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The Venezuelan crisis, suffered from 7,000 kilometres away

Venezuelans who now live in Malaga, posing in the Plaza de la Mercedduring a recent demonstration.
Venezuelans who now live in Malaga, posing in the Plaza de la Mercedduring a recent demonstration. / Germán Pozo
  • They say it is difficult to obtain food and medicines and some are calling for international intervention to heal deep social and economic divisions

  • Migrants from the South American country who now live in Malaga talk about their experiences and feelings

Laura Di Benigno used to live in Puerto La Cruz, a city with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants in the north of Venezuela. When she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with dermatitis and told it wasn't serious. She spent days trying to find the commonly-used antibiotic she had been prescribed, but without success. Her condition became worse, and "I was frightened. What would happen if my baby was taken ill one day?" she says.

Three months after the baby was born, Laura and her husband, Aníbal Muguerza, moved to Torremolinos. Official figures show 2,851 Venezuelans living in Malaga last year. Twenty years ago, there were 190. They have been watching the crisis in Venezuela, submerged in hyperinflation and poverty, from a distance of 7,000 kilometres, and are distressed at what they are seeing.

"The last time I was there, in August, it broke my heart. When light bulbs go out they are not replaced. There is no gas for sale and people are cutting trees down for firewood. It's so sad," says Nieves Colmenares, a retired administrator whose mother still lives in Venezuela. "She is nearly 89. She is malnourished and the milk gives her diarrhea," she says. The milk comes from the so-called 'CLAP', Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción; these committees determine each family's needs and provide them with a pack, or sometimes just a bag, of basic food items. The beneficiaries have no say in the contents, or when they receive the bags.

"Prices of essential items like rice, pasta, flour, oil and sugar have shot up on the black market," says Nieves. A carton of eggs now costs the same as a low monthly salary. It has always been hard to find some items in supermarkets, most of which are government owned, but now there are very few supplies and it is almost impossible to buy meat or vegetables. Nieves sends money to her family when she can. "I send them ten or 20 euros to help them out. I can't afford any more because they have stopped paying my pension and our only income is from my husband's work," she explains. Regular non-payment of retirement pensions and the devaluation of the bolívar is making life very difficult for pensioners.

The bags of food from the 'Clap' have the faces of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro printed on them; they are not available to those known to oppose the government.

"If you protest, they make your life impossible," says lawyer Tulio Enrique Mendoza, who now lives in Malaga. "They persecuted me because of my political ideas, because I didn't agree with the regime. The courts there are not impartial and I had to get out. My parents don't get the monthly food bag from Clap, just because they are my parents and my wife used to work for Kellogg's." That was one of the companies expropriated by Maduro, in this case more than 50 years after the factory opened. The company, which employed about 500 people, closed down in the end.

Amaya Rodríguez, who is from Sucre, has been on the Costa del Sol for two years. "Even if you have money in Venezuela it doesn't do you any good. You can't buy medication or food. I didn't want that for my children," she says. She met her present partner, Javier Durán, here. He is a member of Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López's party, one of the scourges of 'Chavism'. "I decided to flee when they set my car on fire," he says. "The regime has completely oppressed the population. People are hungry, they'd do anything for a bag of food. Imagine a family with four or five children. The government says, if you become party members we'll give you a bag of food a month. What are they going to do?"

Aníbal Muguerza agrees: "Chávez turned out to be a snake charmer. He seemed to be an alternative to 40 years of bipartisanship but he created a huge breach in society. He believed all business owners are thieves," he says.

Luz Poveda and Miguel Espildora, a married couple in their 60s, believed Chávez would change things: "When he won in 1998 it looked as if things would improve, but he annihilated the middle class and drove the poor into misery," they say. Miguel's parents are from Malaga, and after 11 years in Panama the couple decided to move here. "We still dream that Venezuela will recover and we'll be able to go back one day, but right now the situation is terrible," they say

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Jeannie Lizarzábal is a retired architect. Her voice shakes when she recalls a recent conversation with her sister. "I told her I was a bit homesick, and she told me not to even consider going back. My niece had just queued for four hours for medication for diarrhea, because the water is dirty and making a lot of people ill, and when she got to the front of the queue, there was none left," she says.

Mary Carmen Llanos, a collaborator with Leopoldo López, stayed in Venezuela until a year ago and also reports that it is impossible to find medication. "My mother had high blood pressure, but there was no way of obtaining the tablets she was prescribed and she had a stroke and died. In some hospitals there is no cotton wool or stitches. The surgeons have to operate in the light from a mobile phone because the electricity keeps going off. Before, you could express your opinion, there were all types of TV and radio programmes, but now only one type of thought is allowed," she says.

Llanos, who accuses Chavism of manipulating the election results ("people who had been dead for years apparently voted, others presented duplicated documents..."), believes people have become used to poverty. "It seems normal to queue for a basic product. If they have no soap, they wash their clothes with shampoo. If they have no shampoo, with mouthwash. And they end up wearing the same clothes for two weeks at a time, using bicarbonate and lemon as a deodorant," she says.

The announcement that Juan Guaidó had proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela, because he considers Nicolás Maduro's second mandate illegitimate, is keeping the whole country on tenterhooks, and also thousands of migrants. Carlos Pérez Ariza, who was born in Malaga but lived in Venezuela for over 30 years, says he can see "a certain light at the end of the tunnel" and is calling for international humanitarian intervention during a "period of transition".

The High Court of Spain has already authorised citizens of Venezuela to stay here because of the difficulty of accessing food and medication in their own country. Unicef has also included Venezuela in its list of nations whose children need urgent assistance because of the risk of malnutrition. Pérez Ariza says it is incomprehensible that a country which is so rich isn't covering the population's basic needs. "They have plundered Venezuela for their own benefit," he says.

The Monasterio Torres family, who came to Malaga a few months ago, say Venezuela is unsafe. "We only lived one block away from the school, but my grandparents always took me and picked me up" says Cris, Marisa and Domingo's daughter. What is life like for teenagers there?

"You don't have much of a life. You hardly ever go out. I only used to go from home to school and back, and even so there were robberies sometimes," she says.

Broadcaster Rebeca Lizcano is also not planning to go back, at least for the moment: "I was there for a wedding in March and it was chaos. My mother has been robbed several times," she says. Poverty has caused the crime rate to rise to 81 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, making Venezuela the most violent country in Latin America.

Behind the cold statistics lie stories like that of Olga Toleda, whose husband, a civil servant, was assassinated. The death certificate says he died "from of a head injury caused by a firearm". Olga now lives with her daughter in Granada and is finding life very difficult because her pension from her home country is not being paid, a problem she shares with dozens of Venezuelan pensioners in Malaga. As Víctor Di Gerónimo explains, "They barely have anything to live on".

Sports journalist Merche Celta talks about the "normalisation" of poverty: "There aren't even any tampons or sanitary pads. The government says we should make them at home, like they used to do centuries ago, with bits of cloth," she says.

The Venezuelan community in Malaga agrees there is a "need" to bring an end to the regime, but they differ about the best way out of the crisis. They do, however, agree that society in their own country is completely divided in two, and that it is going to take decades for that deep wound to heal.