by Jessamie Edkins-O’Brien
Venezuela was the jewel in the crown of Latin America. With vast oil resources, it led the way in urban design and cosmopolitan living. There was a dark side. The wealth was never evenly spread amongst the population. The unrest led to the populist government of the late Hugo Chavez coming to power. The poor saw hope. The poverty in the barrios that plight the hillsides of the major cities was put on hold.
Spurred on by high oil prices, the government gave a share to those in need, but that need became a dependency. As prices dropped, the handouts became unsustainable. The death of Chavez is seen as the turning point. Now millions have moved abroad. There is no middle or working class anymore, just the wealthy who have gorged on the illicit fruits of the state or the poor and destitute.
Two eyewitness accounts of life in Venezuela give similar views from contrasting viewpoints.
I interviewed an expatriate working in the oil industry who worked in Venezuela between 2009 and 2017, who wanted to remain anonymous in case of reprisals against former colleagues who still are in the country. He worked first in Puerto la Cruz in the East of the country and then in the capital, Caracas. He told me:
"Most of the people I worked with were from the middle classes whose parents had worked in the industry for many years. They had lived under the Chavez regime for more than 10 years, many had been fired from the state oil company after the strike of 2002 when they objected to the socialist government's plans to replace key workers with political stooges. Caracas seemed like a concrete jungle, but the backdrop was both magnificently beautify and devastatingly sad. On one side of the city was the beautiful mountain range, and the rest of the city was surrounded by shanty towns made from red bricks and corrugated iron, stacked on top of each other, defying gravity on the steep slopes. It was dangerous too. Hijacks, kidnapping, street crime were all a constant threat."
"Then it got worse. The street battles after Maduro did not allow free elections. The government clamped down with ferocious strength. The use of tear gas and water cannons hid the path of real bullets. There was blood on the streets. Barricades that blocked the streets were torn down. The protesting students and those that were socially mobile demonstrated with their feet, and left the country, like I had to do, as it was just too dangerous."
Carlos Blanco is a teacher who works with both Venezuelans looking to improve their English and foreigners who are working in the country and trying to improve their Spanish. He has been struggling to make ends meet for the last 4 years or more as inflation has spiraled out of control. Unless you have access to US dollars it is impossible to afford what we would call the staples of life.
"It has been difficult to get the basic things in life for some time; toilet paper, milk, bread, flour, but in the last few years the price has gone through the roof. The government buy imported food as none of the factories here produce anything anymore. Unless you are one of the PSUV supporters (PSUV is the ruling political party: ‘Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela’) then you can't buy at the subsidised prices and you have to pay the imported price. I would have to pay a week's wage just to get enough for one meal for my family. You can't find meat, except the scraps that other counties don't want. My wife used to tell me I was overweight - not anymore."
Carlos, in many respects, is one of the lucky ones, as he can supplement his meagre wage that he gets in local currency with teaching former students over the internet. But it is still a desperate situation. Many of those who have a second passport through parents or grandparents have already left. The next generation of workers has largely fled by getting educational visas to foreign universities.
The demonstrations in the streets have mostly stopped, because the people of the barrios are too hungry.