Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela: The challenge of understanding a complex scenario

Between foreign currency fever and political strife stands the human suffering of the Venezuelan people.


After some discussions and reflections with my colleague, the Brazilian professor and journalist Cilene Victor, I accepted the challenge to write this article, aware of how much we have to stray from the simplistic view about the actual reality in Venezuela, the country where I was born and lived until 2017.

From an external perspective but with the experience of having lived in Venezuela as a person, journalist and militant, the main idea of this text is to reflect about the humanitarian crisis triggered by the unprecedented economic and political crisis, which has made me an asylum seeker in Brazil.

It is imperative to highlight the astonishing resistance of worldwide public opinion to understanding the economic and political instability as one of the root causes of the humanitarian crisis. This resistance may be associated with the media coverage that overly reports crises caused by civil wars, armed conflicts and disasters. As a result, the question is often asked in part of the traditional and social media: is there a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela?

As I see things, the causes of the humanitarian crisis that does exist in Venezuela can be explained by focusing on the economic, political and social dimensions.

It is imperative to highlight the astonishing resistance of worldwide public opinion to understanding the economic and political instability as one of the root causes of the humanitarian crisis.

Economic dimension

The establishment of a Forex market (foreign exchange parallel market), sustained by more than 10 years of national currency loss of value, was induced by sectors of the business class and the traditional oligarchy in agreement with the military high command, responsible for the National Commission for Administration of Foreign Currency.

This resulted in the abandonment of other productive activities, being much more attractive to the national financial operators to buy foreign currency at a preferential price and sell it in a speculative market increasingly rising, led by the website Dollar Today Venezuela. As a consequence, poverty in 2017 reached 87% of the population, placing 61.2% in extreme vulnerability.

Political dimension

The Venezuelan Opposition has sold Maduro to the international media as the only “guilty one” of the political crisis. In reality, however, it is a question of shared responsibilities, since the main leaders of the Right and the Left are great financial operators and partners of the military high command in charge of the National Commission for Administration of Foreign Currency.

On the other hand, we have seen a government that constantly blames the opposition and the interests of the “American Empire”, without assuming responsibility for the corruption that is born in the bosom of its leaders. As a result, the polarization built by these two camps, government and opposition forces, has led the population, the international media and global public opinion to a partial vision of chaos.

To understand the Venezuelan political scenario, let’s review the latest electoral results and their high level of abstention. The country has a population of 32 million people, a total of 20 million of registered voters, of which only about 9 million exercised their right in the presidential election of 20 May 2018. From those who abstained, 3.4 million are immigrants and refugees around the world and 7 million did not vote while inside the country, as the Venezuelan opposition, in the absence of an agreement to propose a candidate, called for non-participation in the elections. This resulted in the highest rate of abstention in Venezuelan history (almost 55%). At the end of the polls Nicolás Maduro won with some 6,3 million votes (approx. 68%), the former leader of the same party, Henri Falcón, got almost 2 million (21%) and the evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci about 1 million votes (11%).

Today, the global media refers to Juan Guaidó as a great leader, which evidences the coordinated manoeuver Guaidó-Trump. When applying critical analysis on the self-appointed president’s speech, it is possible to see a veiled interest in maintaining the humanitarian crisis for an indeterminate period of time. It explains why the banner of the discourse is the “transition”, which would allow Guaidó a hypothetical Transitional Government, making the “restoration of democratic process” conditional on humanitarian aid. This perception was reaffirmed by US special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams in recent interviews to Venezuelan journalists exiled in Miami.

The speculation, the economic polarization and political crisis scenario that is unfolding has triggered a deep social decomposition in Venezuela

The main consequence of the polarization in Venezuela is a new era expressed in the dispute between two political parties, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), chaired by Maduro, and the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) represented by Guaidó. In fact, it is an attempt to maintain the crisis, which guarantees both sides to grow their private finances. It is also important to note that in Venezuela, as a result of this crisis, there is 5% of the population that has increased its wealth by more than 1,000,000% in 10 years.

Social dimension

The speculation, the economic polarization and political crisis scenario that is unfolding has triggered a deep social decomposition in Venezuela, where the opposite values ​​mentioned previously began to be part of the Venezuelan culture. A sharp example is the phenomenon “Bachaqueo” (speculative business), which means buying a product subsidized by the government at a lower price and then selling it 20 times more expensive in the informal market. The Venezuelan society has been losing solidarity as an essential value for survival, which has converted the country into what sociologists call a “complicit society”. The polarization has resulted in intolerance that has increased the incidence of violence not only regarding common crimes but also political causes.

Part II*

A third way of understanding the complexity of the crisis

All the elements described previously suggest how extremely necessary and imperative it is to find a third way to understand and remedy this complex reality. Such a third way is essential to confront the main impacts of the unfolding political and economic crisis and the highly polarized discourse between left and right.

A part of the Latin American left-wing associates the Venezuelan crisis with the United States’ international politics, while a part of the right attributes the problem to the legacies of Chavismo. The error both sides make is that they underestimate the suffering of millions of Venezuelans that find themselves in a situation of forced migration. They ignore the size of the workforce that had to flee the country, living today under conditions of extreme vulnerability and depending on the humanitarian policies of host countries.

The left versus right discourse has been echoed in social media, which, in turn, contribute to amplifying the political-ideological divide and extend the human suffering. It is a prominent example of the use of social media as the thermometer of a new and controversial political governance style, inaugurated and developed with mastery by Trump and copied by the new Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. The humanitarian crisis’ scenario in Venezuela, therefore, coincides with a social management policy, whose effectiveness is as fleeting as the life cycle of a tweet or posting on Facebook. The left-right polarization not only harms and contaminates the understanding of the causes of Venezuelan economic and political instability, but also delays the acceptance of the existence of a humanitarian crisis in the country. Throughout recent history, other humanitarian crises, initially denied by the main social actors, eventually became even more challenging.

The humanitarian crisis’ scenario in Venezuela coincides with a social management policy, whose effectiveness is as fleeting as the life cycle of a tweet or posting on Facebook

In social media, a question has been common: “Is there a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela?” If we consider the definition of a humanitarian crisis adopted by the UN in the final research-based report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on “best practices and main challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights in post-disaster and post-conflict situations”, the answer is yes. As this definition goes: “[humanitarian crisis is] an event or a series of events representing a critical threat to the health, safety, security and/or well-being of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. Armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies may all involve or lead to a humanitarian crisis that extends beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency. An emergency is a large-scale crisis that destroys the lives of individuals, wrecks communities and overwhelms their ability to cope”.

For the Red Cross, a complex emergency is “a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UN country program (IASC)”. And to complete that: ‘complex emergencies are typically characterized by: 1. extensive violence and loss of life; 2. displacement of populations; 3. widespread damage to societies and economies; 4. the need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance; 5. the hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints; 6. significant security risks for humanitarian relief workers in some areas”.

Even though there is a controversy about the factors that triggered the political and economic crisis, this explanation doesn’t leave a margin to the international and local political leaders, the worldwide media and public opinion to question the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

The crisis being indisputable, we cannot but leave aside the simplistic interpretation, which is insufficient for promoting a humanitarian process at a global and regional scale. Instead, we have to turn to humanitarianism and the solidarity of people to overcome the political and economic interests of nations over human suffering.

We have to think about the emergence of a third way of analysing, moving away from the polarization that has muted the Venezuelans’ human suffering. Humanitarian Journalism is part of this third way, which we will discuss further on.

To be continued

*These are the first two parts of an article in three parts by the authors on the situation in Venezuela.

César Barrios

César Barrios is a Venezuelan-Nicaraguan journalist, asylum seeker in Brazil since 2017. He is the coordinator of ANIV Brasil (National Association of Venezuelan Immigrants in Brazil), through which he has been developing actions and projects focusing on economic, political, professional, cultural and social support for Venezuelan asylum seekers in São Paulo.

Cilene Victor is a Professor in the Social Communication Program at the Universidade Metodista (UMESP), São Paulo, Brazil, where she is one of the leaders of the research workgroup Humanitarian Journalism and Media Interventions, and Professor at Paulus Communication and Technology College – FAPCOM. She has been doing research and has developed projects focused on the role of communication in the context of climate change, sustainable development and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

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