By Raphael Bodewig
Venezuela is stricken by a harsh economic, political and humanitarian crisis. There is an enduring standoff between the political opposition and the autocratic Venezuelan Government. The hard-hit, oil-dependent economy has been plummeting for years, intensified by the latest US-sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic. Households are often without electricity and water for days and a large majority is suffering food and gasoline shortages, while the state is largely failing to provide public services. These circumstances have forced around five million people to leave the country, equaling one sixth of the entire population.
We talked to Alejandra (name changed); a former law school undergraduate of a renown Venezuelan private university. She now lives in the Colombian capital Bogotá, working as a barista in a boutique café and is saving money in order to pay the admission fees for the Colombian university. Alejandra is from Táchira, a Venezuelan border state with Colombia. Today, the region makes headlines for its rampant black market and corruption, the presence of illegal armed groups and the caravans of refugees that make their way through here to Colombia. But that has not always been the case.
“The university and education I received were really great. The most teachers came from Europe and with all my friends and family close, I had a surrounding in which I was able to learn and study as much as possible,” Alejandra says. But beginning with slight changes, it became clear to her soon, that she wouldn’t go unaffected by the crisis that would deeply paralyze Venezuela for years. The best teachers left the country by and by and there were a lot of protests. “And how many have been killed during the protests in 2014? But nothing happened, nothing changed!” she says. Back then, Alejandra volunteered with a small foundation that would try to cheer up the sick children and elder people in the hospitals. “But there were a lot of avoidable deaths in the hospitals. The relatives had to scour the black market for the medical equipment for operations. The hospital ran out of needles, injections, bandages, even the medical gloves. The doctors and nurses were doing operations with the flashlights of their cellphones”.
Power outages and food scarcity shaped the everyday life. Alejandra described to us, how she and her family took turns in a queue to buy flour, and after 12 hours of waiting it became clear that there was none left. It was in the same week, that Alejandra and her three sisters decided to leave Venezuela. She tells us about a chaotic border crossing to Colombia, with “queues, suitcases and children everywhere”. Alejandra considers herself lucky to possess the double nationality. And even for her, it was extremely difficult to rent a place and settle in the Colombian capital. “Just imagine how hard it must be for the people who arrive in worse circumstances than I do!”.
Alejandra arrived in Bogotá with a clear aim: resume her legal studies. “That’s what I came for, and that’s what I save my money for. Unfortunately, it is expensive to us”. Another obstacle was of bureaucratic nature: her high-school degree and birth certificate needed to be formally certified by the Venezuelan institutions. Thus, only after a few months in Colombia, she returned. Her efforts to obtain the necessary documents took her 3 months waiting for an appointment. And in the meantime, she witnessed her homeland in ever deteriorating circumstances. “Ordinary people were searching the rubbish for something to eat, something we had barely seen before in Venezuela”. Her friends from the foundation told her that in the hospital they had been visiting, almost every week a child passed away. And by then it was said that the situation in her hometown was relatively modest compared to other parts of the country. Finally, she received the necessary documentation in a cloak-and-dagger manner around midnight from a government official who demanded a big bribe in order to hand it out. “Fortunately, I went then. By now, it is impossible to receive any of those documents and the legal border passing has been closed,” she explains to us back in Bogotá. Regarding the political situation, she says: “It is puzzling to me, how anyone can consider or proclaim himself a legitimate and good ruler of such a country, where living is a mess.” For Alejandra it is about actions and consequences.
The oil revenues and state resources, she says, have been poorly invested and embezzled for years now. She describes how corrupt political elites are importing designer clothes and sports cars through the Caribbean Islands, while the rest of the country is suffering. A frustrating standstill, she says, in which no solution seems to be close. Democratic institutions, like the national election committee and supreme court are either dysfunctional or biased. The opposition movement around Juan Guaidó has sparked hopes she thinks, but so far not lived up to them. “When he appeared with International leaders and gave speeches, hope was in the air. But I have discussed this matter a lot with my family, and I am convinced that the current government will not just leave office. Most of them are even persecuted by Interpol or other international institutions. They can’t leave the country, but in Venezuela, they are safe”.
When asked on her take on the polarization and grudges amongst the population, she says: “Sure, to some people it’s unbearable to share a meal with someone who supports the opposition, or the government respectively. But what’s even worse is the sadness. Venezuelans are usually of cheerful and lighthearted nature. What I now witness is an overwhelming anxiety, hardship and misery. Parents that worry about nourishing their children, elderly persons worry about their health and frankly, young people – like I – that just seek to study “. While the future remains hard to predict, to Alejandra is certain that the latter – young people forced to leave Venezuela – will have to take responsibility in the future: “Just like it was a process to ruin the country, it will be a process to rebuild it.” And the role of those who had to leave in order to pursue a life in better circumstances abroad are important to this process. “Those are doctors, lawyers and engineers who work as janitors or in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, there is no bad work as long as you don’t steal – but when these people return to Venezuela one day, they come equipped with important knowledge and experiences.” Alejandra pauses for a moment and looks around in the café she works at. “They will come back with another mentality, knowing how really tough working hours look like.”
And of course, she adds, she misses the ones left behind and the ones far abroad. But if things go all right, Alejandra will pursue her legal degree in Colombia. And afterwards? “Pues mañana cae el gobierno, yo me iría” – “If only tomorrow the government is expelled – well count me in, I’d return.”
*This article is based on an interview conducted by Timeo Schneider and Raphael Bodewig in Bogotá, May 2019. Translated from spanish to english. Name of the interviewee changed.
Cover photo: Timeo Schneider
Raphael Bodewig is studying Peace and Conflict Studies in Uppsala. He is a strong advocate of human rights and social- & environmental justice. Having lived in Bolivia, Colombia and Cuba, he is convinced and committed to the importance of working with our world’s affected and disadvantaged. He just arrived in Uppsala and is looking forward to getting to know the place & it’s people. Spends his time doing fika and bouldering. Most welcome to join!