Struggle to Survive
Amid a reassertion of U.S.-backed neoliberal
policies in Latin America, Venezuela’s socialist
government totters at a tipping point, beset by a
severe economic crisis, but Lisa Sullivan sees a
ground-up struggle of Venezuelans to survive.
By Lisa Sullivan
June 11, 2016
For 32 years I
have called Venezuela home. Its mountains have given
me beauty, its barrios have given me music, its
struggles have given me purpose, and its people have
given me love. Its Bolivarian Revolution gave me
How could I
not feel hope when most of my neighbors –ages 2 to
70, were studying, right in our little
potato-growing town in the mountains of western
Venezuela. How could I not be hopeful when 18
neighbor families received new homes to replace
their unhealthy, crowded living spaces?
How could I
not be grateful when my partner received life-saving
emergency surgery? Or when my blind friend Chuy had
his sight restored. Both for free.
this is what I see from my porch: neighbors digging
frantically in barren, already-harvested potato
fields, hoping to find a few overlooked little
spuds. Rastreando they call it. It is an
act of desperation to find any food source to keep
the kids from crying, because for months, the
shelves of the stores have been bare.
How did this happen?
That is the question that I bolt awake to every
morning. As I watch Juan Carlos claw the fields for
potatoes; as I embrace a tearful Chichila – up and
waiting in line since 2 a.m., searching,
unsuccessfully, to buy food for her large family; as
I see the pounds shed before my eyes from
10-year-old Fabiola. I am glad that my mangos are
ripening now. They take some of the empty glare from
often in the deep of the night that I am kept awake
by the burning question: When and how will all
this end? Followed by: And
what should I be doing?
When I keep
thinking it can’t get any worse, it does. When
friends from the U.S. write to ask if they should
believe the scary articles about Venezuela’s crisis
in the press, I want to say no. Because I
know that global vultures are circling my adopted
nation, waiting for us to fall. Venezuela is, after
all, home to the planet’s largest reserves of oil.
their suspicion of the barrage of articles about
Venezuela’s crisis is the fact that almost every
article begins and ends with the same mantra:
Socialism = Hunger. A good example is a recent
article in Town Hall entitled: “Venezuelan Socialism
Fails at Feeding the Children.” The article goes on
to elaborate that between 12 and 26 percent of
Venezuelans kids are food insecure (depending on
their geography), which would average 19.3 percent
childhood hunger in the country.
Just for a
comparison, I looked up child hunger in the U.S. and
found that most sites use the figure one in five. Or
20 percent. So, in the world’s most prosperous
nation 20 percent of children face hunger, while in
Venezuela the number is 19.3 percent . Since these
statistics are so close, I suggest that Town Hall
publish a more accurate and equally urgent article
entitled: “US Capitalism Fails at Feeding the
Children, and Venezuelan Socialism Does only
But most of
our caution with these stories comes because we
smell danger. How many times have we seen the first
step on that well-traveled road to U.S. intervention
paved by these heart-wrenching stories rammed 24/7
by the media. They lay the groundwork, help to
justify almost anything.
spite of awareness of why we are being
bombarded with stories of Venezuela’s crisis, out
of respect for friends, neighbors and family in
Venezuela, I must acknowledge that this crisis is
real and is brutal. It is a crisis of critical
shortages of food and medicine. Its reasons are
extremely complex and fall on many shoulders. And it
threatens the health, well-being and future of too
many Venezuelans today, especially the poorest ones,
such as my neighbors.
How did the
nation with the world’s largest reserves come to
this, a nation of hungry and desperate people?
Well, that depends on who you ask. The opposition
blames President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro blames the
U.S. The press blames socialism. Maduro’s ruling
party blames capitalism. Economists blame price
controls. Businesses blame bureaucracy. Everyone
agree, however, that the underlying culprit is a
three letter word. OIL – the source of 95 percent
of Venezuela’s exports. OIL – the cash cow that
funds easy, cheap imports. OIL- the export giant
that deters domestic production.
Living in a
rural community that actually does produce
food, and having also traveled extensively in this
lush and fertile country, it is sometimes hard to
believe that Venezuela imports more than 70 percent
of its food. But I shouldn’t be surprised. Quite
simply, for decades, it has been much cheaper to
import food than to produce it.
that was the case when oil prices were up. And they
were up for a long time. As recently as two years
ago, the price of oil was about $115 per barrel.
This February, Venezuelan crude plummeted to barely
$23 a barrel. That is only $3 more than the
approximately $20 cost of extracting it.
the profit per barrel of oil goes from $95 to $3,
it’s like your salary going from something like
$50,000 a year to $1,600. Could you feed your
you were wise, you would have saved for a rainy day,
or not put all your eggs in one basket, or at least
grown some food in your backyard in case you
couldn’t get to the supermarket. Indeed, the late
President Hugo Chavez talked a lot about this. And
he even took some steps to set this in motion.
somehow, economic diversification never happened.
Oil became a larger share of the economy under the
Bolivarian revolution. Imports grew. Some say this
was because Chavez was too preoccupied with the task
of providing healthcare, education and shelter to a
previously-abandoned household before launching on
major home repairs.
because chavismo made it very hard for
businesses to produce (although in reality, most
large businesses in Venezuela don’t actually
produce, they just import things already
produced. And, then – to boot – they actually
purchase them with dollars provided almost for free
by the government.) That puts a little perspective
on their rants.
prices crashing to the basement this winter,
Venezuela could no longer afford to import food.
And to make matters worse, most of the imported
trickles of food and medicine that do reach
Venezuela these days, never actually reach the
average person. Especially the average poor
person. A good chunk of this food and this medicine
ends up in the greedy hands of corrupt businesses,
bureaucrats, military, ruling party members, and
almost always leads to hoarding and scalping
products. But add to that mix the fact that most
basic food and medicines are price-controlled by the
government. A kilo of corn flour costs about 2
cents at the regulated price, and can easily fetch
at $2 – or much, much more – on the black market.
Who wouldn’t want to get their hand in this business
of hoarding and reselling? Especially considering
that the salary of even an engineer hovers around
$30 – $40 a month.
haven’t even talked about the dysfunctional currency
system that contributes to the diminishing power of
salaries. There is only too much bad economic stuff
what the reason, the result that matters now is
this: Venezuela depends almost totally on imports
for most items of basic necessity, and it has
almost run out of money to buy these imports, which
these days mostly end up in the wrong hands anyway.
getting the motors of domestic agriculture and
production up and running is the long-term solution.
But while all this will take years – perhaps decades
– Fabi is hungry.
So, is it
true that Venezuela is about to go over the edge?
Well, it may, even before I finish this article. My
partner just texted to say that roads to our town
are blocked with hunger protests and he is returning
to the city.
But to me,
the extraordinary thing is that Venezuela has
not exploded until now. This crisis is now
several years old really, depending on how
you measure it.
that the upper echelons of Venezuelan have not
exploded is because many have given up on their
country and left: two million, mostly young
professionals. They are the ones who can qualify for
the visas and afford the plane tickets. Some with
fewer resources have also left, like those who are
paddling to neighboring islands in handmade rafts,
including a few whose lifeless bodies drifted to the
shores of Aruba.
that those at the lower economic rung have not yet
exploded (until now) has different reasons.
Venezuelans are an extremely generous people, with a
natural sense of solidarity. Whenever those few
small spuds are culled from neighboring fields by
Rafa, he places a bag of them at my doorstep. I pass
bananas to Jenny over my fence. She passes pinto
beans to Erica over hers. Erica passes yucca next
door to Chichila, Fabi brings me fish that she
caught when skipping school, I provide the oil in
which to fry it.
solidarity and natural bartering system that has
unfolded in our Venezuela-in-crisis is beautiful,
and it is what has allowed us to survive until now.
These good-news stories can’t complete with the bad
news that the press loves, you have to come and see
with your own eyes.
reason for delayed explosion is this: Most
Venezuelans know that chavismo has (or had)
their back, and are very reluctant to give it up.
President Chavez very concretely and very
pro-actively cared about them. He reduced
poverty dramatically and created the most
economically equal society in the Americas.
contrast, the opposition is widely perceived as
caring only about themselves. Probably this is
because their only agenda item over the years was to
topple the government. Small wonder they rarely won
the many national elections over the past 17 years.
opposition did, however win December’s parliamentary
elections. Decisively so. But many see this as less
a vote of confidence for the opposition,
than one of punishment against the Maduro
administration, perceived as tone-deaf to their
suffering. Although many share Maduro’s belief that
the crisis is caused by the right-wing-led economic
war , they wonder why he hasn’t done more to combat
But this is
my sense of the moment: The majority of Venezuelans
today are not fans of the opposition. Nor are
they fans of the current administration. However (to
the chagrin of the State Department) this doesn’t
mean that the majority of Venezuelans are not fans
So, what is
to be done? The solutions to the crisis are as
conflicting as the causes. The three major players
(Venezuelan government, opposition, and the U.S.)
spend endless amounts of time and resources pointing
fingers of blame to one another, while doing a poor
job of hiding their real political and economic
interests. Meanwhile, the losers are the people of
Venezuela, who grow hungrier and hungrier.
better solutions are coming from Latin America
itself. The region has become far more integrated
and vastly more independent from the U.S. than
previously (and many believe this to be Hugo
Chavez’s greatest legacy). This was clear when OAS
Secretary General Luis Almagro tried to set into
motion Venezuela’s removal from the organization. He
received resounding no from its members,
including those of the new emerging right. Instead,
the OAS member states opted to give support to an
ongoing process of dialogue between the government
and the opposition. The idea of
government-opposition dialogue is not a bad idea.
It’s just not enough.
long-term solution to Venezuela’s problems must come
from all sectors of Venezuela. Not just from two
polar opposites who have driven Venezuelans to
hunger in their pursuit of political and economic
not all, of those excluded identify with
chavismo. But there is no political space for
them in the tightly controlled hierarchical ruling
party structure, nor room for them on the ballot
(the largest political party that identifies with
chavismo was excluded from elections
because the electoral board did not like their
name.) Some identify more with the opposition,
especially certain pragmatic administrators willing
to listen to and accommodate ideas from across the
these in-between sectors, that I believe make up
Venezuela’s majority, want to see less political
rhetoric and more economic action. The currency
system must undergo radical change. The poor must be
guaranteed access to food, but not by subsidizing
the product (which ends up in the hands of the
corrupt and not the mouths of the poor), but
subsidizing their families.
finally, there is a treasure trove of creative
grassroots initiatives and productive solutions that
this crisis has unleashed and that merit attention.
While Maduro prays for higher oil prices and markets
his nation’s pristine lands to Canadian mining
companies in a desperate lunge for dollars; and
while the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition push
for social explosion and/or military uprising; the
people of Venezuela are busy.
busy planting food in their backyards and patios,
using alternative medicine, sharing with one
another, developing a barter system, and creating
hundreds, or maybe thousands of products from
recycled or locally-sourced renewable sources .
These may not totally solve the immediate food
crisis but, in the long run, they may actually be
opening the door to the kind of society in which we
can all survive and thrive.
And back to
that 3 a.m. question of what can I do. I guess just
more of the same, writing down my thoughts and
ripping up more of my lawns to plant food with my
neighboring children. Two more hours and I”ll be up
with the dawn, awaiting Fabi and friends with shovel
and hoe in hand.
has lived in Latin America since 1977. She was a
Maryknoll lay worker in Bolivia and Venezuela for
over 20 years, coordinator for School of the
Americas Watch and founder of grassroots leadership
group, Centro de Formación Rutilio Grande.She has
three children, raised in Barquisimeto Venezuela.