Matter of Survival: Venezuelan Leaves Country With Hope for Return

Article originally published in SPUTNIK NEWS SERVICE, SPUTNIK. EXCLUSIVES on 03 february 2020, 16:00

* US * VENEZUELA * SANCTIONS *

WASHINGTON, February 3 (Sputnik), Barrington M. Salmon –

If asked, Ivonne Luces-Pineros would not call herself a refugee, but two and a half months ago – she, like more than 4 million other Venezuelans – fled her country after years of deprivation, a life-threatening illness, political turmoil and relentless, punishing US sanctions.

She is living in Bogota, Colombia with her daughter Anyuli after a dangerous trek traveling from Caracas mainly by bus, car and walking.

The fact she recently underwent surgery made the journey even more perilous. In addition, Luces-Pineros said she left behind her mother, whom she misses greatly.

“My mother is doing so-so. She’s very weak. She’s still in Venezuela caring for my sister who’s wheelchair-bound and who has a debilitating illness,” Luces-Pineros told Sputnik. “She’s frail and sick it’s hard for her to walk and have proper nutrition… She’s my rock and I’m longing to see her.”

Luces-Pineros said she would never have left her homeland but conditions have gotten so bad.

“It breaks my heart to say this, but I had to leave in order to survive and not starve to death or die from a relapse or complications of my surgery,” Luces-Pineros said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, just a matter of survival… There are simply no other options.”

EXODUS

January 23rd marked one year since opposition leader Juan Guaido, opposing the outcome of the 2018 presidential election, declared himself interim president. The Trump administration immediately backed Guaido, whom they coordinated with before the announcement, and imposed crippling sanctions on the country.

This was all in a bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro, just as Venezuela was suffering through a deepening economic crisis.

Other factors driving the crisis include over-reliance on oil revenues at a time when global prices have plummeted, and paralyzing and sometimes violent partisan wrangling between Maduro supporters and opposition forces.

And there appears to be no end in sight to Venezuela’s economic spiral downward. On January 29, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by another ten percent in 2020.

Venezuela’s real GDP has contracted by 65 percent since 2013, the IMF said, due to “declining oil production, hyperinflation, collapsing public services, and plummeting purchasing power.”

Luces-Pineros said she believes government corruption and mismanagement have also complicated the situation.

This has led to the exodus of approximately 4.3 million Venezuelans, the UN estimated in a report last year. In 2018, on average, about 5,000 people left Venezuela every day, the report said.

Caribbean and Latin American countries are hosting an estimated 2.7 million of the total number of Venezuelans who have left, while other regions account for the rest.

Colombia hosts the highest number of Venezuelans with 1.1 million – a group that now includes Luces-Pineros among them. It is followed by Peru, with 506,000, Chile 288,000, Ecuador 221,000, Argentina 130,000, and Brazil 96,000. Mexico and countries in Central America and the Caribbean, like Trinidad and Tobago, are also hosting significant numbers of Venezuelan refugees and migrants.

“My mother encouraged me to leave Venezuela in search of better opportunities and making sure I could get adequate medical care in Colombia, and also that eventually I would be able to help her financially. But I’m still longing to be back home in Venezuela,” Luces-Pineros said.

After being on the road for several weeks, Luces-Pineros stayed in the city of Cucuta, Colombia until it was safe to continue her journey to Bogota to reunite with her daughter Anyuli.

“Well my journey was a few weeks and it was extremely rough,” she recalled. “My health is fine now but I am still feeling the effects of the surgery.”

Unfortunately, Luces-Pineros added, during the journey she got very sick with bronchitis and flu-like symptoms.

“The treatment at the border was hard and now Venezuelans have such a bad reputation that they don’t want to accept any immigrants from Venezuela anywhere in South America,” she said.

Luces-Pineros said the massive exodus went beyond neighboring countries and included destinations such as the United States, Canada, the European Union and, especially, Spain.

“The countries I’ve included in the list are for people who have the means. Most of the neighboring countries have a limit and now they don’t want Venezuelans in their country,” she said.

After finally reaching Bogota, Luces-Pineros was able to rent a room at a boarding house for 350 pesos ($18 USD) a month.

She gets up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and works until 5:30 p.m. to try and make money to survive, selling coffee, herbal teas and bread to people for their morning commute.

Although the situation is difficult, Luces-Pineros said she’s a survivor.

HUNGRY, MALNUTRITION AND DEATH

The Trump administration has been banking on a deadly assortment of sanctions – the most recent being economic restrictions imposed on banks, the oil industry, government officials and other individuals and entities – to oust Maduro. In fact, senior US officials have even publicly expressed a desire to use sanctions to drive a stake through the heart of the socialist revolution.

US companies have long been interested in Venezuela because it has one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Oil revenues account for about 98 percent of the country’s export earnings and 25 percent of gross domestic product, which is why Washington has sought to shut down this industry.

As expected, high prices provided a boon to Venezuela’s economy from 2006 until the first half of 2014 – when oil prices mostly hovered between $100 and $125 per barrel. During that time, Venezuela used its oil revenues to fund its budget and wield regional political power by providing subsidized oil to as many as thirteen neighboring Latin American countries, most notably Cuba.

However, Venezuela’s oil production has now fallen to its lowest point in more than 70 years. In 2017, America imported more than S10 billion worth of oil from Venezuela, making it one of the top sources of crude for US refineries. But now that figure is at about zero as a result of US economic restrictions.

The economic recession – in tandem with the devastating US sanctions – have been lethal, according to doctors, economists and other experts.

In May 2019, leading economist Jeffrey Sachs co-authored a Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report with Mark Weisbrot, which examined how US sanctions increased disease and mortality and reduced the availability of food, medicine and medical supplies in Venezuela.

Since 2017, the report concluded, more than 40,000 people have died as a result of US sanctions.

Sachs, a Columbia University professor and director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development, described the sanctions regime as collective punishment for all 30 million Venezuelans, “as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions, to which the US is a signatory.”

Sanctions imposed by the US government in 2017 prevented the country from accessing international capital markets and the oil company from restructuring its loans, the report noted. The two economists said that after the sanctions were implemented Venezuela lost an estimated $6 billion in oil revenue over the ensuing 12 months.

Weisbrot and Sachs argued that the loss in foreign exchange, needed for vital imports of food, medicine and productive inputs, caused by US sanctions, were the “main shock” that pushed Venezuela into hyperinflation in late 2017.

“That’s when the social, humanitarian crisis went spiraling out of control,” Sachs told the Washington-based Democracy Now in an interview after the report was released. “It’s not an economic standstill. It’s a complete economic collapse, a catastrophe, in Venezuela.”

There was a crisis before Trump came to office, the public policy analyst said, but the Trump administration from the start has wanted to overthrow Maduro. In fact, the US president, Sachs said, was explicit in discussions with Latin American allies about a US military invasion of Venezuela. However, the South American leaders told Washington they did not want to see military action, which forced Trump to consider other options.

“So, the US government has been trying to strangle the Venezuelan economy,” Sachs said.

Then in 2019, he continued, Trump imposed another round of even tighter sanctions which essentially confiscated the earnings and assets of the Venezuelan government.

Sachs said the Trump administration does not even understand the idea of negotiation. Instead, the US government has deliberately created massive suffering to achieve its objectives. However, he said, this “all-or-nothing strategy” has failed to overthrow Maduro.

“It’s not working. And it’s very cruel, because it’s punishing 30 million people,” Sachs said.

Critics cite mismanagement and corruption as among the reasons for Venezuela’s slide. Maduro, members of his administration and allies blame the sanctions. Whoever is ultimately responsible, the fact is that store shelves are empty of bread, sugar, coffee, cooking oil, toilet paper, milk and other basic food items. And even if the items were available, the prices would be unaffordable for most because of hyper-inflation which currently stands at around 1 million percent.

People like Luces-Pineros have watched with dismay as their country’s economy has crumbled under the weight of government mismanagement and crushing sanctions.

Luces-Pineros’ home in Venezuela is in La Pastora, in the heart of Caracas, a marginalized neighborhood she says used to be one of the nicest neighborhoods in the capital city. But things are much different today.

Luces-Pineros said that for months before her departure to Colombia, it was customary for her to eat one arepa a day because of the severe food shortages that plague Venezuela.

Arepas are one of Venezuela’s national foods handed down over generations. It is made of white cornmeal, salt and water, then the dough is shaped into a patty, grilled, baked and stuffed with a variety of tasty ingredients like beef, pork, chicken, olives, raisins, peppers and other vegetables.

That one meal is all Luces-Pineros, a caraquena – a Caracas resident – could afford she said, reflecting the extreme difficulties most Venezuelans are enduring because they are caught in the political crossfire between the government of the bitter conflict sparked by America’s desire to overthrow the socialist government and its 21 year-old Bolivarian Revolution.

“I used to sell coffee, donuts and food to workers from a small mobile food cart but I am barely able to walk much less stand for hours because of the surgery,” she said. “People can’t get around because there’s no gas and there’s no electricity. The lights are only on two hours a day. The metro station has stopped running due to lack of maintenance and power outages.”

Life on the ground grinds people down, she said. The average monthly income for workers is 40,000 bolivares which is about $4.20 USD. Meanwhile, a half a kilo of cheese costs 40,000 bolivares. For six eggs, a customer would pay 20,000 bolivares.

“Undoubtedly, the average Venezuelan can’t even afford to buy cheese,” said Luces-Pineros. “To get half a chicken, which comes from Brazil, by the time it reaches the local market it smells rotten or is spoiled.”

Shortly before her journey to Columbia, Luces-Pineros had surgery to correct an ailment that needed immediate medical attention. The surgery was delayed because of the skyrocketing cost of medicines due to hyper-inflation and the economic freefall.

Johns Hopkins University school of public health researchers in a report released last March found that Venezuelans across the country were facing a situation similar to Luces-Pineros’: patients in hospitals required to bring their own food and medical supplies like surgical thread, scalpels, syringes and the like, including soap and water.

Cases of measles and diphtheria have surged to 9,300 and 2,500 respectively while confirmed cases of malaria increased from 36,000 in 2009 to 414,000 in 2017, according to the report edited and reviewed by Dr. Paul Spiegel.

Spiegel and Human Rights Watch expressed surprise at the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and called for swift international action.

Caritas Venezuela, a Catholic humanitarian organization, found that Venezuela has also recently seen dramatic increases in child malnutrition while other humanitarian groups reported that maternal and infant mortality rates have spiked in the past five years.

Luces-Pineros experienced firsthand the damage inflicted on the quality of healthcare and lack of medical supplies during her recent surgery.

“I had to bring everything with me,” she said. “There was no alcohol, no cotton balls, bandages or pain relievers, no equipment, no sheets, no mask and no gloves. Contaminants were everywhere. The doctors who have just graduated from med school have no skills. You have to rely on nurses who have some skills. It’s completely chaotic.”

Moreover, as she recuperated, Luces-Pineros said she was unable to work.

SANCTIONS AND REGIME CHANGE

US sanctions have demonstrably harmed Venezuelans like Luces-Pineros but have failed to achieve the outcome they were designed for – that being, regime change.

Rights groups and even some former US government officials have expressed concerns about the sanctions targeting the populace along with the strategy to force Maduro out regardless the cost.

Although last year’s US-backed coup against Maduro failed, the saber-rattling continues with Trump administration officials signaling the US willingness to send in the military. Yet, several media accounts note that Trump is trying to avoid stepping into yet another military conflict.

Then there is consideration for the valid concerns of some regional leaders who are against military intervention because that would destabilize the region.

Despite America’s best efforts to smash the socialist state, Maduro is still in office, primarily because he has retained the support of Venezuelans who still support the revolution and who are opposed to any outside threat to the country’s sovereignty.

Not to mention, the Maduro administration has the loyalty of the military, military institutions and control of the primary instruments of government.

Part of the interventionists’ dilemma is Guaido’s lack of legitimacy both at home and abroad. Guaido has the support of only the United States and about 50 of its allies – including EU members and right-wing Latin American countries.

Meanwhile China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey – along with most UN member states – still recognize Maduro.

Fernando Cutz, who was Director for South America at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, told Sputnik that he was disappointed the move to back Guaido did not change much inside Venezuela.

“Yeah, unfortunately, things have been at a standstill. I had a real expectation that that moment would lead to positive change and a return to democracy,” Cutz, who is currently a senior associate with the Cohen Group, said. “No doubt there has been additional pressure but it hasn’t worked. Regime change isn’t an end goal for me. It’s about helping people and restoring democracy.”

Cutz said he believes that Maduro was not fairly elected in the 2018 presidential elections and that Venezuelans should be given the opportunity to participate in a free and fair vote. If under those conditions Venezuelans voted for Maduro, he would have no issues or misgivings.

The Trump administration is pursuing policy objectives it feels will get results which is its right, Cutz said. However, he added, there are ways to punish the Maduro government so that the pain to ordinary Venezuelans is minimized.

“Looking back a year ago, I was very hopeful. There was international recognition of Guaido and we had the support of a strong coalition. We were working with the European Union, the Lima Group, the OAS and the UN. We all were making a great effort. But I am less hopeful in 2020,” he said.

During the Obama administration, Cutz said the sanctions “were responsible and targeted individuals in the regime who were bad actors.”

However, he added, Trump’s former White House National Security Adviser, John Bolton, oversaw a drastic expansion of sanctions which have had an impact on the people of Venezuela.

“There are ways to focus on individuals without harming citizens in such a wholesale manner,” Cutz claimed.

Cutz, who also served as a senior aide to former White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, said in addition to blind sanctions he opposed military action. US officials, he said, should step back from the rhetoric and recalibrate.

“It’s a devastating situation in Venezuela. It’s horrific but some sort of military move would not be good. Using the military should only be a last resort,” Cutz said.

The Trump administration, he added, should also step back from imposing sanctions “for sanctions sake.”

“I hope there are still good people around in the government willing to side with the people but I don’t see a clear path,” the former White House official said. “But you never know what may spark change. The Arab Spring was one guy in Tunisia who set himself on fire. Enough people were fed up and it all started.”

Netfa Freeman, a peace activist who visited the country last year as part of the Embassy Protection Collective, said Venezuela, as a sovereign nation, has the right to determine its own course, free from threats and intimidation from the United States.

Freeman, an organizer in the International Committee for Peace, Justice & Dignity for the People, formerly the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, told Sputnik that Americans must stop “aiding and abetting the imperialist narrative” that Maduro is a dictator and must be removed to protect human rights.

“When you support Saudi Arabia that doesn’t even have elections, and is a monarchy, or you bomb innocent children in Yemen and in Syria and those kind of things, and you prop up dictators and depose democratically-elected people in Honduras and Haiti, that shows that you don’t care about human rights,” said Freeman who is also a radio co-producer/co-host for “Voices With Vision” on WPFW 89.3 FM in Washington.

REVOLUTION UNDER SIEGE

Since the late president Hugo Chavez introduced what he termed the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998, successive US administrations have tried to overturn Venezuela’s socialist government, including Trump’s by backing Guaido and intensifying sanctions.

The current economic crisis has been a setback for the revolution and has both strengthened Venezuelans’ resolve to defend their country and also turned some people nostalgic about the Chavez years, including Luces-Pineros.

Although Chavez certainly benefited from high oil prices, he is remembered for using the funding to improve the lives of many across all classes and races. Building on what he started, for example, the Maduro government has so far built 5 million houses for Venezuelans.

In addition to class, the mainstream American media has largely ignored the role race has played in the problems plaguing Venezuela.

Several analysts point out that racism is one of the main engines and expressions of the counter revolution, best illustrated by the fact that the National Assembly is overwhelmingly white and upper and middle class, while the Constituent Assembly appointed by Maduro much more accurately reflects the multi-ethnic makeup of the country.

Filmmaker and educator Catherine Murphy, who lived in Venezuela from 2006-2010, told Sputnik that Chavez’s programs transformed the lives of the country’s lower classes and Afro-Venezuelans.

“He [Chavez]… started to run PDVSA, and the money went to pay for housing, paving streets, providing clean running water and nation-building. It benefited everyone. He started the Mission Robinson Literacy Program and invited thousands of Cuban doctors who lived in communities practicing medicine for free,” she noted.

In light of the malnourishment, the collapse of Venezuela’s healthcare system, the general economic collapse and the resultant hardship and privation visited on Venezuelans, Luces-Pineros, who still counts herself as a Chavez supporter, said she is no longer sure that what she envisions as success, as it relates to the goals of the socialist revolution, can be attained under the current circumstances.

Although usually not one to cast blame, she feels widespread corruption is at the root of so many of Venezuela’s problems.

“I didn’t want to leave because I felt there was hope with Chavez for a better Venezuela but not today with the Maduro regime,” she said.

However, despite the greed, corruption, a lack of governance and the inestimable damage caused by US sanctions, she still holds out hope.

“I still feel that under a fair socially democratic state there is a future for the Venezuelan people,” Luces-Pineros said.

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