By: Evan Myers, Assistant News Editor
July 5, 1999, Jorge Olavarria stood in front of the Venezuelan Congress and urged his compatriots to be brave and stand up to President Hugo Chavez, who was beginning to abuse his power at the turn of the century. Olavarria concluded his speech, “This is for my children and my grandchildren and the children and grandchildren of everyone who has children and grandchildren, for who I have spoken. They are the ones that are going to live in the Venezuela of the twenty-first century.”
August 26th, 2017, Eugenia Olavarria, Jorge’s granddaughter, leaves Venezuela for
Brussels, Belgium, where she will remain in political asylum indefinitely. Studying abroad in Brussels in the fall of 2018, I had the pleasure to meet Eugenia. In this article, I hope to share with you some of the struggles she shared with me, the struggles of the Venezuela of the twenty first century.
In order to understand the current situation in Venezuela, “you have to understand the context,” claims Eugenia, “no matter who you are there is scarcity of resources in Venezuela.” Today, people wait hours for a loaf of bread, scrounge stores for medicine, and lack access to most basic goods. Due to such shortages, “everyone has escaped as much as they could,” Eugenia explains, “my entire generation of school left.” The stats back her up, according to BBC, more than two million people have fled since 2014 – that’s 7% of Venezuela’s population. Other sources cite numbers as high as 13%. And for those that remain in Venezuela, they have become accustomed to living in a state of paranoia and fear. “You don’t even realize how bad it is until you leave,” said Eugenia.
But Venezuela has not always been this way. It was once a tropical paradise and Latin America’s most prosperous country. Due to its immense oilfields — some of the largest in the world — people once rushed to enter Venezuela. Now, they are scrambling to escape. In fact, my best friend growing up, Frank Trujillo, was born in Caracas to Peruvian parents who had immigrated to Venezuela in order to profit from the country’s booming economy. By the time Frank was five years old, however, the economy was collapsing, shops and factories were closing, workers in the oil sector were going on strike, and Venezuelan society was spiraling out of control.
Many critics have blamed Venezuela’s volatility on socialism, and clearly, Chavez’s social-welfare programs were unsustainable. But Venezuela today can be best understood as a petrolstate: a developing state that relies on oil to support its spending, concentrates power in the hands of a small elite class, and has unaccountable political institutions. Ironically, it seems that Venezuela’s wealth in natural resources created prime conditions for political corruption.
Chavez took advantage of Venezuela’s vulnerable political institutions for nearly 14 years. When he died in 2013, Nicolás Maduro took over. Since, Venezuela has found itself in a seemingly endless cycle of economic downfall and political upheaval, and Maduro has tightened his grip. Recently, however, Juan Guaidó, the President of the National Assembly — Venezuela’s powerless and only remaining democratic institution — has been recognized as interim President of Venezuela, representing a new hope for his people. To be clear, “Guaidó is not a self proclaimed president” explains Eugenia, “he is following the Constitution, which says when the current President is not fulfilling his duties, the leader of Congress will step in and serve as interim.”
In recent weeks, many in the international community — including the United States — have recognized Guaidó’s authority, but Maduro retains his power. Today, Venezuela finds itself on the brink of civil war and in the midst of chaos, starvation, and uncertainty. It is nearly impossible to predict what will happen next. But thousands of miles away, Eugenia Olavarria, Jorge’s granddaughter, is crying out for help. “The United Nations, NATO, someone has to help us,” she says desperately. “It has been this way for twenty years; fixing it all by ourselves is completely unrealistic.” It is hard to hear those words and not wonder what the world should be doing differently, how we could help more.