I was stopped three times by total strangers on my short walk from the bakery to my aunt’s apartment. ‘Excuse me, where did you find bread?’, ‘Sorry, can you tell me how much that was?’ ‘How long did you wait in line for this?’ By now, I had become an expert in answering these questions, but a week ago when I first arrived in Venezuela, I had no idea this would happen. We were on the subway when my mom went up to an old lady and asked her ‘excuse me, where did you buy milk?’ I was a little embarrassed to be honest. It was as if we were so desperate for milk we needed to ask strangers on the subway! I rolled my eyes and told my mom to stop doing that. ‘Estefania, don’t be ridiculous, this is normal’, she said. The grocery store where we would find milk was not on our way home. At all. But still, my mom decided we needed to go, ‘right now!’
My mom and I, along with my aunt and sister who were also with us, made our way to Plaza Venezuela right away. As we were reaching the Bicentenario, government owned supermarket (everything is government owned nowadays), we noticed people running past us, so we started walking faster. Surprisingly, the supermarket was relatively empty and there were no lines at the cashier. My aunt’s first thought: ‘All the milk is gone, we’re too late!’. We walked into the store and started looking around. The Bicentenario supermarket is huge with long, wide halls and tall ceilings. A perfect place to fit hundreds of people buying food everyday. But most of the shelves were empty and some of them were stocked with random products like ketchup and cleaning supplies. As we continued walking, we ran into some employees who were still unpacking milk cartons to put up for sale. Two shelves were still stocked from end to end; obviously not enough people had found out yet, but they would. Between the four of us we probably bought 16 cartons of milk. As we walked back to the subway station, I had my first personal interaction with strangers asking me where I bought my food. My mom and my aunt quickly answered people’s questions, pointed them in the right direction and told them the prices. By the time we got home I was catching on, but I was still shocked that this had become normal. It only took a couple more days of getting groceries for me to get completely used to people’s inquiries. ‘There’s a bakery right over there, there was plenty of bread and the line wasn’t too long! You should go get some bread.’
Food shortage is only one of the many problems Venezuela is facing today. Everyday people struggle to find products such as milk, butter, sugar, rice, pasta, coffee, and bread but it doesn’t end there. Many other basic products like soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, deodorant, diapers, and laundry detergent are also scarce. People are cutting open toothpaste tubes to get all of the toothpaste out before throwing it away; they are going back to using fabric diapers they can wash and re-use; people have to be resourceful every single day. Finding medicine is another major issue in the country. Cancer patients are struggling to continue their treatment, diabetics can’t get access to insulin and something as simple as an aspirin is almost impossible to find. Sick people have to rely on their family abroad to send home the medications they need. Venezuela is going through a major crisis.
I arrived in Caracas in June, in the midst of some of the most significant protests since 2014. It all started in April when the Venezuelan government decided they didn’t quite control enough of the power in the country. The supreme tribunal of justice, completely made up by government magistrates, announced they would take over the legislative power from the National Assembly, the one and only place where the Venezuelan opposition had a majority of representatives. After intense public protesting, and outraged reactions from opposition leaders, the court decided to back down and reverse their decision. However, because the government must always win, new elections for the ‘Constituent National Assembly’ were announced. This new assembly was to have supreme power over any and all other constitutions, and only candidates designated by the government could be part of the ‘special election’ process. This is where things got really scary.
Everyone knew something had to be done before the July 30th elections. When I got to Venezuela, people repeatedly told me ‘I hope you leave before July 30th, I’m scared of what will happen if this new assembly takes power’. People were genuinely afraid, but also very angry. There was no time to waste, and the protests grew larger and relentless, and took over the country. Honestly, I was glad I was here for this. This was my chance to go out on the streets and walk alongside my fellow Venezuelans, to fight for a change. Many people had already been murdered by the national guard during the protests. Young men and women had their life taken away almost every day. But the fight had to continue. I was determined to march with the opposition while I was in Caracas, but my parents were scared, and so was I. On Saturday, June 24th, my aunt and some of her friends were attending the march towards La Carlota, where only 2 days earlier another young man had been killed. I told my mom we were going to the march too. I wasn’t asking her, I was letting her know. The day of the march I called my dad just before I left and told him ‘you might be mad, and you will be worried, but I am going out today’. I also told him everything would be fine, I would be careful and I was coming back home that day.
Going out in Caracas while the protests were at their peak was very different than what I was used to. Caracas, capital of my beautiful country, is one of my favorite cities in the world. I wasn’t born in Caracas but I’ve loved it from a young age. My mom has 5 sisters who live here, and since I was very little, we have been visiting frequently. I also lived in Caracas for one year before I moved to the US for college. Caracas is vibrant and alive, full of people always going somewhere or doing something. Theaters, amazing restaurants, parks, malls, beaches at a short distance; the city has it all. And from almost anywhere in the city you can always find the north by looking right at The Avila, a majestic mountain that’s been baptized as ‘El Pulmon de la Ciudad’, the lungs of the city. There are also many issues, the biggest one being the increasing crime rate that has made it harder and harder to enjoy this beautiful city. For months now, protesters have taken over major highways impeding any traffic to go through, so Caracas feels empty, it feels dead.
Saturday, the day of the march, things were a little different. The main highways were still empty, so people were just walking in the middle of them like it was nothing. I saw a guy with his headphones on and his backpack over his shoulders, an old lady with a bag of vegetables, and the occasional motorcycle that made its way through somehow. A sight I was already getting used to. The rest of the streets were packed with traffic; everyone was trying to get to the big march. You could feel the anticipation in the air. We finally managed to find our way to a mall nearby to park, and we walked a few miles up the highway to get to the main concentration. Everywhere I looked, I could see a Venezuelan flag. The tricolor yellow, blue and red, and white stars I have so much love for. People were waving their flags in the air, or wearing them on their t-shirts, hats and bandanas. I have worn a bracelet of the Venezuelan flag on my left hand for the past 5 years, but I also had a flag around my neck like a cape. By noon, there were thousands of people gathered on the Francisco Fajardo highway, as usual.
When we got to La Carlota, I noticed the crowd started parting itself in two to let a group of young people through. They were wearing homemade gas masks and armors over their clothes. Everyone started clapping and cheering as they walked by. These young people are called ‘The Resistance’. These young people put their life at risk everyday by being at the front line of every march and every protest. Many have been killed, but many still continue fighting. I couldn’t help but cry as I saw them walking through the crowd with nothing much but their courage. They stood in front of the guards together holding hands; they were chanting slogans everyone knew by heart at this point: “QUIENES SOMOS? VE-NE-ZUE-LA! QUE QUEREMOS? LI-BER-TAD!”.They were calling at us to join in. I wanted to run to that front line so bad and hold their hands like so many other people did. But I was terrified. I couldn’t move. Seeing them so close to the armed guards made me feel like a coward, because I knew I couldn’t do that. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, just like I always felt when watching the protests from abroad. I had to think of my mom and dad and how mad they would be if I got anywhere near those guards. I thought about everything I could lose if something happened to me. I told myself I was being careful like I promised, but it felt a lot like being selfish. That day no one was killed.
I spent a month in Caracas after arriving in Venezuela, and I just needed to look out the window to see the city on fire almost every day, literally. To close down the highways as a protest, people burned tires, or tree branches, or really anything that would do the job. My mom and I would go down for a few hours to stand with the protesters in front of the building. Everyone from the community just stood there for hours with their flags, signs and chants. When my mom and I went back to my hometown, Cumana, it seemed like no one there got the memo. There was no protesting at all, and July 30th was coming. The week before the special (illegitimate) elections, there was so much tension. Some people didn’t think they would take place: ‘the president quit’ ‘the president left the country’. You would hear all sorts of rumors. How could the government go through with their ridiculous elections when most of the country was out in the streets every single day, demanding freedom from a regime that has been in power for over 17 years? How could they? Inevitably, the day came and elections were held. Venezuelans’ hope was once again ripped apart by their oppressors. I was devastated, because this time I really thought we stood a chance. Over 150 people were killed, parents lost their sons and daughters, children lost their parents too, sisters lost their brothers; people lost something they would never get back. Everyone did everything they could, and still it wasn’t enough. Slowly protests started dying out all over the country and people went back to their life. I was heartbroken and frustrated that we had lost yet another battle. There were still hundreds of young people in jail for protesting. The national guard would go into people’s homes to grab them, even after the protests had ended. Opposition activists were shot dead by government gangs, best known as ‘collectivos’, as they tried to move on with their life after everything was over. No justice was served for anyone, and nothing could be done.
Before my time in Venezuela was over, I went to visit my dad for a month. He lives in another city called Puerto Ordaz, about 6 hours away from my hometown Cumana, and 8 hours away from Caracas. My dad and I would drive around almost every day to run errands and food-hunt at different super markets until we found what we needed. This is when it really hit me how screwed up the Venezuelan economy is. We would go to the store and buy sugar on Monday, and by the time we went back on Friday, the price had already gone up significantly. This happens all the time. Prices in Venezuela can change daily, and they will only go up. The inflation rate in Venezuela at the moment is 800%, which makes it the country with the highest inflation in the world. To help put this into perspective, the inflation rate in the US is less than 3%, and the second highest inflation in the world doesn’t reach 45%. Since I moved to the US, 5 years ago, it has been hard to keep up with Venezuelan prices because they change too often and inflation just gets higher and higher. I knew everything was too expensive, but I never know what is considered expensive anymore. People start getting used to these price escalations, and at some point, things go from being ‘expensive’ to being ‘affordable’.
When I first arrived in Venezuela $1 was worth 7,000 bolivares. Today, only three months later, $1 is worth 25,000 bolivares and the value changes weekly. This has a huge effect in products’ prices for Venezuelans because we import most of our products from other countries, so prices go up constantly. People in Venezuela most literally work only to eat. A month’s salary for one person is 136,543.40 Bs. However, the basic food basket for a family of 5 people is, as of right now, about two and a half million bolivares. One person needs at least 4 months’ salary to eat every month, not including buying any hygiene products, medicine, clothes or going out for a beer Friday night. But, a full tank of gas will only cost you 100 bolivares, so about 0.004 cents! It is such a dysfunctional economy. Thankfully, my mom and dad still make enough money to be able to eat every day and get the things they need. Once or twice a year I send home a lot of the basic hygiene products they need as well. For my parents getting anything other than the necessary things has become a challenge as well, but at least they can do that. Too many people have to live one day at time, not knowing what they will have tomorrow. They are going through other people’s trash to get anything they can put to use somehow. Chicken bones’ soup and mangos have become quite common in people’s diets. People are struggling to live, but continue hoping for the best. Still, there’s no change in sight, and things continuously get worse.
Out of all the things I have experienced while I’ve been in Venezuela, one of the saddest moments came when I had to get my birth certificate legalized before moving to The Netherlands. It took me one whole month of constant anxiety to renew my passport; that’s what public services in Venezuela do to you. However, it seemed like the apostille process was easier, at least for those who already had a plane ticket to leave Venezuela for good. I had to go to the ministry of foreign relations in Caracas 5 days before my trip, show them my ticket, leave my birth certificate, and pick up the apostille the next day. I decided to take a chance and go to the ministry nearly two weeks before my trip because you never know what the government will come up with next. My mom and I decided to leave my aunt’s place at 5 in the morning so we could get in line early. My mom said not to worry though, because they were only seeing people with a plane ticket ‘and how many people can possibly have a plane ticket already to leave the country this week?’. As we got close to the ministry building we could already see many people lined up from a distance; it was only 7am and the ministry didn’t open until 9:30am. A young woman in line said she had been there the day before to check if she had all the paperwork before submitting it, and there were about 300 people. By the time the doors opened, at least 200 people were lined up behind me. There were a few families, but most of them were recent graduates, young professionals and young people who hadn’t even finish university yet, but couldn’t wait any longer to get out.
Every single day hundreds of people are leaving Venezuela, families, young people, smart people, people who would contribute immensely to our country, but who can barely survive here now. They have decided the risks of immigrating to another country are worth taking, and they will try their luck far from everything they know. The day I stood in that line with hundreds of Venezuelans who basically had their bags packed, I felt sad but I was also very angry. Venezuela is being robbed of so much talent, so many good, hard working people, because our government has taken over almost every single part of the country, and our economy is spiraling out of control. Young people can’t start building a future here. People can work every single day for years and still never be able to afford a car or their own place, no one can enjoy their life enough because there are too many things to worry about. I left Venezuela 5 years ago when I was 18, to go to college in the US, and at that time not a lot of people were leaving, it was still considered a privilege. Today people are running away as soon as they have the slightest chance to do so, even if it means risking everything they have. I am heartbroken that I am leaving my country in this state, but knowing I will be able to continue helping my family from where I’ll be is a huge relief.
The time came to leave home again, and it’s always sad for me and my family. There’s a lot of crying at the airport especially from my mom and sister. I usually try to keep it together so they know they don’t have to worry about me. But this time I was the one worrying about them. Wondering if they were going to be safe. As we went in for a hug I could already feel my eyes filling up with tears. My mom’s embrace was so strong it made me feel so loved and so safe. My little sister, almost as tall as me now, told me she would miss me so much. ‘And I will miss you too baby girl’, I said to her. I heard a heartbreaking sob from my aunt who was also there with us and I gave her a big hug as well. The four of us cried together while we told each other how much we loved each other. We fit right into the whole airport scene, because everyone around us was crying too. That’s what Simon Bolivar’s International Airport has become, a place of tears and goodbyes. Families breaking apart, couples kissing one last time and best friends saying goodbye to each other. But the airport has also become a place of fear for many. The newest trend for the national guard has become terrorizing the many Venezuelans leaving the country. They go through people’s things and keep whatever they want after making up an applicable law. ‘To carry a camera you need a permit, I’ll have to keep it’, ‘Carrying US dollars is illegal, I’ll have to keep it’, ‘International card? Illegal, I’ll have to cut this in half’. They’ll take anything from money to jewelry. This is illegal. But who do you call? Security? They are security. I was prepared though: I only left a couple dollars in my wallet and old cards I didn’t need and I put all my valuable things in my checked bags after thoroughly wrapping them with a lot plastic. After going through security I thought I was safe and put my money back in my wallet. Out of nowhere, I was approached by a guard, ‘give me your phone,’ he said. My first instinct was to ask why, but I knew better than that. He took my phone and went through all of my personal messages, while he asked me where I was going, what I was going to be doing, and who was waiting for me. I was quite the nervous wreck but I answered all his questions, and after what felt like an eternity he finally gave me my phone back. I forgot this was happening too because this had started long before I got to Venezuela. The guards would also go through people’s phones and send many people to jail if they talked bad about the government. Good thing I keep my phone free of trash.
After three months at home, it was finally time to leave and I felt ready. Through it all I was still happy to have spent time with my family and friends after my last visit two years ago. Now, I’m going back to enjoying my life the way I’d gotten used to. I can stop thinking about food being too expensive, about not using too much of anything because it’ll be hard to replace, about not taking my phone out of the house because I can get robbed. But, everyone I am leaving behind will still think about all these things every single day of their life, and that haunts me. All I can do is hope they will continue fighting to make it through these tough times. And I pray that one day I will come back to a thriving Venezuela, where life is worth living again.