I am writing from my home, Barquisimeto, the fourth largest city in Venezuela, which was, not so long ago, the most prosperous country in Latin America. In the past four years, things here have changed — utterly.
I am writing to explain how much has changed, and how quickly. I moved here as a girl in 1973 from San Cristobal in the Tachira region of the Andes, and I went on to become a university professor. My story was made possible by my country’s success. My mother, a widow who ironed laundry for a living, managed to send my three sisters and me to university. Like most Venezuelans bringing up children during the oil boom of the 1970s, she had an inbuilt sense of aspiration. After I won a government scholarship to study in New York I didn’t think twice about returning to Venezuela to work: there were plenty of job prospects and, with the Andes just across the river and the beach a short drive away, why would I want to live anywhere else?
By the time I had my own children we were a family with a way of life akin to middle-class Britain: we had two cars, a holiday home in the Andes and stable jobs. This was the life my mother had always dreamed of giving me.
The descent began in the early 2000s when the Hugo Chavez government began to take control of elections, private companies, the judiciary and the police. The descent turned into a nosedive when Nicolas Maduro came to power and the state tightened its grip on oil production, our country’s main source of revenue. Investors fled and skilled workers emigrated. As living standards plummeted, the response was to print more money. Hyperinflation has been the result.
The young are all leaving Venezuela. My two children, who are in their thirties and forties, are among them. Some leave due to the inflation and lack of work; others because of security fears. We don’t go out after dark — those who do take huge risks. A friend’s son was kidnapped on his way back from the cinema, with the perpetrators demanding an extortionate ransom. Tragically, kidnappings work. A six-figure sum is demanded and families scrape together to pay. Another friend, after having three different cars hijacked at gunpoint, decided to move to the UK.
I am 69 and retired now: I feel I am too old to leave. And compared with others here, I count my blessings. I thank God every day that I am in good health and that I have family abroad who can help cover the healthcare costs when I do fall ill. Even basic medicines are increasingly scarce now in Venezuela, but I’m lucky to have a son who sends me thyroid pills from abroad.
Every day, I go to the supermarket in the hope of finding the supplies I need but I am almost always disappointed. On my last visit I was looking for the basics: vegetable oil, sugar, milk, flour, bread, butter. But there was nothing on the shelves: just a few bags of crisps, some loo paper and tins of sardines. Most of what I need is bought via the bachaqueros — the black market. You can never be sure of whether these goods are safe or hygienic enough to eat.
Those who do manage to shop in the supermarket find that, because of the government’s new bolivar soberano (Bs.S) currency, the prices have skyrocketed beyond what anyone can afford: a friend’s small weekly shop recently came to 15 times her monthly salary. Once, we lived normal lives. We worried about normal things like our children and our jobs. Now, we worry about finding enough to eat. Some of my friends and relatives have lost a lot of weight. We call it the ‘Maduro diet’.
Even if you can find food to buy, getting cash can be a difficult business. When I go to the bank, I can only ever take out a fraction of what I need because the bank puts limits on how much I can withdraw. Most cash machines near me have been smashed up and raided. I can draw my pension on only one day per month, when the number on my identity card is announced. To collect it, I have to arrive at 4 a.m. and stand in a queue. The money is often gone before I reach the front.
Those who are wealthy enough to afford private schools can, at least, have their children educated, but for my rural friends it is a different story: some parents don’t even enrol children any more because the schools have run out of pencils, notebooks and shoes. The government recently gave 300 Bs.S for each child in school, but hyperinflation means this is not even enough for a notebook and a pencil, and the parents often use the money to buy food instead. When news gets around that a school is providing lunch on a particular day, parents will send their children in to be fed. I’ve heard teachers say that children are so malnourished they fall asleep at their desks. It doesn’t help that teachers, too, are fleeing. At Baccalaureate level, there is a huge shortage of teachers to teach physics, chemistry, mathematics and science.
There will be no celebrating Christmas this year. How can we? I used to love to make hallaca and potato salad, ham, bread, and pork leg. Last year we all got together and shared with family and friends, staying overnight in people’s houses to avoid travelling home after dark. This year, there simply will not be the ingredients to make the food.
Not so long ago, I lived as you do. I would have thought it impossible that my country, with its hard-won progress, could fall so quickly into the abyss. The wrong politicians with the wrong ideas can have a bigger effect than anyone can imagine. Still, compared with many people here I am lucky. Blessed. When I have spare time, I do what I can to help find food for families worse off than my own. At the Catholic church, we gather what food we can and make a soup to share with those in most need. It is called olla solidaria — the solidarity. This is one thing the regime can never take from us.