By Victoria Villavicencio
My grandmother spends the majority of her week waiting.
She waits in line at the supermarket, often for hours, waiting for whatever has arrived that day. It might be chicken, it might be cheese, it might be coffee, or it might even be powdered milk. She waits at banks for money that isn’t there. She waits for the electricity to be put back on so she can cook her meals and she waits for the water to come back so she can shower. She waits by the telephone for calls from dozens of relatives who have fled the country, including her only son and his family.
My grandmother lives in a quiet neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. The term ‘quiet’ is relative—Caracas’ soaring crime rates have earned it the questionable honor of being the world’s most violent city, with 122 murders per 100,000 residents. It is the kind of place where stories of kidnappings and violent deaths abound within your closest of circles, yet most of these crimes occur with relative impunity.
No one ever explains to you, as you are packing up your life in order to escape a collapsing country, that you never fully leave. Nobody ever explains that even though your physical body boards that plane, some portion of your mind remains. Ever since my family emigrated from Venezuela in 2010, my grandmother and all the others we left behind reside inside of my conscience. Because of this, I, and many others who have left their home countries in search of a better life, exist in a constant state of both here and there. For me, here is Rollins and all it entails: classes, homework, involvement, dorms, and friends. There is home and all of the turmoil within that country.
No one ever explains to you, as you are packing up your life in order to escape a collapsing country, that you never fully leave. Nobody ever explains that even though your physical body boards that plane, some portion of your mind remains.
Whenever some poor, unsuspecting soul makes the mistake of asking me “What is going wrong in Venezuela?” they are rarely aware of the breadth and complexity of reasons as to why my home country is self-imploding. The answer to that question would also be an extremely biased one, considering that the official government position is that absolutely nothing is going wrong. There is simply no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, as maintained by the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Delcy Rodríguez, when questioned by the OAS.
Venezuela was once one of the region’s most prosperous countries, with vast oil reserves and a level of democratic stability rare in Latin America. Today, it is fraught with economic troubles and a political tug-of-war.
As an economy, Venezuela is heavily dependent on oil exports. Falling oil prices have hit both the people and the government hard. The government has had its revenues halved and is unable to either maintain its massive expenditures on social welfare or repay its ever-growing foreign debt. Considered the government practice of seizing other private industries that have now gone to waste and implementing price controls that forced producers to operate at a loss, Venezuela’s economy is simply not diverse enough to sustain the blow. Increasingly, the country relies on imports of even the most basic necessities.
Food shortages are a result of the government’s decreasing oil revenues. Private industries are unable to produce with the current price controls in place. With fewer and fewer dollars to purchase the imports, the inflow of basic goods starts to run low. More and more Venezuelans, like my grandmother, wait in line for hours for products that are simply not there. Furthermore, government policy has now placed a cap on the scarcest items, so even if you find rice you can only take two bags per customer. Being able to afford products is also an obstacle; inflation reached triple digits in 2015. Images of empty shelves, winding lines, and supermarket brawls in Venezuela circulate the internet every day. For the poorest of Venezuelans, starvation feels imminent.
It should not be a surprise that the current president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, has failed to retain the undisputed popularity of his predecessor: Hugo Chávez, a man who was heralded as a saint by some of his most fervent supporters. Maduro (hand-selected by Chávez as the heir apparent to the Bolivarian Revolution) has been left to deal with Chávez’s legacy: rampant corruption, economic decline, and widespread political polarization.
Maduro’s political opposition has gained ground within the government, achieving a congressional majority for the first time in over a decade. Government efforts to actively silence, disable, and imprison political opposition has garnered both national and international criticism. Today, opposition protests take to the streets with unparalleled zealousness as the possibility of regime transition begins to feel less like a dream and more like an incumbent reality.
There is one last by-product of the Venezuelan crisis, quite possibly the one that the reader might be the most acquainted with: immigration. The number of Venezuelan asylum-seekers in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly after a series of bloody protests in February 2014 that have continued sporadically to this day.
The Venezuelan diaspora has had to deal with the turmoil of transition as best as they are able to when they are thousands of kilometers away. This most popular coping mechanism, other than becoming an activist, is to exist both here and there.
Venezuela is kept alive in our subconscious primarily through telecommunication and the occasional family reunion: WhatsApp group chats that constantly update with rumors or news, friends and family who have taken on the roles of amateur reporters on Facebook, visiting family and friends who bring news and leave with luggage full of basic goods, and the few news outlets that have survived or circumvented government censorship.
Living in two places at once is not easy when those places collide. When the February 2014 protests began, I was a freshman here at Rollins. I had lived outside of Venezuela for years and this phenomenon of being both here and there was nothing new. But all of my old friends began to blow up our group chats with “Where are you?” and “Are you safe?” As the death toll in the protests climbed, the messages became more frantic. They circulated images of arrested and battered protesters, most of them college students our age. They asked for help in finding missing protestors that were taken by the police. One friend shared particularly helpful tips on counteracting tear gas (just cover your nose and mouth with a cloth soaked in vinegar).
Meanwhile, I sat in classrooms taking notes about Public Speaking and wondering if the next time I opened my phone, it would be one of my own loved ones that had disappeared.
The question of “What comes next for Venezuela?” is a pressing one. The opposition, or the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), perseveres in its efforts to call for a referendum to decide whether or not Maduro should retain his position. As of October 21, 2016, these efforts were thwarted by the government when lower courts ruled to suspend the referendum process.
Venezuelans who live abroad flee economic hardships and unchecked violent crime. They are afraid of an uncertain future and seek the promise of stability and prosperity in foreign lands. They are like me, though we do not all look alike or even sound alike. And as they arrive in these new lands, they know that they are incomplete. They have left a piece of themselves behind. They look to the referendum efforts with the hope that one day they will be reunited with the piece they left behind.