After five years of economic freefall in Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has tightened his grip on the once-prosperous country by winning an election that the international community has condemned as a farce.
Since Maduro succeeded socialist revolutionary Hugo Chávez following his death in 2013, the 55-year-old former bus driver has presided over the collapse of the country's oil industry, the return of hyperinflation, and food and medicine shortages that have made rummaging for scraps routine for millions of malnourished Venezuelans.
In 2016 alone, infant mortality rose 30 percent. The maternal death rate rose 65 percent. Cases of malaria rose 76 percent. Those numbers have almost certainly worsened since then, but the official who released the figures was fired soon after, contributing to a data blackout that has made it difficult to quantify the hardships of everyday Venezuelans.
What we do know is that Maduro and his loyalists are not going hungry. Last November, during a live television broadcast, he was caught sneaking an empanada from his desk drawer as he spoke to a starving nation from the presidential palace, a portrait of Latin American revolutionary hero Símon Bolívar hanging on the wall behind him. Amid a spike in social unrest and violent crime, Maduro's government has been brutally crushing dissent, imprisoning political foes and stamping down street protests, and trumpeting the integrity of the revolution—even as some of his highest-ranking officials are accused of narco-trafficking.
To consolidate his power, in February, Maduro called for a snap election, moving the vote from December up to May. On the campaign trail, he attempted to rouse patriots by claiming that Venezuela's struggles were not due to mismanagement or corruption, but rather damage from an economic war against Venezuela by imperialists.
An estimated 20 percent of Venezuelans are devoted Chavistas who stand in solidarity with Maduro. Yet when the distribution of food supplies is being used as a political weapon, it's difficult to know if people are motivated by patriotism or starvation. "Your vote decides: votes or bullets, homeland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination," Maduro told the nation on Sunday. "Your vote decides, go vote."
By the end of the day, Maduro had won re-election and six more years of rule with 68 percent of the vote, even as only 36.6 percent of voters turned out amid widespread boycotts. Opposition candidate and former Socialist Party governor Henri Falcón accused Maduro of buying votes by placing more than 13,000 "red spots" near polling stations across the country where officials asked hungry citizens to scan their "Fatherland" ID cards—the keys to accessing food benefits and money transfers—to qualify for a what Maduro described as "a really good prize."
Years of hunger and chaos in Venezuela have spurred the largest mass migration in Latin American history. By some estimates, more than 10 percent of the country's population has already left. For the Venezuelans who remain, an egg is a good as gold in an economy that threatens to register 13,000 percent inflation this year.
In the early days of the crisis, Venezuelans were leaving by land, sea, and air. Now, as costs rise and air traffic to and from Venezuela evaporates, the majority of Venezuelan migrants have been fleeing to neighboring countries accessible by land. In 2015, just under 50,000 Venezuelan migrants lived in Colombia. By 2017, that number had climbed to more than 600,000.
As Colombia began to turn Venezuelans away, migrants turned to Brazil, where just over 3,000 Venezuelans were living in 2015. By 2017, that number had swelled to more than 35,000. As of April of 2018, as many as 800 Venezuelans per day were crossing Brazil's northern border, pushing the total number of Venezuelan migrants in Brazil to more than 50,000, many concentrated in the desolate border state of Roraima.
For countries on the receiving end of this migration, these estimates only tell part of a complicated story. For many Venezuelans, the first country they reach is not their ultimate destination, making refugee inflows and outflows difficult to follow. Obsolete, analog record-keeping systems make it difficult for agencies to track migrants and allocate resources effectively. Vast numbers of undocumented migrants—especially women and unaccompanied minors—become easy targets for human trafficking as well as sexual and labor exploitation.
"Everybody just wants work," says Donaldo Chávez, a teacher who fled for Brazil in early 2018. As of April, he had been camping in Boa Vista's Símon Bolívar Plaza for weeks, trying every day to resolve his immigration status, even as he lamented the soured revolution back home. "I'm a socialist. I'm a Chavista. Maduro—he's not."
On Monday morning, the Lima Group of 14 Western nations, including the United States, vowed not to recognize the election and to limit diplomatic ties with Venezuela. President Donald Trump signed an order prohibiting the purchase of debts owed to the Venezuelan government, including its state-run oil company, "to prevent the Maduro regime from conducting 'fire sales,' liquidating Venezuela's critical assets—assets the country will need to rebuild its economy." Yet tougher sanctions could bring more suffering to the Venezuelan people while playing into Maduro's rhetoric that imperialists are the enemy.
Maduro has pledged to restore economic order, proposing a cryptocurrency to get a handle on soaring inflation, but the country's brain drain and aging infrastructure have made it impossible to fulfill that promise, even as oil prices rise. For now, Maduro must continue to rely on the financial and diplomatic support of China and Russia, both of which condemned U.S. interference and urged regional powers to respect the democratic process.
While Western allies formulate their policy response, neighboring countries and the United Nations Refugee Agency can only brace themselves for the next wave of migrants. The U.N. is asking for millions of dollars in international support to fund relief efforts, with more than half slated to go to Colombia and Brazil.
On Sunday, as he exited an empty polling station, Maduro was trailed by a television crew filming him as he waved to an illusory adoring crowd in an empty plaza. As more and more Venezuelans look for a way out, the only ones left behind will be those too famished to escape, those in jail, or those bleary-eyed true believers waiting for the next chapter of the Bolivarian revolution.