The crisis in Venezuela has prompted the largest refugee exodus in the history of the Americas, with more than 500,000 Venezuelans fleeing the country on foot just this year. More than 1.6 million have left the country in just the past three years according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the statistic could be even higher.
Venezuelans are fleeing a collapsing economic system with skyrocketing inflation and rampant unemployment. This month, the government devalued their currency by ninety-six percent, turning one million bolivars into ten at the blink of an eye. The breakdown in government systems has a high human cost—children are dying of malnutrition and hunger, widespread medicine shortages cause death from preventable diseases, and weak rule of law has given Caracas the title of the most violent city in the world.
José Burgos is one of the millions of Venezuelans who has left his country and family, looking for a way to support himself and his people. He left Venezuela in 2016, moving to Honduras, where he works as a teacher. This month, I want to let him tell the story of how the country he loved is falling to pieces, and what we should do if we want to help. With his permission, I have translated and edited an essay he wrote, which is reproduced below:
Venezuela… The word “Venezuela” means “Little Venice” in Italian. They say that when foreigners first arrived at the gulf of Venezuela and saw the small communities of wooden houses along the water’s edge, it made them think of that Italian city. I read that Venice sinks at the rate of one centimeter per year, and though it seems like a small amount, they must work hard to rescue the city. Venezuela is sinking at the rate of one life per minute, and though it seems hard to believe, no one is stepping forward to rescue her.
Years ago, the Berlin wall was set up essentially to prevent oppressed citizens from fleeing the dominant form of government in East Germany. The regime constructed it because political laws are simple—without the oppressed, you cannot maintain a totalitarian regime.
Today, “little Venice” suffers from the construction of a much more heinous wall. Its citizens cannot even think of escaping without being arrested or returned to the greatest misery in Latin America. We cannot see this wall, nor touch it, nor attack it, not even question it—it is a diplomatic wall.
Though many countries and individuals around the world support the people of Venezuela with food, medicine, and prayers, and large organizations and countries “advocate” for the resolution of conflicts and for the better treatment of citizens of this country, the governments of the world, really, seem not to want to lift this wall and offer relief to these poor, desperate souls who are fleeing Venezuela, fearing being killed, seeing their children dying of hunger, or dying themselves.
In this sense, the Venezuelan nationality is a prison, made worse as the government is denying its citizens access to passports, in sharp violation of that central human right: the right to an identity.
For their part, neighboring governments are refusing to accept these hungry, oppressed citizens, just for lacking a simple pamphlet made of dead trees and bureaucracy. This document has become, then, the Berlin Wall of the twenty-first century, being quickly raised along the borders of every country of the world. This wall is denying the neediest human beings in the Americas the ability to receive immediate help. This is allowing them to die of hunger, of preventable illnesses, of the continent’s highest suicide rate. They are dying, it seems, of a lack of collective kindness.
Politicians of the world pontificate that “something must be done” to resolve this ignominious situation that the “poor” Venezuelans face, while at the same time denying them entrance to their territories – this is an act of diabolical cruelty. A tweet in defense of the poor Venezuelans will solve nothing if you continue to close doors in their faces when they arrive to your country with empty hands. Denying entrance to a Venezuelan for the lack of a passport is like denying medicine to the person sprawled in a hospital’s front doors for lack of a social security card.
By the time you finish reading this paragraph, and the next one, another Venezuelan could already have died, of hunger, of malnutrition, or of a lack of acetaminophen, insulin, murdered for political reasons—choose whichever you like. These are not lives lost in a foreign and unknown land: the Middle East, for example, where the sound of bombs or the dry crack of bullets piercing the citizens’ skulls do not reach this continent’s ears. This is one of the principle countries of South America, home of the largest oil reserves in the world, birthplace of Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator,” that country which has influenced in politics, inspired revolutions, and has reached out a welcoming hand to immigrants from Europe and all of Latin America.
If we close our mouths against these happenings, we are accomplices. If we ignore this we are complicit. Yet, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To not intervene in this indescribable injustice that has governed “little Venice” for more than twenty years is not only to be complicit, it is risking becoming another one of its victims.
How can we move forward? Historically, we have seen that tyrannies and totalitarian regimes do not end in a peaceful or democratic way, just as serious illnesses are not healed with kind words and a cool handkerchief on the forehead. Venezuela needs, unquestionably and urgently, a humanitarian intervention, as a doctor might remove a tumor from an agonized body. Venezuela needs external help. It needs the help of every country before this sickness puts an end to the life of every citizen of Venezuela and spreads through the rest of the continent. We need you all.
Sending money or aid is difficult because the government is denying that the crisis is occurring and limits the donations that are allowed to come into the country. The government will never accept the humanitarian crisis, as it will never speak of its own weakness. What people around the world can do is to demand a humanitarian intervention of Venezuela before the governments of the world. They can call out internationally the crimes against humanity committed by Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship and denounce electoral fraud and the creation of a false National Constituent Assembly, demanding that those responsiblebe called before international justice. People need to see that Maduro’s dictatorship is a threat for peace and democracy in the entire hemisphere. In the meantime, governments around the world should recognize Venezuelans as international refugees and offer them asylum and quick work permits.
There is still hope that Venezuela can be again what it once was—a leading voice in South America for liberation, justice, and progress. But the countries of the Americas must help, the politicians who have caused so much suffering and pain for their people must face international justice, and the bureaucratic wall currently trapping Venezuelans must be torn down so that this kind nation can be resurrected, dug up from out of the pit where it has been left by the world to sink deeper and deeper into dictatorship.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).