TRAVERSE CITY — Most of Luis Marquez-Teruel’s family fled Venezuela months ago. His parents finally joined them.
“There’s a lot of human rights that’re absolutely being violated — people don’t have access to clean water,” said Marquez-Teruel, whose family at times had running water for less than three hours in a week. “I don’t know how people are even living right now — it’s just insane.”
The Interlochen Arts Academy student left home in 2017, and only has stories and photographs as a window into the food shortages, rolling blackouts and lack of clean water that have since crippled his home country.
An April 30 uprising, he’d hoped, might lead to some change.
But after two days of riots, waving flags and choking tear gas, the country sunk back into stagnation. The violent coup, following months of unsuccessful peaceful protests aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro, left at least four dead.
Marquez-Teruel joins former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro, the latest guest of Northwestern Michigan College’s International Affairs Forum, for a May 16 discussion of the turmoil at NMC’s Milliken Auditorium. The event kicks off at 6 p.m.
Dr. Anibal Pepper, a Peruvian surgeon now retired to Frankfort, plans to join the audience. His home country has recently struggled with a massive influx of refugees as Venezuelans flee their home. Other Latin American countries have seen similar struggles — more than 3 million people, one-tenth of Venezuela’s population, have left.
Hundreds of thousands more are projected to join them in 2019, Shapiro said.
“People want to know how Venezuela got into this mess, which is the zenith of a failed state, an economy that doesn’t function and an administration that’s become, basically, a dictatorship,” he said.
Hyperinflation has left Venezuelans with a monthly minimum wage equivalent to pocket change and not enough food or clean water to go around. Homes and business districts in Caracas have gone days and weeks in the dark, the Associated Press reported.
“Caracas, a town of 7 million, without power for 10 days. You know what happens in hospitals without that?” Pepper said. “People die.”
Venezuela’s political crisis renewed in early 2019 after Opposition Leader Juan Guaidó — backed by the U.S. and dozens of other countries — called for the country to turn against Maduro. Guaidó, along with the European Union, the U.S. and dozens of other countries, considers Maduro’s 2018 re-election illegitimate and called for new elections to resolve the political crisis. The opposition argues the president of the national assembly — Guaidó — should oversee those.
More than 50 countries recognize him as Venezuela’s interim president.
“Maduro probably has 20 percent of the support, or less, in Venezuela,” Marquez-Teruel said. “No one wants him to be there — he’s there because he has the support of the military.”
The chaos is spurred by an economic crisis decades in the making.
The root of it, Shapiro said, is the country’s reliance on petroleum exports and failure to properly manage their production. Less oil meant less money, and the country couldn’t support itself.
“So they printed money — literally, just printed money,” Shapiro said. “It’s bad economic policy compounded by corruption, compounded by nepotism.”
A banking crisis in the '90s only stalled things further, and the 2008 recession brought an economic downward spiral that’s battered the country since.
Price controls to combat inflation — now nearing 1 million percent — spurred mass shortages of food, medicine and other necessities.
“You see grocery store shelves that’re empty. People fighting over chicken — literally fighting over it,” Shapiro said. “All of that just ripples throughout the economy.”
The Venezuelan government agreed earlier this year to accept medical aid from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
It’s hard to watch.
“At every point when I tell myself things can’t get any worse, they do,” Shapiro said.
Maduro aimed to reassure Venezuelans with statements that the water supply is “normalizing” and electricity issues are coming toward a solution, according to the AP — at least in Caracas and other major cities.
It isn’t enough for opposition leaders and supporters, who on April 30 took to the streets for “Operation Freedom,” calling for military support. That backing never materialized, however.
In its place thousands of Venezuelans took to the protest, including teens who lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails at government bases, the AP reported. Armored vehicles, at one point, plowed into protesters and tear gas was fired into crowds.
At least 230 people were injured and another 205 were detained during the mass uprising.
Two days later, the world watched the dust settle.
The coup had collapsed.
And with it, the hopes of many who supported the movement, hoping the action might spur high-ranking defection.
“The crisis was going to be ended,” Pepper said. “The opposition was getting really close to exploding — in a good way.
“But again, we’re in limbo.”
Still, Shapiro said, the stalemate can only last so long.
“The fact is, the country is collapsing, the economy is collapsing. People are literally starving to death,” he said. “Things are going to change, the question is when.”