A country goes from riches to rags
The catastrophic fall of Venezuela’s economy has inflicted great pain on its residents. Throughout the country, even those who can afford the high cost of food can find only limited quantities in stores. This photo of empty store shelves was taken in 2013.

A country goes from riches to rags

‘I was very lucky to have lived, studied, and worked in Venezuela during a time when it was a prosperous, democratic, and beautiful country. I don’t think I will see that again soon — certainly not in the near future, and probably not in my lifetime.’

DUMMERSTON — It was once the most affluent country in Latin America. The average person owned a car, and even those living in the poor outskirts of its major cities had a refrigerator, a gas stove, and a television set - things then considered luxuries - even when they did not always have access to running water.

I lived in Venezuela with my parents and sisters from 1954 to 1964. Exiled from my native Bolivia after a revolution, arriving in the capital city of Caracas seemed like arriving in cosmopolitan New York.

Everything was in abundance. Most people bought a new automobile every year. Only donkeys and foreigners walked; everyone else rode around in a car. When shopping for clothing or food, one could find all types of imported products. At the supermarket, vegetables and fruit were imported from the United States; meat, from Argentina.

Although Venezuela could have produced its own vegetables, meat, and other products, why bother? The country had so much money - owing to the oil boom - that importing American, Argentinian, and European products was cheaper (and more convenient) than producing them locally. Certainly working for the oil companies was preferable to the hard labor required in agriculture.

During this period, the local currency - the bolívar - was a strong one, with 3 bolívares equal to 1 U.S. dollar.

Dollars were, in fact, easy to obtain and people could afford to travel. Many even sent their children abroad to study.

These were halcyon years, even under the dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez from 1952 to 1958. During those years, thefts were uncommon and crime in general was very low. People felt safe and secure.

Indeed, the Seguridad Nacional (the national police force) was so terrifying that no one dared to break the law. Although there was poverty, numerous government programs existed to provide aid to those in need. It was uncommon to hear of people dying of hunger in those days.

* * *

During the nearly-11-year period during which I lived in Venezuela, I resided first in Caracas, the capital, and then in Maracaibo, the largest city in the oil-producing region to the West. I attended both secondary school and university there.

I became quite familiar with the people and culture of Venezuela. I was impressed to find that Venezuelans were quite proud of their multicultural identities. They are a populace primarily comprised of three ethnic groups, though most Venezuelans would not normally think of themselves in terms of ethnicity or even race.

That is why, when moving to the U.S., Venezuelans often hesitated when asked to fill out forms that ask to indicate race. Confounded by such a question, they would normally just write “Venezuelan,” to the consternation of officials.

During the years of the oil boom, many immigrants were attracted to the country, adding to its rich ethnic diversity. This is reflected in the varied last names one still encounters there: they can be Czech, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, or Spanish in origin.

Yet, if one was to ask a Venezuelan with a foreign last name about their ethnic origins, they would likely not acknowledge one. To their way of thinking, despite what ancestry they might have had, they were all simply just Venezuelans.

Perhaps this mixture of ethnicities and races fed into a common identity and contributed to their sense of national identity, to their camaraderie, and to what I always considered a rather pleasant disposition. In my experience, Venezuelans generally tend to be quite relaxed, happy people who love to sing and dance, who are very friendly and warm, and who have a remarkable sense of humor.

* * *

The drilling of the first oil well on the shores of Lake Maracaibo in 1914 brought great prosperity to the country in a very rapid manner. It was like suddenly winning the lottery and not knowing what to do with the money. A saying one often heard was that “Venezuelans went from the tree to the Cadillac.”

With the growth of its national oil industry, Venezuela became a place where people got very rich. Lake Maracaibo soon became full of oil wells and dragas (pumps) that were designed to extract oil from the bottom of the lake. From the shore, one could see a multitude of towers with torches burning off the gas, giving the lake the appearance of a giant birthday cake.

Unfortunately, visits to the beaches surrounding the lake also meant that you would inevitably return with the bottom of your feet covered in oil. It was very clear to us back then, even before the rise of the modern environmental movement, that oil was having a devastating effect upon the environment, upon the lake, and upon the local beaches.

Moreover, so much wealth from oil exports also brought considerable corruption. At one point, one prominent Venezuelan politician, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo - one of the architects of what would become OPEC - made the comment that “oil was the Devil's excrement - and they were drowning in it.”

* * *

But that was then. Decades later, in the late 1990s, the situation in the country had begun to change drastically.

In 1999, Hugo Chávez was elected president of the country and began to follow the model of Cuba's Castro. Chávez changed the direction of the country's politics and economy, coupled with a promise of a better life for all. He began by expropriating foreign oil companies and nationalizing the oil industry. Unfortunately, with the departure of the expert foreign engineers who had been working in the oil fields, their expertise was not replaced by locals.

Chávez then disallowed elections and changed the national constitution, becoming president for life. Prior to his death in 2013, Chávez ensured that his successor would be Nicolás Maduro to continue his legacy and policies. Maduro remains in power despite domestic and international efforts to oust him.

In 2014, the country's economic collapse intensified. Then, due to the collapse of global oil prices, the economic crisis severely impacted Venezuela. To cover its expenses, the country began to print money, which of course led to hyperinflation.

In 2018, Maduro won what by most accounts was a fraudulent election. During this period, life in Venezuela changed even more. Thousands of Venezuelans - including nephews, nieces, and cousins of mine - began leaving the country and seeking asylum, and the political and economic systems collapsed, turning Venezuela into one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Today, people living in the capital city of Caracas face extremely difficult circumstances. My older sister and her son are among them. Water is tightly regulated: people are permitted to have access to running water only 10 minutes each evening.

In Maracaibo, the once-wealthy city to the west, people go without electricity from four to six days at a time. Throughout the country, even those who can afford the high cost of food can find only limited quantities in stores. The situation is far worse for those living in the small “shantytowns,” where people are literally starving, where children die of malnutrition, and where sanitary conditions are at their worst.

* * *

It is difficult to predict what lies ahead for the people of Venezuela. The country has hit rock bottom, and it may take years for the economy to recover. Health and social services are failing or are practically nonexistent.

The pandemic, of course, has made things even worse. Most stores are closed, or they are open for only a few hours at a time. Certain sections of Caracas are totally shut down to prevent the virus from spreading.

It's incredible to think that the same country that once had more oil than they could use and was a major exporter now has a shortage of gasoline within the country - even for domestic consumers. Naturally, this situation hampers transportation - and, as a result, even the few products available cannot be transported to rural areas.

As of today, the exchange rate stands at 450,000 bolivares fuertes (the name of its currency today) to 1 U.S. dollar. The minimum wage is only 400,000 per hour (less than 1 U.S. dollar). Given a shortage of supplies, the Venezuelan government is not able to print money now - so the currency that most people use, unofficially, is the U.S. dollar.

Over the past decade, in a continuing exodus, nearly 5 million Venezuelans who can afford it have fled to Australia, Spain, Mexico, the U.S., or other Latin American countries. Starting with neighboring Colombia - which has received more than 1.5 million Venezuelans - countries like Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina have all received thousands more.

The exodus reminds one of what happened among Cubans under Castro. Those leaving were willing to do any type of work in order to remain abroad and not return to their own country.

Here in the U.S., due to the arrival of so many creative, entrepreneurial exiles, Venezuelan food is suddenly becoming known to Americans everywhere. Venezuelan restaurants are appearing in Boston, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. An entire generation of Venezuelans is now growing up outside their own country, and most have no hope or possibility of returning home in the near future.

The title - and also the first line - of Venezuela's National Anthem is “Glory to the brave people.” Indeed, although Venezuelans are suffering from something they could never have imagined, they are brave and are taking it with a lot of patience - and maintaining great hope for the future.

As I view events from afar now, I recognize that I was very lucky to have lived, studied, and worked in Venezuela during a time when it was a prosperous, democratic, and beautiful country. I don't think I will see that again soon - certainly not in the near future, and probably not in my lifetime.

In the meantime, I pray for my friends and family - “the brave people” - who still live there and for whom every day is a struggle.

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