Venezuela was once known for being one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America – a land of plenty, in some respects. But these days it is known for bare shelves and long lines; the simple task of buying food and basic goods has become a dreadful excursion that can mean hours and hours standing in a queue.
All that people can do as they wait, deeply frustrated by their present situation, is try and imagine that better days are coming soon. But, sadly, there’s no way out – at least for now.
Today, “6 out of 10 Venezuelans have to stand in line to buy food, no matter their social class,” said Roberto León Parilli, president of Venezuela’s National Alliance of Users and Consumers, in a recent interview. To make matters worse, Parilli said that grocery stores and supermarkets are limiting the quantity of items that can be sold – if they don’t run out first.
Andrés Pastrana, the former president of Colombia, told me in a recent interview that in Venezuela, “you may stand in line for seven, eight, nine hours” to buy the basic goods like chicken, corn, milk and toilet paper. (In fact, this has created a whole new industry: stand-ins for grocery store lines, who, for a few bolivars, will wait in line for you.)
Indeed, it seems that everything in Venezuela comes down to waiting and hoping for the best – even when it comes to waiting for justice. During a recent visit to Venezuela, Pastrana and the former president of Chile, Sebastian Piñeira, waited for hours to meet with Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition leader who was imprisoned in February 2014 amid massive anti-government protests. The wait was futile – officials wouldn’t allow Piñeira and Pastrana to meet with López. “There are political prisoners” in Venezuela, a frustrated Pastrana told me. “Can we call that a democracy?”
López, the leader of the Venezuela’s Voluntad Nacional Party, was imprisoned after President Nicolas Maduro’s regime charged him with incitement to revolt. After López turned himself in a year ago, the demonstrations in Caracas and other cities lost strength, although the opposition’s efforts didn’t end. Today, López is more popular than Maduro, and he’s quickly becoming Venezuela’s version of Nelson Mandela. Maduro’s regime knows this, and it’s why they won’t release him.
If things had worked out differently, Carlos Vecchio would be in prison with López. He is Voluntad Nacional’s No. 2 leader, and, like López, an arrest warrant was issued for him last year. But Vecchio hid for 108 days in Venezuela before finally fleeing the country. Today he’s living in South Florida, where I spoke with him recently.
“They came for me in a violent way – armed agents – and I had to hide,” Vecchio told me. And while he doesn’t want Maduro at the helm, he rejects any process of removing him that is not conducted through democratic means, such as a coup or foreign intervention. “That’s madness,” he told me.
Vecchio said that he believes that Venezuelan society is fed up, and that things are slowly changing. So what is the solution for the country’s current political and economic crisis?
He thinks that short of the president resigning, a recall election could be held or a constitutional amendment passed that would cut short Maduro’s term. But Vecchio also realizes that in order for any of those scenarios to actually work, the support of Venezuelans who believe in “democratic Chavismo” would be required.
“I use this term to describe a group of people who believed in [the socialist vision of the late President Hugo Chavez] but today have been defrauded by corrupt elites in power,” Vecchio said. “No transition would be possible without that group of Venezuelans.”
And the time to do something is fast approaching. “This is a perfect storm,” Vecchio said. On one hand, you have Venezuela’s grave economic troubles, including high inflation rates and low oil prices, which are worsening income inequality and spreading poverty. And there is also Venezuela’s skyrocketing rate of violent crime, which officials have not been able to curb. “But you also have the political element. Maduro does not exhibit the political leadership to solve these crises,” Vecchio said.
Indeed, authorizing the military to open fire on demonstrators, as the Maduro regime is alleged to have done, or hiding billions of public dollars in Swiss banks, as government officials are accused of doing, may contribute to the frustration of the people and further hinder Maduro’s ability to lead. But violence and accusations of corruption are not new. What is new in Venezuela these days is hunger – and hunger can take down a government.
If there is nothing left to eat when people reach the end of the line after standing in it a whole day, they blame Maduro. And if this happens, not even the loyal Chavistas will defend him. After all, you can’t eat ideology.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”