Ana Lorena Delgadillo*
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Venezuela for the second time in three years. In my last visit in December 2018, I recall witnessing disturbing food and medicine shortages. This time round, I experienced a different Venezuela, but in a worse situation.
Despite the heartbreaking situation, Venezuela overflows with humanity and affection. While talking to Venezuelans, it is impossible not to think of the destruction wrought upon the democracy and institutions in the country. In its 2020 report, The International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, created by the United Nations Human Rights Council, noted that serious human rights violations have been committed since 2014. The Mission also identified patterns and «highly coordinated crimes in accordance with State policies and part of a widespread and systematic course of conduct that constitutes crimes against humanity.»
A recent report by the International Commission of Jurists states that «[t]he Supreme Court of Justice, long controlled by the Executive Branch, has managed the collapse of the rule of law in the country as more than 85% of the judges hold provisional positions, are subject to political pressure, and are directly pressured to issue judicial decisions in favor of the government and against human rights defenders and political dissidents.
Violations of fundamental rights, a co-opted judiciary and prosecutor’s office, lack of balance between powers, the military dominating public management, corruption, pandemic, government control of food and fuel distribution, hyperinflation, destruction of institutions, attacks on media, journalists, defenders and humanitarian workers, were the oft-repeated phrases that characterized the various conversations that I had during my trip.
There are things that can only be experienced and confirmed by visiting the country. Any preconceived idea is put to the test when one looks at the reality lived by the people, especially those most affected economically and socially. When one travels through Venezuela, it is glaringly evident how the military and other security forces have taken over the daily life of the citizenry in a not-so-positive light. A detention in an «alcabala» (checkpoint) of the National Guard or any other public force, can end up in arbitrary detention, depending on the «criteria» of the intervening officer.
During my 350 kilometer trip from Caracas to Acarigua (in the west of the country), we counted 16 alcabalas along the way. In one of the checkpoints, we were stopped for a document check. Many food transporters and those who ferry other products prepare in advance what they will part with (as a bribe to the officers at each checkpoint) in order to reach their destination.
The militarization of the country is not exclusively evident in security matters or in the surveillance and control of the highways. The popular food network, the administration of fuel and other basic goods and services, as well as the management of strategic ports, the mining industry and even the leadership of the Ministry (Secretary) of the Interior, Justice and Peace (yes, justice and peace!) itself are headed by the military. Most people point out that the government has destroyed the institutionality, among other things, through corruption and the de-professionalization of fundamental sectors for the functioning of the State, placing in key positions those who are «staunch supporters of the Bolivarian revolution», and not those who possess requisite technical and professional capacities.
Talking to Venezuelans, the issue of economic sanctions is inevitable. This and the drop in oil prices, in a country whose economy depends mainly on the oil exports, coupled with terrible decisions, such as the massive layoff of many technicians who worked in that industry several years ago and the lack of investment in the industrial infrastructure, have evidently taken their toll on the Venezuelan economy.
With regards to the sanctions imposed by the United States, it is deemed that the government has used the sanctions as the main excuse in explaining the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. There is consensus that this factor has deepened an already existing crisis, but it is not necessarily «the causal factor» of the humanitarian emergency suffered by a good part of the population. Almost 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, not only because of hunger, unemployment and lack of access to basic services, but also because of dwindling security.
In the Venezuela I visited at the end of 2018, shortages prevailed and it was disheartening to see empty stores and supermarkets, people picking up food in dumpsters and struggling to get the basics to survive. The Venezuela of 2021 is full of bodegones (stores) that are everywhere, with imported products at exorbitant prices, unaffordable for most. For example, if many people lived only on their pension of approximately 3 dollars a month, they would only be able to buy a tray of eggs. Hyperinflation is an unmanageable factor in their daily life and there is a marked difference between those who can buy in bodegones and those who go to popular markets or street sales with very low quality products.
A large percentage of the population, especially in the interior of the country, lives in anguish and depletion due to the difficulty in accessing gasoline, water, electricity, and gas. On several occasions in Acarigua, one had to get up very early or very late (literally at midnight) «to get water», because the service is only available at certain hours. So, if one does not get up early, one runs the risk of running out of the precious liquid, an undesirable fact in the midst of a pandemic.
On my 2018 visit, I was surprised that it cost more to buy a bottle of water than to fill up a tank of gasoline. Three years later, gasoline has become dollarized, with prices ranging from half a dollar a liter (in Caracas) to $3 in places far from the capital. Families and friends have simply stopped visiting and seeing each other. Traveling by car is now a luxury.
The pandemic is yet another of the tragedies that people are enduring and access to vaccines is uncertain; in many regions, practically impossible. In desperation, people have risked seeking vaccines on the «black market», with the dangers that this comes with. In a country with a non-existent official data, information on the number of deaths from the pandemic is hardly reliable. This leads many people to believe that the virus is not a fatal problem. Yet, many others just can’t «stay at home» because they need to get out on the streets in an effort to be productive. With a collapsed health system, those who become infected and need hospitalization rarely get a «slot» in the public system, and neither can they go to private hospitals that charge thousands of dollars, which is unaffordable for those who earn 3 dollars a month.
Many things can be written about a collapsed Venezuela, but I will also share the most valuable thing I brought back from this trip: the Venezuelans. Human rights defenders doing exemplary work every day in the midst of risks; journalists persecuted but reporting; priests working in the center of violent areas but building citizen peaceful coexistence and working with young people; humanitarian workers under attack but providing assistance; teachers, professors and academics committed to providing education; family members who live on remittances or with difficulties and always offer the best they have on the table; lawyers who litigate when they can but drive cabs to support their families; doctors with miserable salaries who ride bicycles to treat patients for free or for very little money; all giving an exceptional battle not only to survive, but to continue fighting for their country.
«We are not only what you see«, people often repeated this to me a lot, as if to remind me not of a shattered country, but of a country that is struggling to get out of the tragedy in which it is now plunged into. There is no way not to feel united and connected with Venezuelans. My deepest admiration to human rights defenders, journalists and humanitarian workers, who in such an adverse and criminalized context sacrifice their lives and energy on a daily basis in everything they do and maintain hope and commitment, which is worthy of admiration.
Any parallel between what is happening in Venezuela and Mexico runs the risk of being simplistic and reductionist, because our histories have been constructed differently and each has its own complexities. But after visiting Venezuela, it is hard not to feel the need to reflect more on what it means to strengthen a democracy and stop any measure that erodes it. A government should not be measured by the ideology it promotes, but by the way it respects, guarantees and protects human rights. Nothing is given nor is everything won easily in our countries: the struggle for rights and democracy must be a daily task that we cannot give up if we want a life of well-being, peace and justice.
* Lawyer, founder and Executive Director of the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law (FJEDD).
Foto: AP Photo/Matias Delacroix