Venezuela’s socioeconomic and political crisis, which started in 2012 under the Hugo Chávez regime, has spiraled into extreme inflation and food shortages under Chávez’s hardline successor, Nicolás Maduro. The result has been riots, lawlessness, harsh state repression, starvation, and disease. Captivating the attention of human rights groups, leaders in the region and around the world, and the United Nations, the crisis has led to harsh economic sanctions and political isolation. Meanwhile, the regime claims that civilian protests are all part of a Western scheme to weaken Venezuelan socialism and sovereignty. World Policy Journal spoke to Margarita Cadenas, whose film Women of the Venezuelan Chaos, which was featured at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York this summer, follows the lives of five Venezuelan women as they navigate the crisis.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What were the inspiration and the goal for your film Women of the Venezuelan Chaos?
MARGARITA CADENAS: I’m very happy and very sad because the situation is so bad that I made this film. I’m happy because the film has been successful, but it’s been very bad for us—the situation in Venezuela is so horrible.
I was living here in France and seeing the situation getting worse and worse in Venezuela. In 2016, no one was talking about this situation, but it was already very bad. Now, it’s worse, and it’s worsening every day. But at that moment, I felt a sort of anguish and responsibility to try to do something for my country. I then decided to make this film for France, because it’s the country where I live and work. When we finished the film, we started getting more international attention, and I was happy because it meant more awareness for the situation in Venezuela—and that was my first objective.
WPJ: In the film you follow five women: Kim, María José, Eva, Luisa, and Olga. How did you find them and how did you choose them to be the subjects of your film?
MC: I knew I wanted to address the topics of health, food shortage, political prisoners, fear, and injustice. I knew that these were the subjects. I also knew that I wanted to make this film through the eyes of women because the women are so important to society—they are a pillar of the family. Venezuelans are very active, and these subjects can offer a spectrum of daily life. I made sure that they were of different ages, different social levels, and different races. When we started researching, we made contacts in Venezuela with NGOs, journalists, photographers, friends—anyone could help us. We found around 30 women at first. Then I went to Venezuela, to meet them, try to gain their confidence, and convince them to be in the film, because it’s very risky. The situation is not easy, and they were very courageous. Without them, it would have been impossible to make the film.
WPJ: At the beginning of the film, there’s a disclaimer saying that anyone who records the streets, civilians, or hospitals are at risk to be punished by the state. These women did not remain anonymous in the film. Are they putting themselves in danger? Are they taking a risk by telling their stories in this film?
MC: Two of them left the country at the end of the film. I think that was one of the reasons they agreed—they knew they were leaving the country.
The other three are more anonymous. The only one who isn’t is the last one: Olga. Olga has visited the National Assembly and wrote a book. But she’s not afraid. The only thing that she wants is justice.
WPJ: So the two who stayed had to remain anonymous for their safety?
MC: That’s why this film was not shown in Venezuela. This film has been shown in Europe, the United States, and Canada, but it has not been shown in Venezuela. It’s not meant to be shown in Venezuela.
WPJ: You mentioned that you made all these women as diverse as you could in order to better represent Venezuelan society. In the film, they all seemed to be enduring similar levels of suffering because of the scarcity of food and hospital supplies. Do you think the crisis in Venezuela has affected social classes in different ways?
MC: In Venezuela everyone is suffering. Even if you have money, you still need supplies and food. I have family in Venezuela, and when I talk to them, I can tell they are losing hope.
When I was young, I visited Russia during the time of the Soviet Union. I had been living in London at the time, studying cinema. I was surprised when I talked to people in Moscow and they told me that they were afraid of imagining another world, that they didn’t know how to handle that. Now, when I hear this in Venezuela, it’s understandable. People who are 60 or 70 say, “What am I going to do in another country? It’s impossible.”
Now, there are a lot of people leaving Venezuela. Something like 4 million people have left the country, and the number of refugees coming out of Venezuela is becoming a geopolitical problem that affects Colombia, Brazil, Perú, Chile.
WPJ: It’s just getting worse and worse.
MC: Yes. I was born in Venezuela and I left when I was 20. Never could I imagine that something like this would happen in my country.
WPJ: Venezuela was thriving before this.
MC: It was amazing. It was a country that everyone dreamt of because it was beautiful, rich, and happy.
And now, people are dying of starvation. Yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times there was an article about the people in El Tigre, which used to be an important city because of its oil and wealth—but now, people are starving. The industry there is not active anymore.
WPJ: You were talking about people fleeing Venezuela. Kim and Eva left the country to seek security and stability, and a better future for themselves and their children.
MC: Kim lives in Miami; she is with her kids and her husband, and she is very well and is working as a nurse. Then there is Eva, who lives in Colombia.
Luisa is the only one I can’t call or get in contact with. Her grandson was in jail, but now he has escaped and is here in France with part of his family. Amnesty International helped him to obtain asylum. I recently talked to him because I can’t call Luisa. The electricity cables in her building were stolen, so she does not have electricity or a working telephone.
I asked the grandson, Rosmi, how his grandparents are. He tells me he sends them money to buy food and everything, yet they’ve dropped three [clothing] sizes since I was last in Venezuela.
I’ve also talked to María José. At the beginning of the film, she would say “Never, ever, ever will I leave Venezuela.” But she just recently told me, “Now, we are thinking about it.”
WPJ: It seems to have gotten even worse since the release of the film, and it was already really bad then.
MC: If you imagine that in the film the situation was at 40, now, it’s at 100. In Venezuela at the moment, the inflation rate is 13,800 percent. When we were shooting in 2016, it was 700 percent. Now, the metro and the buses are free, because people don’t have money to pay for it. It’s chaos.
When I showed my film in London, I met a sociologist who said the case of Venezuela is unique in the world—there are a lot of problems in Syria, in Afghanistan, but there is war in those countries.
In Venezuela, there are problems with food, health, political prisoners, injustice, and impunity; 98 percent of human-rights violations are not persecuted. The country is being destroyed.
WPJ: You mentioned that Olga is the only woman featured in the film who’s not afraid, and that she wants this justice for the wrongful killing of her son. In the film, the SEBIN officers that killed him immediately admitted that they killed the wrong man, but she reported being unable to file a report with the police. What is she doing now in Venezuela?
MC: She finally has been able to bring her fight to court. She’s already had 14 hearings but the other side has never shown up at court. And then there’s the government.
It’s very difficult for her. She keeps on struggling and struggling and nothing happens. What happened to her was so horrible. And then she called me last January, desperate because the plot where her son is buried was vandalized.
WPJ: Do you think that the role of women in Venezuelan society has changed at all in the current crisis?
MC: No. Venezuelan society is very machista, but at the same time it’s very matriarchal. The mother is an important figure. There are some women in politics, but because of the machistas, they really can’t work their way up. Still, women continue to be very strong.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Interview conducted by Sussan García]
[Photo courtesy of Margarita Cadenas]