Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian: Venezuelan Migrants — Tragedy, Resilience and Hope

Since 2017, Venezuela has been in a social, political and economic crisis. Under the Nicolas Maduro regime, the country has experienced extreme hyperinflation and abuses on civilian human rights. The desperate situation has led to food shortages, a lack of health services and a lack of electricity and other basic services across the country. This has led to over five million Venezuelans fleeing the country in order to escape the turmoil that they face there. 

Today, Maddie Whitehead speaks with Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian. Betilde is the Director of Social Inclusion in the Organisation of American States (OAS). At the OAS, she focuses on human rights and social inclusion, specifically focusing on those in vulnerable situations. As a Venezuelan-American woman, Betilde is committed to raising awareness about the struggles that Venezuelans are currently facing, often contributing articles to different new sources such as the Caracas Chronicles and El Nacional in Venezuela. She is also devoted to using her network to establish connections amongst fellow Venezuelans who are working together to solve the crisis at hand. It is an honour to be able to hear about the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis from her lens of expertise.

Firstly, I would like to please start by talking about yourself. What is your role as the director of social inclusion at the OAS? How long have you been in your role and how did you get there?

In the department of social inclusion, we have the mandate from OAS member states to support them in addressing what is one of the greatest challenges that we have as a region – that we continue to be the most unequal region in the world. We have three specific lines of work. Firstly, we work on addressing issues of poverty and promotion of equity along with economic and cultural rights. A second line of work is dealing with the inclusion of vulnerable groups such as afro-descendants, indigenous people, those with disabilities, LGBTI people and the youth. A third line, which has generated a lot of demand on my department and the OAS recently, is the issue of forced displacement, migration and other dimensions of human mobility. This is mainly because the region is currently facing important human mobility challenges, including the greatest migration crisis the region has ever experienced – that of more than 5.6 million displaced Venezuelans, but also the Central American displacement crisis. 

In terms of how I am where I am at the OAS, I would share that I am a political scientist by training but feel a profound love of the Latin American region, and constant curiosity to try to understand the challenges we face, and to find solutions to those challenges. As such, I have been working at the OAS for the last 20 years. I began by working there on issues of democracy and election observation but transitioned in 2015 to the social inclusion department. I got here through a progression in my career within a multilateral organisation such as the OAS. And I was fortunate enough to have the chance to establish this department and create an agenda of work for the first time at the OAS. Its creation is in response to the demands and priorities that regional political actors have decided are relevant for the region.

Many people know about Venezuela’s political and economic crisis along with the disastrous levels of hyperinflation that the country faces. Could you possibly explain to our readers what the situation in Venezuela is currently like for those who live there and what makes it so dangerous to the point that over 5 million people have fled?

What we have in Venezuela is a political, social, and economic humanitarian crisis and a crisis of human rights. All realms of human rights of Venezuelans have been violated: civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights, among others. If we look at the dimension of civil and political rights, there are concrete measures that have been put into place to limit these rights such as the banning of political parties, the repression of protests, and other threats against free press and freedom of association. Political parties, for example, are essential to a democracy and free elections but some have been prohibited by authorities in the Maduro regime; others that remain do not enjoy autonomy as it is the Maduro regime who appointed their leaders and executive management committees. 

That is only on the political-civil dimension but with the crisis in Venezuela we also see effects on the access to economic and social rights. When we talk about, for instance, the access to basic health, medicines, doctors and nurses, services that are common albeit with limitations in most countries of the region, we see that most Venezuelans cannot enjoy this. There is scarcity of medical staff as around 40% of them have migrated or do not have employment, scarcity of medicines and medical supplies, and no respect for Venezuelans’ human dignity when they access the few medical services that are available. You have situations in which simple ailments such as diabetes or hypertension become chronic because people don’t have access to the basic medicines that would allow them to live a long and happy life even with the diseases. You can probably see how complicated things get if we are talking about other severe or terminal illnesses such as cancer or kidney disease. 

Regarding Venezuelans’ material wellbeing, which depends on access to jobs, the challenges remain. You referred to hyperinflation earlier, and we know that the minimum wage is not enough for an individual to cover basic needs, much less a family. Wages in Venezuela would not allow a head of family to pay for rent, schooling or food. That is when they are able to find a job; unfortunately, Venezuela is facing high unemployment rates. The recent ENCOVI survey reports that by 2020, up to 43% of the country’s households report inability to work or loss of income.

Food insecurity, a basic human right, has also been threatened. Recent data reveals that one in every 4 households is facing Severe Food Insecurity and have had no choice but to use food-related coping strategies such as skipping meals, eating more carbs, and fasting.  The national ENCOVI survey also reports that 639 thousand children under 5 years of age have chronic malnutrition. We also see that these challenges affect women in a more pronounced way. Around 40% of households are led by only women and over 50% are led only by both men and women, and so they have the responsibility of generating the income to cover for food needs in the family, and as I just mentioned, also of absorbing all of the shocks of food insecurity so that their children or the elderly person in their house can eat. 

Health indicators also have profoundly appalling manifestations on women and children, especially if we look at the levels of maternal and infant mortality in the country. Granted, 2015 was the last time data on maternal mortality was published, and the rate was already around 66% showing the highest increase since this data has been collected (1940s). This corresponds with the onset of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Anecdotal accounts indicate that this has probably become worse with the humanitarian crisis, as well as with the collapse of health services aggravated by COVID-19. Women do not generally have access to pre-natal services to control for diseases, and monitor pregnancy development. Services as basic as getting a physical exam, weight checks, monitoring immunizations and supplement intake; services that are common protocol for pregnant women, are not accessible to most Venezuelan women during their pregnancy. This deterioration in health infrastructure is aggravated by situations where women have become victims of obstetric violence.

Access to contraception has also been disrupted as a result of the humanitarian crisis. For one, there is an estimated 80 per cent shortage in contraceptive supplies, according to the United Nations Population Program (UNFPA).  And when women do find them, they are unable to afford them due to the skyrocketing cost.  As a consequence, we are also facing a situation where Venezuela has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the region with around 1 in 4 babies in Venezuela being born to a teenager.

Regarding citizen security, you can understand how this desperate situation is generating more citizen insecurity and increases in criminal activities. As people have no jobs, many have opted for antisocial behaviors as this is the only way for some of them to afford to feed their families. In this realm of human rights, it is also important to mention that Venezuela has an ineffective judicial system characterized by corruption and impunity, and a police force that faces the same needs as the rest of the population and also depends on corrupt acts to find ways to feed their families. 

This scenario has created the largest displacement crisis the Western Hemisphere has ever seen, and second only to Syria. To date, and according to the R4V Platform by UNHCR and IOM, about 5.6 million Venezuelans have left the country.

It is clear that the situation means that many Venezuelans must leave the country. Are there particular challenges they face in making the journey out of Venezuela?

Because of the hyperinflation, because of deteriorating economic conditions, because airlines are not operating in Venezuela, what you are seeing is a lot of people selling their houses and whatever assets they have for peanuts and making the journey by foot. A large majority of these 5.6 million Venezuelans have left by foot or by bus via the border cities with Colombia (or Brazil, but mostly Colombia). Some of them walk the Berlín mountain range and I personally know Venezuelans who have walked all the way down to Chile. This is happening in our region and exemplifies the severity of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis. 

What is the profile of these Venezuelans? First, they have very limited material conditions – we know that many of them had to sell their assets so that they could get a little bit of money to make the journey. We also know that they are coming with very precarious health conditions because of what I have just described. Some of them have chronic conditions that could have been treated but weren’t because of the crisis; Venezuelans for a long time have not had access to regular vaccine protocols either. All of this has important security implications for the region. Another element I’d like to add: Whereas earlier waves of Venezuelan migrants had a connection to the country they were arriving in and thus had ways to regularize their status, most of them now do not have a regular resident status in the countries they’re arriving in. To explain this further, earlier Venezuelan migrants were children of Spanish or Italian immigrants who had immigrated to Venezuela many years ago. These Venezuelans went to these countries where their parents and grandparents were from and had a legal pathway to settle in the new countries. However, more recent waves include people not just with limited socioeconomic means but also in irregular status; we know that around 80% of Venezuelans have migrated to countries in South America and that approximately 60% of them don’t have permanent residency, temporary residency or a visa. This puts them in legal limbo which generates a whole host of other vulnerabilities that lead to no access to rights such as access to schooling and jobs in the formal labour market (and all the protection that these formal jobs can give you). These were serious concerns we had before the pandemic. With the arrival of COVID-19, economic conditions in destination countries for Venezuelans became dire, and migrant populations were affected by it in a more pronounced and differentiated manner. For instance, because of their irregular status, Venezuelan migrants highly depend on jobs in the informal sector, and these were the ones mostly affected by the pandemic. Also, migrants and refugees generally also lack access to health and social security which were basic rights needed to be secured during pandemic times.

As for women, this is something we need to monitor. Being a migrant puts people in a vulnerable situation, and additionally women have to face additional inequalities and vulnerabilities. We have heard of instances of sexual and labor abuse against Venezuelan migrants. We have seen cases of xenophobic and gender violence. We have also seen cases of the most violent form of violence against women: femicides.  According to the Venezuelan NGO CEPAZ, in 2020, at least 14 Venezuelan migrant women were victims of femicide.  The issue with gender violence against migrant women is that since they are in an irregular migrant status, they are usually afraid to make the complaint and denounce their aggressor so there is a vicious cycle of vulnerability and violations of their rights.

As Director at the Department for Social Inclusion at the Organisation of the American States, you focus on including minority groups in society and their human rights. Therefore, I was hoping we could speak for a moment about the indigenous population in Venezuela. Do they face specific challenges in the country and are they able to migrate at the same rate as the rest of the Venezuelan population?

Betilde at one of the indigenous community camps on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border

There are two key issues that I would mention in regard to indigenous populations in Venezuela. First, there is no data. There is no evidence to show the actual situation that they are facing in regard to their human rights and especially no data about their health and access to food indicators which has historically been a major challenge of protection for these populations. The Maduro regime has not been collecting this data – or, if they are collecting it, they are not disseminating it. The second issue is the lack of differentiated public policies to address the specific challenges that they face. These policies are inexistent. We, fortunately, have a very active civil society in Venezuela which has been able to collect some data to give us an idea of the situation of indigenous people in the country. We know that the greatest challenges, as I mentioned, are the issue of access to health and vaccines. Because of cultural norms and customs in the communities, there is a high incidence of AIDS, and because of the humanitarian crisis, they have had no access to medicines to control the virus. There are also increases in the number of cases of malaria, dengue, Zika amongst these populations and at the same time, they also lack general access to health services and regular checkups. Since they live in such distant communities, they need to travel to more urban centres for check-ups, but we are receiving information that a lot of them are dying because there is also shortages of gasoline to transport them from distant communities to health centres.

The issue of food insecurity is very severe for indigenous people. I work in the whole region, so I know that health and food insecurity are always the main issues for indigenous people in countries like Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and, of course, in Venezuela. What we are seeing however is that, whereas in the past they were able to rely on subsistence agriculture, today (because of the scarcity of materials and the humanitarian crisis) they cannot produce the land and provide for themselves and they cannot afford food items when they are found. There are therefore high levels of food insecurity. Another issue is the electoral and political use of the food baskets known as “Bolsas CLAP” by the Maduro regime. They are using the granting of these food baskets in exchange for electoral and political support from indigenous communities. So, we are talking about an economic and social right that is also being used to threaten the civil and political rights of these communities.

On the issue of indigenous people’s political and civil rights, I must also mention something broader. The 1999 constitution, the Chavez constitution, described an ideal scenario, a broad recognition of the rights of indigenous communities in the country. However, that has not happened in real life. Using the same issue of political rights, the 1999 constitution mandates the establishment of a special electoral circumscription where only indigenous people would be elected as that’s where the majority are. They would then come to the National Assembly in Caracas to represent the interests of indigenous people. Well, that didn’t happen either. The last time we had an internationally recognized democratic election in 2015, the Maduro regime authorities prevented them from assuming their positions in the assembly. 

With regards to their migratory patterns, these indigenous communities tend to move a lot. In the case of indigenous populations in towns close to the Colombian border, these communities have dual nationality. There are indigenous people in the western part of the country by Colombia and in the Eastern-South close to the Brazilian border. So, what we have seen is that there has been an important displacement of these communities into Colombia and Brazil where they have gone to have access to basic food items and health checkups. As a result of their displacement, they have been placed in shelters, and UNHCR along with Brazilian authorities have been maintaining dedicated shelters for indigenous people. On the Colombian side, since they have dual citizenship, they come and go from Venezuela to Colombia and back. We haven’t found them travelling to other countries in South American as they tend to stay in the border towns that they are familiar with. Because the Maduro regime has allowed illegal mining in the areas where we have a lot of wonderful natural resources and indigenous communities, the communities have also been affected, displaced and attacked by illegal miners. Transnational crime and illegal forces have plagued those areas, and there have been increases in the number of conflicts with indigenous people, the trafficking of people, and child labor. A sad scenario that affects all Venezuelans living in the area but indigenous people more pronouncedly.

That was incredibly informative, thank you. For my next question, in July last year, you wrote an article for the Caracas Chronicles about the situation for Venezuelans who have moved back to Venezuela during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was wondering if you could potentially say something about the motivation behind these people returning and issues they have faced in doing so?

At the climax of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we saw that the movements of people within the region with intention to settle in other countries really almost stopped. No one was moving as you had the combination of fear of going to another country whilst there was a pandemic happening, closure of borders by other countries and airports and flights stopping. A few months passed and we began to see an increase of COVID-19 cases in South America with people dying and hospitals collapsing. We started to see the worst of the sanitary crisis in countries in South America where most Venezuelan migrants had settled. In this scenario, what we saw was a very marginal number of Venezuelans who decided to go back. We have monitored the numbers and it is less than 0.5% of the 5.6 million total so a very marginal number but it did happen for two to three months in 2020. 

In terms of the explanations, I can understand on a human level why they decided to go back. If you are in a new country and don’t have a network of friends, and doctors and nurses you know if they are still in the country, and you are in the middle of a world sanitary crisis, I can understand if you want to go back to what you know: your city, your community, and that you want to be close to your loved ones. The problem was that, as soon as they went back, the Maduro regime didn’t arrest them but took them and isolated them in inhumane conditions. They were detained and taken to shelters with no potable water, places to sleep, or access to food to be supposedly quarantined before they were to reunite with their families in their communities. In the end, this became a deterrent for anyone else who was thinking about going back. This is another example of the total disregard for the rights of people and their dignity. Combined with that, there were public xenophobic declarations of Maduro demonising these Venezuelans saying that they were biological weapons. 

Finally, I was wondering if you could elaborate on your own organisation for a moment and say what the OAS is doing to help Venezuelan migrants.

I could maybe elaborate on some initiatives that we are trying to move ahead. First of all, in my Firstly, I want to mention that our Secretary General, Luis Almagro, is very involved in the Venezuela issue and is always advocating for the rights of Venezuelans in general, but especially Venezuelan migrants and refugees. His regional leadership and advocacy on this is key to our more technical work in the field.

At the OAS, the work we do is mostly along two strategic lines: political dialogue and promoting discussions amongst authorities on the big issues that need to be resolved, and also technical cooperation, including on issues of migration. I will mention two examples of things that we are doing about the Venezuelan migration issue. A project that we are doing with a consortium of partners such as IOM, UNHCR, UNICEF and Ryerson University in Canada is supporting mayors and local governments to respond to the arrival of migrants and refugees as they are the ones giving the first response. We are now looking at what are the issues that mayors need to address to ensure that Venezuelans have shelter, access to a quick health checkup and some food to continue their journey, and also what responses are being implemented. With this information, we are designing a capacity building program and a regional network of local authorities that are dealing with migration issues in South America to encourage cooperation amongst them. 

Another project that I want to mention because it is dear to my heart is one we are developing with IOM to strengthen Venezuelan diaspora women’s leadership. Back in December, IOM published a study on diaspora civil society organisations of Venezuelans. They did an assessment of their functions and how they operate and the problems they face. An interesting finding of this study is that around 50% of the leaders of these Venezuelan diaspora organisations are women. They reached out to the OAS and to me, as they know that I am always trying to create connections of migration and gender, to see how we join forces to strengthen their capacities to keep doing the advocacy that they’re supposed to be doing as diaspora organisations. 

We just started with a facilitated regional dialogue where we put together all of these female migrants from Venezuela that are leading diaspora organisations. We will now be working on the report of this dialogue, and a leadership training program for these women.

Finally, I want to mention that beyond my professional responsibilities, I am very much committed to any activity and organization working to help Venezuela and its people. As a Venezuelan-American and having such a wide network of Venezuelans or people working on behalf of Venezuelans, I am always trying to see how I can connect people who need each other. For example, helping someone who needs a program for food security for Venezuelans in Colombia and connecting them with the community or organisation who is doing that type of work. At OAS, we cannot do everything, but I personally try to use the network that I have to connect people to see how we can all together better the situation. 

Thank you to Betilde for giving up her time to be part of this interview today. Being able to hear about the migration and refugee issue from her perspective was extremely enlightening. It was also fascinating to hear about the experiences of those who suffer disproportionate effects of the crisis such as women and indigenous people.

By Maddie Whitehead. Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian’s Twitter is @BeticaMunozPogo, and her Instagram is @BeticaMunoz