Óscar Pérez, Venezuelan fugitive, former police fight pilot and rebel militia leader killed in 2018.
Imagine a place with Caribbean-like beaches, beautiful lagoons, ancient caves, a significant fraction of the Earth’s lungs (the Amazon Rainforest), tropical grassland, stunning prairies and the world’s highest waterfall. This place, Venezuela, sounds like paradise, but today it's anything but. The country's beautiful landscape has become home to a dystopia.
Since the current political model called “socialism of the 21st century” was implemented in 1999, more than two million Venezuelans have left their country, El Pais reports. This marks the largest migration Venezuela has ever recorded in their country. The most popular destination for Venezuelans right now is the United States, or Venezuela’s mother country, Spain. Subsequently, over the years Canada has seen a significant increase of Venezuelans as well.
“One of my favourite things is the warmth of our culture,” Daniel Garcia, a Venezuelan immigrant who moved to Canada 30 years ago, said. “In Canada most people don’t know their neighbours … never have even said ‘Hi’. In Venezuela you live in a place for one month and you already know your neighbours’ grandparents.”
Although Venezuela has the biggest oil reserve in South America, and used to be its richest country, people are fleeing from it because it has become almost uninhabitable. Food is scarce, its rate of inflation is the highest in the world and the country is ranked the sixth most dangerous country in the world.
How did this country go from being the most prosperous country in Latin America to one of its most dangerous? The socialist-based political model was first implemented by Hugo Chavez who remained in power for 14 years, until he passed away in 2013 from cancer. During his long term, Chavez was adored by a lot of the population for his social work, but throughout the years became despised. He looked up to Cuba’s communist political system and its leader, Fidel Castro.
According to Maurice-Jose Schwartz, a long-standing democratic and libertarian socialist, the implemented model was based on creating a difference and tension between “the people” and the “enemies” or “anti-people.” The “anti-people” are “imperialist powers” and “escualidos,” they are those who oppose the political model. A strong communist government emanated from this, masked by “we help the people” and similar socialist rhetoric.
Chavez managed to change the constitution, lengthen presidential terms, expropriate private companies/businesses, replace workers in the state oil company (PDVSA) with loyal supporters, close down oppositional news networks and strengthen ties with Castro.
Venezuela soon became a state-owned economy after Chavez began to expropriate electricity, oil, telecommunications, paper, rice, meat, juice, coffee, hotels, sugar, flour, textiles and much more. Having all of this under control, corruption within the government became much easier and continues today. Journalist Roberto Enriquez discovered through a meeting with the IMF and The World Bank executives that a group of Venezuelans have about $350 billion in different bank accounts around the world without legal justification.
Venezuela depends on petroleum sales for 95 per cent of its foreign-currency earnings. In the mid 2000s, Chavez expelled foreign oil companies, which eventually halted Venezuela’s ability to make more money off of oil revenue. Besides this, prices for gasoline within the country were and are the cheapest in the world, ranging from six to 12 cents per gallon. Additionally, during his years in power, Chavez came up with an initiative to sell crude oil and gasoline under the market price to his allies. One of his allies was dictator Fidel Castro. Chavez gave Cuba about 400,000 barrels every day for free, according to National Geographic.
After Chavez’s death in 2013, Maduro came into power. Officially, Chavez’s cause of death was some type of cancer that was never specified. He knew that his term was coming to an end. Before his death he told his followers that if something were to happen to him, they were to elect Maduro, then the Vice President, as the next person to run the country. The opposition and its followers were skeptical due to Maduro’s lack of professional experience. Before getting involved in politics in 1998, he had not finished high school and had worked as a bus driver.
After Maduro came into power, basic needs such as toilet paper, rice, flour, bread, milk became even more scarce. When there is some available, people wait an entire day in a line to see which basic need is available that day. Sometimes it runs out. Whatever is inside supermarkets is not feasible for the average family.
A recent engineering graduate in Venezuela, Manuel Gonzalez, says that those who get paid minimum wage “basically survive through magic.” His sister works as a school teacher and earns about 797,510 bolivares a month, which is the minimum wage. The government sells basic foods “baskets.” The “basket” that costs 120,000 bs. includes one whole chicken and one carton of eggs. However, most people usually buy these “baskets” out on the streets or from others because the times in which the government sells them are rare. Thus, most end up having to buy these “baskets” at 1,000,000 bs. This is where hunger becomes an issue.
In 2014, Venezuelans who disagreed with the political system participated in protests and as a result more than 40 people were killed. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, was imprisoned and sentenced for 14 years for “instigating violence and disorder.” Three years later, another round of protests erupted, this time resulting in a death toll of more than 150 people. Human Rights Watch America conducted a study in which they documented 88 cases of human rights violations and the “brutality” of Venezuelan authorities was finally undeniable. They said these cases did not represent all Venezuelan authorities but were enough to draw conclusions.
“There hasn’t been justice for the people that sacrificed their lives in protests. For that 17-year-old that got shot in the face. It’s disgusting,” Garcia said.
Earlier this year, the government announced they would impose a constituent assembly mainly because the opposition filled about 65 per cent of the official National Assembly. Maduro, stated that this would restore peace in the country.
Maria Gabriela Ayala, a 31-year-old woman, moved to Canada last summer and was part of the protests last year.
“People became more serious [as the protest progressed] and then you start hearing the sounds of tear gas bombs. Then people start running for their lives,” Ayala said.
Rebecca Sarfatti, activist and one of the leaders of ‘Venezolanos Por la Vida Toronto,’ said that Venezuela’s situation is bizarre and inexplicable.
“The oil company is broken, we don’t have internal productions, so people don’t have anything to eat; aspirins, antibiotics, children are suffering from malnutrition.”
Today, 34 per cent of families are resorting to emergency strategies in order to have food in their stomachs. Basic products are scarce, very difficult to find and if they are available they are priced unrealistically for someone who is paid a minimum salary.
“The inflation is killing people. My mom is a senior and she can’t find medications,” Sarfatti said.
Similarly, Garcia states that his family back home is also struggling.
“They’re not able to find regular things like toilet paper, rice, milk – things that we as Canadians don’t even think about,” Garcia said. “There you need to think of, where can I find it, how much will it be, will I have enough?”
Ayala said she went through difficult times to find basic products in Venezuela as well.
“It was difficult for me not to be able to buy contraceptive pills, which is something basic,” said Ayala. “It was a threat to my health.”
With the hunger crisis, highest inflation, violence, political prisoners and a lack of freedom of expression, many news outlets and people are calling Maduro’s regime a dictatorship. Today Canada, along with other countries, calls to cancel the national constituent assembly, release all political prisoners and will not recognize the upcoming elections in April.