Back to Venezuela

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 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.

A Venezuela Without The COVID-19 Vaccine

While the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 has been a boon for some countries such as Australia and Canada, a number of Scandinavian countries have suspended its use. Meanwhile, the economically strapped country of Venezuela, my home country, has rejected the AstraZeneca vaccine outright.

Although the official reasons cited include “effects on patients”, many news sources claim the vaccines have not been sent due to Venezuela’s debt to The World Health Organization.
In Venezuela the impact of the Corona virus has been devastating and will most likely worsen more than anyone dares to imagine. The government stopped releasing health data in 2016, so that no one has accurate numbers. They even cynically welcomed the relative calm that the lockdowns have created, seeing them as an unexpected benefit of Covid.

The absence of the Covid vaccine adds to the countries already fragile situation after years of economic woes. The Venezuelan people in desperation have exploded into all sorts of public demonstrations of dissent. Seven million have left the county.  The majority walking across the Colombian border to the west. And smaller numbers to the south through the Amazon jungle to Brasli.


The government has allowed such an exodus because it has reduced the pressure at home in Venezuela. Those who stayed have taken to the streets in all major cities, protesting the high levels of urban violence, inflation, chronic food shortages etc. The number of deaths, injuries, and arrests by the government forces are unknown.
The outbreak of the virus forced people indoors like everywhere else. Empty streets, reduction in transport activity, and lack of commerce have given the government a time of respite, which they have used to entrench themselves into their stubborn positions of power. Covid has become an ally to those who enslave the people of Venezuela. 
Yet for the average person the results have been devastating; not only are people going without food or medicine, but they now must deal with the insecurity of being locked up in homes with individuals many with unstable mental state.
Sexual and physical violence against women and children have skyrocketed. A survey by Save the Children revealed a desperate situation with almost one third of the surveyed households reporting that the isolation has resulted in an increase of aggression and hostility against mothers and children.
The suicide rates have also skyrocketed. Total suicides increased by 153% between 2015 and 2018 according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence(VOV). The researcher Gustavo Paez pointed out that Venezuela’s suicide rate between 1950 and 2014 shows an average of 4.4 cases per 100,000 citizens. However, the VOV estimates that this indicator went from a low of 2.1 in 2010 to 9.7 in 2018. While there is no data for 2020 it is estimated that the numbers have only increased and the number of suicides among children have reached unprecedented levels.
In response, we are equipping and training qualified people to serve as Amigos a la Mano (Caring Friends) who make themselves available to those in moments of need. Advertising their services through Instagram, they interact with people ,offering them a space to talk and receive care and empathy.
Next Step in Venezuela continues to serve the community.  We are providing affordable produce from our farm.  We also are conducting online education which prepares community leaders to meet the spiritual, and practical needs of their neighborhoods. And now through our Caring Friends initiative a helping hand is available for those suffering increased mental stress.
Your support for our work enables us to stand in the gap at this time. 

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

Crossing Borders

By Wolfgang Fernandez.

It is not apparent in the news yet for the last few months I have continued to watch in horror and disbelief at the further deterioration of society in Venezuela.

It is estimated that more than 4 million Venezuelans have left the county in the last five years. First, were those with enough resources to buy plane tickets relocating to Europe, the United States, and beyond.

Now it is the turn of those taking buses and walking the rest of the way. The numbers crossing the bridge that links Venezuela and Colombia in the city of Cúcuta continues to overwhelm anyone’s imagination. It is estimated that over 100,000 Venezuelans are in Cúcuta alone at this moment with more coming every day.

The same is happening to the south in Brasil. The difference is that going to Brasil means going through the Amazon jungle. Boa Vista, a city of 250,000 is the first urban center. Having done their best to receive the newcomers, they are now desperately trying to figure out how to attend to them. The state’s governor has declared a state of emergency.

In this environment, all forms of human exploitation is thriving. Abuse is rampant and so is victimization of those who escape a desperate situation to another where their worth is treated with disdain.

In the other hand, being designated “ Refugees” can be problematic because such immigrants can’t return to Venezuela; President Nicolás Maduro has called them “traitors” of the state yet many say that as long as Mr. Maduro is in power they have no reason to return.

On top of all of these challenges, diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever which were under control are now thriving. A recent report from the Venezuelan Health Department revealed 275,000 cases of Malaria. Our partners in LivFul have the product that can contain insect borne diseases but we need funding to get the product over there.

At the moment, together with Nexus, our partners in Venezuela, we are working on ways to support groups of churches that are stretching their resources to serve Venezuelans.

These Venezuelans continue to swell the 65 million around the world who wander, seeking a place to live in safety and decency.