At first, when I looked at the photo, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same person. Victor was holding his driver’s license next to his face, but he didn’t look anything like the man pictured on the card.
The face staring at me from the license was visibly plump, with heavy jowls and eyes that squinted through chubby cheeks. The Victor holding the card looked markedly thinner: his eyes were sunken, his cheekbones protruded out of his face, and his skin stretched tight against his brow. Hunger had completely altered his appearance in a matter of months.
One word etched at the bottom of the card told Victor’s entire story: “VENEZOLANO” – Venezuelan.
Last weekend’s controversial presidential election in Venezuela has reminded Americans of an economic and humanitarian crisis we have ignored for far too long. If we are honest with ourselves, we might not be able to ignore it much longer.
Since global oil prices took a plunge in 2014, the Venezuelan economy has been in a freefall. For decades, the country’s vast oil reserves – the largest in the world – masked the weak economic state of the country and the destructive reality of socialism. Now, Venezuela stands on the brink of a catastrophe on par with the world’s worst refugee crisis – and it’s unfolding in our backyard.
In the past two years, nearly 1 million Venezuelans have fled to surrounding countries, putting pressure on economies in the region. They live in crowded shelters and peddle to buy food and medicine for themselves and relatives back home. But the fate of refugees is arguably better than those who remain behind.
Those still inside Venezuela live in a desperate state.
Evidence of this is how getting pregnant in Venezuela has turned into a curse. In 2016, the infant mortality rate rose 30 percent, while maternal mortality spiked by 65 percent. Baby formula is so scarce that it’s not even available in hospitals and can only be bought at exorbitant prices on the black market.
In moments of desperation, women have turned to sterilization out of fear of getting pregnant and not having enough food to sustain themselves or a child.
At home, the situation doesn’t get any better. A recent survey conducted by three Venezuelan universities revealed 80 percent of homes in Venezuela are food insecure. Two in three Venezuelans report having lost 20 pounds or more in the past year.
In fact, food insecurity at home is so bad, it has driven boys to run away and join bands of scavengers that fight over territorial control for collecting and selling recyclables.
Hunger is driving Venezuelans to extremes.
Our contacts in the area have shared stories – and pictures – with us (like the one mentioned above) of emaciated families and babies. In one village in particular, a mob broke into a farmer’s field and killed and ate his cattle on the spot.
Sadly, amidst this unspeakable suffering, the Venezuelan government has closed the doors to international aid. Even more alarming, there are reports that political parties manipulated people’s hunger to influence the presidential election.
World Help has managed to strategically work with internal partners and churches in the area to provide food to families in need. I honestly cannot share more information on how we distribute food and aid in Venezuela without putting our partners in danger – but I can tell you we do it in small amounts, and that our partners are literally risking their lives to help people desperate for a meal.
As the world’s attention returns to Venezuela this week, we must take this opportunity to remind ourselves we cannot keep ignoring this crisis. Millions continue to suffer with every day that passes. And while we might not be able to fix all of Venezuela’s problems, we can at least do our part to raise awareness and reach as many people as possible with aid and hope.