Above Photo: The Venezuelan migration wave began to grow in 2017 when Washington levied financial sanctions against the oil industry, exacerbating an economic crisis. Reuters.
From first-hand experience, VA’s Andreína Chávez looks at the harsh reality and the media propaganda surrounding Venezuelan migration.
Migration has become one of the many heroic ways in which the Venezuelan people have resisted the US blockade. I would know, my own family left as their living conditions deteriorated more and more under Washington’s economic terrorism.
My family’s migration story, hoping to find new opportunities in a foreign land, is not unique. Many Venezuelans left their homes in recent years looking for a respite from the countless hardships caused by US sanctions. These non-military tools have turned out to be quite deadly as they were designed to inflict pain and coerce whole populations into pursuing regime change.
The “maximum pressure” campaign against Venezuela began with Trump in 2017 after Obama laid the ground for sanctions when he awarded us the grand title of “unusual and extraordinary threat” in 2015. Biden carries the murderous torch today.
While Venezuela was already under an economic crisis following the 2014 oil price crash, sanctions exacerbated it and blocked any possible solutions. For five years, our country has been banned from exporting oil, its historical main source of foreign income, as well as gold and other resources. With crude production hitting historic lows in 2020, gasoline and diesel shortages gripped the country, impacting rural producers the most.
The US and its European allies have likewise seized and frozen Venezuelan foreign-held billions-worth companies, funds and gold reserves, impeding its use to import food, medicine, medical equipment, and other necessary inputs to maintain water, electricity, and health infrastructure. We are also barred from carrying out transactions in the US financial system, which essentially exclude us from global markets.
Even the government-subsidized food distribution program known as CLAP, which provides basic staples to about 7 million households, was put under sanctions. The former Trump administration went as far as to shut down swap deals that had allowed Venezuela to acquire much-needed food, medicine, and fuel in exchange for oil.
In a nutshell, the US has condemned tens of thousands of Venezuelans to death and forced an unprecedented migration wave while holding the rest of the population hostage inside their own country under collective punishment.
It is no coincidence then, that migration began to grow in 2017 when the first economic sanctions were levied. According to a report by Venezuelan human rights organization SURES, around 5.4 million people have migrated since then, although estimates vary. The UN, for example, places the migration number at 7.1 million.
In my family’s case, they chose Ecuador as their destination because my mom was born there. Venezuelan migrants have also settled in Colombia, Chile, Peru, Panama, and Argentina. Only recently did the US become a mildly important destination as well.
Like all migrants, my family’s expectations were simple: a job with a decent wage to shelter, feed, clothe themselves and their children and send them to school. They were fortunate enough to achieve all that and even expand their dreams and goals.
The youngest of my two sisters was the first to leave alongside her partner and two children in June 2017. She, like most of my siblings, lived in a working-class neighborhood in western Zulia state, hard-hit by fuel shortages that devastated public transportation and almost paralyzed diesel-run thermoelectrical plants, adding to an electricity crisis.
I remember she left at night in a hurry. At the time, Venezuela was under violent opposition protests and there were reports that the border with Colombia was about to be indefinitely closed (again) in an attempt to stop the smuggling of food, fuel, and cash (Venezuelan national currency, the bolívar) to the neighboring country. An opposition destabilization strategy that had caused a scarcity of basic goods and hard cash in the border region.
“We crossed to Colombia through trochas [illegal crossings] and although it was difficult for all of us, we were afraid we wouldn’t have another chance,” she recalls.
For her, it felt like a matter of life and death and perhaps it was: “Right before we left, to buy food we had to stand in endless queues to get some subsidized products, with no guarantees, or buy overpriced elsewhere, which we couldn’t always afford. It was all nearly impossible.”
My parents left soon after, in early 2018, leaving their home of over 30 years. They were both pensioners, but my dad had gone back to work to afford enough food and cover other necessities. Their departure was like a gut punch, but I admit that I felt relieved given that I was unable to help them, economically, in any significant way.
“Never in my life did the thought of migrating cross my mind,” my dad told me, “but food was hard to come by, and my pension, which used to be enough for a somewhat modest living, was pulverized by inflation.”
In 2018, Venezuela was indeed reeling from hyperinflation, which reached 130,000 percent that year, crushing people’s purchasing power, one of the main reasons they were forced to migrate. The major driving factor behind inflation was currency speculation, with the Venezuelan bolívar targeted daily.
Under this ongoing hyperinflation scenario, my brother was the next to leave in March 2019, accompanied by his wife, two children, and sister-in-law. At the time, our already strained public infrastructure was being targeted by terrorist attacks.
He left five days after a week-long nationwide blackout that halted the country, including all commercial activities, my brother’s source of income. The power outage was caused by a cyber-attack launched from Houston and Chicago against the Guri Dam, Venezuela’s main electricity generator, as authorities reported back then. The electric grid has never quite recovered.
“The blackout was the last straw so to speak. We just wanted not to live in crisis anymore. Inflation had obliterated all my savings. I had friends who were eating once a day and I wasn’t going to wait for that to happen to my family as well,” he explained to me.
As it happens, in 2021 UN human rights expert, Alena Douhan, visited Venezuela and published a lengthy report in which she emphasized that “the drop of oil revenues, exacerbated by the sanctions, provoked a food and nutrition crisis.”
My other sister, the eldest in the family, always resisted migrating and only took that decision when she felt it was time to reunite her family and get a break from daily tribulations. She traveled to Ecuador in July 2019.
Her husband had left in late 2017 and his monthly remittances allowed her to keep their two children fed. However, there was nothing she could do about daily power outages as well as severe cooking gas shortages as a result of US sanctions hampering production and tightly controlling the import of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). She and many Venezuelans had to resort to cooking with firewood.
My sister mostly misses her job as a social worker in a school for children with disabilities located in a small town in Táchira state, bordering Colombia. After three years in Ecuador, she is now trying to save enough money to return to Venezuela, and hopefully to her school.
“I think about returning to Venezuela every single day,” she tells me all the time.
Many Venezuelans have, in fact, returned in recent years, including my brother and his family in late 2021, after building up some savings and being encouraged by Venezuela’s modest economic recovery. He bought a used car and started a small business.
According to SURES, the number of returnees ranges between 500,000 and 750,000 people, counting regular and irregular entries. The returning process first started small in 2018-2019 but quickly accelerated in 2020 due to the pandemic exacerbating social crises across countries in Latin America. The Venezuelan government’s “Return to the Homeland” program has helped over 31,000 people thus far.
Naturally, the stories about people returning or the US economic terrorism being the main reason behind Venezuela’s important exodus are far from anything you would read or see in mainstream media, where sanctions are either nonexistent or magically affect solely those in power. Besides, people returning do not fit the narrative of Venezuelans desperately escaping a “human rights violating authoritarian socialist government.”
Do people usually return to live under dictatorships or is it that working-class Venezuelans simply left because of harsh economic conditions mostly caused by US sanctions?
The returnees’ number might not be comparable to the number of people that left in the span of several years but it continues to grow every day. The reality is many are coming back because Venezuela is going through a moderate economic recovery mainly explained by the slight upswing in oil production and some unorthodox governmental measures such as a de-facto dollarization.
While the crisis is far from over given that sanctions are still in place, hyperinflation has receded and some estimates by international agencies on Venezuela’s growth range between five and 20 percent for 2022.
We have to keep in mind though that Venezuela’s economic improvement is not yet inclusive enough, so many people abroad are also choosing to embark on second journeys to achieve life projects that they were unable to fulfill in the first country they migrated to. It is their right and a valid choice. The SURES investigation calculates 500,000 Venezuelans abroad going through a second migration.
However, corporate western media —always uninterested in honest reporting— continues to exploit the Venezuelan migration in order to spread regime change propaganda at Washington’s behest. Recently, these outlets found a new angle for their misleading information: the Darien Gap (in Panama) and people trying to cross the Mexico-US border.
According to US migration data, 150,000 Venezuelan migrants arrived at the southwest border between October 2021 and August 2022, out of 2.76 million. That number represents only 5.43 percent of the total. On route to the US, 133,000 Venezuelan migrants, the majority coming from third countries, also trekked the Darien Gap, a stretch of jungle terrain that connects South and Central America, as registered by Panama’s authorities between January and October.
These numbers, the dangers, and hardships people have faced trying to reach the US are not insignificant nor should they be ignored, but it is far from the massive migration calamity media portrays. They are capitalizing on people’s suffering to push political agendas.
Media outlets (aided by political actors) have even staged Hollywood-style situations. Who can forget the dramatic photos and videos in broad daylight of Venezuelan migrants crossing the Rio Bravo on the Mexico-US border, wearing expensive clothes and looking like they just landed there? The image of a young man heroically carrying an older woman out of the water went viral only to later discover he was a visa-holding frequent US visitor.
“They [the media] have only made real migrant stories invisible and hindered effective help to people in real conditions of danger and vulnerability,” adeptly explained human rights collective SURES in a four-part report.
One of the motivations for the ongoing media circus is that the Venezuelan migration has become a lucrative business. The NGO complex, Venezuelan opposition forces, and political actors as well as right-wing governments have keenly used migration to secure millions of dollars in “relief funds.”
According to SURES, until January 2021 Washington had sent $1.200 billion to Latin American countries as a “response to the Venezuela regional crisis.” Colombia alone received $950 million between 2017-2020. In September 2022, the US government announced an additional $376 million.
With these funds’ management mired by an absolute lack of transparency, there is no indication of the recipients ever providing effective assistance to the Venezuelan migrant population.
Truth be told, the shameless profiting and media manipulation of the Venezuelan migration won’t end any time soon just as US sanctions won’t go anywhere in the near (or distant?) future. After all, regime change continues to be Washington’s main foreign policy goal and for that, US officials are more than willing to bargain with people’s lives.
When I sat down to write about my family’s migration journey my main motivation was simply reclaiming the narrative of a story that has been taken from us for a vile political agenda. Migration is a right and in Venezuela’s case, as in many other countries attacked by US imperialism, it is an epic form of resistance.
Only we, the Venezuelan people, know our reality.