The worst humanitarian crisis in modern Venezuelan history is unfolding against the backdrop of a power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Because Maduro's government has refused to publish basic data, it is virtually impossible to know the full scale of the disaster. But human rights organizations, independent agencies, and journalists on the ground have painted a gruesome picture of a country in economic ruin, with crumbling infrastructure leading to chronic power blackouts and residents unable to meet basic human needs.
Food shortages began in earnest in 2015, when supermarket shelves went empty. Venezuelans reported waiting hours to get the few items available for purchase each day.
While that part of the crisis has lessened in the past year, hyperinflation and the price of food have risen severely. As a result, many Venezuelans face a double bind: Either they cannot find basic staples or they cannot afford them.
In a study published in 2018 by a group of Venezuelan universities, 61 percent of survey respondents said they went to bed hungry on a regular basis, with 89 percent saying they did not have enough money to buy food. Over 60 percent reported having lost weight as a result of food scarcity.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirmed in 2018 that the rate of undernourishment in Venezuela has more than doubled, from less than 5 percent between 2008 and 2013 to 11.7 percent between 2015 and 2017.
Putting food on the table is not the only problem Venezuelans face. The most recent and comprehensive report, released by Human Rights Watch, revealed the country's health care system to be in "utter collapse" marked by severe shortages of medicines and health supplies, hospitals without regular access to utilities, and the deterioration of emergency services. The study confirmed numerous reports that outbreaks of once-eliminated vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, have resurfaced. Maternal and infant mortality rates have also risen dramatically.
How could it get this bad? While U.S. sanctions imposed in 2017 may have played a role, it was ultimately the Venezuelan government that created the conditions for today's catastrophes.
Back in the mid-2000s, the late President Hugo Chávez had direct access to the highest oil windfalls of any administration in Venezuelan history. He engaged in reckless spending, nationalized and ruined hundreds of private firms, and installed a currency control scheme that distorted the prices of imported goods.
This had grave consequences. By 2017, the FAO found, domestic food production in Venezuela could sustain just 30 percent of the population. The group cited the regime's destruction of the farm industry as one of the main reasons.
As the price of oil declined and money began to run out in 2015, Maduro—Chávez's hand-picked successor—acted to curb food imports at a time when Venezuelans needed them most.
Initially, Maduro denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis. When he could no longer hide the problems, he blamed them on an "economic war" by the United States, which he said was bent on destroying his regime.
For years, Maduro refused to allow aid of any kind into the country, saying it was a foreign intervention disguised as humanitarian assistance. He finally relented in late March, allowing the Red Cross to bring in food and medicine under his strict supervision.
The government's reasons for controlling the flow of aid are sinister. A 2016 investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the reselling of scarce goods has become a means of personal profit for the armed forces. The humanitarian crisis thus plays into the regime's hands: By controlling lucrative food and medicine resources at the ports, Venezuela's military enriches itself and is less likely to heed calls by the opposition to abandon Maduro.
But most poor Venezuelans cannot afford to purchase food at all. Their only hope is in handouts provided by Maduro. According to the 2018 study, 87.5 percent of citizens were receiving government food boxes in 2017. As a result, millions of people are caught in a dependence trap that drastically increases the cost of mobilizing against the current regime.