Venezuela was once Latin America’s wealthiest country and was praised for its functioning democracy. Often called South America’s Saudi Arabia due to its oil-dependence, Venezuela was known for its booming economy in the 1970s. Yet, New York Times headlines about Venezuela have turned from “Democracy, as Usual, in Caracas” and “Democracy in Venezuela” to “The Disaster That Is Venezuela” in recent years.
Venezuela is now experiencing a humanitarian emergency with mass external migrations, governmental corruption under Maduro’s regime and record-breaking hyperinflation — leaving millions of Venezuelans unable to access basic goods.
So how did the continent’s most prosperous country become its poorest and how has its once praise-worthy democracy descended into economic, social and political collapse? In the 1980s, following years of a thriving petro-state economy, the global oil prices crashed and inflation soared. In 1998, military officer Hugo Chavez was elected president, six years after organizing a failed coup against the then-government. Initially, he took advantage of Venezuela’s desperate socioeconomic state with false promises to fight poverty and inequality. During his governance, he took control of the Supreme Court and constrained the freedom of the press by shutting down independent media outlets. The socialist authoritarian Chávez then handpicked Nicolás Maduro to lead the country.
The political conflict heightened under Maduro’s regime as he continued his predecessor’s unfair political decisions. In 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, becoming a political threat to Maduro’s governance. In response, legislators in Maduro’s party added several loyalist justices to the Supreme Court. Over the next year, Venezuelan people marched in the streets of Caracas, chanting “freedom” and demanding an end to Maduro’s rule. The protesters faced violence from law enforcement. Maduro was heavily criticized for being undemocratic and for consolidating power through political oppression and manipulating the weakening democratic institutions. Despite the public outcry, Maduro then decided to sideline the National Assembly, replacing it with a new governing institution called the National Constituent Assembly.
With the support of long-suppressed Venezuelans angry about Maduro’s unconstitutional acts and corrupt decisions, young politician Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president in 2019. Despite international recognition, Guaidó’s political abilities in the country were limited with the military staying loyal to Maduro. The ongoing presidential crisis has played a part in the worsening conditions in Venezuela.
Today, these political conflicts cause millions of Venezuelans to suffer. The crumbling economy and the spiraling inflation raise concerns over hunger and poverty. The International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist named Venezuela among the top twenty countries at risk of a worsening humanitarian crisis due to its economic crisis, a health system strained by COVID-19, hunger, restrictions on humanitarian access and the large number of Venezuelans fleeing the country.
The record-breaking hyperinflation rising above 1 million percent has caused a shortage of necessities. The country is experiencing extreme levels of poverty reaching up to 76%. Hunger has led to a phenomenon which has been called “The Maduro Diet,” with 75% of Venezuelans losing an average of 19 pounds in 2016. Yet, the government continued to implement price controls on basic goods, including milk and toilet paper, causing them to be sold on the black market at even higher prices. With devastating power outages persisting, some states remain completely dark for days — in 2019, at least four people died in hospitals due to the interruption in electrical service.
These dire living conditions have prompted more than 6.1 million Venezuelans to flee the country. Many of those who leave without documents risk being taken advantage of by smugglers and human traffickers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls this the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world.
Fleeing poverty, violence and dictatorship, many Venezuelans are requesting asylum, but the migration process is challenging due to the U.S. and the Maduro government ending their diplomatic relations in 2019. Although the Biden administration recently agreed to accept up to 24,000 Venezuelans who hold a valid passport and have a U.S.-based sponsor for housing and financial support, fulfilling such requirements is very difficult for Venezuelans due to administrative and economic barriers. The U.S. also announced that Venezuelans who walk or swim across the border will be expelled to Mexico under Title 42. Emphasizing the importance of lawful entries, the Secretary of Homeland Security also noted that illegal entrances will result in future entry ineligibility.
The people of Venezuela urgently need humanitarian aid. Since 2017, the United States has provided more than $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance to support people affected by this crisis, however, there are many responsibilities to be taken care of alongside financial contributions. Governments around the world should work on pushing for truthful data about Maduro’s government. Such transparent data published in reports would show the world how catastrophic the situation has become over the years. This is crucial for making a change as “real information … [is a] powerful [tool] in confronting … corruption,” according to Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Increasing sanctions on human rights abusers can address the violation of human rights in Venezuela. Assistance in funding for water infrastructure and basic goods such as food and medicine must be provided to ease malnutrition and poverty.
Venezuela is deteriorating politically, economically and socially; people in power should take responsibility. Under these dire circumstances, Venezuelan people are forced to leave their country as soon as they can. The administrative and economic barriers they then face often leave many helpless refugees with no other choice but to come to the U.S. under illegal conditions. U.S. policies mean that they are expelled to Mexico and lose their eligibility to enter in the future — making them the main target of criminal groups who abuse, kidnap and rape migrants. Reports of more than 6,000 cases of kidnapping or other violent attacks of those who have been expelled to Mexico demonstrate how this policy not only prevents migrants from attaining safe and secure living conditions in which their basic human needs are met, but also puts them in a position where their lives are at risk. When considering the current dire conditions in Venezuela, the U.S. must contemplate increasing humanitarian aid and facilitating the migration process for Venezuelan refugees that are urgently seeking asylum.