started my professional career. Until a month ago, I hadn't been home in eight years.
My parents moved back to Caracas last April, after 12 years living in three different countries.
In Caracas in December, my dad, Jimi Beltran, pulled into a gas station. As we waited for a worker to finish filling up the car, my dad gave me a bill of two bolivars (or less than a Canadian cent). I was confused.
"Is this the right amount?" I asked.
"No," he said, "It's actually less, way less, but there are no bills to pay such a small amount so I pay with the smallest of bills."
We ended up paying less than a tenth of a Canadian cent for 60 litres of gas. A bottle of mineral water costs almost 11,000 bolivars, equivalent to $6 Cdn.
"Welcome to the country of the absurd," my dad told me.
In a country rich with the largest oil reserves in the world, children and their mothers scavenge for food in the trash in the streets of Caracas.
Prices of food increase twofold from morning to evening.
Meanwhile, you can find people spending large amounts of money on meals in fine Caracas restaurants, going to clubs and partying. A military base has become a luxurious citadel exclusively for military people and government supporters.
"There are two realities in Venezuela — a group of people suffering every day and another living as if nothing is happening," said Jorge Salazar, a young Venezuelan I met on my flight to Caracas.
Nestled under the stunning mountain of El Avila, Caracas is a beautiful city. Whether it's the Towers of Central Park glowing in the sunset or a flock of blue and yellow parrots flying over your head as you drive down the street, beauty is everywhere.
But the city has deteriorated. Shells of cars burned during protests sit in the middle of the road. Trash overflows into the streets and highways, abandoned construction sites stick out like bruises on the skyline.
La Mariposa, the dam that supplied water to Caracas's two million residents, is mostly dry, a muddy and contaminated pit full of algae. Its name, the Butterfly, is now a bleak irony.
The lack of food and medicine has forced Venezuelans to adapt.
Instead of going to supermarkets, many Venezuelans buy food from street markets that bring fresh fruits, vegetables and meats from around the country.
"We bring our food from different suppliers, especially small farmers," said Juana Perez, the owner of a small market in San Antonio de Los Altos, a small city outside Caracas.
Though this method benefits small-scale producers, there is not enough food to meet demand and things are expensive.
"We can bring only what is available, and that is often not enough to cover the needs of all our clients," said Perez.
People never know if something will be available when they line up at markets or stores. Staples like bread, rice, beans and toilet paper come and go in an instant.
People without the money for food are forced to depend on government baskets of basic staple foods. Delivery of these is unpredictable, sometimes coming every two weeks, sometimes every four months.
The other option is getting a Fatherland Card, a government-issued ID that allows you to receive bonuses from the government. But the amounts are meaningless — about 800 bolivars a month, or 0.4 Canadian cents. These bonuses are given based on loyalty to the Maduro government. Show up to a pro-Maduro rally, you get money.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory for Health, 80 per cent of Venezuelans suffer from food insecurity. The vast majority of Venezuelans have experienced weight loss from malnourishment. People call this the Maduro diet.
The situation with medicines is worse. According to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, the country is suffering shortages with 85 per cent of medicines. Antibiotics, heart and blood pressure medications, anticonvulsants and other life-saving medications are hard to find in pharmacies.
As a result, people sometimes drive hundreds of kilometres, from city to city, to find what they need.
Nairet Herrera, a single mother who works as an accountant, experiences this when her six-year-old daughter gets sick.
"I have to run from one hospital to another to find medicines, and doctors," she told me.
Even if you find medicines, they can be extremely expensive, so people use U.S. dollars to buy them.
"I save U.S. dollars that friends donate to me so I can use it in case of emergency, since you can only buy some medicines using U.S. dollars," said Herrera.
'Onslaught of inflation'
Living expenses are so high for the average Venezuelan that many have left. Such is the case of Cecilia Rondon, a young mother of two children who works in the Dominican Republic to send money to her family.
Others, like Paula Ribera, had to drop university studies to support their families.
"I had to make the decision to leave the university and get a good job … that would generate good money to cope with the onslaught of inflation," said Ribera.
She said many of her friends and teachers from university have abandoned it "[leaving] an empty university, with a lower academic level and with much despair for the rest of its student population."
The status quo under Maduro created a sense of hopelessness in Caracas.
"Indifference has invaded our population because we see our hands tied in a situation that we do not have the capacity to solve," said Ribera.
I felt this hopelessness when I visited in December. Since then, things have changed. The momentum of the Guaido movement seems to have sparked hope in the spirit of Venezuela.
"For the first time I feel optimistic … there was a lot of people in the streets … one feels a little of fresh air," my friend Clara Gonzalez messaged me after attending the protests on Jan. 23, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded Maduro step down.
Since 1982, Domenica Pellegrino, an 80-year-old nun, has been managing a retirement house with 87 seniors. And she has no plans of stopping.
Despite the crisis, she said, "we are here with a mission, to help our abuelitos and abuelitas and nothing is going to stop us."
Even in the face of difficulties, people decide to stay and continue helping others, and do extraordinary things in the process.
While visiting the retirement home, I met a six-year-old girl named Camila. She was singing and holding hands with the seniors, making them laugh.
Camila is the daughter of one of the workers at the home, and despite the challenges her family faces, she is still a happy little girl. To me, her joy is both the reason and the cause to have hope.
Andrea Paola is a 28-year-old artist who does not have enough money to pay her rent yet still works on her social music project My Toy is My Song, which uses dancing, singing and acting to teach children about Venezuela's artistic heritage.
"The crisis is an opportunity for reinvention … we are holding onto the positive … not simply to entertain, [but] to show values and to help people to find the strength within themselves," said Andrea.
Erick Lezema is a young journalist whose mother lost her battle against cancer last year because it was difficult to find medications. However, he wants to stay because he sees opportunities to grow as a professional.
"I think this is a very exciting time for journalists like us, to stay and report what is happening in Venezuela to the world," said Lezema.
People like Lezema underscore the love Venezuelans have for their country and their people.
It is because of him and so many others — youth, students, workers, mothers, fathers, doctors, nurses, journalists and politicians — that I have hope. They are not willing to give up on their country
New Brunswick has become a second home to me. But given the chance, I would go back one day and help rebuild my home, Venezuela.
In her kitchen, surrounded by vessels of dirty water, Nhyrda Caraballo, the retired dentist, shared that same hope.
"I hope to see my country reborn so that my son returns, and you return."