The Origins of the Venezuelan Humanitarian Crisis

By Rafael Felipe Pigna Ramirez.

This article analyzes the Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela, looking at the origins of the overarching humanitarian crisis as well as the origins of two specific sub-crises, a crisis of health crisis and a crisis of security.

The food crisis in Venezuela has reached a point that some people have resorted to combing through the trash to find sufficient food. (Source: NotiTotal)

Since 1999, the state of democracy, as well as that of the economy in Venezuela has been gradually deteriorating. During this time, the process referred to as “Socialismo del Siglo XXI”, “Revolucion Bolivariana” or simply “Chavismo” has led the country to the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of the region. It is not a point of contention that the government has failed in its duty to protect the people. The destruction of the economy has created two central emergencies too big for Venezuelans to cope with. Today, Venezuela is experiencing a health emergency because access to healthcare is a matter of luck or privilege. Second, Venezuelans face a safety emergency, in which citizens’ security is under constant threat. The resulting humanitarian crisis is the main reason why Venezuelans have fled and are fleeing the country in droves: The number of Venezuelans living abroad has escalated, from 400’000 in 2005 to almost 4 million in 2018.

To give some context: When Hugo Chavez became President, he inherited a country where 42 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, no official numbers exist, but estimates reach up to 80 percent. The reason was mismanagement of the economy by both Chavez and Maduro, his successor, who made Venezuela rely more on oil rents than ever before. The consequences, of course, were catastrophic. During the past 20 years, the state oil company has reduced its oil production while simultaneously increasing their rents due to the high oil prices on international markets. These increased profits served to cover, for years, the deficiencies of a system that was already failing.

The reason was mismanagement of the economy by both Chavez and Maduro, his successor, who made Venezuela rely more on oil rents than ever before. The consequences, of course, were catastrophic.

When oil prices plummeted in 2015, they exposed the weak Venezuelan economy and removed the government’s main tool to solve the problems of the country, subsidies. A series of terrible economic policies, ranging from price controls and exchange rate regimes to the downright printing of money, accelerated the deterioration of the already weak economy. The consequence of this was hyperinflation which closed around 1 million percent in 2018. Its consequences were felt particularly in the shortages of goods -including food and medicine- and services in the country. It also reduced the purchasing power of the average Venezuelan who today earns less than 10 USD per month, on average. 

(Source: Venezuela la Dia)

The Health Emergency

The health indicators during the 20th century in Venezuela showed a promising trajectory. The country was not oblivious to the challenges of the region, but it was on a good track to overcome them. Infant mortality rates in Venezuela had been steadily decreasing since the 1950’s and so did most of the other health indicators in the country. However, the country health system quickly deteriorated after 2013 when the oil prices dropped. The bad economic policies mentioned before led to reduced production of pharmaceuticals in the country, while also hampering the capacity of the government to import medicines as it saw its rents dwindle. Consequently, health conditions in Venezuela today are worse than they were in 1999. The reason was that the health system was as dependent on the oil revenues as the rest of the country.

The bad economic policies mentioned before led to reduced production of pharmaceuticals in the country, while also hampering the capacity of the government to import medicines as it saw its rents dwindle.

Assessing the state of the healthcare system is hard, because the ministry of health has not published any health indicator statistics since 2015. However, diseases like measles and diphtheria, once eradicated in the country, are starting to reappear. According to the WHO the cases of Malaria went from 36,000 in 2009 to 406,000 in 2017, primarily due to the scarcity of medicines to treat the disease in addition to the reduction of fumigation programs.  According to HRW, 87 per cent of the people with HIV don’t have access to proper treatment. The number of people with HIV has increased dramatically in the last years. Adding to all these proliferations of diseases the levels of malnutrition have been rapidly increasing: In 2017 the average Venezuelan lost 12 kg.

Under Nicolas Maduro, the country has had eight Ministers of Health in six years, none of which has made any significant progress to alleviate the health crisis. On the contrary, the negligence of the state becomes more evident each day that passes, as Venezuelans become more vulnerable and their access to healthcare becomes more limited. The challenges of the health sector go beyond the shortage of medicines and food, the sector must also face a shortage of basic services like water and electricity. One of the most recent examples was at the beginning of this year, when a power shortage in a public hospital in the capital of Caracas took the life of at least two patients. Cases like this have become common all across the country. 

Crime and safety concerns have become a problem for many Venezuelans. (Source: Panam Post)

The Safety Emergency

The other main emergency facing Venezuela involves the safety of its citizens. Violence has become a major problem. During the last 20 years, 300,000 Venezuelans were assassinated, which translates into an average of 41 daily homicides since 1999. Most of the victims are between 14 and 29 years old. Almost 90 percent are male, and around 80 percent lived in poverty. Considering that “Chavismo” had hoisted the flag of pro-poor policies, it is a sad indictment that the ones most adversely affected have been the popular classes. 

The problem of Violence has been growing in Venezuela since Chavez assumed office. In 1998, the country had 4,550 homicides. 20 years later, in 2018, that number had reached 23,000. One of the main reasons is likely the incredible amount of impunity in a country where nine out of every ten homicides go unpunished. This cruel reality is also reflected in the citizens’ perceptions, where 87 percent state feeling a certain level of fear of being victims of homicide, while just 12 percent replied that they weren’t afraid at all.

In 2018, Venezuela was the most violent country in Latin America, with Caracas being the most violent city in the world. Violence being an epidemic is an undeniable fact that both Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro have either failed to deal with or haven’t resolved on purpose as part of a strategy to reign in the chaos generated by it. 


Venezuela, a country that in the last century was known for receiving immigrants, is now a country that produces emigrants. The collapse of the economy has led to a health and security crisis that translates into this diaspora. The problem now is not only Venezuelan but it’s the region that is being flooded with migrants, in some cases more than they can physically receive. So, in the biggest humanitarian crisis in modern history for the continent, we should look how Venezuelans would confront the tyranny and what actions the international community is going to take to put pressure on Maduro’s regime. It looks like solving this sui géneris crisis goes through a deep change in the country. I do believe that this catastrophe can only be overcome if Venezuelans and the International Community keep working together.

Rafael was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Bachelor’s in International Studies from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Currently he is studying a Master’s in Governance, Development and Public Policy at IDS.

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