Updated: Jun 11, 2019
Author: Olivia Lloyd
Venezuela’s years-long political and economic disaster has most recently culminated in National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared interim president in place of Nicolás Maduro. Over the past several years, inflation has skyrocketed, leaving Venezuela in a state of economic ruin and sparking a humanitarian crisis.
Maduro became president following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013. He won reelection last year in a process that the international community has denounced as illegitimate.
The Constitution states that the leader of the National Assembly is to assume the presidency in the event of a vacancy. As the National Assembly did not believe there was a legitimate president in office, it enacted the clause for Guaidó to become president temporarily. Dozens of countries have recognized Guaidó as president, including the U.S., as well as many countries in Latin America and the European Union.
Many members of the youngest generation have not known a Venezuela without the influence of leaders like Chavez and Maduro, who wielded absolute power over the government and cemented the ideology of chavismo in Venezuelan culture. This holds true for South Florida teenagers such as Luis Suberviola, who used to live in the capital Caracas. He moved to South Florida in 2016 due to the crisis in Venezuela.
“The image that I think is burned into all Venezuelans’ minds is watching people trying to get food from garbage cans,” Suberviola said. “If that doesn’t tell you what’s going on I don’t know what does. If you want to find something there, it’s impossible. You go to the supermarket and you can’t find the necessary things like milk, water, anything.”
Hyperinflation has wreaked havoc on the country and essentially rendered the bolívar currency worthless. This, in addition to shortages of basic necessities, has left millions of Venezuelans malnourished and in need of medical care.
Suberviola hopes to return to his country and help rebuild it, with Guaidó acting as a stepping stone to such a future. “I think Guaidó has a lot of courage,” Suberviola said. “He’s risking everything, his family, his life, everything, for the sake of his country. We’re full of hope that we’ll be out of this horrible time.”
Maduro has previously banned humanitarian aid from reaching the impoverished country, viewing it as a pretense for foreign intervention. Guaidó announced humanitarians would attempt to provide aid, but the army blocked roads leading from the border city of Cucuta, Colombia to Venezuela. Humanitarian workers have set up systems to distribute supplies at the border.
Maduro derives his power from military officials who support the regime. Guaidó called on military leaders to renounce their support of Maduro and help lift the blockade so supplies can enter the country. Air Force General Francisco Yanez became the highest ranking official to condemn Maduro, though many other high-ranking officials have remained loyal.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called on military officers to defect from Maduro’s ranks and promised amnesty to six high-ranking officers on behalf of the National Assembly and the U.S. Many of them remain loyal because of economic incentives they receive for being close to Maduro.
“The military have little incentive to withdraw their support for Maduro because it means sacrificing the economic and political influence they currently enjoy,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan expert for IHS Markit, in an interview with TIME.
The U.S. sanctioned imports of crude oil from Venezuela’s state-run company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). This move came in what the U.S. said was an attempt to limit Maduro’s corrupt profit from the oil business. Venezuela, with the largest oil reserves in the world, used to be one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. The hyperinflation, refugee crisis and shortage in medicine and food have significantly weakened the country in what many have called an unprecedented decline.
The United Nations estimates that more than three million Venezuelans have fled their country, many of them seeking refuge in nearby Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, with the sheer number of refugees straining those countries’ ability to absorb them.
Arnaldo Ferrebus immigrated to the U.S. in 2011 when he was 10 years old, motivated by fear of the Venezuelan government targeting his family because of his father’s connections. Meanwhile, Ferrebus’s family on his mother’s side moved to Colombia because of the economic strife and scarce employment opportunities.
“My dad was pretty well-known there, and that made us targets for crime,” Ferrebus said. “My grandfather on my father’s side was kidnapped while we lived in our hometown, and that my scared my dad [away] from living there.”
Despite the hardships Venezuela faces, Ferrebus recognizes the country’s unique ability to flourish. “Venezuela has so much potential to be a pretty great country,” Ferrebus said. "It has the [biggest] oil reserves in the world, which means it could definitely be a superpower. It just isn’t because of corruption.”
Ferrebus recalled his childhood in Ciudad Ojeda and how it compared to the reality today. “I remember being able to play soccer with my neighbors and friends. It was safe to go out and be a kid. But now in the Venezuela of the present, it’s impossible to do that without risking being kidnapped,” Ferrebus said. “But if in the future Venezuela progresses and is a better country, and it’s safer there, I would love to move back.”
As tensions continue to escalate in mass protests, U.S. President Donald Trump said military intervention was an “option.” If civil war breaks out between the parties of the two men claiming to be president, the casualties that have already mounted could be even more catastrophic. The international community continues to put pressure on Maduro to resign and for military officials to renounce the regime.
Despite the situation, many Venezuelans remain hopeful their country can eventually lift itself out of the current crisis.
“Although these horrible things are happening, there are still a lot of beautiful things about the country,” Suberviola said. “If you were born there and that’s your home country, even though everything is bad, you’re still going to see the beauty in it.”