Venezuela Conversation at Menlo Church

Last year Next Step hosted an event at Menlo Church which outlined the historical issues and economic problems with Venezuela. We thought the problems would be somewhat short-lived with the possible and immanent replacement of President Nicolas Maduro with opposition leader Juan Guaido. Then things went south. Guaido has been struggling with a scandal that threatens his political aspirations.

So in the meantime. Nothing much has changed with Venezuela. Every day 5000 Venezuelans leave the country. Those who stay behind struggle with an economy that has seen inflation approach 2 million percent each year . Maduro recently raised the minimum wage 300% to $6.70 per month. The Venezuelan refugee crisis (4.6 million) is about to surpass the Syrian refugee crisis in terms of sheer numbers.

In 2019, Next Step partnered with Menlo Church to host a conversation regarding the problems with Venezuela and possible solutions. Speakers included Professor Diego A. Zambrand (Stanford University), Carlos Suarez (Justice International), Diego Travieso (Operation Blessing) and Wolfgang Fernandez (Next Step). I think we raised $40,000 for Venezuela.

Podcast is here.

We are thankful to Menlo Church and Senior Pastor John Ortberg for allowing this conversation to take place. And to Missions Director Dave Shields who emceed the meeting.

More at tallskinnykiwi

Harvest time

As life continues to be very challenging in Venezuela, we are thankful for our partners who faithfully continue to work hard as they seek to meet needs under unpredictable circumstances. 

This year, we have seen bountiful crops in the 10 acres of land available for us to use. We lost some crops, including 3,000 tomato plants, due to weather related difficulties yet have seen amazing results with black beans, onions, corn, peas, leeks and various other herbs that provide food to a community where scarcity has become the norm.

We recently planted 5 kg. of Peas and harvested 150 kg within 14 weeks .

This is Juan Carlos who is an Agronomist and overseas the planting work.

We also planted 1 kg. of corn seed yielding a lovely harvest of 300 kg in just 12 weeks!

We are currently ready to harvest leeks and onions. Renyer, is a student learning how to work the land. We are anticipating a good harvest with these as well.

These are some of the practical ways your support enables Juan Carlos and Renyer enabling the ministry to feed their community.

On this Thanksgiving season, we are also thankful for you and your involvement in Venezuela. Thank you so much for your help!

The Refugee, My Sister, My Brother

Let me introduce you to five friends and family who are courageously seeking to make life work in nations much different from theirs.  They carry the ‘refugee’ identity with great honor and responsibility.

Haitham and Abeer with child

Haitham and Abeer are Syrians now living in Germany. They live with a local family with whom they now share very close bonds. 
Living in Germany, they treasure democracy, freedom and care for everyone. Safety is of great importance. They appreciate the kindness shown to them and the order Germans experience in normal life. They were taken by surprise by the bureaucracy of the system, there is paper work for everything! They believe that Germans could learn how Syrian families care and support one another. They also think that Syrian food would be good for Germans!

Yaser Naseri

Yaser Naseri is an Iranian living in Australia. I asked him to share some insights into his life.
I miss many things. The family and friends, the neighborhoods, the streets and little alleys where I grew up. The trips with close friends and the smell of different seasons which is very different back home. The little villages I used to go for holiday. Gatherings with families and friends. I really miss part of Iranian culture. I love the freedom and the diversity here. I love the fact that people work hard for their goals and it seems they are more goal orientated and have plans compared to people of Iran. I love the advanced Tech which make people’s life very easy. I also love the beauty of this country at each corner of it whether it is the beach or bush or in the middle of the CBD. I love how they respect human rights at least for their people and provide all sort of support for people with different needs. I love that religion doesn’t rule here. Great democracy! I also love the education system with all the support they provide for their citizens.What is something that has really surprised you there?Well, cultural shock has happened to me for sure. High level of freedom was the first thing. The way people dress, the beaches that I was not used to full of girls with bikinis. One thing that was a real surprise for me was when I learnt what had happened to aboriginals here and a greater surprise when I figured it was so recent, (maybe 50 years ago). it was shocking and still is! The level of directness people have here is surprising too.
One aspect of Iranian culture that Aussies should adopt and why?I believe individualism is killing people here. It is mentally effecting people very badly. I found many people are lonely and suffering from anxiety. I personally can feel it here. On the other hand, in Iran we are the opposite. The culture is based on togetherness. Respect to elders, lots of gatherings, close relationship with relatives. I would drop a bit Iranian culture here and would make it perfect!

Amir Solangi

Amir Solangi is a Pakistani living in USA. He misses daily (family??) members and the respect that people generally give one another. In America, “I can live without being afraid for my life”. 

Angel Rafael Arellano

Angel Rafael Arellano is my cousin living in Bogota, Colombia. His successful consulting business had to close down and at 48 years of age, he had to start from scratch. He misses his wife, kids, parents and siblings. He also misses his friends and close acquaintances. He has enjoyed the prosperity of the city and the strong economy of the country. Most pleasant surprise is the fact that all basic services are available. Loneliness is an ever present challenge. 

Daniel and Dayana Fernández

Daniel and Dayana Fernández, Venezuelans living in Paris. Daniel is my cousin. He is a chef. They recently got married. Life has been safe but hard. Work, work, work. Dayana arrived recently and after her documents were in order they got married. She has struggled with language and a sense of fitting in. They live very modestly in a very small studio with a table and a bed for furniture. The costs are very high but in Paris they need not fear for their lives. They dream of returning home. 

An Upside Down Reality

These days in Bogotá, Colombia, one can find Venezuelans everywhere. Many are roaming the streets looking for work, others are asking for a coin to buy bread. It is heart-wrenching to see young kids in odd-sized clothing and dirty faces with either Mom or Dad looking sad and forelorn.

Colombia, with over 20 million more in population than Venezuela, has welcomed over 1.5 million Venezuelans that have simply walked across the border seeking food, medicine and safety.

In spite of its own problems and financial limitation, the local government has offered healthcare, education and even breakfast, lunch and a snack to families that process a permit to stay and legalize their documents.

In the the most amazing turn of events, Venezuelans who once hosted hundreds of thousands of Colombians now come seeking the most basic of necessities.

In the 70’s and 80’s the Venezuelan economy thrived as millions of barrels of oil were sold daily. During the same time, Colombians faced a relentless war against insurgents and drug cartels. Scores lost their lives while the rest lived in constant insecurity. With a stagnant economy, Colombians, mostly illegally, crossed into Venezuela and performed the lowest of jobs.

Colombians, a hardworking and entrepreneurial people, soon were prospering; large amounts of money were flowing back home.

Today the situation is playing out in reverse. After a tenuous yet hard-won peace agreement, Colombia is growing and its economy is expanding. Now the Venezuelans have come there, but competition is fierce and the opportunities are few.

Yesterday, I sat down with Ronald Torrez (28) from Barquisimeto. A father of four ran a successful Patacones business, a fast-selling snack. The crisis in Venezuela made it impossible for him to carry on so he sold his equipment and his house and came to Colombia with his wife and two youngest kids. Grandma took in the two older ones.

Ronald has been working as a mason. He needs to make $14 daily. He pays $7 for a small room for the family and the rest is for food. However, he often falls short and has to beg in the streets.

I offered to buy him some food and he thankfully agreed. He asked me to buy him a bread roll and when I said you must also ask something for your boy, he said okay, two rolls. His humility touched me deeply. 

Refugees share similar experiences globally. They are often not welcome in the host county, they are misunderstood and looked upon with suspicion. They are exploited and they suffer trauma. Refugees do not choose to leave home; rather, they flee for their lives.

On the other hand, they come prepared to work hard. Thankfully, Ronald and his boys are in a place of safety. 

Over 10% of the Venezuelan population have already fled their country in the last two years. As the crisis gets worse, the numbers relentlessly continue. The largest group are coming to Colombia. 

While in Bogotá, I met with my partners and other interested parties to talk about abating the refugees’ plight. We kicked off a process to develop technology to asses the skills of people like Ronald and match them to local job opportunities.

Refugees represent a grim reality and we must proactively help them to help themselves. 

Bogotá presents a great opportunity for this

Malaria Day

On this Malaria Day 2019, when African nations are at the focus of global attempts at eradication, one of the most tragic malaria epidemics exists in Venezuela.

Venezuela was the first nation in the world to be certified by the World Health Organization for eradicating malaria in its most populated areas, beating the United States and other developed countries to that milestone in 1961.

It was a huge accomplishment that helped pave Venezuela’s development as an oil power and fueled hopes that a model to stamp out malaria across the globe was at hand. Since then, the world has dedicated enormous amounts of time and money to beating back the disease, with deaths plummeting by 60% in places with malaria in recent years, according to the W.H.O.

But in Venezuela, the clock has been running backward.

Over the past few years, it all started at the gold mines. With the economy in tatters, at least 70,000 people from all walks of life have been streaming to the southern part of the country, said Jorge Moreno, a leading mosquito expert in Venezuela. As they hunt for gold in watery pits, the perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread the disease, they are catching malaria by the tens of thousands.

Then, with the disease in their blood, they return home to towns and cities. But because of the economic collapse, there is often no medicine and little fumigation to prevent mosquitoes from biting them and passing malaria to others, sickening tens of thousands more people and leaving entire towns desperate for help.

The Chavez-Maduro regime went through 16 Health Ministers in 18 years. Then in 2015 they stopped releasing health data altogether. In 2017 Dr. Antonieta Caporale, Minister of Health, courageously released an alarming report detailing a terrifying increase of malaria and was fired immediately.

It is now estimated that 1 million people have been exposed to the virus, making Venezuela the nation with the fastest growing cases of malaria.

The Maduro regime continues to callously prevent all approaches to mitigate the crisis. In the name of national security, he is not allowing any solution to be introduced.

Venezuela has been here before. Back in the mid 1930’s malaria was the main public threat. 10,000 people died every year and a third of the population was sick. Fortunately, Dr. Arnoldo Gabaldón left a comfortable research position in the US returning home to battle the epidemic.

In 1935, the then dictator Gomez died and new possibilities emerged. The new president declared the malaria epidemic as a national emergency calling Dr. Gabaldon to return. By 1962 malaria was eradicated and no Venezuelan died of malaria. You can read the whole story here.

Today we have powerful new tools to mitigate the advance of malaria. Working with Interim President Juan Guaido, we recently met at a Stanford University conference on Venezuela Dr. Julio Castro, who leads the battle for health in Venezuela. Together with millions of Venezuelans Dr. Castro awaits for the day when malaria can be rolled back once again.

Making a Difference in Venezuela

Dear friends, the situation in Venezuela is very critical at the moment. In the last two weeks the electricity and water supply has been severely limited in 95% of the country due primarily to the lack to maintenance and qualified personnel to properly run it.

Maduro rule is literally destroying the people in this nation. Venezuelans who are able to work, are earning the equivalent of $1 per day (average). This is not enough to provide subsistence for a family. As for example 1 kilo of rice costs $1, 1 kilo of cheese $10, 1 kilo of chicken $18 (when found in stores). 

A working family of 5 can be assisted with two bags per month of basic supplies for $30 per month.

We have been actively involved through two local churches and pastors who have chosen to stay back and minister to people. Their decision is indeed a courageous one as anyone seeking to help outside the existing government structures is viewed as an enemy of the state.

We are directly working with two churches outside of the capital city of Caracas who are helping their local community anyway they can: The Lord is our Refuge Church in Colonia Tovar (42 kms outside Caracas) with Pastor Abihail Lara and New Jerusalem Church in Turmero (90 minutes from Caracas) with Pastor Alexis Cortez.

We would like to provide two bags of food per month to 300 families over the next three months. Each bag contains pasta, rice, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, sanitary napkins for ladies, 1 kg of sugar, 1 kg of flour, 1 kg of precooked meat, 1 dozen eggs. To make this reality, we need to raise

$9,000 each month for a total of $27,000

Once the funds are available, a transfer will be immediately made of 100% of funds to an account that is accessible to our team in Venezuela. They use a debit card there to make wholesale purchases of the goods to be distributed.

We are in touch with our partners on a daily basis. We get receipts and updates for purchases made on a weekly basis. Pictures are sent of goods purchased and then pictures are sent of distribution opportunities. We continue in regular discussions regarding impact and response. 

People need food now and we are prepared to purchase and deliver as soon as possible

Any gift is tax deductible and should go though Next Step Ministries Tax ID 20-0287873  Address: 809 Pinon Ave. Millbrae, CA 94030  

See the video: Walking Backwards: One woman’s journey in Venezuela.

A Decisive Weekend for Venezuela and The Americas

This coming weekend, a slow but decisive process of change is launching. More than 50 nations have recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó who has put in place a recovery plan that starts with Humanitarian Aid of Food and Medicines. Maduro has said that the aid will not come and no one knows what will happen.

After 20 years of Chavez and his handpicked successor Maduro, his failed “Socialism of the 21st Century” has utterly failed. The country of my birth has gone from the land of plenty, where everyone had free access to quality education, decent free medical and dental care and where anyone who worked could provide food and shelter to their families, to a place characterized by despair, hopelessness and a distorted outlook on life.

Venezuela shamefully has the highest inflation rate in the world. By the end of last year, prices were doubling every 19 days on average. This has left many Venezuelans struggling to afford basic items such as food and toiletries. Income loses its purchasing power the moment it is received. The minimum monthly salary is equivalent to US$6, which currently buys three cans of tuna fish. As a result the body weight of Venezuelans has been reduced by an average of 19 pounds!

Venezuela had the most developed economy in Latin America. Since the end of World War II, the country experienced an unprecedented development boost, becoming a magnet for immigrants from Southern Europe, the Middle East and other Latin countries. In the 1980’s the economy began to wobble, its meltdown accelerated by the corruption and poor stewardship under Chavez and Maduro. 

By 2015 medical care collapsed as only 35% of hospital beds were available and 50% of operating rooms were not functioning due to lack of resources. In May of the same year the Venezuelan Medical Federation announced that 15,000 doctors had left the public health care system because of shortages of drugs, equipment and poor pay. Malaria, which was almost non existent in Venezuela, is now projected to rise to over 600,000 cases per year. Measles and diphtheria have also returned with a vengeance.

Life has only become worse for Venezuelans

Venezuelans have left the country in droves. Some estimates are as high as 4 million or 12% of the population. And many of those who have left in the past are not allowed re-entry back into Venezuela with their US visa. Venezuelans are regularly posting requests on social media for blood pressure medicine and other basic medicaments. Many of those supplies have been denied entry and stopped at the border. With Maduro’s announcement that the Brazil border will close, and possibly that of Colombia, this desperate need for supplies will only escalate.

American-Venezuelan family joining in protest in San Francisco, CA

This coming 23rd February, 2019 is the day when the Interim President of Venezuela Juan Guiadó has committed as the decisive moment when the International Humanitarian Aid will come in to begin the process aiming to end some of the darkest days in Venezuelan history.

President Guaidó commands the hearts and minds of the people

The best case scenario is that people will come to the border points to receive humanitarian aid and the Venezuelan soldiers will stand down, allowing them to move freely. Their mothers and siblings will be among them for they also face the same tragic reality.

The interim President has also established a distribution network designed to reach everyone in the whole nation. The BIG question is, “What will the Army do?”

Here’s how you can help Venezuela:

  • Watch Venezuela Live Aid and contribute towards the $100 million Richard Branson is seeking to raise.
  • Read more and share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to create awareness of the needs.
  • Support Next Step as we fund agricultural projects and micro-enterprises in Venezuela.


Venezuela Project

Hope For Venezuela

Death Has Free Reign in Venezuela

Venezuela Article in Lausanne

Death has free reign in Venezuela

Dr. Carlos Bravo knew what fate awaited him. Sebin (Venezuelan Secret Service) had been harassing him for broadcasting videos and commenting on the situation at the University Hospital, one of many hospitals whose capacity to serve patients has effectively been stripped by a government who does not care for the needs of its people.

The funds required to purchase medicines have been depleted, largely as a result of widespread corruption. At the same time, citing “outside interference”, humanitarian aid has not been allowed into the country. The remaining lifeline is individual parcels of the most elemental of resources sent by family and friends from outside the country.

Dialysis patients are not able to have the routine procedures needed to preserve their lives. HIV/AIDS patients long ago stopped receiving their needed medicines. Cancer sufferers have no access to any kind of treatment. People regularly utilize social media to request antibiotics, other basic medicines, and even ointments. On average last year, 31 Venezuelan infants died every day. Many were victims of diarrhea, bacterial infections, and other diseases that, according to the local pediatric society, could have been prevented or easily treated.

“There are vaccines and antibiotics available, but Venezuela is so lacking that these illnesses are coming back,” said Dr. Huniades Urbina, president of the Venezuelan Society of Childhood and Pediatrics.

Deaths of babies younger than one year jumped to 30% in Venezuela in 2016, according to the last available government figures. That is a stark contrast to declines across the rest of Latin America.

The government has long since stopped releasing data on all basic metrics of life in the country. No one is able to know the facts – from inflation and hard currency reserves to causes of death.

On October 20, Pastor Marcelo Coronel, leader of the Merida (main city in the Andes region) Pastors Fellowship learned that one of his church’s members had been detained by the security services. She had with her two boxes of medical supplies to distribute among the needy. She was accused of trafficking and taken into custody. Pastor Coronel voluntarily went to speak on behalf of his church member and has now been kept in jail for over a week.

There is a war against anyone trying to help the people in Venezuela.

This crisis is what drove Dr. Carlos Bravo to give all he had to serve at the hospital where he endeavored to preserve life. Starting as a nurse, then an assistant in surgeries, then a researcher in basic sciences and finally as a general surgeon, he became one of the best in the country.

Dr. Bravo knew that the Sebin basements were waiting for him because they had already called him to tell him that they were waiting outside the hospital to take him away. Terror and the panic destabilized him, for he was claustrophobic and he feared the darkness. Knowing that Sebin would leave him in the basements without light, he injected himself with a solution that ended his life.

Venezuela has lost a servant who loved his people till the end. The country’s human capital continues to be eroded as those who choose to stay and serve are slowly being decimated by a government whose intent is to create a North Korea-like pariah state… even as North Korea starts to reverse its decades-long failed policies.

Venezuela Article on Lausanne

Next Step Director Wolfgang Fernandez, a native of Venezuela, has written an excellent article on the crisis in his country for the Lausanne publication. Highly recommended read.

The Populist Disaster of Venezuela, by Wolfgang Fernandez

Hope for Venezuela

Growing up in Venezuela I was accustomed to abundance. Caracas, the capital city had everything one could want. This prosperity, unfortunately resulted on general “careless” mindset. There were abuses at every level and at the highest levels of governments the abuses were greater. Everything has changed in the last 40 years.

The resulting abuses and injustice created a space that President Hugo Chavez decisively filled in 1999. He defined his leadership as a rally point for the poor to demand what was unjustly taken from them. Chavez became the undisputed leader of the country winning with overwhelming majorities the elections three times. He changed the constitution and even the name of the country.

 In 2008, the last time I was in Venezuela, I saw a lot of progress and could sense that real positive social change had taken place at many levels. People were generally happy and a sense of prosperity was palpable everywhere.

Chavez then, began to project his message beyond the borders of Venezuela becoming a messenger of justice and a “savior” to the poor everywhere. He began by providing badly needed oil to Cuba and other poor Caribbean islands. He even provided cheap oil for the poor in the USA through one of Venezuela companies in the country.

Step by step he changed his role as a solution bearer to one of confrontation against “imperialism”. He weaponized the country purchasing sophisticated arms from Russia. His message began to be diluted as he became obsessed protecting his new found image and  maintaining his grip on power.

His dreams were cut short as he contracted cancer eventually passing away in 2013. In his place, he left Nicolas Maduro, an inexperienced crony who has mismanaged the national resources and has alienated even those who supported Chavez.
Life in Venezuela today, is one of the worst in the whole world. However due to governments information restrictions there is no accurate data since 2016. Last year the Health Minister released an update on the nations health and he was promptly sacked and today is living in exile.

These statistics for 2016 showed infant mortality, or deaths of children aged 0-1, climbed 30.12% to 11,466 cases last year. The report cited neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, and prematurity as the main causes.

Maternal mortality, or death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of a pregnancy, was also up, rising 65.79% to 756 deaths, the report said.
There were also 240,613 cases of malaria last year, up 76.4% compared with 2015, with most cases of the mosquito-borne disease reported in Bolivar state.

Cases of Zika rose to 59,348 from 71 in 2015, reflecting the spread of the mosquito-borne virus around Latin America last year. There was no data for likely Zika-linked microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads, although doctors say there have been at least several dozen cases.

Inflation is at 652.67% (compared to last year) making it one of the highest rates in the world. This means that the average monthly salary, of those who have a job, can only buy food for a family of 4 for one week.

Venezuela’s inflation

Government restrictions have made assistance to Venezuelans an impossible feat. Corruption at all levels has made individual approaches very complicated.

How can Venezuela be saved?
My heart is sick watching the tragedy that has come upon Venezuela. I have been searching for answers and after many conversations found some keys. 
First of all,  we are convinced that the solution must come from the inside through local people who truly care for their communities regardless of their political inclinations.
Secondly, hunger and health must be the first priorities areas where strategic investment must be made. The focus must first be in rehabilitating the rich lands that lay fallow in order to grow nutritious fast growing crops that will feed people quickly. 
New approaches must be implemented in order to stop the speed of insect borne deceases. Children and adults must be protected from bites thus stopping the spread of Malaria, Dengue, Zika and other deadly illness. 
Finally, partnerships must be established between people outside Venezuela and trusted locals that would enable practical solutions to be implemented. 

Currently, we are working with local leaders who truly care for the well being of the people. Through Next Step, we raised $15,000 to purchase 3 hectares of land which are now being used to grow potatoes and black beans; produce that provides basic but important nutrients. 
Last September 400 kilos of potatoes were planted and three months later, early this December 1,500 kilos were harvested. The Back Beans did not produced as expected due to heavy rains during the same time. The produce is being sold locally at a price that covers the costs and allows for new crops to be planted again. Their prices are 20% cheaper that market prices.
They have also planted herbs both medicinals and for food as well as long term crops like Avocados.

We are now also working in partnership with LivFul in order to distribute a product that will provide protection from insect bites. LivFul 100% organic product provides an unprecedented 15 hours of protection per application. We need to raise $40,000 to cover the costs of the first phase providing 200 participants protection for 150 days. After a second phase costing another $40,000, we hope to start producing locally in a for profit venture.

The situation in the country is bleak but the the possibilities are endless. The people of Venezuela are ready for a new start and these local initiatives are ideal to stimulate a fresh entrepreneur mindset in the country.

If your heart is broken like mine is join us and make a lasting difference. You can either help us plant food or help us protect people from insect borne disease.