Once upon a time … there was a beautiful country, a country in which joy pervaded the streets each and every day. Venezuela, the nation of cacao, beaches with crystal clear waters, the traditional “Llanera” music, fruit in a thousand colours, tropical animals, cosmetic institutes and Miss Universe … a slice of the Caribbean where everyone wanted to go. Or at least this was the Venezuela that could be seen on TV. Even though another reality of course existed, the tourism slogan of the nation read, “Venezuela, where dreams come true”. Today, this dream has turned into a nightmare.
Most of the young people in the northwestern state of Sucre have left university because they “do not have the money for paper, let alone for photocopies or pens,” as Bishop Jaime Villarroel of the Diocese of Carúpano said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “They can’t even pay for the trip to the university.” A university education has become the prerogative of a select few. Most join gangs or become criminals. “The people are afraid!” the Venezuelan bishop said. Drugs, murder and torture have now become part of everyday life in the former jewel of the Caribbean. “We are worse off than ever. Hospitals have neither medicine nor bandages. There is no food in the houses. Trucks are constantly being plundered because the people are hungry and no longer have any regard for anything.”
Citizens receive food rations each month consisting of flour, noodles, butter and sugar. The selection of foods would seem normal if it were not for the amounts that are distributed. “Each family receives 300 grams of powdered milk, half a kilo of pasta or 200 grams of butter. If they would like to buy something else, such as meat, eggs or fish, then they have to pay for it with money that they don’t have,” Bishop Jaime Villarroel explained. “The children especially are suffering from malnutrition. The food rations are supposed to be enough for a month, but they don’t even last a week.” The crisis began as an economic one, but has in the meantime developed into a veritable humanitarian catastrophe. “The people are fainting from hunger. Famine reigns, which used to be unthinkable for Venezuela.”
An untenable situation that has forced the people out into the streets to demonstrate – every day. “We no longer know what to do or to whom we should turn. The police and also the politicians are often corrupt. We feel forsaken.”
The Church plays a fundamental role in the midst of these tensions. “It is our job to be there for our people and to relay a message of trust in God,” the Venezuelan bishop explained to Aid to the Church in Need. The crisis has brought the people closer to the Church. “The pastoral visits are a source of great strength in this terrible situation.”
Even though the Catholic faith is practiced in most regions of the country, missionary work is most needed in the northwestern part of Venezuela. “This area was evangelised. However, the hearts of the people were not reached.” Even though 70% of the people are baptised in the diocese of Carúpano, only 2% are practicing Catholics. The see is young: the diocese was set up 16 years ago. It works on “spreading the Gospel”, even though in the country priests and seminarians are often maltreated and humiliated in public. Neither the churches nor the cathedrals in Carúpano are spared from the wave of violence. They have fallen victim to plundering and desecration on numerous occasions. “There is no respect for anything anymore,” the bishop said.
One such disgraceful incident happened to a group of seminarians in another diocese in Venezuela. According to Archbishop Baltazar Porras, Metropolitan Archbishop of Mérida, “four young students of the seminar were going to English class when they were assailed, undressed and attacked by delinquents. These were not punished because neither the police nor the federal police do anything to prevent such acts of violence.”
Aid to the Church in Need has helped the diocese of Carúpano on many occasions and continues to do so. In 2015, various publishing projects were carried out in the country because there is no paper in the country for printing. The church also supported educational programmes for seminarians and lay people.
The terrible economic situation extends beyond the borders and also has an impact on Venezuelan institutions throughout the world, such as the Venezuelan College in Rome, which has announced that it is closing temporarily because of the severe crisis in the country. Since 1997, this college has provided housing for many students who come to the Italian capital for schooling and then return to their homeland after graduation.
Bishop Jaime Villarroel emphasised that they are currently living in an “culture of survival” that will be difficult to overcome. However, he did call to mind that one of the characteristics of the Venezuelan people is their ability to build beautiful things out of the stones that are placed in their path. They simply make jokes about it, as for example, “Do you know why mangos and sardines are like jeans?” he said, laughing. “Because they go with everything.” Since there are a lot of mangos in the region and a lot of fishing, they are the only two foods that are accessible to all. This is why mostly mangos and fish are eaten with the food rations – “if anything is left over from them.”
In 2015, Aid to the Church in Need carried out a total of 27 projects in Venezuela, granting more than 200,000 euros in aid. In the first six months of 2016, Aid to the Church in Need approved 15 other projects in order to help the country in severe crisis.
The largest amount went towards supporting publishing projects (37.5% of the total amount in 2015) because the emergency situation makes it almost impossible to print catechetical materials. Aid was also provided in the form of Mass stipends and for religious education as well as for courses and days of retreat.