At the end of November, I finally received my Venezuelan passport and in early December I went back to Venezuela after a 15 year absence. I left the country almost 50 years ago and have been back 4 times since then. I was in a place where so much looked familiar and evoked lost memories yet everything felt different.
The people looked the same but their ways took some adjusting to. One significant difference was their acknowledgement of the sacred even in the smallest details. I grew up during a time when the country was most prosperous and there was abundance, the most common conversation was the next party or the next jaunt to Miami to buy stuff; back then Venezuelans were known as the ones who always bough two of everything and as the largest consumer of scotch whisky in the world.
The narrative now includes an acknowledgment of God in everyones life and conversations are peppered with awareness, acknowledgement and a deeper consciousness that life depends upon something much bigger than all of us.
The last 25 years have been unprecedentedly difficult for Venezuelans. President Hugo Chavez started in 1999 by making needed adjustments to every aspect of life through his Bolivarian Revolution; from the changing of the name of the country to the way history was taught, Chavez wanted to decouple the country from its colonial past and from its dependence to the United States.
In 2008 when I visited last, I saw many positive changes that impacted the average person in the streets. It was great to see senior citizens who had free access to basic services and were paid their pensions after waiting for so many years wondering if they were getting anything. The revenue of the oil bonanza on the early 2000’s was used to help many of the poor.
In the other hand, President Chavez also let loose a spirit of division by fomenting a hate of the upper classes. He suppressed the press, manipulated electoral laws and arrested and exiled government critics. In systematic and in ever present ways life in Venezuela became all about Chavez and his presence everywhere. Upon his death at the age of 58 in early 2013 he basically handed power to Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who has ruled the country till now.
Food and medicine shortages have led to waves of major daily protests since 2014. Although at this time, the protests have diminished as people are simply tired. I sense that Venezuelans who have stayed, are trying to recover some of their lost dignity. In spite of the the fact that all standards of life have diminished. For example, between November and December the basic food basket for a family of 4 has gone up from $480 to $522. Estimations by the United Nations and HumanRights Watch large numbers have experienced extrajudicial killings and more than seven million Venezuelans have been forced to leave the country, the majority simply walking away.
At the end of 2023, I found people with cautious hope and measured expectations. The previous painful and dark years have rooted people into a fresh awareness of their need for each other as a community and of God collectively.
In this complex scenario, for the last seven years I have worked together with local financial support to mentor and advise young leaders committed to the people and the country. We are now focused on three initiatives that generate several service possibilities which we would like to see replicated.
The first one is in Colonia Tovar, the German village east of Caracas. There we continue to grow vegetables to provide to the needy.
Secondly, is a co-working space in the business center of Valencia (Venezuela’s main industrial city). It is now used for startups, events and even a church gathers there weekly. We are also about to launch a radio station which will serve these groups. We aim to enable new communities to emerge out of these enterprises.
Finally, in partnership with Camino Alliance www.caminoalliance.org we are initiating a project in Flor Amarillo, a popular district of Valencia where we intend to run a live-in facility for Hagios our online training program. The goal is to have each student start a business to meet a community need and establish a new community.