• © Oscar B. Castillo

Venezuela in chaos

This exhibition shows the work of Venezuelan photographers, both documentary and conceptual, telling their story of the endless nightmares of a country that has descended into free fall in a short space of time.

How is it possible that people are living in poverty in a country with enormous natural resources? Venezuela has the largest oil reserve in the world. The ground contains large quantities of coal, iron, bauxite and gold. The soil is fertile.

The huge income from oil brought abundance for decades, but it did not lead to equality. Since the charismatic president Chavez took office in 1999, he began to shape the country into a socialist model, like the one in Cuba. He claimed that he stood up for the poor and wanted to hand the country’s wealth back to the people. Full of good intentions, the government began to pump billions of oil-derived funds into social schemes, such as free medical care, free education and social housing.

As the founder of the Bolivarian Revolution (named after Simon Bolivar, the freedom fighter who 200 years ago liberated Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru from the Spaniards), he established a new constitution. His foreign policy was marked by a strong anti-American tone. The country became a leader in the region; Chavez won election after election.

Companies, including the oil and steel industries, became nationalised and agriculture expropriated. But the government turned out to lack the experience and knowledge to function as a producer, processor and distributor of food. Through mismanagement and bureaucracy, the food industry collapsed. No problem: Venezuela was swimming in oil money and all trade – food, daily necessities, even cars and white goods – quickly became dependent on import and subsidies.

Chavez was also a strongman who used his power to buy political support and to silence his opponents, both politicians and critical TV channels and radio stations. Corruption in the government and the rest of the administration grew, all of which intensified towards the end of his rule when global oil prices began to decline. Chavez died in 2013, and his designated successor, president Maduro, took office that very same year.

The oil market collapsed even further. By now it was almost the only export product, and financial reserves had dried up. There were no longer means to import unlimited food and other items. A massive economic crisis developed, resulting in shortages of all daily necessities and a raging inflation; estimated to be 1600% by the end of 2017. But Maduro denies the disaster that is currently occurring, securing more power instead and doing his best to eradicate the last remnants of democracy. He furthermore refuses humanitarian aid from abroad.

Supermarkets are empty. The cost of daily food is now much higher than the minimum wage. Millions of Venezuelans live on the ‘diet of Maduro’. Hospitals and doctors struggle with major shortages in medicine. Child mortality is high, as is the percentage of malnourished children. Private agriculture is unable to take off because the government enforces fixed prices, making food production grossly unprofitable.

Criminality is rampant. In the rankings of Transparency International, Venezuela is the ninth most corrupt country in the world. Caracas is declared to be the city with the highest murder rate in the world: 20,000 in 2014. The many street gangs demand their share in everything, from food production to cooperative gold mining. The government has lost control over prisons, which are now in the hands of the heads of criminal organisations. A quarter of the police are involved in crime.

In 2014, the first protests began from the student movement. They have recently intensified; the combination of hunger, criminality and repression is making people desperate. Mass protests have been taking place on a daily basis since April, with hundreds of thousands of participants. They are consistently met with violence and at least 85 young Venezuelans have reportedly lost their lives.

With work of Antonio Briceño, Oscar B. Castillo, Alejandro Cegarra, Nelson Garrido, Amada Granado, Lucía Pizzani, Juan Toro.

In a special part, multiple photographers portray the on-going daily protests. This presentation for Noorderlicht is compiled by Ricardo Gomez Perez, and will be updated on a weekly basis during the exhibition period. With work by Leo Alvarez, Carlos Becerra, Marco Bello, Fabiola Ferrero, Vladimir Marcano, Federico Parra, Horacio Siciliano en Fabian Solymar.

Special thanks to Ricardo Gomez Perez.