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The Devastation of Venezuela: How, Why, and What To Do Next

Venezuela was my home for the first 15 years of my life, but, today, it is not a place I recognize. In the 1950s, when I was a child, Venezuela had the fourth highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world. We were a nation made wealthy by our oil. In fact, my father, an American, had moved to Venezuela to work in the oil industry.

Though Venezuela’s economy was stable when I was a baby, its political landscape was marked by chaos. In the years immediately preceding my birth, a three year experiment in democracy was extinguished by the 1948 coup d’etat that allowed Pérez Jiménez to ascend to the role of Venezuela’s dictator. Interestingly, less than 100 years after he freed American slaves, President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was instrumental in restoring freedom to the Venezuelan people. At a performance of Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait, fiery actress Juana Sujo quoted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the presence of the dictator, Pérez Jiménez. The audience cheered her and began shouting against Jiménez with such fervor that Copland could not hear the music. This cacophonous interruption is remembered as the first public protest against the ruling dictatorship. An American foreign service officer told Copland that his Lincoln Portrait as read by Sujo had, in effect, started a revolution. Not long after this event, in 1958, another coup d’etat terminated Jiménez’ power, and democracy was restored to Venezuela.

For the most part, that period of political unrest occurred so early in my life that I don’t remember it. Rather, I was gifted with the experience of growing up in a time when people were excited for Venezuela’s first real years as a democratic nation. The heat was oppressive but the government was not. The people were getting their first taste of empowerment in a long time, perhaps since pre-colonial days when the Spanish had not yet stolen our power.

My memories center on the flower-bedecked beachside town where we lived. Our community had been created by the oil company that employed my father. We had everything we needed there: family, friends, a safe neighborhood, and plenty of food. It’s difficult for me to reconcile today’s starving Venezuela with the abundant Venezuela of my childhood, the Venezuela where my father once told me it was time for me to stop eating an entire roasted chicken at one sitting because I needed to “think of my family.” They wanted roast chicken, too, after all.

So, what is Venezuela’s story? Not too long ago, Venezuela was the envy of the developing world, with rich stores of underground oil and the best educated populace in Latin America. Today, the Venezuelan people have virtually no food, no medicine, no money, and no public transportation. Many Venezuelans, including children, are starving to death. They are also dying from easily treatable diseases because they can’t get the medicine they need. As of last year, a whopping 82 percent of Venezuelans fell below the poverty line, with 93 percent reporting that they did not have enough money to properly feed their families.

A titanic nation that appeared financially unsinkable, what iceberg incident took Venezuela down? How was Venezuela transformed from one of the world’s wealthiest nations to one of the poorest and hungriest? Why don’t the Venezuelan people have the food, medicine, and money they need to survive?

Root Causes of the Disaster

When looking at Venezuela’s history, we can see a definite turning point when the country’s leaders directed the nation onto a ruinous path. When Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, Venezuela was still one of the richest emerging markets in the world. But since that time, the amount of Venezuelan currency needed to buy a U.S. dollar on the black market has gone up by more than 10,000,000 percent. In other words, Chavez’ tenure marks the beginning of the end for Venezuelan currency. Since taking power in 2009, Nicolas Maduro has stubbornly clung to the disastrous policies of his predecessor, effectively threatening the lives and the health of his own people. Chavez and Maduro chose to spend wildly and “steal with abandon” from the Venezuelan treasury instead of investing profits when oil prices were high. The billions borrowed from other countries under Chavez and Maduro due to their poor financial planning and corrupt practices mostly ended up in the pockets of government officials and their cronies, worsening the debt and intensifying the nation’s economic crisis. Sadly, “the country is littered with unfinished multi-billion-dollar public projects,” meaning the Venezuelan people have seen virtually no upside or benefit to the bankrupting political and economic policies of their leaders. Chavez and Maduro’s communistic policies have “devastated the private sector with expropriations, confiscations and price controls that turned profitable businesses and farms into bankrupt state enterprises.” While it’s possible that these leaders intended to provide helpful services to all of the Venezuelan people, their attempts to centralize and control production and services were characterized by wild mismanagement, inefficiency, and corruption that destroyed industries, resources, and the country’s GDP.

Here is one example of such mismanagement: in 2003, Chavez fired 18,000 employees of PDVSA, the Venezuelan national oil company, and, in 2007, pushed out international oil experts. Today, PDVSA produces only about half of the oil it produced before Chavez took power, and that percentage is falling every month.

Venezuelan leaders did not get themselves into this mess without financial support from its allies. Russia has supplied Venezuela with weapons, military fighter jets and billions of dollars in loans. Iran, China, and Cuba have also done their part to prop up Venezuela’s corrupt government. Cuba has thousands of intelligence and military officers working in Venezuela to suppress any dissent among the people, protecting Maduro’s government from internal challenges. In the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela currently owes China more than $20 billion. Iran’s support of Venezuela seems to be based on their mutual dislike of the U.S. Chavez traveled to Iran in 2006 and received the country’s Islamic Republic Medal, its highest award, from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Chavez a “brother and a trench mate.” Since Maduro took power, Iran has continued its show of strong support even in the midst of Venezuela’s economic meltdown.

A Refugee Crisis

Experts at the Brookings Institute have argued that the Venezuelan refugee crisis is on track to surpass the Syrian refugee crisis. As of December, 2018, over 3 million Venezuelans had fled their home country, and the number continues to rise. The Brookings Institute predicts that the total number of Venezuelan refugees will exceed 8 million. Most refugees have found new homes in neighboring countries, with the largest numbers in Colombia and Peru. “People go crazy over the caravan of Central Americans entering Mexico, trying to reach the US. That’s four, five, maybe 6,000 migrants, that’s how many we get every four days,” Father Francesco Bortignon, who has given shelter to Venezuelans, told Al Jazeera from Cucuta, Colombia.

The Latin American countries that are currently taking in Venezuela’s refugees need other nations to open their doors, as well. That is why we are asking our government leaders to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelan refugees. Please join us in asking our Congressional representatives to support recently introduced, bipartisan legislation designed to help the starving, oppressed people of Venezuela: The Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, introduced by U.S. Representatives Darren Soto (D-FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).

Thank you for taking the time to read this update about the current Venezuelan crisis. If you have questions about asylum for Venezuelans or any other immigration law questions, please contact our office. Our expert staff is highly experienced and can help you navigate the complex U.S. immigration system.