Imagine walking into a supermarket and seeing several rows of shelves
totally bereft of food. Instead of glancing at a grocery list, you cobble
together what essentials you can find, including some tins of powdered milk.
Before you purchase them, you flash your child's birth certificate, proving
that you have a child under 2, a requirement to make the purchase.
You head to the pharmacy and wait in a long line. When you reach
the pharmacist, he tells you the medicine you need hasn’t been in stock for two
years. Out of time and options, you begin the long walk home, because the part
needed to fix your car hasn’t been available for months. When you arrive home,
your dog greets you at the door. Tomorrow, you’ll have to give her to a family
that is still able to buy her food.
Some people even travel to nearby countries such as Colombia to buy food. “Can you imagine us going to Canada to get food?” asked Father Puigbó.
This scenario is an everyday reality in the South American
country of Venezuela. But it didn’t used to be this way. Just a few years ago,
you could buy whatever you needed, whenever you needed it.
“It was a very comfortable, nice country,” said Father Juan Puigbó,
parochial vicar at All Saints Church in Manassas and a native Venezuelan. But
recently, things have taken a turn for the worse.
A change in government
The fate of the country began to change with the rise of Hugo Chavez, said Carolina Hurtado, a Venezuelan parishioner of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls. Chavez appealed to the poor of the county, and promised great change and a better life, said Hurtado. In 1992, he was elected president and remained in power until his death in 2013.
Hurtado has doubts that Chavez was the victor of fair elections throughout those years. “The first time around, I truly believe he won,” she said. “After that, I'm not sure.”
Along with socialist policies, Chavez’s presidency brought a decline in the quality of life for his people, said Olivia Estrada, a Venezuelan parishioner of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Fairfax. She remembers one instance where she went to visit her mother in the hospital and complimented the hospital’s colorful sheets.
Her mother replied, “They're my sheets, we have to bring our own,” said Estrada. “This was during Chavez. Now it’s worse.”
After his death, Chavez was replaced by Nicolas Maduro. Estrada believes he is responsible for the country’s great suffering.
“The regime that they have — the only way to compare it is to a dictatorship. The power struggles that they’re having are inhumane,” she said. “I think he controls everything.”
Father Puigbó believes the food shortage is a way for the government to maintain power. “If you control food, you control people as well,” he said.
A Venezuelan girl receives milk for the first time in
weeks due to the country’s food shortages. Courtesy Olivia Estrada
A different Venezuela
For Father Puigbó, Estrada, Hurtado and many others, the
Venezuela they knew no longer exists. “When I go home, I don’t feel that's my
home anymore,” said Hurtado.
Finding food is the most pressing concern. Everyone is losing
weight, said Estrada. “They call it the Maduro diet.” Some people even travel
to nearby countries such as Colombia to buy food. “Can you imagine us going to
Canada to get food?” asked Father Puigbó.
Water and electricity are shut off at random times. Productivity
in the country has plummeted as people devote time to finding food and other now-scarce
resources. Tourism has disappeared. Freedom of speech is suppressed.
“I have a niece who worked for one of the oldest radio stations,
but it was shut down because they were critical of the government. They spoke
the truth,” said Estrada.
Churches have had to lock up statues and other valuables. “You do
not have access to (statues of) the saints, and the churches are not open like they
used to be,” said Estrada. Though Caritas, the Catholic Church’s international
charity arm, and other foreign aid groups have offered support to the country’s
people, the government has refused to let them in.
Meanwhile, crime and violence have skyrocketed. Father Puigbó’s
parents’ farm was destroyed and his brother was kidnapped. Fortunately, now his
parents and brother live in the United States. “Thank God I could bring my
parents here legally,” he said. “We get news of (someone getting kidnapped or
robbed) every single week.”
Sometimes protests fill the streets, but more often people throw
open their windows and bang pots, “for anybody that has had it (and) can’t take
it anymore,” said Estrada. “It’s the worst noise you can hear. It’s
Hearts of hope and faith
When Estrada visited Venezuela this year, she spent much of the
time searching for food and other necessities. One day, she and her brother managed
to find a bunch of bananas. On the way home, they encountered a father and his two
daughters. One of the little girls kept staring at the fruit. With the father’s
permission, Estrada gave her a banana.
“She didn’t have to say thank you, her eyes said it all,” said
“In spite of it all, the families help each other,” she said. “The
faith that people have, that is what keeps them going. And love of the family.”
The predominantly Catholic country also relies on prayer. Estrada
keeps a novena close by that she and others in the country have been praying.
Hurtado said her mother and friends gather at 3 o’clock every day to pray a
rosary for the country.
Father Puigbó said he and other Venezuelans must stay close to
God even in these difficult times. “Our hope is in Him, not in the government.
We need to trust in His promises,” he said.
Estrada hopes all Americans understand the gift they have in this
country. “We take so much for granted and we put America down so much, (but) we
don’t know how good we have it,” she said.
“Here in the United States, you work for what you want and you
are able to achieve it. Over there, you work and you just dream.”