Latin America

Venezuela’s invisible humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes

The biggest losers in the standoff between government, opposition and foreign nations are the people
Photo: ruurmo/Flickr
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The situation in Venezuela is heating up quickly this week, as the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Guatemala have officially recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president. The U.S. is now weighing potential new oil sanctions and its secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has urged Venezuela’s military to support Guaidó, in what is increasingly seen as a U.S.-backed coup.

In reaction, current Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro issued a statement on state television, saying that the country has now broken diplomatic relations with the United States, which has 72 hours to pull its diplomatic officials. As video scenes show protesters in the streets, everyone fears that violence will soon erupt in a country that used to be one of the most prosperous in Latin America. It’s anyone’s guess how the perfect storm of an incompetent and corrupt government coupled with U.S.-led corporate interests supporting a military coup will play out.

The first time I became aware of Venezuela’s woes, I was in the back seat of an Uber. I vaguely knew of the country’s economic freefall, its food shortages, and the millions of people fleeing, but I didn’t know about it.

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In the time it took my Venezuelan driver to reach my destination, I had a face and a personal story I could attach to the news I had read. He told me about how his family had fled to Italy, about the constant risk of being kidnapped for ransom, and how he had chosen Canada for his studies and didn’t foresee ever going back. There was both sadness and resigned pragmatism in that last sentence, and it brought home the message of those displaced louder than any article could.

I thought about that man as a press release for Elsewhere landed in my inbox. Elsewhere is a play about six people — their resilience, resistance, and survival — amid the chaos of the Venezuelan crisis. Written and performed by Venezuelan Canadian Joy Ross-Jones and directed and co-created by Cristina Cugliandro, the play has a grandmother reflecting on her past, a beauty queen wondering how to feed her children, a police officer questioning the violence around him, a homeless man begging for food, a teenager risking his life to join the fight for freedom, while a Venezuelan Canadian woman looks on from afar, struggling with what is happening in her homeland.

Living in Montreal since 2006, Ross-Jones has watched Venezuela’s political and social upheaval irrevocably alter her motherland. Yet, barring a few headlines here and there, the humanitarian crisis has remained largely out of the public eye. It’s perhaps no accident that the play’s tagline astutely observes “a crisis isn’t a crisis when it’s elsewhere.”

A crisis that is only growing in severity

There can be no denying that what is unfolding in Venezuela is a large-scale crisis. The country’s economy has been in freefall since 2014, when oil prices plummeted and caused hyperinflation. As the country’s oil industry crumbled, so did its economy and subsequently its democracy. President Maduro was recently sworn in for his second term while some international leaders demanded he step down. Rising authoritarianism, corruption, and economic collapse are forcing people to leave.

U.S. capitalist interests so often define both the status and the political future of Latin American countries

Venezuela is one more unfortunate example of how fragile institutions are, how quickly prosperity and social harmony can transition to financial and social unrest, and how U.S. capitalist interests so often define both the status and the political future of Latin American countries. And history has taught us that rarely does a humanitarian crisis and civil unrest occur in a country without it spilling over and affecting in some shape or form the continent to which it belongs.

“The Venezuelan crisis has been building slowly ever since I was a child in Caracas,” says Ross-Jones on the play’s website. “It slipped into focus: more kids on the street begging for food, the price of lunch at school creeping upwards, the increased frequency of protests, and the wider spread of barrios (favelas, slums) on the mountains surrounding our city.”

As Ross-Jones left Venezuela to study in Montreal she continued to follow the escalating crisis. In 2016, spurred by the rapidly eroding conditions in her home country,she was compelled to write Elsewhere. “Venezuela is not the only country where people are struggling, and suffering, and dying. I wanted to give Venezuelans, and people in Montreal from other countries in crisis, a chance to express their grief and frustration.”

The largest exodus in modern Latin American history

A month ago, the United Nations said the number of Venezuelans who have fled the country amid an ongoing humanitarian and economic crisis is expected to reach 5.3 million by next year. This forced displacement is considered the largest exodus in modern Latin American history, and some experts believe it will soon be on the same scale as the Syrian migrant crisis. Most are going to Colombia, while others have moved to Ecuador, Peru, and of course North America.

This past week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against the Maduro regime in Venezuela. “Anyone who contends to be a friend to the Venezuelan people should be very clear in standing up and condemning the Maduro government that has been responsible for terrible oppression, for terrible marginalization, for a humanitarian crisis the likes of which South America has not seen in a long time, leading to mass exodus and a tremendous number of refugees fleeing all across South America,” he said at a town hall meeting.

“Our job, the Venezuelans abroad, what we’re doing by sending food is keeping everybody alive there.”

On Jan. 10, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland issued an official statement on behalf of the Canadian government where she said that the regime has lost “any remaining appearance of legitimacy” and having “seized power through fraudulent and anti-democratic elections” and now being “fully entrenched as a dictatorship.” Canada is a member of the 14-nation Lima Group, which is trying to address the crisis, and has previously imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials.

Many Venezuelan Canadians are actively helping their families and communities back home, sending desperately needed items like medicine and food to tackle a shortage that the current government denies is even happening.

“Our job, the Venezuelans abroad, what we’re doing by sending food is keeping everybody alive there, because we’re going to recover our democracy and we’re going to be free, and we need everybody there strong to build it up again, because it’s going to be left in pieces,” Venezuelan Canadian Gregmar Chirinos was quoted in a recent CBC article as saying.

Highlighting the importance art has in communicating human tragedy, Bernard Bechard-Torres, a Venezuelan Canadian who is part of the theatrical production of Elsewhere, explains why it’s vital to create art about the Venezuelan crisis on the play’s website.

“I think people know a bit about what’s happening in Venezuela, I think they know that there’s a dictatorship and that there’s food scarcity and hyperinflation, but I don’t think they have specific stories,” he says. “And I think those specific stories are extremely important because it puts a face to this giant political crisis that we all know a bit about. It’s important to know about the people who are suffering and not just the thing in totality.”

Elsewhere, an Odd Stumble Production in association with Imago Theatre, runs at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre from Jan. 24 to 27. For information about the play, you can go here.

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