Venezuelans Booking Vacations to U.S. to Buy Food, Toilet Paper

A woman leaves after buying toilet paper at a supermarket of Petare neighborhood in Caracas, on June 13, 2016. Facing mounting pressure from food shortages, looting and increasingly violent protests, Venezuelan authorities on Friday announced the next stage of a recall referendum against embattled President Nicolas Maduro. / AFP / …

Venezuela has largely run out of food. It has also run out of medicine and basics like toilet paper, soap, and laundry detergent. The situation has become so dire after 17 years of socialist rule, CNN reports, that Venezuelans with the means to do so are now traveling to the United States just to stock up on food and toilet paper.

Carmen Mendoza tells CNN that, when she visited her daughter’s neighborhood Whole Foods in New York, she cried. “You are so happy when you find something as basic as milk,” she said, “my eyes got wet.” She had been unable to use toilet paper for a month.

Venezuelan-Americans tell CNN that they have had to host numerous friends and relatives who, rather than spend their money on the few rationed goods the government allows them to buy in Venezuela, have decided to fly to the United States and enjoy the benefits of a developed society there for as long as they can afford it. One man told CNN he saved two years’ worth of money to fly to the United States with his family so that his children can enjoy luxuries like medicine and soap.

CNN notes that getting to America from Venezuela is difficult, impeded severely by Venezuelan government regulations and sanctions on the government imposed in response to years of human rights violations. “In addition to no direct flights, no airline flying to the U.S. will accept Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, because it’s lost so much value,” CNN notes. “Travelers must use cash savings or rely on loved ones in the U.S. for help.”

Venezuelans have been leaving their nation for the United States in droves since late dictator Hugo Chávez assumed power, turning the developed South American democracy into an impoverished socialist backwater state.

Pew notes that the number of Venezuelans living in the United States skyrocketed nearly 400 percent between 1990 and 2013 (Chávez took power in 1998, though he attempted a coup in 1992). Many of these, however, were the Venezuelans with the most resources to leave the country, as evidenced by their educational backgrounds. Pew notes that Venezuelan-Americans have, on average, attained higher education levels than the U.S. population overall, not just the U.S. Hispanic population, and 70 percent speak English proficiently.

The number of Venezuelans fleeing their country upon Chávez’s assumption of power, though certainly spiking significantly after Nicolás Maduro took over in 2013, reflects a slow-burn decline of the nation’s economy, political freedom, and the solidity of its democratic institutions. Reports that Venezuela had run out of toilet paper began as early as May 2013 — two months into Maduro’s tenure — but, by 2015, even luxury hotels were warning travelers to pack their own.

The average Venezuelan’s struggle to find three meals a day has also developed into the threat of famine. A June survey found that 90 percent of Venezuelans do not have enough money for three meals a day; a poll in September found that 15 percent of Venezuelans are living off of garbage thrown away by local businesses.

Children fainting in class because of hunger has become a common sight, and an estimated 48 percent of school absences are attributed to hunger, according to a survey by the firm More Consulting.

The decline has triggered violence. Mobs regularly attack supermarkets and trucks transporting food, and fights in supermarket lines — which can last up to eight hours — are common. In Venezuela’s border communities, tens of thousands congregate, demanding to be let through to neighboring Colombia, where markets can regularly restock their shelves.

Nicolás Maduro has done little to address the hunger. He blames the economic circumstances of the nation on the United States and has gone so far as to make lewd jokes about the famine, which Venezuelans have nicknamed “Maduro’s diet,” on national television.


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