The crisis in Venezuela has exploded into a global, humanitarian emergency. Giavanna Bravo reports in this episode of “The Kids Are Alright.”
By Sarah Mende
Years of political and social instability have forced millions of Venezuelans to flee their country. But where are they going? And what about those who stay?
Giavanna Bravo doesn't shy away from asking probing questions in her interviews with a handful of individuals being touched by this crisis.
“Working on The Kids Are Alright allowed me to explore the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis through a new lens," Bravo said. It "allowed me to see the issues that the media fails to cover."
In her third year at Greens Farms Academy high school in the United States, Bravo chose to pick up where we left off last season, when student reporters looked into the root causes of an economic crisis that has spurred famine and human rights abuses.
The Venezuela crisis has become a global issue.
In this episode of The Kids Are Alright, Bravo revisits the topic to update listeners on how a national economic crisis has global resonance.
This episode features Bravo's conversation with Houston-based aid worker Elena Giralt, who provides food and clothes to Venezuelans through the Cuatro Por Venezuela non-governmental organization.
It includes an interview with Carlos Anez, a Venezuelan whose step-father was held in prison in inhumane conditions.
And it features discussions about the future of Venezuela with student activist Gabriela Corredor and Financial Times correspondent Gideon Long.
Listen now to hear from some of the people grappling first-hand with Venezuela's devastating crisis.
Podcast Transcript on Venezuela
Gareth: Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective.
I’m Gareth Lewis.
Amber: And I’m Amber Miller. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community.
Gareth: We return to Venezuela today, where third-year high school student Giavanna Bravo investigates how far the international community and Venezuelans have come since we first explored the roots of the crisis in Season 1.
Giavanna: One year later, we are here again trying to further understand what’s happening in Venezuela. I’m Giavanna Bravo. I am 16 years old. I decided to report on the crisis in Venezuela because it has been something that I have kept my eye on for a long time and have been curious about what underlies what I’ve seen in the media. What has changed since we last zoomed in on the economic, political, and social issues in Venezuela, and how has this national crisis become a global issue?
I started by asking Elena Giralt, who works with Cuatro Por Venezuela: a not-for-profit dedicated to providing immediate supplies to Venezuelans.
Giavanna: Can you talk about the Cuatro Por Venezuela organization and how it started?
Elena: I grew up in Houston, Texas. I’m American, but my parents are Venezuelan and Cuban so we’ve always been very connected to our roots and our identity as Venezuelans.
So in November 2016, Gloria Mattiuzzi --who is the main founder -- Carolina Febres, Maria Elena Texeira and my Mom, Gabriela Rondón, all got together to found an organization with the intent of sending medicine, medical supplies and then, later on, food to Venezuelans living in the country. And the reason for this, Giavanna, is because this is partially what they had all been doing kind of on their own. Because of scarcity of food and resources in Venezuela, what a lot of Venezuelan families had started to do was send food and medicine to their family members.
So there was already a network of people doing this for their loved ones, and my Mom and the three other founders felt like it was important to do this for all Venezuelans, regardless of whether or not they had family living abroad.
Giavanna: Have you seen signs of proactive progress as a result of Cuatro Por Venezuela’s efforts, or do you think that there is more to do?
Elena: Well, there is certainly more to do, but I think a lot of it is outside of our hands. So, in 2018, Cuatro Por Venezuela sent over 60,000 pounds of food, supplies and services. That’s more than U.S. aid has been able to send to the country, and that’s because of geopolitical realities beyond our control. And so, as a nonprofit, as an NGO, it’s really important to understand what you can do and what’s outside of your control. So, Venezuela’s problems as a country really need to be resolved on the governmental level, and we are not a political organization. We are a nonprofit that addresses humanitarian issues.
But it’s very unique, and it feels very personal because every single person who volunteers at Cuatro knows someone in Venezuela or has felt the bitter-sweetness of packing up a box for somebody and sending it to a loved one in Venezuela, and I think that makes such a difference in terms of making sure the shipments get in on time, making sure we have accountable and transparent reporting on all of our activities and making sure that we maintain a good relationship with our donors.
And so, we do our part. We address the needs of the people in our network, but ultimately there’s a lot that needs to change so that Venezuelans won’t have to deal with the scarcity of food, the inflation of their currency and the insecurity that they generally live with.
Giavanna: How has the recognition of Juan Guiado as the new leader affected Cuatro Por Venezuela and its efforts?
Elena: The reality of Venezuela’s political, humanitarian and economic crisis has brought international attention to what’s going on in the country.
But beyond that, I think, again, because Venezuela’s transition government -- that’s all in the political sphere and we really stay with the humanitarian, social sphere. You know, even beyond the recognition of Guaido as interim president, there are other realities like the rolling blackouts in the country and ongoing insecurity that impacts our ability to safely deliver medicine, food and medical supplies. And we never want to put members of our network in danger by sending, you know, boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff to people if we can’t confirm that we can safely receive those goods.
Giavanna: Speaking with Elena helped me to understand how much of the aid and supplies needed in Venezuela was coming from non-governmental organizations like Cuatro por Venezuela. But I knew there were more problems to be solved after food and medicine were distributed. What was being done to protect the civil and political liberties of Venezuelans?
Carlos: Hey, this is Carlos.
Giavanna: Hey, this is Giavanna.
Carlos: Hi Giavanna. How are you doing?
Giavanna: I’m good. How are you?
Carlos: Good, good. Doing alright!
Giavanna: Could you go into more detail about how your step-father ended up in jail?
Carlos: The Saturday before, they received a message from former President of PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) saying, “We need to have an emergency meeting. I need all Venezuelan vice presidents to come down.” So my step-dad and other vice presidents included -- they had been promoted to vice presidential positions within about an eight-week period before they had to take this trip. So they flew down the very next day on Sunday. They had meetings at the PDVSA headquarters on Monday. On Tuesday morning, my step-dad texted my Mom saying, “Hey, I’m coming home tonight.” And we said “okay", which is great because he’s going to be here for Thanksgiving. He’s going to be here for my daughter’s third birthday. As the day went on, suddenly I started getting phone calls from my wife, my brother in law. My wife called again. And they told me, “Have you seen the news? Do you know what’s going on?" and I said no. And that’s when I started digging and found the news that my dad and the other five executives had been detained by Venezuelan authorities and they had been locked up in a counter military intelligence facility called the DGCIM. And, apparently, it was a bit of an ambush that Tuesday when they showed up to their meeting, there were nothing but armed guards there to take them in. Five of the six guys are U.S. citizens, but because Venezuela doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, nobody from the U.S. has been allowed to see them, whether it’s council or they are related to healthcare. No one from the U.S. has been able to see them in over a year and a half.
Like a concentration camp in Venezuela.
Giavanna: Are you aware of any of the conditions that he faces while he is in jail in Venezuela?
Carlos: Absolutely. That facility is known and has been internationally denounced for its systematic torture of the inmates that it holds. A very large majority of the inmates are of military background, and torture is a means of attempting to get information out of them or teaching them lessons to never even think about going against the government again. As far as we know, my Dad and the others have not been physically abused, but they are jam-packed. The wing where my step-dad and the others are staying was built for 22 inmates, and there have been over 70 inmates in there at a time where inmates do not have any kind of surface to sleep on, so they are sleeping in the hallway, on the floor. The lights stay on 24/7, and he only gets to see sunlight for 20 minutes once every two months. So far this year, they have only been taken outside twice. Throughout the first 10 months, they were fed so little food that my step-dad went from 176 pounds down to below 125 pounds. When his brother described him to us, he said that he looked like a prisoner of a concentration camp from the Holocaust. One of the wives that made it down to Venezuela to visit her husband, when she walked in and all of the inmates were lined up -- you’re supposed to just go up to the person who you are there to visit -- and she was in the room and said that she could not recognize her husband. Her husband had to call her to him. That’s how much those men have changed down there. So, we are responsible for feeding them now. We just helped them regain some weight. We give them everything from food, to drinkable water, to their personal hygiene items so toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper. Everything has to be provided by the families. My step-dad hasn’t been once been allowed to see a doctor outside of the attendant that they have at the medical facility. The times he’s been sick, we have to, one of his half brothers down there, has to go to every pharmacy in town to try to find whatever medicine that he needs to get. We pay for all of the stuff for him. And we send boxes of supplies down every two to three months. It’s rough. I mean he has nothing there. He has no idea what’s going on in the outside world. And when the power goes off, then they are in absolute complete darkness with no air circulation because the AC breaks down as well. So it’s very, very tough. It’s a very stressful situation for them down there. And our biggest question, when we think about him coming back is, what his mental state is going to be like?
Giavanna: So you would say that the recognition of the new leader has allowed for you to have more hope for your step-father?
Carlos: Yeah, I mean there’s another side to the story now that government that was in charge seems to be beginning to lose its control, and adding somebody who is trying to get justice for political prisoners, who’s trying to make a positive change in the country gave a little bit of hope that this would somehow soon get resolved.
What I would like to request, if anybody can, is to contact your representatives and let them know that there are American citizens that are illegally detained in Venezuela and that we’ve been trying to get those people out for over a year and a half without success. And, at this point, we need all the help that we can get to get them back.
The story of Carlo’s father is hard to listen to. And unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. But there are grassroots movements around the world fighting for justice and campaigning to raise awareness. I reached out to a student at the University of Virginia to share how young people are mobilizing against injustices happening to innocent Venezuelans.
Giavanna: What got you interested and passionate about the Venezuelan crisis?
Gabriela: So, I’m from Venezuela . I moved at the age of nine, but that did not mean that I would not go back. I used to go back all the time to stay connected with Venezuela, and that also meant that I saw how the situation was deteriorating. It went from like, “OK, so my favorite snacks are not there anymore,” to, “Oh my god, we have to take toilet paper because there is none and my family that’s there needs toilet paper -- and so does every human being.”
Giavanna: What kind of work have you been involved in as an activist?
Gabriela: I graduated this past May from the University of Virginia, and at the University of Virginia I came across a group called Towards a Better Latin America, and it’s primarily composed of international students who are from Latin American countries, like Central and South America.
We made an exhibit for the people of Charlottesville to kind of have a place where they can not only read about it, what’s going on, but experience it. So it was a tent where there were three different walls that were covered with information. Everything from about how the situation started, focusing on economic, social, political facts. And then we were working with the United Nations branch of the refugees and migrants in Brazil. So that was kind of the whole focus. But in the middle of the tent, which is really neat because we created like a picture that would come to life, so it was an exhibition of the actual conditions that were perfectly re-created because the day was actually rainy and stormy, and it was quite terrible, and that was very much what people needed to see because when you see something in a picture, it doesn’t impact you as much, and when you see it like there’s this mattress, no more like a piece of foam. This is where people have to sleep with their family. So, that’s the type of activism that rattles the whole community, and it shook things up, and we had people that were against the fact that we were doing an exhibition because they do not agree that Venezuela was in a crisis, and that’s when we started to get people talking, and because that’s what I ultimately hope for with our activism, that people can ask questions, they just don’t take the information as granted, but they’re motivated to go further and look for articles and further information, and then even like yourself, like interviewing other people who have been through the similar experiences.
Amber: Gideon Long is the Andean Correspondent for The Financial Times, based in Colombia. In his work, he’s covered places like Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela.
Giavanna: How come you decided to cover this region for the Financial Times?
Well, I was actually based in Chile for a long time, so I’ve been in Latin America for a while and just a couple of years ago decided to move north and base myself in Bogota. Because I think Venezuela is one of the key stories in Latin America at the moment.
Giavanna: Based on your coverage of the story, what do you think Venezuelans are most in need of right now?
Gideon: I think that they are in most need of a change. A change of government, there’s been this stalemate now over the last six months, and actually really over the last three years, between the Venezuelan government, backed by Russia and China, and the Venezuelan opposition, backed by the United States and European Union countries. What Venezuelans need in the longer and medium terms is a change, a change of direction. I think in the shorter term, what they need are medicines and food. I’ve been in Venezuela several times this year, and I’ve seen the problems Venezuelans have accessing even basic foodstuffs. On many occasions, the problem is not so much scarcity. There is food in the shops. There is food in the markets, but many people just simply do not have the money to buy it. There’s also a real shortage of medicines. I usually end up, when I cross the border from Colombia to Venezuela, taking medicines to Venezuelan friends, colleagues who are in Caracas, who say that they just can’t get the medicines right now. So, in the short term, they need food and medicine, in the longer term, they need a political solution.
Giavanna: What do you think they care most about right now? Do you think more focused on leaving Venezuela or surviving until the crisis ends?
Gideon: I think it depends. I think it depends on your situation. It depends where you are in the country. The very poorest, I think many have taken the decision that they simply cannot survive in Venezuela any longer and that their only option is to leave. I’ve done quite a lot of reporting on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and you see migrants arriving from Venezuela to Colombia, and literally they are carrying everything they own in one plastic bag. And these are people that have clearly decided that their only option is to get out of the country. But, there are other people who are maybe slightly better off, and they’ve decided that their best option is to sit this out and wait for things to change and also to campaign for change, to protest on the streets until they bring about some sort of change that will make lives better for their country as a whole.
Giavanna: When it comes to providing supplies like food, water, and medical supplies, do you think that non-profit organizations are playing a vital role in resolving the crisis? Are people actually benefiting from them?
Gideon: I do, but the issue of providing humanitarian aid to Venezuela has been very difficult. For a long time, the government of President Nicolas Maduro rejected the idea that Venezuela needed aid. He said -- I’m going back to the start of this year -- he said that Venezuelans are not beggars, we don’t need to be given food, we can provide for ourselves. This really came to a head as an issue in February this year when there was a U.S.-orchestrated plan to carry food across the borders from Colombia and Brazil into Venezuela, and the Venezuelan military blocked the bridges to stop that aid from coming through because they said they didn’t need it. The main humanitarian aid organizations -- I’m thinking of Caritas, Save the Children -- did not get involved in that bid to take humanitarian aid across the borders, but they said that the conditions were not there to guarantee the safe delivery of that food. So, I think quite rightly, they didn’t get involved. Since then, the government has relented slightly and has allowed for some humanitarian aid to come into the country, some of it has been coming from Mr. Maduro’s allies from Russia, particularly, but some of it has also been brought in by Caritas, for example, which has managed to get some humanitarian aid into the country. But clearly, it is not enough to feed the entire population of Venezuela, which is something like 28 million.
Giavanna: Do you think that the refugee crisis makes it harder to solve the crisis in Venezuela?
Gideon: I think that part and parcel, they are the same thing. Whether it makes it more difficult to reach a political solution, I don’t know. I think what it does is, it turns a focus onto the Venezuelan crisis, and a few years ago, the Venezuelan crisis was really a national crisis, and then it became more of a sub-regional crisis, that started to affect the immediate neighboring countries, Colombia and Brazil. But now it is a regional Latin American crisis, you can actually say it is a global crisis, or it should be seen as a global crisis, just in terms of the sheer numbers that are coming out. And that means that people are not talking about the crisis only in Venezuela, they are now talking about it in Colombia, in Brazil, in Peru, in Chile, in Mexico, in the United States as well, and in Europe. And the fact that so many people have left the country and they’re telling their stories of what the situation is like in Venezuela has brought the Venezuelan crisis to the public eye, and that might increase pressure on the politicians and particularly the government in Caracas to actually reach an agreement, the fact that the EU and the U.S. are now looking at this might make it easier to reach some sort of settlement on the Venezuelan political situation.
Giavanna: Do you think that the recognition of Juan Guaidó has given people the sense that is there an end in sight?
Gideon: I think that was certainly the case back in January when he first emerged. There was a sense of euphoria that the Venezuelan opposition had finally unified behind one leader, and that that leader had the support of the United States and many countries in Latin America and also in Europe. People were telling me in January, February, that, really, the crisis was almost over, it would just be a matter of weeks or months before Nicolas Maduro was forced to resign in Venezuela, and there would be a new government. But that sense of euphoria has dissipated over recent months, we’re now in this sense, mostly because Mr. Maduro is still in power, he hasn’t been removed, and there’s now a sense of deadlock and the sense that this could actually drift on for many months and possibly many years. And that maybe there is not going to be quick solution to this and that Juan Guaidó is not going to be installed as the interim president and that we have to rethink things and that maybe it's going to take longer to bring about a solution. So, yes, initially there was a euphoria behind Juan Guaidó, but that euphoria has largely faded away in recent months.
Giavanna: Do you think there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the near future?
Gideon: I would just say that if you look at the numbers, the Venezuelan migration crisis is as big or bigger than the migration crises in Syria, in Myanmar and in South Sudan, and I don’t think that has really come to the attention of the world yet, but the numbers leaving Venezuela -- four million so far, the UNHCR says that it can be up to five million by the end of this year, the Organization of American States says that it can rise to up to eight million people by the end of 2020. This is a huge migration crisis, and I don’t really think that the world has woken up to it yet.
The situation is one of deadlock. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that light lies in the fact that the two sides are talking to each other, but I don’t think that there will be any quick solution to the Venezuelan crisis anytime soon.
From my reporting, I overall have a better understanding about how the Venezuelan crisis has affected so many people and how it has led to a refugee crisis in South America. I have a better understanding of what is being done to help the conflict in a way that is not necessarily diplomatic, but more done through a series of grassroots efforts. I think that if we want to help those who are suffering from the crisis, we should be donating to organizations like Elena’s or doing activism like Gabriela. I hope that by hearing about this crisis from those who are being affected and helping to resolve it, you have a better understanding of the crisis’s effects as well as inspired to do something about an issue that you care about.
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