explainer

Over 80 babies dead and food fast running out: The Venezuela crisis explained.

Venezuela has spent the last six days in darkness. A nationwide blackout has left already-scarce food to spoil, water pumps to stop working, schools to close and ailing hospitals unable to operate life-saving equipment.

According to media reports from the South American nation, at least 21 people, including six babies, have died as a direct result of the power outage, which is believed to stem from poor maintenance of the country’s main, state-run powerplant – a result of government corruption, the opposition says.

More recent reports suggest that number has climbed to more than 300, after 296 people, including 80 babies, died at the University Hospital of Maracaibo. With no electricity, and therefore no internet or mobile phones, there is a lack of information on the exact death toll.

Sadly, the number of dead is only expected to rise in the coming days once communication can be established with hospitals and the true extent of the emergency becomes clear.

This lethal blackout is just the latest blow for a country already in deep distress.

What is happening in Venezuela?

Venezuela is in the grips of an economic crisis. Access to medical care is limited, clean water is scarce and food supplies are dwindling, yet rather than accept international aide, the country’s President Nicolás Maduro has so far addressed the crisis by printing more cash.

As a result the nation’s currency is so inflated that according to EuroNews, in January one month’s wage could buy just five cups of coffee or half a burger.

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The situation is so desperate, that the United Nations has predicted that 5.3 million people will have left the country by the end of 2019 — that’s one in six residents, and the largest human displacement in Latin American history.

Camille Bello is among those to have fled.

To hear Camille’s full story and insight from the former Australian ambassador to Venezuela, catch The Quicky. Post continues after audio.


Speaking to Mamamia‘s daily podcast, The Quicky, the Venezuelan national who recently moved to France explained that due to the scarcity of food in her home country, restrictions have been placed on certain items – milk, for example – limiting the quantity people can purchase. Regardless, supermarket shelves are often bare, allowing a black market to spring up, in which ordinary supermarket items are being flogged at up to 30 times the regular price.

“Just making a cake would never be an easy thing to do, because you would never find the eggs, the sugar and the flour at the same place. And sometimes you would not even find it – not even one of them,” she said. “Some people wake up at 3:00 in the morning to stand in a queue outside supermarkets, making street long lines, waiting to see if the supermarket will open or not… Sometimes supermarkets don’t even open after people have been waiting for hours, because the truck that was coming with a product didn’t make it.”

To make matters worse, she said, medicines and personal hygiene products, like toothpaste and toilet paper, are also “almost impossible to find”. And many hospitals have run out of basic supplies from cotton to anaesthesia and medications, to surgeons’ clothing.

Instead, people are turning to violence to get what they need.

“Everyone I know has been involved in some sort of robbery kidnap or similar,” she said. “And everyone’s a target, not only women but men as well. Caracas is the most dangerous city in the world, and the situation today is getting worse by the minute.”

People queue outside a supermarket in Caracas. Image: Getty.
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What's caused the crisis?

Venezuela has been a socialist nation since the 1990s, meaning the majority of industries and social services are under the control of the government, rather than private corporations.

But it's one industry in particular that's caused major problems for Venezuela: oil.

The government has invested heavily in 'black gold', at the expense of other industries like agriculture, mining and manufacturing. As a result, the country's economy is hugely dependent on its oil production and the price barrels can fetch. As both have dropped significantly in recent years, they've dragged the economy with it.

As the economic crisis cripples the country, a political battle rages at the top of the government, dashing any hope of a resolution to the crisis.

After winning presidential elections in July 2018, President Nicolás Maduro claimed to be Venezuela’s constitutional leader. But on January 23, 2019, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, disputed the result and declared the presidency vacant. Guaidó said that in such cases, the constitution gives the head of the National Assembly the right to take over, and so announced himself to be acting president.

But Maduro hasn't backed down, leaving the country in the bizarre situation of having two presidents at once. In the eyes of 50 western governments, though - including the United States and Canada - Guaidó is Venezuela's legitimate leader.

The interim leader has called for further sanctions on his country, and the US has so far willingly obliged, agreeing that Maduro and his allies have long used Venezuela's state-run oil company as a vehicle for corruption and embezzlement.

As for Venezuelans themselves, the vast majority want Maduro out of the way. And the deadly blackout is only strengthening their determination.

"[By staying in office] they have done so much damage to their country," Bello said, "that it will take years to repair what they've done."

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