Photo: Cristian Hernández

Yes, Venezuela Is Now the Poorest Country in the Americas

Our main universities released the latest ENCOVI survey and the figures are as bad as we imagined. Here’s our take on a study that shows what chavismo did, in all its horror

One of the main features of the chavista administration in its 20 years of existence is opacity in its data, particularly when it displays deficiencies of performance and mismanagement. Since access to actual figures of our crisis is the gateway towards national progress, and in the face of a silent state that harasses and persecutes the independent media, the Venezuelan academia took it upon itself to discover just what are the actual seeds of economic disparity in the nation, and what are the main challenges of making a living in our very hostile reality.

The result of that brainstorm is the ENCOVI project. Starting in 2014, with Venezuela already well into social conflict, ENCOVI, which in Spanish stands for “National Poll on Life Conditions of the Venezuelan Population,” is an effort by three Venezuelan universities (Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, Universidad Central de Venezuela, and Universidad Simón Bolívar) focusing on poverty, the effectivity of social programs (or “missions,” as they’re called by chavismo), the particular characteristics of Venezuelan households, physical and mental health of the people, mortality and birth rates, the state of maternity health and childhood vaccination programs, emigration, education, nutrition, safety at work and on the streets, the employment rate and the conditions of public services and housing across the nation. The 2020 edition of the report, however, is only signed by Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.

The general deterioration of our crisis is evident and at the forefront of the 2019-2020 study, when many of the issues attacking Venezuelans degenerated into a humanitarian crisis. After research conducted from November 2019 to March 2020, the ENCOVI team (coordinated by Anita Freitez, a very experienced scholar in the area of demographic studies) polled 9,932 Venezuelan households (the initial goal, curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, was of 16,920), taking advantage of technology in the reach of its questionnaire.

This is, basically, an independent actor doing a job that the government should be doing and sharing.

A Deep Demographic Change

Venezuela is part of that club of countries of the former Soviet sphere or Africa which see their populations shrinking because of migration. We are 28.4 million people because about 5 million of us are abroad; by 2011, the year of the last national census, we had surpassed the barrier of 30 million people. But the decrease is also affected by the increase in mortality rate and the fall of the birth rate.

Migration made us not only fewer but older: the exodus of young people pushed the proportion of 60 years old and older from 10% in 2015 to 12% in 2020. We have more senior citizens, more fragile in terms of health and productivity; our society is, therefore, less able to produce wealth and more in need of different ways of assistance. 

And there’s this thing about our demographic bonus, that window of opportunity in the life of a nation when it has the best combination of ages to launch a collective jump into development. After decades of having plenty of children and teens in the second half of the 20th century, we were entering this window in 2000, and it looked as if it would last 40 years. ENCOVI shows the demographic change killed our demographic bonus; it ended in 2015. The measures by the chavista regime forced so many young people to emigrate that the good balance among ages we had before the humanitarian emergency started. 

Migration made us not only fewer but older.

The Venezuelan society after 20 years of chavismo looks like this: those who were born between 2015 and 2020 will live 3.7 years less than was previously predicted by the state; the child mortality rate is at 1980s levels, 26 per 1,000; more than 500,000 households live in ranchos, with at least three people per room (when they have rooms at all). Just 1 out of 4 homes has running water every day. Just 1 out of 10 homes has power every day.  

We are a smaller, poorer society with a falling purchasing power that limits the market for almost everything, and our social fabric is unraveling, with more and more households depending on one person, more commonly an older woman. 

Enter the combination of pandemic-related confinement measures and fuel shortage: unemployment rose 6.9% due to this, and 43% of households polled by ENCOVI report loss of income of employment since March. 

Straight to the Last Place in the Region 

The ENCOVI survey—which was carried out before the pandemic hit—shows that 79.3% of Venezuelan families can’t afford the basic food basket (50 food products) and 96.2% can’t afford the basic basket (the basic food basket plus 312 other basic needs and services). The number of Venezuelan families that simply can’t afford a basic living standard has been going up since 2012, two years before Venezuela entered a recession and way before the economic sanctions came into play.

But being poor doesn’t only mean that you and your family don’t have enough money for food, but also that your living conditions are way below standard. This is the reality of 6 out of every 10 Venezuelan families. This number has also been going up since, at least, 2014 and places Venezuela as the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This doesn’t quite shock us. Not because the government wants Venezuelans to be poor, but wants them to depend on the state. And, for that, it helps if they’re poor. But now that shortages of basic goods have met hyperinflation and PDVSA has collapsed, the government can’t provide for everyone anymore. Still, to date, ENCOVI shows that as of 2019 public non-wage transfers represent 25.3% of total family income and that 92% of households were part of the CLAP program and received a box at some point. 

To break the cycle of poverty, Venezuelan households need to have the means to support themselves through high-quality jobs, meaning relatively well-paid formal jobs in good working environments. However, as ENCOVI shows, members of poor families have less than favorable conditions to compete for a high-quality job. The average age of the heads of households is between 46 and 54 years old and, at most, 4 out of every 10 have a high school or higher education diploma.

Though it’s true that ENCOVI shows that the economically active population has remained unchanged, it’s—to date—the lowest in the region. Also, close to half (45%) of the economically active Venezuelans work on their own (a number that came to 31% in 2014), mostly in retail. Hence, they lack all the benefits of a formally employed worker (such as food vouchers and labor benefits). And when the worker is forced to stop working due to health issues or an unexpected pandemic, the worker and his or her family (of between 2 and 4 members) is left without an income to fall back on.

The Extent of Food (In)Security

This year, the ENCOVI analysis of the situation of food insecurity in Venezuela includes two new sections: the effects of the pandemic, and the consumption of flour, rice, eggs, and beef according to economic class. The poll analyzes food insecurity through a conceptual basis (worrying to maintain food supply, adjusting budgets and limiting the quality and quantity of food portions at home) and through access to food,  anthropometric measurements of children under 5 years old, malnutrition by gender and economic class, and data comparisons with the region.

The report also shows that access to food isn’t necessarily linked to income.

Overall, the poll shows higher levels of food insecurity at homes compared to the ENCOVI 2018 analysis: 79% of homes report lack of a healthy diet (which reaches 83% during the pandemic, compared to the 69% reported during 2018); 49% of adults report not always eating when hungry (compared to 43% in 2018) and 34% of adults report eating only once a day or spending whole days without eating (compared to the 30% in 2018). Currently, 87% of adults are worried food will run out at homes (compared to 84% in 2018) and 57% report effectively running out of food (compared to 54% in 2018). During the pandemic, only 7% of homes haven’t worried about food supply. 

It’s important to highlight the comparison between the 2018 poll and the data provided by the 2019-2020 analysis to understand the growth of food insecurity throughout the country. In 2018, it showed 25% of low food insecurity, 31% of moderate food insecurity, and 32% of severe food insecurity. In 2019-2020 the data shows a significant rise in moderate food insecurity, reaching 36%, and severe food insecurity, reaching 33%. In short: 3 out of every 4 households (69%) report moderate and severe food insecurity since 2019. 

The survey’s new indicator, which analyzes the food groups eaten according to economic class (and shows the access to flour, rice, eggs, and beef), shows abysmal differences in the consumption of protein between high and lower economic classes. Venezuelans with high income eat 5 times more meat than those with lower income, and 3 times more eggs; highlighting that inequality shows 30% of nutritional differences depending on social status. Lower-income families have carbohydrate-based diets, which results in the national average consumption of protein of only 34.3% of the required level.  

But regardless of economic status, the report also shows that access to food isn’t necessarily linked to income, as it also shows the general population’s consumption of food, showing that those with the highest rates are barely above the 2,000-calorie standard. This shows that an equitative distribution of food would barely fulfill the baseline of 2,000 calories per person per day, which highlights a generalized and structural growth of poverty and food access across the country.  

The nutritional state of children under 5 years old also shows some concerning results, especially when compared to the region. 166,000 children qualify as malnourished, per their weight indicator according to their age. Venezuela’s data shows a closer comparison to countries from Central America than to the South American region. Venezuela’s 8% of child malnourishment worsens the region’s reported average data. But the most worrisome data shown in the poll highlights the 639,000 children who suffer from chronic malnutrition, 30.3% that shows a significant difference between Chile’s 1.8% in 2014, Colombia’s 12.7% in 2016, and Peru’s 13.1% in 2016. 

Migration: Draining the Country of Human Resources 

ENCOVI shows that 19% of Venezuelan households reported that at least one of their members left the country between 2014 and 2019. This is in line with an increase in the number of households that report having members abroad, and in the number of family members within a household who have emigrated. The survey also shows an increased gender gap. Women comprised the majority of migrants up until 2015. The last five years have reversed those percentages to the point where men were the majority in the 2017 ENCOVI survey. The 2019-2020 survey shows 54% of migrants are men. 

In terms of age, this year’s survey shows a drop in Venezuelan migrants between the ages of 15-29. With 49% they remain the largest group of migrants, but this is a 9% drop from 2018. Instead, migrants ages 30-49 increased from 2018 to 2019. 

The majority of Venezuelan migrants continue to leave seeking jobs or having one secured, but the percentage increased from 67% in 2017 to 82.8% in 2019-2020. Also, the second most common reason for leaving in 2017 was “other”. In 2019-2020, it was “family reunification”. In addition, 30% of households with members abroad reported receiving remittances—especially those led by women facing poverty. In 2019, more Venezuelans 60 and older were the ones receiving remittances. 

According to the report, before the pandemic, 4% of recent migrants considered returning. The number can be higher now, but ENCOVI expects emigration will slow down yet not stop after the pandemic, given that the majority goes abroad because they can’t find jobs in the country.

Education, a Shadow of What It Was

ENCOVI estimates that 1.7 million people in the 3 to 24-year-old demographic have left the country, which reduces pressure on the demand for education. The attendance rate in young adults aged 18 to 24 dropped to 25%, compared to 47% in 2014. In teens between 12 to 17, the attendance rate is 85%. The attendance rate in the 18-24 demographic has been steadily declining since 2016. 

Around half of the more vulnerable population can’t complete 12 years of school or graduate, which would help in some way to reduce the risks of remaining in poverty.

In addition, education coverage has dropped by half from that year: it was 48% in 2018. ENCOVI estimates that there are 3,136,000 people between 18 to 24 years old still residing in the country, out of which only 775,000 are attending school, versus 2,282,000 who don’t. 

Out of 7.8 million children in the country, from 3 to 17 years old, 40% report difficulties to attend school, for problems with water supply (23%), blackouts (17%), no food at home (16%), lack of transport (7%), or lack of teachers (18%).  

In conclusion, around half of the more vulnerable population can’t complete 12 years of school or graduate, which would help in some way to reduce the risks of remaining in poverty. There’s a huge step back in education for the population between 18 to 24 years old, the COVID-19 lockdown will deepen inequalities and those who don’t have access to new technologies or lack the appropriate conditions for learning at home will be hit the hardest. 

The Harder Questions

The diagnostic shown by the ENCOVI survey is, of course, a discouraging addition to what we’ve been able to learn about the country through academic studies and journalism regarding the state of political institutions and the economy—there’s no single number issued by the government that can be relied upon. 

The large scale collapse of  Venezuela provides a somber reality today, but an even more chilling picture of the future. Chavismo destroyed the economy, our internal capacity to produce food and basic services, it ravaged the oil industry to the point that we can’t even produce our own gasoline and its parts are being given away to international partners for favors that only worsen the current situation. But what will that look like in the future? This is the question that has to be in the center of our minds when analyzing the ENCOVI results. 

Does the world realize the urgency of what’s going on in Venezuela and what it can become? High levels of malnutrition, low levels of education, rising infant deaths, migration of citizens who are approaching their most productive years, aging of the local population, limited access to food and health services. 

The diagnosis is clear, our country is dying. We also know the cause. But the bigger question here is: will we be able to find a cure in time?