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venezuela's mass migration is a crisis at the kitchen table

Crisis at the Kitchen Table

Venezuela's mass migration reflected in one family's eyes.

Words: Andrea Pimentel
Pictures: Paul Hanaoka

Last month, as the power switched off for the fourth night in a week in Maracaibo, a mother, father, and their two teenage girls gathered around the kitchen table to discuss their future. They and others living in the areas of Venezuela affected by the regular power outages have lost all semblance of a normal life. From the absence of milk and sugar in their morning coffee to the necessary hours devoted to searching for food and basic medicine, all while the girls are home from school for the second week in a row because of power outages and civil unrest. Oh, and that hospital the mother has been working at for over twenty years? Patients can no longer afford an appointment, and those who arrive at the ER are forced to bring their own medical supplies because the hospital stores are depleted.

At the kitchen table they discussed how just a few months ago, the mother and her husband got in their car and drove eight and a half hours to Caracas to purchase insulin, allergy, and hypertension medications, scarcely found in Maracaibo, needed for family members. They feared muggings on their journey, but they also feared military checkpoints. Since early 2014, Venezuela has banned the shipping and movement of medication and food. Government-set price controls have resulted in widely variable costs of medicine — in a neighboring area, the price could be 6 times less expensive.

They masked food at the bottom of the trunk, filled holes and crevices with hypertension pills, and harbored six months’ worth of insulin under sweaters at the bottom of their feet – they felt like regular delinquents. Fear-stricken, they watched as military guards glanced in their car at multiple checkpoints along the way. The possible consequence of moving medicine and food from one city to another? Prison. At a minimum, guards would raid everything in their car and leave them with no medicine for their family.

At the kitchen table, silence filled the room. They knew they would have to make a trip again soon; their normal life from months ago is no longer in sight and surviving is a full-time job.

They masked food at the bottom of the trunk, filled holes and crevices with hypertension pills, and harbored six months’ worth of insulin under sweaters at the bottom of their feet – they felt like regular delinquents.

The mother has limited communication with her extended family who has fled to the United States and Europe. She is the only one of her five siblings to remain in Maracaibo.

The family at the kitchen table, discussing their future, is mine. My aunt, my uncle, and my cousins. Twenty years earlier, the “calle ciega,” or dead-end street, they live on was also my home. My immediate family, grandparents, cousins, and four aunts and uncles from both sides of my family all lived on the same block. Busy street, I know. Even though I was eight years old at the time, I remember the adults gathering for midday coffee at my grandparents’ house across the street and the many evening get-togethers with the whole family. My cousins and I played outside until one of us inevitably scraped a knee or fell off a bike or it just got too dark. Then we all called it a night and returned to our respective homes for dinner, baths, and bedtime.

Today, our homes are locked up and abandoned. And last month, my aunt faced that same difficult decision that her siblings had already made: Do I lock up the house, abandon my profession, and join the four million Venezuelans who have already migrated to start from scratch in a new country?

As a young woman who grew up between Maracaibo and the United States, I witnessed the decline of my native country’s democratic institutions and the increasing struggle that my family and friends who remained faced. Life was changing for everyone, and yet we were not encouraged to talk about the situation. Questions and opinions were often met with “Calladita te ves más bonita,” which translates to “You look prettier when you’re quiet.” This was a common saying I heard growing up, often directed at young women.

How can we expect solutions to be born from silence? A disagreement of thought does not equate to disrespect or disunity, but to the critical underpinnings of a democracy. After all, democracies do not necessarily exist in perpetuity; they are maintained by the commitment of the people to include all voices. And inclusive democracies are less vulnerable to the pitfalls of divisive rhetoric and policies that perpetuate inequality and contribute to cyclical instability. The active participation and representation of women, marginalized communities, people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and other diverse voices is no silver bullet, but studies indicate that it is a step in the right direction to remedy the causes of long-standing injustices that destabilize countries like Venezuela and hold us back in the United States.

I was in my second year of college in April of 2013, when presidential elections were held in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez had just passed, and though Nicolas Maduro had been selected by Chavez to be his successor, the notion of fair and free elections had resurfaced on the back of Henrique Capriles, a state governor and presidential candidate running against Maduro. Following the election remotely, often from my friend’s dorm room, proved challenging considering Maduro dominated state broadcasting channels. He frequently used threats of violence leading up to election day, and reports of voters who were “assisted” by electoral workers while voting, the use of fake IDs, and other forms of voting irregularities circulated during and after the election.

During my first internship in Washington, DC, I watched  Dr. Valerie M. Hudson, an expert on gender and international security, testify before the 115th US Congress that the best predictor for state stability was women’s disempowerment at the household level. Hudson’s research measured eleven indicators, ranging from violence against women to their access to property rights, and studied their compelling predictions of state political instability, absence of freedoms, and propensities for internal conflict. Patriarchal systems of governance, marginalization, and institutionalized oppression all sow seeds of division to be reaped in the form of greater conflict and record-breaking displacement.

Venezuela’s political, economic, and humanitarian crisis has catalyzed South America’s largest mass migration in history. Presently, this crisis is second only to that in Syria. This past June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported a staggering four million people have fled Venezuela, with one million having left in just the last seven months. Worrying trends point towards an increasing number of children and mothers, specifically pregnant women, setting off to cross the Venezuela-Colombia border.

Hyperinflation has plummeted the country’s currency to the extent that life savings are worthless, everyday goods are dollarized, and bartering is becoming increasingly commonplace.

The Organization of American States (OAS) predicts that the migrant flow out of Venezuela could surpass eight million people by the end of 2020, a number so distressing that it is hard to conceptualize for many. But not for me. Those are my friends, my cousins, my sisters, my brother, my mom, my dad, and me. Three weeks ago, my aunt and her family packed up and fled their home in Maracaibo. They will be four of the additional four million people expected to leave in the next year and a half.

The solutions to the challenges that surpass our borders start at home. The intentional inclusion of diverse voices fosters innovation, and innovation is in demand on the floor of Congress, in communities around the world, and at the table discussing situations like that of my family in Venezuela. Intensifying crises of this nature around the world signal that a cultural change in national security and foreign policy is needed. To the women reading this, your contributions to foreign policy and national security are valued, and the world needs you. It needs us.

Andrea Pimentel is an Intern at Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) and a graduate of Florida State University, where she studied International Affairs.

Andrea Pimentel

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