A crumbling economy drives thousands across Venezuelan borders to the U.S. and a few find their way into the poorest county in Ohio and call it home.

Whenever Laura Silva was out on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, she found herself mumbling Padre Nuestro, the Lord’s Prayer, under her breath.

Every Tuesday, on a day assigned by the government, she drove her tattered silver ’98 Toyota to the local supermarket to buy rations for the week.

She made her way along the Prados del Este highway, unusually bustling with hawkers selling tchotchkes. Every now and then, the crush of rush hour traffic demanded that she stop. As she continued her implorations to the divine to protect her from unexpected assailants, there was a knock on her car window. She peered out to see the barrel of a black Glock leaning against her door.

It was all too normal for Silva, 36. She hesitantly rolled down the window and saw a shoddily dressed hawker holding a gun, ordering her to hand over her phone. Between getting shot in the head and buying another phone, she reluctantly chose the latter. The man took the phone from her hands and casually walked away dodging the incoming traffic, the pistol still wedged in his back pocket.

That was when Silva knew she had to escape her country.

“I used to have a life,” Silva, a graduate student studying piano performance and pedagogy at Ohio University, said. “I was working for an orchestra and I was happy.”

According to a 2017 Statista survey, a leading market and data research firm, the United States has recently seen an influx of 290,224 Venezuelans as a result of economic chaos in their country that has created one of South America’s greatest humanitarian crises. Silva is one of the three Venezuelan students who are pursuing their studies at Ohio University in an attempt to escape the economic disaster back home.

(Made on Mapbox)
(Made on Mapbox)

Maria Monasterio, 22, arrived stateside three years ago. She says even though she wants to go back to her family, she can’t. The only tangible connection between Monasterio and her parents is the $20 to $30 check she sends them each month to help them survive the economic crisis.

Nowadays, Monasterio’s long-distance phone calls to her parents end in glassy eyes and variations of “see you soon!”

Unlike asylum seekers who are detained in the borders, the students have sought other means to achieve refuge. Silva said she knew she wanted to leave and pursue her passion for music. Coming to OU allowed her the ability to fulfill not only her primitive needs of adequate food and clean water, but also the much needed autonomy over her life.

In the poorest county in Ohio, these Venezuelans have found a community that they believe will not let them bleed dry.

“Athens is home,” Silva said. “This is where I belong.”

The Perfect Storm

Once considered South America’s richest country, Venezuela sits atop the largest oil reserves in the world with 300,878 billion barrels worth of proven reserves. In the decades leading up to 1970s, the country had high economic growth rates, low levels of inequality and a stable democracy.

By the time former President Hugo Chavez was elected in December 1998, the country was in an economic tailspin, especially affecting low-income households. The previously prosperous country was experiencing high levels of economic inequality, exacerbated by declining oil prices.

Chavez stepped onto the battleground with radical policies and a socialist agenda. He set up social programs, known as the Misiones, and nationalized industries at great national expense. All the efforts were funded by the oil companies that brought in 98 percent of the country’s revenues.

By the time of his death in March 2013, Chavez handed over the reins of power to his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro didn’t inherit the charisma that made Chavez a populist leader, but he continued the disastrous economic policies forwarded by the former.

“The Chavez and Maduro government after him had been using the oil company as sort of a piggy bank for other spendings,” Layton explained. “And to make matters worse, they weren’t investing in maintenance or the productive capacity of these industries.”

Roberto Duncan, associate professor of economics at OU, said that the tragedy is a result of a fiscal deficit induced by plummeting oil prices, hyperinflation, mismanagement of funds and the fact that the central bank of the country is attached to the executive branch, which meant it couldn’t operate independently.

“All that economic chaos built up over time,” Layton said. “And it led to the perfect storm.”

In 2018, the country held its most recent presidential elections, which re-elected Maduro, with about 25 percent approval rating, for another 6 years. The election wasn’t a contest as the key opposition parties were banned from participating. According to Freedom House, an independent U.S.-based watchdog group that champions democracy around the world, Venezuela is undemocratic, and Layton agrees.

“Just holding elections is not enough,” Layton said. “You need more than just the exercise of elections, you need a real possibility of having the ruling party lose the elections. And the ability for the opposition to replace them, take power and make autonomous decisions.”

Fight or Flight

Silva remembers the distinguishable stench of pepper in the air.

“I remember the smell of lachrymator (tear gas) everywhere,” Silva said.“Because the protests were everywhere.”

Food shortages and an incompetent regime pushed Monasterio, a junior studying criminal justice in Hocking College, and thousands of other young Venezuelans to the throes of unrest, inciting them to take action against the government.

To restrain the protesters, the police would attack the rallies with canisters of tear gas.

Nonetheless, a 17-year-old Monasterio joined her peers to protest the Maduro government on the streets. The adolescents protesting in Caracas had a singular goal: the dissolution of the Maduro regime. But he remains in power.

How does a deeply unpopular president maintain a grip over the country?

The key, Layton explains, is to control the access to resources. Layton said, access is both a powerful motivator and a restrainer that is helping Maduro maintain his influence over the region.

Monasterio said she lived in a suburb of Caracas, San Antonio de los Altos, residents of the city consider it anti-Maduro. The reputation made matters worse for her family who were already struggling because of the economic meltdown.

“They would cut our access to food, water, cut the electricity out of the neighborhood,” Monasterio said. “Or take people from their houses without any explanation.”

It was unclear whether they were jailed – or worse.

The Maduro government has been effective in consolidating power. To do so, he has made sure the top ranks in the military and the courts are filled with loyalists and supporters. Additionally, they have resorted to blaming the opposition for the economic instability and imprisoning them, Layton said.

“There is nothing unique in terms of the tactic of the regime to centralize power,” Layton added. “You make sure that people with guns are on your side and you make sure you keep loyalists and supporters in key positions.”

Silva was working at the studio of Venezuela’s El Sistema music-education program with her colleagues, when Maduro’s party officials came to collect signatures to boost approval ratings of the Maduro government.

“They didn’t directly threaten,” Silva recounted. “But I cried because I realized they broke my bubble and if I didn’t sign I would have to pay.”

Laura Silva practicing on the Piano in her graduate assistant office in Glidden Hall.
Laura Silva practicing on the Piano in her graduate assistant office in Glidden Hall.

The widespread scarcities evidenced by soaring poverty and hunger rates in Venezuela are forcing natives to flee the near-total societal collapse. Empty supermarket shelves and water shortages have led to drought and lawlessness.

Port in a Storm

Silva arrived in Athens in the summer of 2017. Not surprisingly, one of her first trips was to Walmart on East State Street.

“There is every kind of rice on the shelves here: jasmine, long grain, you name it!” Silva said. “Back home I was lucky if I found one bag.”

In Walmart, Silva took a selfie with the cornucopia of grains on the shelves behind her. The photo, which she transmitted over Whatsapp to friends back home, became a novelty.

With the economy rapidly deteriorating when she lived in Caracas, Silva knew that she would have to leave the country at some point. As a principal pianist in Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, she would often go on tours worldwide. After her travels she would save the remaining euro and dollars from the money she was paid. But instead of storing them in a bank, she would wedge the cash between books and behind pots in her apartment. Silva said she saw the first signs of inflation in 2014, which made it clear to her that the future was bleak.

Amidst the economic chaos, Silva was still determined to pursue her knack for music. She said she has always liked Professor Christopher Burns work, which drove her to apply to OU. Finally, when she got her acceptance from Ohio University, she packed her bags, abandoned her beloved instruments and flew to the states in 2017.

The first few days were especially difficult for Silva, she said. After paying tuition and rent, she barely had enough left to make other payments such as electricity and gas. Silva said Father Mark Moore who is a parish of the Christ the King Church on Mill Street helped her by giving her some money, which she used to pay her bills. She also uses her graduate stipend from the School of Music to buy food, and whatever she has left she sends back to her family in Venezuela.

Monasterio who works as a student assistant at the reception at Hocking College makes enough to pay for her gas and sends $20-30 to her parents each month. She said they use it to buy her grandmother’s medicines and groceries.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for Monasterio’s family. The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela’s inflation rate will breach 1 million percent by the end of this year. Consumer prices have risen to 488,865 percent this year, according to a report by the opposition-run legislature.

Gloria Muzetti, co-founder and president of Houston-based Cuatro Por Venezuela, a non-profit organization that aids Venezuelans, said accessibility to food is critical to a society and the betterment of people and its unavailability can be frustrating. Monasterio said the last time she bought a single two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in Venezuela it cost $3.99, twice as much as in the United States. And with worsening inflation, prices are climbing higher.

“My family needs more money,” Monasterio, who plans to transfer to Ohio University next semester, said. “But, sadly, that’s all I can do.”

The fact that international students aren’t authorized to work off-campus makes it challenging for those like Silva and Monasterio to sustain themselves and their dependents.

Silva said the university does provide resources that lessen the burden incurred by personal charges. She regularly picks up snacks from the Food Pantry, which is an OU initiative that provides free food to students. The pantry is located on the third floor of Baker Center.

“We have as much of a responsibility toward our international students as others,” said Kathy Fahl, assistant dean of students, whose job is to look after students’ basic needs on campus. “Everyone deserves proper nutrition to perform adequately.”

Ohio University’s Food Pantry at Baker Center Ohio University’s Food Pantry at Baker Center
Ohio University’s Food Pantry at Baker Center Ohio University’s Food Pantry at Baker Center

The pantry is packed with a range of canned goods to grains that they collect on regular food drives. Fahl said they actively request their patrons to donate food that has protein and carbohydrates to contribute to the healthy development of students. The International Students Faculty Services at OU provides a list of food items that is staple to international students as well, ranging from lentils to different kinds of rice.

“Food is a really important part of our identity and community, in addition to being nutritious,” Fahl said. “Especially for international students who are far from home for various reasons, we want to provide them that familiarity and comfort through food.”

Silva said the food pantry has cut a lot of her cost, which has let her redirect her savings to her family back home.

“Every little bit that I can help them with counts,” Silva said.

Nervous Waters Ahead

Monasterio said she was aware as a 17-year-old that her country was falling apart and the revelatory realization was shocking to a teenager enthusiastically waiting to turn 18.

“I love Venezuela,” Monasterio said. “But, my country didn’t feel like mine anymore.”

March 22, 2014, was Monasterio’s 18th birthday. She spent it under her bed with a pillow strapped around her chest to absorb stray bullets. Screams from the street poured through the gap at the bottom of the door. The police were raiding her neighborhood and incarcerating those who they believed were against the government. In an attempt to placate a hysterical Monasterio, her mother offered her daughter cake and candles.

“There is blood and glass outside and our world is on fire,” Monasterio recalled. “The last thing that I want is a cake.”

That was the last straw for Monasterio’s parents and enough of an argument to send their daughter overseas.

Monasterio said she believes her country needs to rebuild itself. A strong and stable criminal justice system is the first step.

The girls are unsure when they’ll meet their family next.

“One day we are going to do it,” Monasterio said about her longing to see her parents. “One day we’re going to see each other.”

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