My name is Joanna. I’m 19 years old and I live in the city of Maracaibo, Zulia state, the second-largest city of the country after Caracas. I’m a student, coursing the 8th semester of Electrical Engineering. But most of all, I am VENEZUELAN.
I don’t want to make an introduction for this article describing the last 60 years of politics in my country, but I do wish to explain the basic things a foreigner needs to know to understand why protesters have taken the streets. I’ll also try to keep emotions to the minimum, it might be long, but it will explain the everyday life we Venezuelans face.
1. Insecurity and Rampant Violent Crime
Let’s begin with the most serious problem: insecurity. Caracas is known as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world, what an incredible honor. In Venezuela, just last year, there were around 25.000 homicides (in a 30 million people country), and what’s even scarier is the 97% impunity rate. Most of those murders don’t even get an investigation, and robberies have become a factor in our everyday lives. If you’re walking, you either leave your cell phone at home, or hide it between your boobs; and don’t you dare walking after sunset. If you’re driving, park right in front of the entrance of the place you’re visiting, and if it’s nighttime, don’t ever stop for a red light. These are the crimes you are in danger of if you are low or middle class, for the wealthy, kidnappings are also on the
platter. This is our reality, and sadly, it’s gotten to a point where we don’t think much about it anymore, the precautions have become part of our daily habits.
2. Worthless Money
Now, let’s move on to currency exchange control. This measure, which was implemented by the government about 10 years ago trough a commission called CADIVI, has the purpose of controlling the flux of capital that goes in and out of the country. With this control, there’s a certain amount of dollars you can buy from the government, which varies whether you run a business, or if you want to study abroad or simply go on a trip with your family. Logically, this leads to the existence of a black market, in which the cost of foreign currency is over 12 times higher than the official exchange rate, but it becomes necessary given the low amount you can legally purchase. Let me give you an example to put things in perspective: for a tourist, the maximum is $ 3000 a year, depending on your destination. If that is somewhere in the state of Florida, the most popular destination for Venezuelans, you can only get $ 700 to spend via credit card, and $ 300 cash. If you do the math, for a family of 4, that pretty much just pays for the hotel.
This applies for businesses as well, so this is what happens: the ones that don’t receive dollars at the preferential rate, import products using dollars they bought in the black market, and therefore sell them at high prices; and the companies that do get the official dollars, tend to set prices as high as the other ones, to gain ridiculous amounts of profit. Either way, the result is that life becomes very expensive for the ordinary citizen. This has, consequently, driven to bankruptcy a lot of companies, which leads to our next problem, scarcity.
3. Scarcity Of Every Kind
The few products that are actually produced inside the country, that is completely dependent on oil exportations, are the only ones that have reasonable prices. And most of those, that are considered basic goods, have their prices regulated by the government, to the point that they are practically free. So, let’s put things in perspective again: here in Venezuela, a Hershey’s chocolate bar (small one) is worth around 80 Bs., but a bag of 2 pounds of pasta, is worth about 7 Bs., because its price is government controlled. So, what happens to regulated products? They disappear. Basic goods like chicken, toilet paper, milk, flour, rice, soap, and others, are very difficult to find. And if you do get lucky and find them, it will probably require a few hours in line to purchase them, and the classic “only one per person” at the cashier.
If you go around the city’s supermarkets you’ll see long lines of people in the sun, waiting just for the possibility that one of those products might arrive any moment, and accompanied by their entire families to be able to buy the maximum amount they could possible get. And don’t even get me started on inflation… (56%).
This is what you can see in almost every supermarket: shelves filled with the exact same product, or shelves completely empty.
4. Health Care Is Falling Apart
Next, public hospitals don’t have resources. Not just money-wise, but basic medical products. Gauze, probes, insulin, cancer medicine, etc. This leads to collapse of the public health system.
5. Rampant Institutional Corruption
Also, corruption is noticeable in every institutional level. It’s not even hidden anymore. For simple things like getting your passport renewed you are asked to “slip money under the table”. Cops tell you that if you give them a certain amount of money they won’t give you a ticket (and this is the rule, not the exception). And getting to the higher powers, CADIVI and government officials have recognized that 25 billion dollars practically disappeared last year, and not a single person was investigated for it.
6. Centralized Authority and Lack of Democratic Values
Finally, lack of democratic values. Democracy doesn’t just rely on the existence of elections. If it did, we’d be the most democratic country of all. Here in Venezuela, the executive power, a.k.a. President Nicolás Maduro, controls everything. From the judicial power, directly ordering the incarceration of anyone who opposes or threatens his regime, to the legislative power, where speeches from opposition deputies in the National Assembly (our equivalent to a Senate) get their microphones shut down. The National Guard, which is in theory apolitical, and trained only to protect its people, are openly supporters of the regime, stating that they will defend “the revolution” at all cost.
This pretty much sums up the reasons for which the protests began. Brutal repression from the National Guard to peaceful protesters, violations to freedom of expression (the only network covering the first protests, called
NTN24 was taken off-air, and the Twitter picture-service was blocked nationwide), lack of any real recognition from the government to concerns of the people, other than opposition members being called “fascists, oligarchs, traitors to the homeland, etc” have added fuel to the fire. I don’t believe that ideology is the problem now. Left or Right doesn’t have anything to do about it anymore because what people need right now is a government that can satisfy basic needs and we’ll go from there. This is not a struggle to defend opposition leaders nor is it one to defend a long lost legacy. What we are facing now is a country of 30 million people, all suffering from the same problems, but half of them fighting to fix them, and the other half staying silent and conforming, because in their mind, complaining at all would mean treason to the memory of their beloved, late president Hugo Chavez.