The Venezuelan Nightmare Continues
Despite hopes by the international community that the five-year-old Venezuelan crisis would reach a point of stability, the situation in the South American country seems to be deteriorating even further. The Venezuelan economy is simply incapable of providing basic needs for all of its citizens, and the government is in open conflict both with its citizens and itself.
This once prosperous, oil-rich country is now weighed down by mountains of debt and its people struggle daily with hyperinflation and lack of access to even the most basic of necessities. Alarmingly, a recent study showed that 75% of Venezuelans have lost 19 pounds in weight due to food shortages.
Likewise, the quality of Venezuelan health care is abysmal, with the Venezuela Medical Federation reporting that hospitals in the country lack 98% of crucial medical supplies. 85 out of 100 essential drugs are unavailable. As a result, child and maternal mortality have skyrocketed and diseases such as malaria, once eradicated in Venezuela, have made a nasty comeback. To make matters worse, rather than take drastic action to solve these problems, President Nicolas Maduro fired the health minister who reported these tragic statistics. This all-too-common pattern seems to characterize Maduro’s confrontational leadership style.
Indeed, the government’s management (or rather mismanagement) of his country’s finances and wanton disregard of Venezuela’s democratic institutions have put him on a collision course with the opposition party and the general population. One of Maduro’s most misguided decrees was the abolishment of the country’s largest banknote last year. Predictably, this led to a severe cash shortage and a huge slowdown in retail commerce. (The move was rescinded shortly after.)
The Maduro government has also shut down numerous private media outlets, interfered in elections and disqualified and even jailed electoral candidates. In a huge blow to democracy, the Venezuelan Supreme Court earlier this year nullified the powers of the National Assembly, in violation of the constitution. As a result, huge protests flared up around the country and are ongoing. Maduro has responded with increased authoritarianism and often violent crackdowns against the protesters, who Maduro claims are “terrorists.”
While most protesters are peaceful, some are violent, and Venezuelan opposition groups have sometimes had trouble reigning in these extremist elements. On the other hand, numerous reports describe the riot police’s brutality including beatings, loading tear gas canisters with nails, theft, and sometimes outright murder. (Even the government’s chief prosecutor has criticized security forces.) Notably, one of the people beaten in a recent protest was Henrique Capriles, leader of the opposition and Maduro’s arch-nemesis. To make matters worse, government-backed gangs have entered the fray and are attacking protesters with impunity. Thousands of protesters have been jailed and tried by military tribunal.
The violence is not only limited to the capital of Caracas. Throughout much of the country, looting, extortion, and riots are becoming more and more common. In many places, school has been cancelled, shops are boarded up, and once peaceful neighborhoods resemble war zones. Notably, in Hugo Chavez’s – Maduro’s predecessor and founder of the “Chavismo” socialist ideology – home state of Barinas, several people were killed last month in riots. Chavez’s childhood home was among the buildings torched by rioters. Maduro attributes the riots to U.S. “imperialism” but a poll taken last year shows only 2% of Venezuelans agree with that. In contrast, a combined total of 84% of the population blame both Chavez and him.
Similarly, Maduro has become more isolated on the international scene. At a recent meeting of the Organization of American States, the Venezuelan foreign minister walked out after the U.S., Brazil, and ten other OAS members criticized Venezuela for failing to uphold its democratic principles and commitment to human rights. A letter written by leaders of the OAS states called for the release of political prisoners as well as a conduit for supplying humanitarian aid and greater dialog between the government and opposition parties. The letter further called on Maduro to cancel the planned July 30th vote that would create a government body that could rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, effectively giving the authoritarian Maduro even more power. Among other examples of Venezuela’s increased isolation are the closing its border with Colombia and the airline Lufthansa refusing to fly its planes there.
Because of the deteriorating situation, thousands of Venezuelans have left, creating one of the largest mass emigrations in Latin American history. Those who relatively well-off can afford to charter a boat or plane to Caribbean countries like Curaçao and Bonaire, but most Venezuelans have crossed over the porous border to either Brazil or Colombia. The government of Colombia documented a whopping six million registered visits by Venezuelans. Most of those visitors are looking for the bare necessities to take back home but some for work, permanent housing, and/or medical care.
Likewise, the Brazilian government, already faced with financial and environmental problems of its own, is especially hard-pressed to deal with the massive influx. Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost and least populated state, has borne the brunt of the influx and was forced to declare a state of emergency to appeal for federal assistance. Once laid-back border towns such as Pacaraima are now bustling with shops selling items that are hard to find in Venezuela. An estimated 12,000 Venezuelans have moved to Brazil since 2014 including members of the indigenous Warao tribe, who face culture shock, extreme poverty, and new diseases. Yet despite these hardships, many of them say it’s an improvement on the unbearable situation in Venezuela.
Many Venezuelan Jews, too, have left Venezuela in search of a better life, most of them to Israel. Initiating the aliyah process has been easier said than done, since Venezuela, then under Hugo Chavez, cut all ties with Israel following the Gaza war of 2009 and aligned itself firmly with the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism increased dramatically under Chavez and has continued to spread under Maduro. Venezuelan media frequently blame well-to-do people of “Israelite origin” for causing the economic mess. Last month, in one his many bizarre and over-the-top rants, Maduro compared opposition to his administration to Nazism and claimed that “We are the new Jews of the 21st century that Hitler pursued.” He went on to say, “We don’t carry the yellow Star of David…we carry red hearts that are filled with desire to fight for human dignity. And we are going to defeat them, these 21st-century Nazis.”
Meanwhile, an estimated 50% of the Jews who lived in Venezuela when Chavez came to power have already left. Around 100 Jews left last year and an estimated 6000 to 9000 Jews remain in the troubled country. Organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel have gone to great lengths to help Venezuelan Jews make aliyah in a process that they choose not to disclose. Many Jewish refugees such as Reisy Abramof, who grew up in Venezuela’s third-largest city of Valencia, report having to buy food and medicine on the black market at inflated prices due to the severe shortages. Many Jewish refugees have expressed their relief and sense of belonging in their newfound home of Israel. In the words of Avraham Ben Gigi, a 23-year-old Jewish refugee from San Antonio de Los Altos (a suburb of Caracas), “I am able to be myself here in a way that I never was able to growing up.”
In one case that made international headlines, a group of nine Venezuelan Jewish converts, all of whom come from the small town of Maracay, were denied entry into Israel because of their questionable Jewish status (they were converted by Conservative rabbis). After a deal was struck within Israel’s Interior Ministry, the group underwent a second conversion (this time under the auspices of Orthodox rabbis), took a ritual immersion at a shul in Colombia and was finally allowed entry into Israel this past March.
In response to the Venezuelan catastrophe, the Trump administration has warned of imposing additional sanctions beyond the ones it approved earlier this year affecting the Venezuelan Supreme Court and vice-president (whom the U.S. accused of being a drug kingpin). One U.S. official said, “We’re definitely moving beyond ‘strategic patience’.” At the time of writing, it is unclear which officials would be targeted by these additional sanctions but experts believe they would include human rights abusers, the energy sector and those plotting to alter the Venezuelan constitution. Were Maduro to release Josh Holt (an American held prisoner in Venezuela for nearly a year on charges of attempting to undermine the government), the U.S administration has said it would react favorably, but that this alone would not be enough to elicit more leniency towards Venezuela in return.
Some experts disagree that economic sanctions are the best approach to solving the Venezuelan crisis in that it might give further justification to the Maduro regime to continue its ill-conceived policies. Furthermore, they argue that letting the regime collapse on its own would prove that the blame rests solely at the feet of the Venezuelan government rather than any outside forces.
The question of the sanctions’ effectiveness aside, it’s imperative that the world present a united front and dedicate all resources available to hold the Maduro regime accountable and finally end the Venezuelan nightmare. The consequences of not doing so could spell disaster for the entire region.