Venezuela was, until relatively recently, one of the richest countries in Latin America. Due to its vast oil reserves, and the revenue they brought in, they were able fund food subsidies health care and education programmes. Under the presidency of Hugo Chavez (1999–2013) unemployment and poverty halved and personal incomes doubled. Chavez nationalized the oil industry and used the profits for welfare programmes.

Chavez dies in 2013 and was replaced Nicolas Maduro, who continued with the spending programme. However, the price of oil had collapsed and so Venezuela slid into debt. By 2014 the country had experienced food shortages and a lack of basic goods as well as high levels of violence. Inflation was running at over 60% and, with continued falling oil prices, the country entered into recession. Consequently, the government was forced to cut public spending, which disproportionately affected poorer Venezuelans.

In 2017 and 2018 a series of elections were held in which opposition leaders and some external observers claimed to be unfair and undemocratic. By the end of 2018 over 3 million people had fled Venezuela due to major food shortages and a lack of access to medicines. Some 60% of the population were said to be living in extreme poverty and a further 20% in poverty. Some 85% of hospitals had no running water.

Maduro was inaugurated as president again in 2019. However, the leader of the opposition Juan Guaido, claimed the presidency on the grounds of a national emergency. The USA backed Guaido. Maduro responded by expelling all US diplomats from Venezuela, although the US agreed to maintain support and keep diplomatic relations with Guaido. In February 2019 aid from the US arrived at the Venezuelan border with Colombia, but was blocked by Maduro, who stated Venezuelans were not ‘beggars’. Guaido announced that he would transport and distribute the aid.

The Las Tienditas bridge between Venezuela and Colombia remains blocked to prevent unauthorised access to Venezuela
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since 2015 some 3 million people have left Venezuela and the UN believes a further 2 million will leave this year. It is another example of how a country’s fortunes can change rapidly, and that there needs to be a response that deals with the basic needs of all members of society if the country is to survive.