The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A humanitarian crisis in Venezuela? Nothing to see here, government says

People cross a street lined with darkened apartments in a Caracas neighborhood last month. An ongoing exodus has emptied more and more buildings around Venezuela. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — In the world according to the Venezuelan government, state food programs are stocking empty supermarket shelves. An exodus of starving citizens to other countries is “fake news.” And claims of a dire health crisis are part of a global plot to lay the groundwork for a U.S. invasion.

“Venezuela is the victim of world media attacks designed to construct a supposed humanitarian crisis so as to justify a military intervention,” President Nicolás Maduro told the U.N. General Assembly last month. He insisted that there is no crisis.

The nation of 31 million is descending into chaos — a situation so desperate that HIV and cancer patients are going without treatment and parents are surrendering their hungry children to orphanages. But the government is doubling down on efforts to portray an alternative reality. For Venezuelans, each day brings a new barrage of propaganda on state media depicting a country that few of them recognize.

There may be a calculated logic to the official denials. Humanitarian crises have been cited in the past to justify military action, including incursions in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Fueled in part by the Trump administration and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as well as some Latin American diplomats and politicians, talk appears to be growing of a possible outside military solution to Venezuela’s plight. 

Trump, Venezuela and the prospect of a coup

“It’s immoral what they’re doing — denying the crisis,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University. “But from their point of view, they have a huge motivation to not admit the extent of the crisis and therefore offer a compelling argument for military intervention.”

On a recent morning, Venezolana de Televisión, a state broadcaster, aired images of an idyllic communal farm providing plentiful jobs for contented workers. “We are very happy here,” an elderly man said. “I’m proud and grateful for this collective farm.”

A few days earlier, state TV had shown Margaud Godoy, the pro-Maduro governor of the state of Cojedes, cheerfully discussing shipments of subsidized meat to supermarkets. In grocery stores across the country, meat of any kind has been nearly impossible to find for weeks. Yet the camera shot showed juicy beef being cut for distribution. 

At a large supermarket in eastern Caracas, shoppers begged to differ. The meat counter had no beef or chicken, and a section for pork was half-

“If they’re supplying someone with meat, it’s themselves, not the people,” said Agustin Diaz, a 34-year-old mechanic. 

Many Venezuelan children returned to school in September with worn uniforms and holes in their shoes, some of them underweight because of the food shortages. Yet state channels showed footage of children in impeccable clothing, merrily returning to class. The reports also failed to mention a severe funding shortfall that appears set to force the closure of hundreds of schools nationwide.

“With energy we go back to school, happy to see our friends,” a narrator said. 

Aid groups estimate that 1.6 million to 2 million Venezuelans will leave the country this year to escape hyperinflation and the scarcity of food and medicine. Those numbers are on top of the 1.5 million who left between 2014 and 2017.  

Overwhelmed: Venezuela’s migrant crisis is reshaping Latin America

But early in September, the government’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, and his sister, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, called an international news conference to unveil what they said was evidence that the migrant and humanitarian crises were a hoax. 

The communications minister said the fact that more tweets are circulating about a “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela than about one in Syria, where there is an outright war, pointed to an organized “fake news” campaign. He also suggested that Venezuela’s socialist system remains an enviable draw for myriad people in the region.

“If there’s a humanitarian crisis here, then why are 5 million Colombians still living here? Are they masochists?” Rodríguez said.

Maduro has suggested, meanwhile, that the flows of migrants out of Venezuela are no larger than in past years. And if they are, he says, it’s only because Venezuelans are being tricked into leaving — or else are setting off to try their luck elsewhere with pockets stuffed with cash. 

“The fabricated migrant crisis is proving to be a lie,” Maduro said last month. 

For two decades, backers of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” — the brainchild of President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — talked up its empowerment of the poor through welfare programs and leftist labor laws. But since Maduro, Chávez’s anointed successor, took office, the already shaky economy has spiraled into a seemingly bottomless crisis. Experts attribute the crash to a toxic mix of failed socialist policies, corruption, mismanagement and lower oil prices — the last a disaster for a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves

In his most vulnerable moments, Maduro has appeared to recognize his mistakes. In August, he announced new economic policies designed to fix “past errors.” He has conceded that the state oil company, ­PDVSA, has been on the verge of collapse and has jailed officials he said were responsible. 

But he has never fully admitted the scope of the country’s social, health or migrant crises, and the government has rejected humanitarian aid from charities and nongovernmental organizations, insisting that it is not needed.

At the same time, the free press has been largely squelched, with private channels and news websites censored by a media-regulating body, Conatel. At least a dozen heads of news outlets have been exiled or charged with crimes since 2015. Six websites have been shut down and six newspapers have stopped publishing this year, according to the independent Caracas-based Press and Society Institute.

That has left state media and self-censored outlets as the primary purveyors of information for the 50 percent of the country without access to the Internet. 

For Venezuelans, the propaganda can seem surreal.

Nelsy Cruz, 76, a resident of a working-class neighborhood 24 miles east of Caracas, glanced at state TV reports as she tidied her living room.

Cruz urgently needs knee replacement surgery, which she says has been delayed for months because hospitals lack the means to treat her. She pointed to her protruding cheekbones and said she had to take in her pants after losing more than 10 pounds this year from lack of food. As the cheery images flickered on the screen, she said it was as if the government is trying to convince Venezuelans that they all live in “paradise.”

“Maduro denies things that we see every day,” she said. “The government simply keeps lying to us. Blatantly.” 

The official denials, experts say, are made easier because the government withholds economic and health data. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, estimates that inflation here will top 1 million percent this year. But the last time Venezuela released official inflation data was 2015. 

“Governments depend on the hope they nurture,” said Moisés Naím, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry in 1989. “Maduro can’t provide hope with reality, so he does it with lies.” 

Venezuelan officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Domestic polls show that 28 percent of the population still supports the government, providing an eager audience for official propaganda. 

Two blocks from Cruz’s small house, Omar Rojas, a 55-year-old elementary school teacher, was also watching state TV, as he does every morning, he said. 

The fervent Chávez admirer said he believes that the “world is exaggerating the crisis” and says the government’s channel helps him “understand why the country is going through some problems.”

“If we have to eat a little less to advance the cause, we’ll do it,” he said. “The government is fighting for an ideology that defends equality and freedom. And that’s what I want for Venezuela.”

Faiola reported from Miami.

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