With the ongoing Covid pandemic and its dominating presence on media, we can be forgiven for forgetting other tragedies occurring in the world. Covid restrictions have made it that travel is near impossible at the moment, but it in no way means that migration has stopped. The second biggest displacement crisis currently in the world is in Venezuela, arguably provoked by repercussions of the 2013 drop in oil sales that made way for extreme starvation, inflation, poverty, and lack of employment in the country. The present socio-economic and political crisis has led to 95% of its population living below the poverty line and as of the end of 2020, has forced more than 5 million people to leave their country.
Venezuela has the world’s largest crude oil reserve which, once-upon-a-time, made Venezuela in Latin America what oil made of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Prosperity was high but as is the case with many petrostates, its prosperity had a time limit. Lack of measures to ensure the durability of the oil wealth of the state led to the GDP crash in 2014, inducing wide-spread poverty amongst Venezuelan’s with limited to no solutions in sight. Massive social spending during the presidency of Chavez and Maduro, US trading sanctions as well as overall corruption are sighted as the main perpetrators of the displacement emergency.
As is a characteristic of a petrostate, Venezuela suffered from Dutch Disease, the development of dependence and focus on the oil industry, and thus neglect of other industries crucial to growth and sustainability such as steel and agriculture. While oil was bringing in the most revenue, it is a volatile commodity that cannot be solely relied upon to keep a nation afloat. During the prime of Venezuela’s black gold industry, other nationalised industries, such as steel, banking, agriculture, and electricity, were plummeting, and as a result, when oil prices and sales began to drop, no safety net was available and fallback on other industries was fruitless.
The nepotism that is so present in the government ensures that those responsible for the development and functioning of crucial industries are poorly skilled for such a task, perpetuating the disaster that many are facing. Venezuela produces around 30% of its food supply, making imports essential. Yet, with limited spending power due to hyperinflation and the neglect that the agricultural industry has faced, food scarcity is abundant. Even the government subsidy food distribution programme (CLAP) to feed the population is primarily imported from Mexico (90%). The electricity sector has also faced limited developments, at times forcing many to live without power or internet for weeks at a time.
With no solutions in sight, emigration has in no way stopped, although Covid has created many problems for those trying to escape as well as for those obligated to remain. Data regarding rates of infection are in no-way reliable as testing capabilities are limited, with 1,122 deaths and 121,691 confirmed cases as of January 2021.
The pandemic has generated numerous problems for hospitals as the health sector has not been adapted well enough to respond to all the needs generated by the virus. Shortages of potable water in hospitals exacerbate the spread of the virus as health professionals are not able to practice basic hygiene measures that are essential even during non-covid times. Furthermore, 62% of hospitals face shortages of masks, 57% do not have enough gloves, 76% do not have enough soap and 90% of hospitals do not have alcohol disinfectant gel. Due to insufficient protection measures, ⅓ of official covid death data are made up of health-care workers. This problem is further aggravated when we take note of the brain drain that has occurred in Venezuela, with 50% of doctors and nurses have left over the past 5 years, meaning that there is simply not enough assistance available on the ground to respond to the crisis.
A significant problem also stems from the conduct of Maduro and his politicisation of aid. Hospital supplies from foreign donors are allocated not on a needs basis but rather to government-backed hospitals, further depriving hospitals of needed supplies.
The trade and food industry has also been significantly impacted by Covid 19, causing production to be reduced even more so than it had already been, intensifying the 32% of Venezuelan’s who were already food insecure before the pandemic, as noted by the World Food Programme. Additionally, measures in place to reduce the propagation of the Covid virus, such as curfews, have magnified food shortages through restricting movement, limiting the possibility to go somewhere to purchase food. Yet, this is the case for those who hold some spending power. For many, the continued collapse of the economy has resulted in the plummet of the minimum wage to US$4 a month and monthly inflation is cited to be above 2000 %. For those unable to work, many have relied on international remittances from family members working abroad. However, with job losses increasing at an international scale, such transfers are expected to decrease by 50% in 2021, deepening the hole of poverty for many.
This economic crisis coupled up with the health crisis has continued to force people to search for momentary solutions abroad, primarily in neighbouring countries of Colombia, Peru, and Chile. Yet, with confinement and the closing of borders, for many, this escape is fruitless and even dangerous.
The closure of borders has rendered regular routes of migration, such as buses and flights, no longer feasible, generating the increased dependency on irregular routes. Many opt for travel by foot, giving them the name of “caminantes”, and also by smuggling, however, these options expose individuals to severe risks of extortion, exploitation as well as physical and sexual violence. With the additional closure of much-needed associations that previously assisted Venezuelan migrants on their journey, access to potable water, food as well as sanitary shelter becomes more and more complicated. The island of Trinidad and Tobago has been a key destination for Venezuelan migrants but is a dangerous route as boats are loaded with migrants that can not hold the weight, as can be seen in the Guiria shipwreck in December 2020, wherein 28 migrants died. Limited opportunities in destination countries generated by Covid force many to return to Venezuela, where they are stigmatised, demonised, and abused by the government, with Maduro labelling returnees as biological weapons used by Colombia to infect Venezuela with more cases.
Humanitarian assistance is available but is also limited. Inside Venezuela, humanitarian organisations are harassed by the government, restricting their activities, such as Acción Solidaria who had its centre raided and some of its members arrested as well as the NGO Prepara Familia which also had its medical supplies confiscated by the police. So far, the country has received US$140 million of international aid out of a needed US$760 million, far less than what Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo have received. This is due to the reputation that Maduro’s government holds, making foreign donors distrustful of how their money will be used. There are international associations requesting entry into the country to provide humanitarian intervention on the ground, yet Maduro has refused to fully open Venezuela’s doors, such as to the UN and the World Food Programme.
With the continued exacerbation of the Covid crisis globally, 2021 seems to await the worsening of the Venezuelan migrant crisis as well as the continued deterioration of living conditions inside the country. As the resistance from the government to allow international organisations to assist those facing starvation and poverty remains, migration will surely not stop, neither will the dangers and risks present during the journey. The vaccine promises solutions for many of us, yet uncertainty remains on if the Venezuelans will even be able to purchase them. Due to sanctions and the freezing of international funds, Maduro was not able to make the US$15 million downpayment on 11 million doses of vaccines needed by December 15th, 2020 as part of an UN-backed programme to distribute the vaccine in 100 countries.
While worries remain about the real motivation for Maduro wanting to unfreeze Venezuela’s international funds, this humanitarian crisis requires actions from all parties. Venezuelans are suffering collateral damage in a political conflict and all those involved need to cooperate to enforce long-overdue solutions.