Over the past year, widespread starvation, escalating violent crime and a health care system in shambles have devastated Venezuela. These conditions are linked to a complex political drama, which has played out over the past two decades in the South American nation.
“The socialists came into power 20 years ago,” said Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Yet the situation has worsened over the last five years, since Maduro took control of the corrupt, inefficient government.” The crisis now threatens peace and stability across the region. On Tuesday, the State Department ordered all non-emergency U.S. citizens to depart Venezuela due to security concerns.
“Today, there is no greater humanitarian crisis in the world than what’s going on in Venezuela,” said Vernon Brewer of World Help in a phone interview. The nonprofit group he founded in 1991 provides aid in more than 70 nations worldwide.
“People are digging through trash cans and dumpsters for food. One of our partners on the ground told me he hadn’t eaten in three days.”
Corrupt Dictator Faces Uprising of the People
Millions of Venezuelans have taken to the streets in recent weeks. Most support their nation’s democratically elected National Assembly in its efforts to depose socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro.
“Maduro is running out of finances, running out of time and running out of loyalists,” said Heritage analyst Quintana. For over a decade, she has worked on rule of law issues in Latin American nations.
“His regime in Venezuela has produced the largest refugee crisis in Latin America’s history,” she added. “If it is not stopped, this is going to destabilize the entire hemisphere.”
Early this year, Maduro attempted to solidify his power after last summer’s fraudulent elections. The National Assembly looked to their Constitution for how to respond. On January 23, their leader Juan Guaidó took a public oath to serve as interim president. Most Latin American nations, the U.S. and the E.U. now recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s lawful leader.
This week, the Trump administration issued an ultimatum to former president Maduro and his military allies. They must leave the nation or face consequences, according to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. The offer has been echoed by interim president Guaidó.
“These past days have been very tough,” stated Miguel Romero, a Venezuelan priest reached via e-mail. “Many innocents have been killed that are not covered by the media. We have even seen violent actions against our churches.
“The repression from the government has escalated.”
On the Front Lines of Humanitarian Crisis
“Nonprofit and religious groups are the first line of defense right now,” said Quintana. “The Maduro regime has destroyed civil society. These aid groups on the ground are helping to mitigate the damage and alleviate all that is being done internally.”
In 2010, Catholic priest Miguel Romero started a nonprofit group called FUNDASE to serve needy children and the homeless. It is based in Valencia, the nation’s third largest city. This past December, FUNDASE provided food, clothes and a limited number of toys to over 500 local children.
“On Christmas Day, I met a father raising five children in a very poor neighborhood,” stated Romero. “Only a month prior his wife had passed away from breast cancer, because she was not able to get treatment. She was only 32 years old.”
Agonizing over the family, Romero offered what he could. “It was very difficult seeing a father alone with five children, the youngest being two years old,” he continued. “But we shared dinner, I invited them to pray and the children celebrated Christmas.”
Such accounts are tragically common over the past five years in Venezuela. Vernon Brewer of World Help comments on the sacred mission he and Romero share. “We’re not just helping Christians in Venezuela, we’re helping everybody,” he said. “Hopefully, they will see the love of Jesus Christ shown in that compassion.”
The founder of World Help elaborated on current conditions in the nation. “Electricity is cut off most of the day,” said Brewer. “There is no water. Even if they could afford it, there’s no food on the shelves.
“Three million Venezuelans — that’s ten percent of the population — have fled the country because of starvation.”
Rubio and Trump Administration Take A Stand
In American politics, foreign policy is rarely a populist issue in either party. Yet, since entering office in 2011, one leader on Capitol Hill has spoken out consistently on behalf of Latin American nations.
“People should not have to abandon their homelands,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a recent floor speech on Venezuela. “[They] undertake dangerous journeys to other countries, for fear of their lives. Rather, they should be able to stay in their country if they so choose and raise their families.”
This week, his Senate office released a short video that recaps the current crisis and opportunity in Venezuela. It highlights how Rubio has spoken out for human rights over several years.
Heritage analyst Ana Quintana confirms the advisory role Rubio has with President Trump. “Senator Rubio has kept up this steady drumbeat, making sure people pay attention to Latin America,” said Quintana. “With the White House, he has earned their trust and really has the President’s ear on Venezuela. We’re seeing evidence of that right now.”
Mainstream media outlets often critical of the administration have praised America’s direct yet cautious approach to this crisis. The Atlantic called recent actions on Venezuela “a well-oiled diplomatic campaign, closely coordinated with allies and rigorously on message.”
The lines of the conflict have been clearly drawn, stated nonprofit leader Vernon Brewer. “It’s obvious that those in favor of democracy are supporting Guaidó,” he said. “Those that lean socialist or communist are supporting Maduro.” Members of Congress echo his remarks.
Quintana stresses how U.S. national security interests are at stake during this volatile time. “We’re trying to help find a peaceful settlement to the Venezuelan crisis,” she said. “Yet the Maduro regime has close relationships with U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran — along with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.”
Aid Efforts Overwhelmed by Needs
Those striving to save lives day to day confess their capacity has reached a breaking point. “We’ve started 2019 taking care of the largest number of children, homeless and elderly, since we were founded,” stated Father Romero in Valencia.
Meanwhile, World Help works primarily through Caracas. The groups covertly ships containers of food and medical supplies into the capital city.
“In a crisis like this, one of the greatest needs is to make sure aid gets to where it’s supposed to go and doesn’t get confiscated,” said Brewer. “Otherwise it could get into the wrong hands or even sold at alarming prices.”
Used to stealth operations from serving in North Korea, the nonprofit leader offers scant details. “We have a network we’ve worked with for many years in Venezuela,” explained Brewer. “These are people we have vetted and can trust. They are helping us provide immediate food, water and hygiene items to sustain many lives in need.”
Health care may be the nation’s most severe need. The infant mortality rate has recently risen to far surpass other nations in the region. A recent report decried Venezuelan hospitals as reverting to 19th century standards.
“The health system is chaotic to the point of being nearly nonexistent,” summed up Romero. He links it to people’s inability to afford to buy food. “Hyperinflation makes nourishment lower every day in terms of quality and nutrients.” The IMF predicts the inflation rate in Venezuela will reach 10 million percent in 2019.
Brewer laments how generations are being affected. “What’s perhaps most tragic is the sight of women who are lining up at sterilization clinics,” he said. “They don’t want to have any more children that they can’t afford to feed.”
Why Venezuela Matters
The fate of American lives also hinges on the outcome of this crisis, according to Ana Quintana. She points to drug trafficking across the U.S. border.
“People think, ‘Venezuela doesn’t matter’ — but it actually does,” says Quintana. “If you are in Maine and have a friend die of a cocaine overdose, you don’t know where it came from. Corrupt Venezuelan officials likely had a role in trafficking that cocaine into the U.S.”
Vernon Brewer implores Americans to see the bigger picture. “What would we do if our children were going through hell on earth?” he asks. “We need to pray for Venezuelans as if they were our own families. And, for a few dollars, we can provide enough food to feed one person. That’s a small price to save a life.”
Tensions between the collapsing Maduro regime and democratic forces persist. “Nobody can predict what will happen next,” said Quintana. “At any moment, we could get a tweet that Maduro decided to get on a 747 and leave for Cuba. What we do know is leverage is on our side. Those nations that want to see Maduro gone have the economic and diplomatic power.”
Interim president Juan Guaidó has promised to hold free and fair elections in the coming months. Many U.S. leaders are monitoring the situation, notably Florida’s senior Senator.
“This is an opportunity to do the right thing in Venezuela,” said Senator Rubio in a recent address. “It’s [also] an opportunity for a new Latin American reality. It allows us to live in a hemisphere that is free and prosperous.”