Late one night last May, on the eve of Venezuela’s Presidential election, Gabriela Vegas heard a commotion outside her home, in the Caracas slum of La Vega. When her husband left the bedroom to investigate, he found a medium-sized package sitting on their doorstep. It was a ration box, inscribed with the silhouettes of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Vegas and her family receive a delivery of food and other supplies from the government nearly every month, but they had already received their May allotment, and this second, unexpected package was cause for rejoicing. It contained twice as much food as a regular box and several products, including canned tuna and sugar, which working-class families in Venezuela now consider luxuries. Speaking to me by phone, Vegas referred to the delivery as the “exquisite box.” Of Maduro, who was up for reëlection at the time of our first call, she said, in jest, “I wish he were on the campaign trail every day.”
La Vega, one of the capital’s oldest hillside slums, was for years a Chavista stronghold. Its residents remember Chávez, who died, of cancer, in 2013, as the father of the “missions to save the people,” a series of social programs established during Venezuela’s oil bonanza from 2003 to 2012. These initiatives benefitted millions of people born into poverty and, in turn, grew the President’s constituency. Vegas, who is thirty-six, belongs to the generation of Venezuelans that came of age during Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. Out of need, she signed up for a paid youth training program that Chávez had launched and joined the Socialist Party, in 2004. From then on, she unconditionally voted for the Comandante. “Every election, Chavistas would drive around the neighborhood at dawn and wake everyone to the sound of a trumpet,” Vegas recalled. “We’d all jump out of bed excited to go out and vote—it felt like New Year’s Eve.”
For years, Chávez relied on oil revenues to import food and sell it, along with other goods, at subsidized prices. While in power, he spent without restraint, managed to quadruple Venezuela’s foreign debt, and expropriated or nationalized hundreds of firms, factories, and farms. By the time Maduro took over, after Chávez’s death, Venezuela was on the verge of a crippling economic crisis. A plunge in oil prices precipitated the downfall and undercut Maduro’s capacity to fund long-standing assistance programs, such as food subsidies. To avoid cutting spending, Maduro began printing more and more money, sparking hyperinflation. By curbing imports, he further strangled domestic industries, and the damage to production only worsened when he decided to tighten currency and price controls. Before long, corruption, poverty, and hunger became widespread.
In the years since the crisis began, more than three million Venezuelans have fled to other countries, and those who can’t afford to leave have seen their quality of life deteriorate to previously unthinkable levels—almost ninety per cent of the country now lives below the poverty line. Workers making minimum wage can afford just a couple dozen eggs, or twenty per cent as much food as they could in 2012. Deaths from malnutrition are on the rise, and buying staples such as flour, milk, or rice has become a choice between waiting in supermarket lines that can stretch for whole city blocks or paying exorbitant prices. “Together with a group of fifteen women, we would take some cardboard boxes with us and sleep in front of the supermarket,” Vegas told me, of her efforts to secure her family’s next meal. “More than once, we just wasted our time because there was no food, and I had to come back home, empty-handed. Do you know how that feels?”
What makes Venezuela’s food crisis all the more grim is that experts agree it is a result of human decision-making. “It’s not due to droughts, or floods,” Deborah Hines, the World Food Program Representative in Colombia, told me. “The situation is purely political.” Far from alleviating the crisis, Maduro has made basic necessities contingent on political loyalty. In 2016, to preserve his support, he launched a government-subsidized food program, known as the Local Food Production and Provision Committees (CLAPs). Venezuelans are eligible to receive a monthly food handout, and other benefits, as long as they register for the Fatherland Card, which officials use to track voting participation. CLAP boxes usually arrive late and half-empty, but, during election seasons, they are stuffed, and recipients like Vegas get text messages from local representatives such as “Love is repaid with love.”
For a while, the handouts seemed to be working as intended, but record-high abstention rates in last May’s Presidential contest suggested otherwise. Probably because Maduro knew he could not fully rely on the popular vote, he rigged the judicial branch and the electoral system in his favor, ultimately claiming to have won the election by almost seventy per cent of the vote. Vegas was among the millions of Venezuelans who stayed home and refused to cast their ballots. Over time, her loyalty to Chávez had waned, and she had grown disenchanted with the legacy of his revolution—a project that, in her view, has benefitted only a privileged élite. “This is a completely bankrupt country,” Vegas observed. “They want to talk about socialism, while we’re starving and they’re living a marvellous life. How could I support those people?”
Since 2016, Vegas has volunteered with Alimenta la Solidaridad, an organization led by opposition politicians that sponsors soup kitchens across the country. Every day, her home is crowded with almost a hundred children whom she feeds, along with her own, using donations from the organization. Its founder, Roberto Patiño, worked for Henrique Capriles, the former governor of the state of Miranda, who ran as the opposition candidate in the 2012 Presidential campaign. When, earlier this year, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim President, he pledged to alleviate his country’s humanitarian crisis and asked Patiño to participate in his relief efforts. To those who suggest that his work is inherently political, Patiño responds that his organization supports everyone, irrespective of ideology, and that it asks for nothing in return. “A majority of the people we work with are women, and their most important concern is their children’s nutrition,” Patiño said. “To them, we are an ally, a very important and consistent ally.”
Guaidó has so far focussed on raising awareness about his country’s dire need for food and medicine. Upon his request, the Trump Administration, which recognized Guaidó’s government, on January 23rd, sent millions of dollars’ worth of donations to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. Other countries, including Canada and Brazil, have offered their own supplies and joined a humanitarian effort of an epic scale. In response, Maduro, who blames Venezuela’s ills on an ever-growing list of enemies, argues that humanitarian aid is merely a pretext for regime change and seems determined to block all supplies requested by Guaidó from entering the country. After President Trump reprimanded the Maduro regime for leaving aid supplies stranded at the border, the United Nations urged the actors involved to insure humanitarian action remained independent of political objectives, a concern that other experts in the field have echoed.
Susana Raffalli, a Venezuelan specialist in food emergencies, fears that a humanitarian showdown involving the opposition, the international community, and the Maduro regime will ultimately jeopardize ongoing aid efforts. “We all know that the United States is not a neutral player in this conflict; they have consistently exerted political pressure and, in so doing, have acted against a basic principle of humanitarian aid, which is neutrality,” she told me. “Humanitarian action is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.” Over the years, Raffalli has served in many countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Myanmar, and has been working in Venezuela since the crisis began, three years ago. “Politics is the art of the possible, and humanitarian aid has traditionally been negotiated within the framework of a process that, in essence, is political but does not obey any political agendas,” she observed.
Within days of recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s President, the U.S. escalated pressure on Maduro by imposing sanctions on the state-owned oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela. Fernando Cutz, a former senior White House official, said that the Trump Administration had tread carefully with its use of sanctions and debated for two years whether to impose an oil-sanctions package. “The calculus changed,” Cutz told me, because “there is a realization that this is a do-or-die moment in the country, so holding any fire back at this point would be a shame.” Although it remains to be seen whether these sanctions will have their desired effect or inadvertently hurt those most in need, the Trump Administration has hardly backtracked on its warnings to Maduro. Earlier this month, Guaidó set this Saturday, February 23rd, as the deadline for Maduro to let aid in. Ahead of the deadline, Trump urged military leaders to withdraw their support for the regime, or else they will “find no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out.”
With help from the military, which has a monopoly on food distribution, Maduro has secured the aid blockade and appears determined to stand in the way of Guaidó’s ambitions. “Venezuela’s tight system of controls has allowed Maduro to distribute rents across the civic-military élite that keeps him in power,” Miguel Ángel Santos, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told me. For now, this arrangement has bought Maduro time, but it’s unclear whether it will last long; signs of attrition are on the rise, and top military officials have been arrested for desertion and rebellion. Just Thursday, the former chief of Venezuela’s military intelligence pledged his support for Guaidó and asked military officials to disobey Maduro’s orders. “A lot of low-ranking officers are suffering as a result of the crisis,” Patiño told me. “Through humanitarian aid, we are basically putting a dilemma in front of the military; it is up to them to decide whether supplies will come into the country or not.”
In spite of the government’s determination to block foreign aid, several organizations have led modest but effective relief efforts for years. Although they lack the resources and institutional support necessary to fully alleviate Venezuela’s crisis, they provide a reprieve from scarcity to thousands of families. “Ours is a slow-onset emergency, which started three years ago,” Raffalli told me. “As such, we must beware of dropping an overwhelming amount of aid on worn-down structures, as if the crisis had just emerged.” Other humanitarian actors, including the International Red Cross and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, have also called for the proper management of relief efforts in Venezuela, but Raffalli voiced an additional concern, associated with setting realistic expectations. “The sense of optimism is extraordinary, but it pains me to think about the masses of people who are flooding Cúcuta, searching for things that are not in those boxes, nor will they be,” she said.
Guaidó is currently heading to the border with a group of National Assembly members. They are travelling by road, and several of their vehicles have been stopped by security forces. Shortly after the caravan’s departure, Maduro announced that the Venezuelan border with Brazil would be closed “completely and absolutely,” and warned that he was contemplating a “total closure of the Colombian border.” None of these warnings seemed to stifle Guaidó, who has called on all Venezuelans to join a volunteer effort led by Patiño and assist in the handling and monitoring of aid supplies. Vegas recently signed up as a volunteer, and, like more than half a million Venezuelans, she has heeded Guaidó’s call and stands ready to follow instructions depending on how events unfold on Saturday.
When I last spoke to Vegas on Thursday, she assured me, with a guardedly optimistic tone, “Vamos bien.” She had heard that an increasing number of government detractors were being silenced or intimidated by security forces, but she nonetheless seemed hopeful about the prospects for change and somewhat amused by the way in which the Maduro government is scrambling to make amends. “We’re getting CLAP boxes every fifteen days—go figure! They’re also promising all neighbors that they’ll fix the front of our homes, paint them, and give out jobs; they’re offering all sorts of things,” she told me. “After twenty years, they finally want to deliver, and they want to do it all in one day.”
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