By Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

“Wow! You look amazing! You’ve lost so much weight,” I said while greeting my best friend’s mom. As those words rolled off my tongue, I realized I made an embarrassing mistake.

She responded with a smile: “You know… diet and stuff.”

But I quickly realized that was far from the truth. She wasn’t following any dietary regime to shed some pounds. Like many low-income Venezuelans, she simply wasn’t getting enough to eat.

When I travelled to Caracas and Puerto Ordaz to visit home in 2016, I saw that Venezuelans were regularly skipping meals or eating less because they couldn’t afford food. And even when they could afford staples like rice or corn flour, the shelves at grocery stores were often empty.

According to a 2017 study, Venezuelans have lost 25 pounds on average. This is a crisis I can see every day when my friends and relatives share photos on social media or visit me in Canada.

This crisis is often referred to as the “Maduro Diet” — a joke that highlights the consequences of President Nicolas Maduro’s mismanaged “Socialism of the 21st century” policies he inherited from his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

The scheme involved heavy state intrusion in rigging the currency exchange rates. Farmland confiscated by the government remained abandoned, and the number of private enterprises dwindled. The economy was propped up largely by soaring oil prices, but that landscape unravelled when global oil prices collapsed in 2008 and 2014. Even the state-run health infrastructure suffered under hyperinflation and shortage of resources. This, coupled with corruption, propped up a model of socialism that didn’t work for Venezuelans.

Sweet treat, bitter truth

The classic Savoy chocolate bar is a prime example of Venezuela’s stark reality.

Savoy was a symbol of Venezuela’s prosperity in the 1970s. Travelling Venezuelans would carry the candy as a prized possession and share it with others.

This 130-gram bar now costs almost 12,000 bolívars, which is about $3.60 USD, while minimum wage in Venezuela is 18,000 bolivars, or $5.40 USD, per month. In other words, everyone’s favourite chocolate bar costs almost three-quarters of their monthly income — a bitter reminder of Venezuela’s astronomical hyperinflation, which reached an all-time high of more than 2.6-million per cent in January.

Even six minimum wage hikes since 2018 have been unable to help Venezuelans catch up with soaring inflation. According to the Parliament’s Financial Commission, prices are continuing to increase by 3.5 per cent every day.

This dire economic situation has cascading effects. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, 80 per cent of Venezuelan households don’t have enough food to meet their daily nutritional needs. This has resulted in a population that is struggling to fight off common diseases.

For example, in the eastern Anzoátegui state where I was born, 12 children have died of dehydration and diarrhea this year.

Eighty per cent of medicines that should be sold in pharmacies are not available. And hospitals only have 20 per cent of the medical resources they need to treat current patients.

This lack of resources is now a reality for many families, including mine. While the world was ringing in 2019, I received news that one of my cousins in Venezuela died of liver cancer, because the medicine she needed wasn’t available.

In these dire circumstances, accepting humanitarian aid should be an easy choice. But that’s not the case for a President looking to flex his political muscle.

Food, not ideological fodder

In February, the world offered a lifeline to Venezuela. Countries like the U.S., Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and Brazil attempted to transport humanitarian goods into the country. But President Maduro denied entry to the shipments — an arrogant decision that has fatal consequences for people who are reeling from chronic hunger and healthcare shortages.

The first batch of U.S. aid supplies arrived at the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The kit included food items and hygiene products that could feed a family of five for up to 10 days. It also included supplementary food and replacement biscuits for malnourished children.

But according to Maduro, the relief efforts carried out by the U.S., Puerto Rico, Colombia, Canada, and some European countries were part of a plan to undermine his government. Maduro saw the aid as a Trojan horse, concealing American infiltrators and political meddlers who want to take over Venezuela’s oil-and mineral-rich reserves.

He blocked the entry of the humanitarian aid with barricades, and the armed forces that he sent to the border burned down two trucks carrying supplies. Whatever wasn’t destroyed is now piled up in warehouses in towns bordering Colombia.

People in the country need food and medical supplies, not ideological fodder from a politician whose decisions are serving his illegitimate grip on power at the expense of human lives.

Venezuela also needs new political leadership to move past the current crisis.

Some 40 countries now, including those that didn’t recognize the 2018 elections that brought Maduro to power again, have backed Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Guaidó has recognized the dire needs of Venezuelans, urged humanitarian assistance and promised to protect the country’s assets.

From the sidelines

For those inside and outside the country, the biggest fear is that all this noise will fail to produce any change.

Looking at these events from the sidelines, I fear the continued sickness and death of people due to malnutrition and lack of proper medical care. I also fear for Venezuelans who show discontent through protests and have to meet the brute force of the regime. This year already, two died and 300 were injured as a result of the clashes that erupted over humanitarian aid. Saying “no se aguanta más” — “we can’t resist any longer” — comes at a price.

The possibility of a military intervention by another country is also chilling, as ‘civilian casualties’ are all too common in such scenarios.

What’s happening in Venezuela is not just a story of politics – it’s an abuse of the rights of Venezuelans. Soaring inflation, inadequate social services, impaired communications systems, and lack of food supplies and medication have crippled the society.

Can you imagine what it is like to know that all of this is happening in a country where your family lives? For me, it’s my mom and grandma. For others – some three million Venezuelans who have fled the country in the wake of this crisis – it is their children, their spouses, their relatives.

Recently my grandma had two medical emergencies related to high blood pressure and she was rushed to the hospital. I barely knew the details because internet services are unreliable and international calls rarely go through.

The doctors would not treat my grandma until my mom could prove that she could afford what little medicines were still left in the ER. Thankfully, we had the money to get my grandma the treatment she needed.

Humanitarian aid can alleviate some of the pressures on the healthcare system. And there does seems to be some progress.

The Red Cross increased its budget to deliver kits with food and supplies into Venezuela, after the organization previously committed to help 650,000 people.

Venezuelan MPs are also working along the Venezuelan-Colombian border to consolidate essentials donated by Canada, the European Union, and the U.S.

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, said that the country is focusing its aid on both the western and southern borders flooded by refugees, while the House of Representatives of the U.S. passed three bills to expand the reach of humanitarian assistance in Venezuela.

While this progress is encouraging, the real test of these efforts will be in ensuring that humanitarian aid can actually pass through the border and reach Venezuelans.

Valentina Ruiz Leotaud is a Venezuela-born multimedia journalist. She has covered local and international news, as well as arts and culture information for several media platforms for over 10 years. She holds a Masters in Journalism degree from the University of British Columbia and was a fellow at Global Reporting Centre’s International Reporting Program.