Venezuela

A National Crisis with No End in Sight: Reflections by Those Who Lived in Venezuela between 2017 to 2019

After the presidency of Hugo Chávez from 1999 till his death in 2013, his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, was appointed and later elected into office. Following a mismanagement of government finances, underinvestment in infrastructure, and the collapse of oil prices (the basis of the Venezuelan economy), the country was propelled into a state of economic and political crisis. Maduro’s presidency began to be opposed by even loyal supporters of President Chávez.  

What ensued was severe impoverishment throughout the country due to hyperinflation and insufficient wages. Many started struggling to obtain food or clean water, and the country entered a state of disarray, with many losing their lives as a result.  

In 2019, the United States attempted to undermine the Maduro regime with the intent to cause a change in government. This was done by limiting the presence of U.S. companies in Venezuela, with the exception of certain oil and gas companies which were allowed to continue doing limited business with Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela.) By 2020, however, all U.S operations in Venezuela were restricted. 

In another effort to oust President Maduro, the U.S. along with other powers, officially recognized Venezuela’s National assembly leader, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president of the country. Despite the efforts of Guaidó and those who support him, Venezuela remains under Maduro’s control. Citizens continue to be voiceless as the dictatorship prevails. 

The following are the accounts of people who have lived in Venezuela in the midst of the crisis, but have since left the country. The first addresses my own experience and the saddening disconnect I felt to the daily problems faced by Venezuelan people, as an American citizen. In the subsequent pieces, my father and mother, respectively, describe being Honduran expatriates (a term describing temporary working residents) in Venezuela.

‘Papá’ highlights the complex dynamic between Venezuelan locals and himself, an employee of an American petroleum company; ‘Mamá’ draws insightful comparisons between living in Valencia, Venezuela in 1996, and her life when she returned to the country in 2017.

The final testimonial is given by a Venezuelan professional who discusses the decline of the country in recent years, bravely outlining governmental changes needed to restore peace in the country. This individual’s name has been omitted to maintain privacy and anonymity.

Gaby 

Even during times of national crisis, it is important to note that not everyone is impacted to the same degree. The sad reality of the drastic economic and social dualities that can be experienced within one country’s population was particularly apparent to me during my own move to Venezuela in the summer of 2018. 

My mother and I awaited for our suitcases to arrive. Any decor that may have adorned the ‘Simon Bolivar’ airport had since been stripped, displaying barren walls and faded signs, a stark contrast to the opulence and vibrancy of the Miami airport we had flown in from. Out of all the stores that had once surrounded baggage claim for the tourists who arrived in the masses, only one had apparently remained open: a dimly lit shop which sold nuts, chocolate and a few artisanal items.

There, my mother purchased a box of chocolates which sold for approximately 20 dollars, indicative of the country’s drastic inflation rate. As we left the airport, I was startled by the large crowds of children running towards us, pleading, not for money, but for food; they were noticeably malnourished, and many had welts on their thin shoulders as a result of over exposure to the sun.

My mother handed one of the little boys the chocolates she had just bought, and he shared them with the others.  As I watched the children eagerly consume the chocolates as though they had not eaten in days (which could have likely been the case), it had already become apparent to me the dire situation that the country was in, which had consequently left many families impoverished. I retreated into the air conditioned car which had been designated to pick us up.

As the daughter of someone who worked for an American-based petroleum company, a sense of guilt overwhelmed me knowing that I would be largely immune to struggles endured by the majority of the Venezuelan population. I watched as the children continued to entertain themselves with the little they had, playing an impromptu game of soccer with the box of chocolates we had given them.

Behind them loomed the eerie gaze of former President Hugo Chávez, plastered on a distant billboard; this served as a stern reminder of the ever-present vigilance of President Maduro’s government. 

 

Mural on stairs in Caracas depicting the eyes of former President, Hugo Chávez. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

The road to Caracas was aligned with colorful brick homes paired with flimsy tin roofs. The little houses were stacked on top of one another and covered large hills, intertwining with power lines which their residents’ used as a source of electricity. People crammed into overcrowded buses, many dangling by one arm as the worn-down vehicles slowly made their way towards the city.

Unlike those who rode the ‘busitos’ I had seen on family visits to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the passengers of the Venezuelan ‘busetas’ appeared to encompass a greater economic diversity; consisting of meticulously dressed ladies and men in Chávista-red PDVSA uniforms, the lack of accessibility to other forms of transportation had increased the population’s reliance on this makeshift system.

 

Colorful slums in Caracas. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

As we entered Caracas, the overwhelming gray smog gave a hazy quality to the city, making it difficult to see anything at a distance. For a country once deemed an economic epicenter of Latin America, Caracas lacked the vibrancy and modernity of other capitals I had visited. It was heavily decorated with graffiti, with a large portion depicting satirical caricatures of President Maduro.

Others, however, had been covered up and replaced with pro-governmental stick-on slogans such as “aquí no se habla mal de Chávez,” another reminder that even the most trivial forms of protest did not go unnoticed.

 

Abandoned ‘Tower of David’ Skyscraper in Caracas. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

We arrived at a lunch spot in a high-end shopping center called Altamira Village; it had been one of the few locations in Caracas deemed ‘safe’ for the families of foreign workers to spend extended amounts of time, under the company’s guidelines.

The restaurant we chose appeared to have maintained business as usual, with other customers dining alongside us. With exuberant meals composed of seafood and steak filling people’s plates as they casually chatted, I was surprised at how much our current surrounding differed from the one we had seen upon entering the city.

When asking for our order, the waiter informed us of the many items that had been removed from the menu. The homemade ‘nutella’ ice cream was no longer available as a result of the ingredient’s difficulty to find within the country. Sparkling water was no longer offered and the once exhaustive list of sodas had now been reduced to just Coke and Sprite.

While I initially deemed the absence of these items insignificant, I would later understand how this was in fact representative of the strict control of the government over what foreign products could be accessed by the Venezuelan population. In my subsequent visits to the country, even local items became drastically more scarce or excessively expensive, due to a decrease in national production.

 

Armed guards standing outside the Miraflores Palace. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

After two weeks in Caracas, my mother and I made our way to Puerto La Cruz, the city where my parents had already been residing for over a year. The company driver taking us to the airport asked if we wanted to detour past President Maduro’s place of work, the Miraflores Palace.

Intrigued, we made our way to the center of the city. Despite barricaded roads and blockades of guards, we caught glimpses of Venezuela’s utopic government quarters. The streets and sidewalks of this area were maintained in pristine condition, adorned with a wide variety of colorful flowers.

Large banners depicting the happy faces of Maduro and Chávez as well as one demonstrating a cheering crowd of Venezuelan citizens, fluttered in the wind. Unlike the majority of the buildings in Caracas which were noticeably deteriorating, those here were intact and appeared to be freshly painted.

 

Banners in the city center. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

Capitolio’ building with President Chávez’s eyes behind it. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

While on the plane to Puerto la Cruz, I observed the lush greenery of the Venezuelan forests and the deep blue ocean waters; much like Caracas’ government center, they were picturesque and untainted, temporarily distracting me from the reality nation’s critical state. In no other place, however, did I feel more disconnected from Venezuela’s societal problems than in Las Villas, the neighborhood I lived in while in Puerto La Cruz.  

In its former life, Puerto la Cruz had been an ocean-front getaway for Venezuela’s elite. Now, many of its neighborhoods served as residential areas for expatriate families; this was done so that foreign companies could ensure their employees’ protection. Las Villas, in particular, was greatly secured, with walls enclosing the homes inside them from the rest of the city, and intimidating guards manning the entrance.

As the gates opened, I was struck by the large number of mansions and large houses, inside; although many were rundown or abandoned, they maintained their grandeur, providing a vivid picture of the wealth that had once been and to some extent continued to bevisible around the country. Las Villas was able to, in turn, isolate its residents from the rest of society. 

Even my own home in Las Villas provided a facade of normalcy. Most of the problems I experienced in my daily life were mere inconveniences: the trickling shower pressure would come to a halt when the neighborhood water tanks would run out, or the power would shut off for a few moments.

These dismissible occurrences were juxtaposed by unsettling details like the door of my parent’s room being made out of bulletproof material for it to double as a ‘safe room,’ or my family being forbidden to leave the house after a certain time.

 Nevertheless, with my plans to return to the U.S. for college, my residence in Venezuela was not a permanent one. While I returned a handful of times to see my family in Puerto la Cruz, these visits were brief and rarely did I leave my house. I was fortunate to have the ability to leave the country at my discretion. This opportunity, however, is not granted to a large portion of the population whose livelihoods are at stake by the poverty, starvation and a lack of vital resources at the hands of Maduro’s government. 

 

Papá

I moved from Houston,Texas to Venezuela in August 2017. I’ve worked for an American-based Petroleum company for many years, and I was able to get a job in Venezuela with the company, in a project called Petro-Independencia. I got the job as planning manager for that joint venture company, but it was basically the company I had always worked for hiring me through an internal selection process.

I don’t think my family was too surprised [about my reassignment to Venezuela] because from very early on, most of my career has been international. We’ve lived in many countries, so Venezuela was a natural place to go after having lived in Argentina for some years.

I had been working in Houston briefly, supporting some activities in Venezuela, so the likelihood of being hired there was quite high. It helped that my family was supportive of my moving, and I ended up living there for two and a half years. 

At the time of my move to Venezuela, the process of getting a visa for the country was still relatively easy. The U.S. had a consulate in Venezuela, and the countries’ political relationships were still quite open. So even though they were not seeing eye to eye, it was possible to get my work visa to go to Venezuela. And that’s how I did it.

Eventually though, the relationship between the U.S. government and the Venezuelan government deteriorated; the U.S. closed its embassy, and any diplomatic relations with Venezuela, so the Venezuelan people did the same thing. That’s when it got very difficult to get a visa. In fact, for an American citizen to get a visa for Venezuela, they can no longer get it in the U.S..

They need to fly to places where Venezuela has a diplomatic presence which include Caribbean islands, like Aruba, or other countries, like Panama. But it is extremely hard and cumbersome for American citizens to get a visa now-a-days. Fortunately, when I went there, everyone in my family was able to get a visa at one point or another.

Towards the end, however, only my wife and myself, who had work visas there, were able to renew them within Venezuela, without having to get new ones outside of the country. But our children, yourself and Miguel, at the end could not get visas because it was just too difficult. Instead, we traveled to the U.S. to visit and spend time with you guys. 

 

 

The group working alongside me in Venezuela was pretty diverse. In addition to those who were from Venezuela, my co-workers consisted of people from Argentina, from Brazil, from Colombia and even from the US… but people from the US that spoke some level of Spanish. Most company workers, including myself, lived in the city of Puerto la Cruz, in the area, or suburbs, of Lecheria.

The particular neighborhood [that we lived in] was called Las Villas. Lecheria itself is a pretty affluent area in Puerto la Cruz. So, in terms of living in las Villas, it was considered a wealthier neighborhood. I lived in a nice house, and for the most part, got together with friends and did barbecues. I also went jogging around the neighborhood every once in a while. But the reality is that Venezuela in general, and the vast majority of the population, is underprivileged.

Most have a hard time with transportation, sourcing all the food that they need for their households, and basically its subsistence living for the majority of people. Fortunately, as an employee of a U.S. company, I earned my salary in dollars. I was able to access those dollars to buy the things that I needed and lived quite comfortably. But sadly, that wasn’t the case for people from Venezuela. 

While I was there, some supermarkets and stores were still functioning. Because in the area of Lecheria had a big expatriate community, there was a big network of people through which we would share information of where the best places where to buy the things that we wanted. This included imported cereal, peanut butter, canned food, and also local food with pretty decent quality.

Through my network of contacts, we knew where to source things. And, indeed, there were supermarkets which catered to foreigner workers and wealthier Venezuelans. So that’s how we sourced our food. But there are some things that we couldn’t get in Venezuela; we had two dogs, and it’s sad to say, but things that were not considered vital were hard to source. Obviously pets are not considered vital, but for us they were because they are part of our family. So we had to use a service for importing things to Venezuela.* We purchased items in the US and then had them sent to Venezuela. 

Although not to the same degree as locals, I did have to make sacrifices in my everyday life. While I got used to it, my situation was difficult in the sense that while I lived in Puerto la Cruz, my job was in Puerto Ordaz which was about an hour’s flight from away.  There was not a lot of support from the company in Puerto Ordaz, so I had to live in a hotel. I shared a car with a few other workers so we had to pretty much live as a group.

We went to lunch together, we went to dinner together, we stayed at the same hotel, so it was pretty monotonous not being able to have the independence to do what you wanted because you always had to consider what the others wanted to do.

Likewise, everywhere in Venezuela there are areas that are not considered safe by the company I worked for, so we had to stay within that perimeter or within that certain zone. And that applied when we were in Puerto la Cruz, Puerto Ordaz, or even when I traveled to Caracas.

So we had restrictions as to where we could go, and we also had a curfew. We couldn’t stay out past a certain hour, and because Venezuela is in pretty bad shape, entertainment was limited; for example, there were no movie theaters in Puerto la Cruz, and if there were, they were in areas where we weren’t allowed to go.

So in terms of entertainment, we mostly went to other people’s houses, and sometimes we could also go to the beach. But, there was not a lot of variety.

 

Our family dog, Mike, swimming at the beach in Puerto la Cruz. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

What deeply concerned me about living in the country, however, was the deficiency of the medical care system. My company had relationships with some private hospitals which still had a decent level of service and attention. So I was able to have access to medicine and to doctors if I needed them, but even then the medical equipment was often outdated, and items, like syringes, were in short supply.

Fortunately I never got sick and no one in my family got, necessarily, very sick, other than perhaps having a cold and stuff like that. But I know that for locals, the public health system had pretty much collapsed; there was a lack of medicine, a lot of the doctors had left the country, the hospitals didn’t have equipment, and unfortunately for these people, even simple things such as getting a surgery… even a simple surgery, could end up resulting in a life or death decision.

A lot of people that needed dialysis, cancer treatment, and drugs, were pretty much sentenced to death because they didn’t have access to things that would easily save their lives if they were living in a different country. So, indeed, that’s one of the things that Venezuelans couldn’t get a guarantee on… decent medical and health.         

Another difference between my own life and the life of locals was that I was able to access services like cable TV services and the internet, that the government did not control or censor. I was able to view international media and an international opinion of what was really going on in the country.

The people that were, and continue to be, affected by censorship the most were the vast majority of people that didn’t have the ability to get cable television, or did not have a smartphone and that kind of stuff.

They, for the most part, could only listen to local media and to the local channels. Obviously the government had a lot of publicity in their own favor, trying to basically explain that the Venezuelan government was the victim of boycotts by the United States and that the United States was trying to take control over Venezuela instead of allowing the Venezuelan people to govern themselves…  and that kind of stuff.

So there was a lot of propaganda, political propaganda, in the local channels, which was what the people accessed. But if you lived in a more privileged situation like I did, you could access [to international media] through the internet and through television services, as I mentioned earlier. 

With that being said, there is no denying that the overall conditions in Venezuela progressively got worse, for everyone. Economically, the situation worsened each month and each year that I was there, because of a growing scarcity of things. At first a lot of things worked okay, like electricity and water, but slowly, as lack of investment or under investment occurred, we started to see shortages of electricity, shortages of water, and eventually shortages of fuel.

In terms of the political situation, the government always fought very hard to stay in power; they played dirty in politics to make sure they would always be in government, manipulating elections, counting votes, and that kind of stuff. It was interesting… because I worked in a joint venture with PDVSA, those people, because they worked for the government, certainly did not, or could not, talk openly about their political views because they could get in trouble.

Since I was working with them, I kept it pretty neutral; I didn’t talk about politics, or the government, or anything like that while in the office, especially not with those workers. That was the same from day one, all the way until the day that I left.

 

Billboard depicting President Maduro wearing PDVSA gear. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

It is interesting to note Venezuela’s unique relationship with petroleum and the company I worked for, in particular. I did not have any backlash  because I worked in a joint venture with PDVSA, the national company of Venezuela. And for Venezuela, PDVSA has always been one of the key companies that supports the government through their revenues of sales of oil and gas.

So, even though oil and gas can be controversial worldwide, in terms of working for the joint venture that I was in, there wasn’t really any backlash. I think that the government and everyone else were supportive. Although the company I was with was pretty apolitical, Venezuela saw it as a partner that would maintain oil production and oil revenues.

What happened eventually was that the U.S. government felt that they could basically influence politics in Venezuela through their oil and gas policies, and eventually my company was stripped of its license to operate in Venezuela, and that’s where we are right now. The company has controversially curtailed operations in Venezuela.

While we were not necessarily there to help the U.S. government, we did serve as bastions of democracy in Venezuela. So, whenever the Venezuelan government changed, if that ever occurred, we would be one of the key companies representing U.S. culture in the country. And, from a Venezuelan perspective, again, we were not getting involved in politics, but they also saw my company as a good partner.

In a way, I think we were pretty neutral, and we were seen favorably both by the U.S., as well as by Venezuela, when I was there. But lately, the U.S. has gotten very frustrated because they haven’t been able to influence change in Venezuela, and, consequently, we are no longer allowed to carry on with operations that result in the production of oil, investment in oil and gas, purchases of oil, as well as exports of oil.  

On the other hand, there were locals who may have viewed me negatively, due to my involvement in an American company. There were some Venezuelans who were pro-government, or pro-Chávistas, and while that number had decreased over time because they have become disenchanted with what the Maduro government, they, perhaps, had some resentment with people from foreign countries, like the United States.

Others, however, were aware that the United States could potentially be a lifeline for most of Venezuela to eventually get back on its feet, so they didn’t hold anything against me. They saw me being in Venezuela as someone who was willing to take some risks, take some chances, and help out through the activities my company was doing… so they saw me favorably. There were both sides, though; for the most part, I got along with the people that saw me favorably. 

All in all, my experience in Venezuela was a humbling one. It was saddening to see how Venezuelans typically had a hard time getting enough income to buy food for their families. A lot of the people relied on not only their salaries, but also on family members who sent things to them from abroad.

In our case, we tried to help the people that worked for us in our house by giving them food and helping them with extra things, or in any way that we could. A lot of Venezuelans also had difficulty accessing transportation; public transportation has pretty much collapsed and they saw themselves as being unsafe.

Lacking any security or a car, people had to be very careful and petty theft became a big issue. It was not uncommon for someone to have their phone stolen, for example. Another issue that many Venezuelans faced was no longer being able to travel internationally, or even nationally because they didn’t have the income.

This was very hard for them because they often had relatives who lived in other cities. The decreasing quality of education was also a significant problem. Although Venezuelans have been very resilient, unfortunately when I was there at leastthings kept getting worse and worse. 

For myself, it was also difficult being in Venezuela. As I mentioned earlier, we had an early curfew and a lot of restrictions of where we could along with where we couldn’t. I couldn’t drive freely in Venezuela… I could only be in the company car which was heavily armored… so there were definitely significant limitations to my life.

Also, a lot of time was spent trying to source the items we needed. At one point it became very difficult to source products like eggs, milk and meat in the supermarkets. But from a people’s perspective, there were a lot of nice people in Venezuela who embraced me.

In the end, your experience in a country depends a lot on your relationships with people and I felt that I developed a lot of friendships. So I am grateful for the possibility of making these connections. 

Mamá

We lived in Venezuela in ‘96 for the first time, and this was our second time living there. When arriving at the airport, before I had been ‘wowed’ at how happening it was. Now it just seemed very empty. There also appeared to be a lot of poverty; the people there were noticeably dressed more simply… more humbly, whereas before the crowd was one that was very ‘posh.’

When we left the airport in the car, you could see a lot of people begging on the street, like a multitude of people on the street, and that was something you didn’t really see before. That was my first impression of the country. 

My life in Venezuela was now very different, as well. We couldn’t go out a lot because of all the company restrictions in place. In the beginning, when we arrived there in 2017, we were able to go to Los Roques, a really beautiful beach area. While I had not been there before, people commented that in previous years you could see tourists from all over the world.

When we visited, they mainly consisted of a few Europeans and mostly Venezuelans. While for locals, it was considered very expensive to travel there, for us, because we had money in dollars, instead of bolivares, it was very affordable. 

 

Beaches in Los Roques. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

Beaches in Los Roques. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

I would also visit Caracas. Before in 1996, when I lived in Valencia, I had been shocked at how busy and wealthy it was in the capital. When I would go to the shopping centers then, the stores were completely empty. While there were restaurants still open, before there were, let’s say, fifty good restaurants, whereas, in recent years, there were maybe three. In the pharmacies, the counters were empty… everything just made it seem kind of like a ghost town compared to how it used to be.

On occasion, pharmacies would restock and that’s what we would have to take advantage of. In Puerto la Cruz, which is where I lived from 2017 to 2019, well… Puerto la Cruz is a beach town. When we visited it in ‘96, there was a hotel… I don’t remember what it was called… but it was very beautiful. Now, because it is a small city, you could notice the poverty that was prevalent, more easily.

In Caracas, on the other hand, because there was a considerable affluent population living there, you could still see some areas with a lot of wealth in the city. And there’s the government… so yes, you could still see wealth there.

 

Puerto la Cruz’s beachfront. Photo courtesy, Wikipedia.

 

Living in Puerto la Cruz, I had to adapt to many areas of my life. My mission, everyday, was to locate food. I would dedicate time to go to these five places, one place to look for cheese, another for milk… and you just had to learn to buy things whenever they were available.

I would also have to buy a lot of items in bulk such as rice, sugar, pasta, along with other foods that are not perishable, and I would share that with the people that would work with me. And, as I mentioned earlier, when the pharmacies restocked, we would buy medicine just to have at home… in case of an emergency.

 

Empty shelves at a supermarket in Puerto la Cruz. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

Empty shelves at a supermarket in Puerto la Cruz. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

But those were all aspects I adapted to. Something I really didn’t anticipate was the severity of the social injustice that I witnessed. It all made me really very sad. One particular image that stuck with me was seeing the company driver who was designated to work with us having to loop his belt almost twice around his waist; this person had lost thirty to forty pounds, but not because he wanted to, but because he just didn’t have the means to buy the food he once ate.

When I first arrived, minimum wage was equal to about 5 dollars a month, and while things were cheaper… I don’t know, I was just very emotionally touched by everything I saw. I knew the situation was bad, but not to that extent.

However, you could also see the other side of things; in Puerto la Cruz, which was typically a place where rich Venezuelans had beach homes,  you would see yachts worth millions of dollars and people traveling in private planes… I don’t know. Those were all things I didn’t really expect.

 

Yachts docked in Playa Blanca near Puerto la Cruz. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

It was also just not the same to see things on the news versus seeing them in real life. When we would fly from Puerto la Cruz to Puerto Ordaz, where your dad worked, you could see abandoned iron factories, and just a lot of other places that were completely deserted. Something else that I remember being very saddening, was seeing when [the government] would give the elderly their pension; you would see grandsons, granddaughters, and parents all physically supporting an elderly person so that he or she could receive, maybe, a dollar.

They would all stand in line for hours under the hot sun, and it just showed the great necessity there was for any source of money. It would just break my heart.  

Despite the hardships they endured, at least as someone who is from Latin America, the people from Venezuela as a whole were very amiable and welcoming to me. They are very resilient because, despite having been through so much, they still kept moving forward with their lives.

Even after everything occurred with Guaidó, and everyone got their hopes up… the way people just kept peacefully protesting… I don’t know… I just saw them as very resilient people. Something else was that, for example, the people that worked with us the company drivers had high levels of education.

The person who drove  us for most of our time there, had an engineering degree; but he could now make more money working for the American company we were with, than he would as an engineer in a Venezuelan company. I don’t know… I think my overall impression of Venezuelan people was that in spite of everything, they still had a lot of hope. 

And it is really so admirable that they have been able to do so, considering the state of the country. Even as a temporary resident, I felt a toll in my own life, being in Venezuela.  When we first arrived there, we would have to bring a big bag of cash just to buy, for example, a bag of rice.

Well, first of all, it was very difficult to get cash because it wasn’t easily available, and in addition to that, the bolivar was incredibly devalued. Later on, the complication arose that there wasn’t any cash, so people had to use debit cards.

When we would go to the supermarkets there were always problems with the wifi, so we would end up having to wait in line for around two hours to be able to pay… and that’s only if the debit cards actually went though. Everyone just had to be patient.

I also got into the practice of buying items in the U.S. and bringing them back to Venezuela to give away to people; this included chocolates, toothpaste, salt, soap… pretty much any little thing that I could, to help out. It makes you want to be a better person when you see the necessity people have to obtain the items that, anywhere else, you would take for granted… you know, basic things. 

Socially, I didn’t really do well, either; there were people around me [in the expatriate community] who spoke badly about service people, accusing them of stealing things if they took home a pinch of salt or a bit of toilet paper. I thought it was our duty to help those in need when we had resources to share.

These accusations would make me very mad and I feel like I became a bitter person. But at the same time, it gave me a greater urge to start helping out those who were less fortunate. 

Even as someone born in Honduras, a country which also struggles with the issue of poverty, the circumstances around impoverishment in Venezuela were unique and unexpected to me. Well, I’m not an economist, but Honduras might be the second poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti.

We’ve never been a wealthy country, so for us to eat foreign chocolates, and other treats were things that were only given at Christmas. Venezuela, on the other hand, had been a very affluent country; in the 70s I believe it had one of the strongest economies in Latin America.

As a result, the people had been accustomed to a different lifestyle. I would talk with the ladies who worked at my home, and they would tell me that before the crisis, they had regularly gone out to restaurants, would eat American chocolates, and would go on trips to the beach.

In Honduras, it’s totally different; those are luxuries typically reserved for the wealthier populations. As a result, the shock [of the economic downturn] was very significant for the Venezuelan people, because… I mean, they had never really seen things like people taking food out of the trash.

In Honduras that has always been very common; you see people of all ages begging for food at every stop light, and the economic division has always been very drastic. Another difference is that, in Honduras, literacy levels are very low.

In Venezuela, this has not been the case; the majority of the population is educated, and many go to universities. Those are the two main differences, despite the extreme poverty in both countries. Also, the extent of the wealth in Venezuela is just not one that you can see in Honduras. 

An aspect that I feel is overlooked about Venezuela is how beautiful it is. There are mountains, the Salto Ángel waterfalls, the beaches of Los Roques… just so many picturesque places. It has a lot of natural resources like gold and petroleum… a lot of petroleum.

The people from there tend to be very happy… it’s just unfortunate that the country has gotten so dangerous for tourists and locals, alike. It truly has some of the most stunning places I have ever seen, and I hope that everything gets better.

There are also many gifted artists in Venezuela. I bought many paintings when I was there, but their prices have since skyrocketed. Overall, it really is a beautiful country and I pray to God that the situation improves.

 

Salto Ángel waterfalls, Photo courtesy, Wikipedia.

 

View of Caracas from El Avila National Park. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

Mamá and friends at an art gallery in Puerto la Cruz. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

Painting at an art gallery in Caracas. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

In the two years I was there, I took away that I really have to value what I have. I witnessed as the country became increasingly closed off from the rest of the world.  When I first arrived in the country there were still three foreign airlines that would travel to Venezuela: American, United, and Copa.

At the end, when I left, it was only Copa traveling in, every once and awhile. This posed a huge problem when my daughter had to evacuate her boarding school in California, due to the Thomas wildfires; I wasn’t able to get to her because there were no flights out of Venezuela.

I also feel that I learned to prioritize the wellbeing of my community, more. Venezuela was also where I attended my first protest. I participated in support of President Guaidó. Everything was very peaceful, and it was really great to see everyone so hopeful. 

Mamá at a peaceful protest. Photo courtesy, Gaby Sierra.

 

On the other hand, my time in Venezuela made me very fearful of the power and influence of a dictatorship. I would think to myself, my God, how can these people sleep at night when, because of them, so many people suffer from poverty and can’t access the resources they need.   

Anonymous 

Growing up in Venezuela, my life was very peaceful. My parents were hard working people of lower-middle class. My father worked in transportation, and later as a merchant. With what he earned, he sustained the whole household. He could provide us with everything we needed… medicine, medical care, food, clothing… nothing excessive, but we never felt as though we lacked anything. Importantly, my siblings and I had the opportunity to get a decent education, along with university degrees, later on. 

I left Venezuela, but returned in recent years, for work. Although I wasn’t too affected [by my social surroundings] due to the circumstances of my job, the Venezuela I saw now was noticeably deteriorating. Most of the people, even those with jobs, were unable to obtain enough food due to how much it cost.

Many didn’t have enough money to maintain a balanced diet, so you would see a lot of people who had lost a significant amount of weight. 

The greatest change I noticed from the Venezuela of my childhood to the one of recent times was the considerable decline of the education system. Over the past twenty years, the number of people attending secondary schools and universities reduced significantly.

The quality of education has also diminished because many of the most qualified higher-education professors had since left the country. This occurred particularly within the first decade of the 2000s, when a large wave of Venezuelan professionals left the country. 

At this point in time, however, I would say that what Venezuelans want more than is peace. Nowadays, there isn’t any social peace… people constantly feel very worried and scared. There are many who would not even dare to be interviewed, in fear of legal reprisal.

There is also a lot of delinquency in the country. Although we were not the safest country in the world, it hasn’t been as bad as it is today; in regards to murders per capita, Venezuela now has at least 5 cities within the top ten or fifteen most dangerous cities in the world. And that makes people scared to go out on the streets for reasons of normal crime and violence, but also because of political reasons. 

But the main issue now-a-days is that there aren’t any independent powers who are elected by the people. There is only one power which has been elected through clean elections, or popular vote, and that is the National Assembly of Venezuela, the legislative branch of the country.

Its role, however, is not being recognized by the other government bodies, which are aligned with the executive branch. In turn, this concentration of power has left the people of Venezuela feeling unconfident about popular elections. 

The country faces a lot of uncertainty. The people in the government  feel very secure in their positions and, as a result, there is really no telling if there can be a change in government through democratic conditions. 

 

*This import service is referring to A1 international, one of several carriers that would send non-perishable items from the US to specific locations in Venezuela. 





Gaby Sierra | Wake Forest University
Gaby is a rising Junior at Wake Forest University who is majoring in Politics with a minor in Economics. Born in Houston, Texas, Gaby’s parents are immigrants from Honduras, somewhere she returns to, frequently. As a result, she has maintained a close and valued connection to her Honduran origins. Throughout her life, she has had the opportunity to live in countries within Asia, Europe, North and South America. Particularly impactful was her family’s residence in Venezuela from 2016 to 2019, through which she was able to witness the devastating impacts of the Maduro regime. This experience ignited a passion for advocacy against the human rights violations and other injustices many regularly endure in the country, matters which Gaby hopes to emphasize further through her work with Latina republic. At Wake Forest, Gaby is actively involved in the Intersectional Feminist Collective, a group which aims to address as well as counter any sexist policies and mindsets on campus. With Latina Republic, she looks forward to reporting and learning more about stories not typically addressed in more mainstream media.