Dispatch

After 24 Years, I Am Leaving the Disaster Venezuela Has Become

After 24 Years, I Am Leaving the Disaster Venezuela Has Become

CANTON, Ohio — The question never varied during my last four years in Venezuela. It could pop up when I was waiting in a long line for the chance to buy bread or toilet paper, or while being interviewed by immigration officials when I renewed by residency permit.

Policemen always asked me when they did traffic checks, as did the woman at my post office.

“You can leave this disaster; why don’t you?” Depending on the questioner, I might laugh or smile before launching into my reasons for staying in Venezuela.

The people, the weather, the food and drink, the music and dance, the culture — all were part of my stock responses. If the questioner seemed interested, I might add that I had bought a house 80 minutes outside Caracas and had fallen in love with my village and its breathtaking views. Or how I loved to wake up to the calls of a band of howler monkeys and soft grunts of emerald-green toucans. People were always surprised that I grew my own coffee, as well as many of the fruits and vegetables I ate. They were just as surprised when I told them that I taught English for free at the two elementary schools and was a member of many of the late Hugo Chávez’s social experiments aimed at reducing poverty and creating a more just society.

But after 24 years in the country, I decided last month to do what all of my questioners thought I should have done years ago: I left Venezuela. It was perhaps the most difficult decision in my life, even after a wave of armed robberies in my village and mounting shortages of food, medicine, and spare parts that have made lives a constant struggle for survival.

Sometimes it seemed to me that only President Nicolás Maduro and I would remain in the country, which has seen 1.5 million inhabitants flee to seek better lives abroad since Chávez’s swearing-in as president in 1999. The exodus shows no sign of easing. In fact, it will probably get worse.

Venezuela is on the edge of a political crisis that could push it into a protracted and violent conflict along the lines of Colombia’s civil war. That possibility grew last week when a lower court in the country suspended a recall campaign against Maduro that is being led by the country’s opposition. Protests and rallies are set for this week, aimed at forcing Maduro from office. But with the government apparatus in his corner, as well as the leaders of the country’s armed forces and security services, Maduro may be difficult to topple, even if polls suggesting that 80 percent of the country’s 30 million inhabitants want him gone.

Even if he leaves office, Venezuela will need years to recuperate from the damage wracked by the socialist revolution spearheaded by Chávez and carried on by Maduro. The economy is in shatters, a victim of mass expropriations of local businesses and industries. Twelve years of price and foreign exchange controls, state giveaways, and rampant corruption have pauperized Venezuela.

Venezuela’s economy is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to contract by 10 percent this year, following a 6.2 percent contraction in 2015. Inflation is set to be the world’s highest for a fourth consecutive year, with the IMF projecting 480 percent for 2016; other estimates go far higher. One dollar buys 10 strong bolivars at Venezuela’s official exchange rate; on the black market, one U.S. dollar fetches more than 1,200. And despite the government’s rhetoric, Venezuela’s economy has for all intents and purposes become dollarized given the shortage of foreign currency.

When I arrived in 1992, Venezuela — which has the world’s largest oil reserves — was among Latin America’s richest countries. Today, the monthly minimum wage is barely $20 (at the black market exchange rate), less than Haiti’s. Extreme poverty and infant mortality — both of which dipped in the first years of Chávez’s presidency — are again rising. Oil production has fallen by nearly 25 percent since Chávez took office and decried foreign participation in the country’s energy sector; he milked the state oil company dry to pay for his social initiatives and his own political campaigns. Today, the state oil company is warning that it may default on its bonds. Production at the state steel company has fallen by nearly 70 percent since its nationalization. The power grid, under state control, suffers constant outages and service disruptions. Venezuela, which once exported electricity to Brazil and Colombia, had to ration power earlier this year.

Food production has cratered. In my largely agrarian village, my neighbors don’t have seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides. The government took control of the country’s largest agricultural goods company years ago, promising to make it more responsive and make Venezuela self-sufficient in food. The result has been just the opposite. Today, Venezuela is a nation waiting in line to buy scarce items such as bread, rice, pasta, and sugar; buyers now queue at stores the night before, hoping that hard-to-find items might appear.

Hunger stalks my village as well. My neighbors were innovative as we went on the Maduro diet. In lieu of cornmeal, they began cooking green bananas or yucca roots to make a dough which they then turned into the ubiquitous arepas. Beef and poultry were replaced by what they could hunt in the cloud forest by the village: Opossums, sloths, porcupines, kinkajous, monkeys, and chacalacas all found their way into their cooking pots.

A few of us started a soup kitchen for the village’s most needy, asking our overseas friends for donations to buy food. Within days, we were serving meals for 90 people, up from the 30 or so we initially forecast. Still, that wasn’t enough for some: One elderly man died of malnutrition. Others began gathering up a paste made of chicken by-products such as guts and bones which one woman used to bring to the village for stray dogs. With a little onion and rice it was palatable, they said.

Medicines are almost nonexistent. Aspirin has become a luxury for many; diabetics, people stricken with cancer, and those with high blood pressure are out of luck. The public health system — which Chávez vowed to make the region’s finest — has been gutted. Those needing operations face waits measuring months, and the cost can be astronomical.

Chávez promised a people’s revolution, a finer form of democracy. Instead, Venezuela is now facing political repression. Under Chávez, the country’s institutions — from the courts to the military to the legislature — lost whatever autonomy they once had. All became appendages of the Bolivarian socialist revolution. Under Chávez, it wasn’t strange for the supreme court to open one of its sessions by warbling a pro-Chávez ditty. Or for the head of the National Electoral Commission to show up at Chávez’s funeral in 2013, wearing the armband of Chávez’s political movement.

Today, Venezuela’s jails are filled with political prisoners: people locked up for their beliefs and opposition to the government. Many faced trumped-up charges; many are still awaiting trial. The persecution continues: Maduro and his cohorts continue to strip opposition mayors of their posts, charging them with corruption. And though the government clearly has the resources to arrest those who disagree with it, they apparently lack the resources to tackle common crime.

This year, about 30,000 people in a country of 30 million will be murdered. In 92 percent of the cases, their killers will never be arrested. By contrast, about 13,000 Americans will lose their lives to crime this year — but that’s with a population 11 times that of Venezuela. Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, now has the world’s highest murder rate. And seven other Venezuelan cities are in the world’s top 50.

In part, one can blame a breakdown in societal values. Many young Venezuelans no longer see a future for them in the country; crime thus becomes the only route for rising above poverty, for getting ahead. The government has facilitated this crime wave. Following an abortive coup in 2002, Chávez intervened in many police forces, putting them under central control and firing experienced officers. He also armed his own followers to safeguard his regime — creating a sort of public-private militia, and abetting the flow of arms to bad guys.

We saw the toll in my little village of 2,000 souls. And yet, I felt we were relatively safe until I began tallying the body count. In my 10 years in Tasajera, I counted at least six murders, three kidnappings in which the victims were held for more than a day, and more than 50 armed robberies. Our four public jeeps, plying the mountain road that connected us with the rest of Venezuela, were picked off one by one by thugs. Two were never found; one was so badly damaged that it was scrapped; and the fourth jeep has remained in police custody for more than a year, even though the criminals who stole it were released within days after paying bribes for their freedom.

My neighbors begged the police to do something to stop the carnage. They replied they didn’t have the resources. When my neighbors finally caught two thugs in flagrante and were in the process of lynching them, cooler heads prevailed and someone called the police. When the officers arrived hours later, they asked my neighbors why they hadn’t finished what they had started, especially as they had taken their time coming up the hill.

My neighbors — now former neighbors, it pains me to say — are patient. We have been hoping all along that Venezuela would get better. We didn’t think it would get any worse. We comforted ourselves that once you hit rock bottom, there’s no place to go but up. After all, how bad could things get? Each time we were proven wrong.

In December 2015, I became a victim, like thousands of others, of an “express kidnapping.” I was held at gunpoint for several hours while my captors debated whether they could get more money for me, or for my car. In the end, they decided that I would pay more to have my car returned than my neighbors would pay for me. I knew then it was only a matter of time until I left. I have tried to be optimistic about Venezuela’s future but I see few solutions to this slow-moving train wreck — and none that a reporter and a part-time teacher can affect.

Maduro and his backers refuse to accept that they are in the minority, and that their government and its policies have led to one of the great economic meltdowns in recent history. They have no intention of sharing power with the majority of Venezuelans who want them gone, or to put policies in place that might stop the bleeding and bring this country back together. Instead, they have used whatever means necessary to silence the opposition and remain in power, from jailing protestors to colluding with armed gangs and drug traffickers.

I suspect and fear that Venezuela’s political crisis will only be resolved with bloodshed. In such an outcome there will be many innocent victims, and I left because I didn’t want to be one of them. But my friends, my neighbors, and most Venezuelans unfortunately don’t have that option.

Photo credit: JOHN MOORE/Getty Images