An economic crisis has reached extreme levels in Venezuela leading to a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring countries. Inside Venezuela, people are starving and have no access to medication. Unemployment is high. The currency has been devalued and renamed; wages cannot keep up with the rate of inflation. The vast numbers of refugees fleeing the country has created a complex humanitarian crisis, both in Venezuela and in the receiving countries, particularly Columbia.
Additionally, there is a significant leadership conflict between elected President Nicolas Maduro who won reelection in May 2018 and Juan Guaidó, leader of the National Assembly, who called the election a sham and proclaimed himself president on January 23, 2019 using a constitutional provision. The United States and dozens of other governments around the world are recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president. However, China, Russia and several other countries, as well as the Venezuelan military, have declared their support for Maduro. On April 3, the National Constituent Assembly – a group of Maduro loyalists who formed their own group to counter the constitutional National Assembly – stripped Guaidó of his parliamentarian immunity and authorized the Supreme Court (which supports Maduro) to arrest him, both for traveling outside the country despite a travel ban and for declaring himself president.
Maduro denies that there is a humanitarian crisis in the country and blames sanctions from other countries for the problems that exist. Aid, including food and medicine, is being stockpiled in Brazil and Columbia but Maduro’s forces are not allowing it to reach Venezuelan citizens. Clashes with the military when aid deliveries are attempted are common.
In November 2018, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, declared that since 2015 more than three million Venezuelan refugees have fled the country and are now living in countries around the globe. Of these, less than half have regular status in their current country of residence. UNHCR says that, “since 2014, some 408,500 asylum claims have been lodged by Venezuelans, over 248,000 in 2018 alone. While asylum systems are overwhelmed, more than 7,100 have been recognized as refugees thus far.” Five thousand Venezuelans left the country every day in 2018 and 36 percent told a Gallup poll they would like to leave if they could, including 51 percent of Venezuelans aged 15 to 29.
More than one million refugees are in Columbia and that number is expected to double in 2019. Peru has more than half a million and the other Latin American and Caribbean countries host nearly one million more. And, more than 600,000 live in countries outside that region. UNHCR says that the number of people fleeing the country puts the Venezuelan refugee crisis in line with the Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan refugee crises, and they estimate that it could reach over five million in 2019.The U.S. has seen an increase in Venezuelan immigration – numbers increased by 61,000 from 2016-2017 and have doubled from 2010 to 350,000 – but the country has not yet implemented Temporary Protected Status which would provide safety to refugees. There are approximately 72,000 refugees currently seeking asylum in the U.S.
The Brookings Institute has estimated that the global number could climb to eight million – more than one-quarter of the population – within two to three years if action is not taken quickly. They have calculated “that even if the government were to put all of its net income from oil—Venezuela’s main and almost only export, which is publicly owned — to feed the poorest of the poor, there would still be a substantial portion of the population whose basic caloric needs wouldn’t be covered.”
Venezuela also experiences a high level of violence – some gang-related and some connected to clashes with the military. According to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Venezuela remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries; the notable deterioration in quality of life for Venezuelan citizens over the course of 2017 contributed to a dire situation in which over 73 Venezuelans died a violent death every day.”
Despite the fact that Venezuela has the largest reserve of recoverable oil, beating out Saudi Arabia, nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans are part of an epidemic of poverty. This has increased from 2014 when the poverty rate was 48 percent and is linked to the decrease in oil prices, the major economic export, and the concurrent reduction in oil production – a 54 percent decrease since 1998. Minimum wage was increased in January 2019 by 300 percent to 18,000 bolivars a month, about $6.70 USD. A dozen eggs costs 3,768 bolivars; monthly rent in a non-expensive area is 620,000 bolivars. As a result, and because of limited availability of subsidized food, most people are unable to afford to eat.
In October 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that Venezuela is suffering a crisis of hyperinflation making it one of the worst in history. At the same time, the cost for consumer goods have risen steeply but incomes have not kept up with the rate of inflation. The inflation rate stood at 2,500,000 percent as of December 2018and is expected to be 10 million percent by the end of 2019. Consumer prices are expected to increase by 1,370,000 percent. ACAPS reports that, “In January 2019, a basic food basket containing 60 items cost about 360,115 Venezuelan Bolivars (VES). Between January 2018 and January 2019, the price of a basic food basket increased by 283,880%. In order to purchase a food basket, a household would have to earn 20 times the minimum monthly salary (VES 18,000). In 2017, food prices in Venezuela increased by 2,616%.”
IMF is also predicting that the economy will shrink by 5 percent in 2019 after shrinking by almost 20 percent in 2018. Venezuela also accumulated debt valued at 159 percent of its GDP. Currency has also been devalued by over 95 percent. Additionally, the government issued a new currency – sovereign bolivars to replace strong bolivars. At that time, 1,800 sovereign bolivars replaced 180 million strong bolivars.
Venezuela is also facing a critical health crisis including a shortage of medicine. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimated in April 2018 that there was a shortage of more than 85 percent of medications and hospitals also report missing about 50 percent of necessary medical supplies. The majority of hospitals – 70 percent – have reported power outages and a lack of available drinking water; 25 percent had no water at all in 2018. There is a severe lack of medical staff with 55 percent resigning or leaving the country. For those that do remain, salaries are extremely low. As a result, maternal and infant mortality rates are high and increasing. Previously eradicated diseases such as malaria are resurging. There have been significant increases in deaths related to those requiring kidney dialysis and people diagnosed with HIV, dengue fever, measles and diphtheria. There also has been a significant reduction of people in psychiatric institutions – from 23,000 to 3,500 – and yet the current crisis is certain to exacerbate mental health issues.
There are two specific focuses for funders to consider: how to support people still living in Venezuela and how to support communities hosting refugees. These will overlap as many of the needs that caused people to leave the country still exist or are exacerbated when they migrate to another country.
- Nutritional support – Malnutrition is common. Government food programs do not meet the needs. In 2018, it was reported that most Venezuelans had lost nearly 25 pounds in the previous year. Venezuelans in host countries need food, nutrition and WASH assistance.
- Medical support – The lack of doctors and medical supplies means chronic illnesses may have gone untreated, while illnesses previously eliminated such as measles have reemerged. Both public and mental health supports are required.
Additionally, in receiving countries, refugees and support organizations will need assistance to provide shelter, food and medicine. Longer-term supports for employment, health care and housing will also be required. Due to the high percentage of Venezuelans in an “irregular situation” (lack of legal status in the host country) they may not be able to access needed services, making them more vulnerable. Supports with legal help for documentation, payment of application fees, etc. are necessary.
InterAction’s NGO Aid Map can help funders find organizations working in Venezuela or neighboring countries.
CDP has a Global Recovery Fund that provides an opportunity for donors to meet the ongoing and ever-expanding challenges presented by global crises.
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- CDP Blog: The Human Costs in Venezuela
- CDP Issue Insight: Nutrition
- CDP Issue Insight: WASH
- CDP Issue Insight: Public Health
- CDP Issue Insight: Mental Health
- Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela
- A Political and Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela – WAMU 88.5
- Top 10 Facts About Poverty in Venezuela – Borgen Project
- Restoring Venezuela’s Democracy and Halting the Humanitarian Disaster – Center for Strategic and International Studies
- A Venezuelan Refugee Crisis – Council on Foreign Relations