Venezuelans in US desperate to help family back home

A Venezuelan National Guard member surveys debris in a looted supermarket in December 2016.

Story highlights

  • Food shortages continue to plague the population of Venezuela
  • Expatriates in the US struggle to send help back to their families

(CNN)When Atahualpa Pinto Solis came to the US from Venezuela in 1997, he never envisioned a time when he would have to help his family back home put food on their table.

But now, he's started a GoFundMe to do just that. To him, it seems like the only way he can support them.
    Solis recalls happier times in his home country.
    "You could find food, you could find anything you wanted," he told CNN. "You could go out. There was city life, there was nightlife."
    In 2001, high oil prices made Venezuela the richest country in South America. The stores had food and crime was relatively low. In 2011, income inequality was almost as low as Canada's. Today, however, its economy has collapsed and Venezuela is a country in crisis.
    In a stark example of Venezuela's hyperinflation, this is 8,000 Bolívares which, in mid-July, 2017, was worth about $1.
    Average Venezuelans struggle with food shortages, the result of either a lack of availability or hyperinflation. Many citizens have resorted to skipping meals, according to a national poll.
    "Things can be found but the prices are really high," Solis said. "With a minimum wage, you couldn't possibly feed your family."
    That's what happened to Solis' parents. His father, Dr. José Pinto, a retired medical scientist, relied on his university pension to provide for the family. Suddenly, it was not enough.
    "My dad's pension (for the month) was spent in one shopping trip," Solis said. "That would buy food for a week, a week and a half."

    Fraying social fabric

    His family wasn't alone. The whole country -- almost 32 million people — has been feeling the pressure.
    Food is now so scarce that the sight of people picking through garbage heaps is common in Venezuela's cities. When food is available, it often involves waiting in lines and even then, there are no guarantees.
    "If you want the cheaper things, you wait in line and they may or may not be there," Solis told CNN.
    Desperation and crime have replaced social graces as people struggle to survive.
    "The social fabric, in general, has degraded to a degree..." Solis bemoaned, his voice trailing off.
    Still, Solis' mother, Paula Solis, tried to maintain a sense of normalcy. For years she cared for stray animals on the grounds of the university where her husband worked.
    Paula Solis, holding one of her beloved animals, in late 2008.
    "They were part of the family." Solis said. "Regardless of whether (the family) ate or not she was going to feed these animals."
    Solis was living in Syracuse, New York, this summer when he decided to send the family a large care package.
    But Paula didn't live to receive it. According to local media, her beaten and bound body turned up on the university grounds in July. Solis believes she was killed for her car, which the thieves were not able to drive away when they discovered it was a stick shift.

    Where is the help?

    Catastrophic food shortages in other countries around the world have sparked massive international relief efforts, some even highlighted by Impact Your World. But not in Venezuela.
    One key reason aid groups stay away is simple: Venezuela's leaders haven't asked for help. In fact, the government has refused most aid offers.
    "Very often the government will declare a national emergency and reach out to organizations and, in general relax the regulations for operating in that country," said Nick Osborne, head of CARE's international programs and operations. "In doing so they would invite in NGOs as well as the UN."
    Without such an invitation, working in a foreign country becomes challenging, if not impossible.
    "[With] any country, we work at the invitation of the government," said Challiss McDonough, senior spokeswoman for the World Food Programme. "We are not an invading aid army."
    Many Venezuelans must stand in line to buy what little food is available.
    Venezuela has not needed international help in the past, something that makes it even harder for relief groups to get in now.
    "We haven't had a presence in Venezuela. We don't have the insights and knowledge to operate in the country," CARE's Osborne said.
    The Catholic Church does have a long-standing presence in Venezuela, and its charity arm, Caritas, is one of the few international groups operating there.
    "International donations of food and medicine require special permits," said Janeth Marquez, who heads Caritas' efforts in the country. "We have crossed many obstacles to process the permits."
    Caritas' workers have not been immune to Venezuela's crime or shortages.
    "The violence that results in robberies to our facilities, insecurity in travel, and new ways of entering vulnerable communities also changed how we work," Marquez said.
    "I also had to change the way I buy supplies for projects. There are no medicines and food in quantities on the shelves, many times there is nothing."
    But perhaps the most significant challenge for Caritas is the drop in donations.
    "In the past, 50% of our budget was obtained from the help of poor parishioners," said Marquez. Now that share is down to 3%, she said.

    Taking matters into his own hands

    Given the challenges facing major charities, Venezuelan expatriates like Solis have decided that they needed to help on an individual level.
    Solis' GoFundMe account isn't unique. His is one of around 4,000 GoFundMe accounts raising money for families living in Venezuela.
    Citizens within Venezuela's borders can't set up the accounts.
    "Venezuela is not supported by our payment processors," GoFundMe's Bobby Whithorne told CNN.
    Making matters worse, package delivery into Venezuela is very expensive and unreliable. Traditional addresses don't exist everywhere in the country.
    To solve the problem, a handful of local shipping companies have developed strategies to ensure delivery inside Venezuela.
    "That's the reality of getting anything in that country -- you have to grease the wheels. And these companies have paid their dues," said Kirsten McGiver, Solis' girlfriend.
    A Venezuelan opposition demonstrator waves a flag during a protest in May.
    "The important part is that when your goods get to Venezuela, they deliver it to the door. They send the same person every time so there is a familiarity."
    Although these companies have become a lifeline for Solis' father, there are still tradeoffs.
    If you want to go cheap, you can send a box by boat but it will take roughly three months to arrive. Solis used "Compra y Venia" to ship a package the size of two shoeboxes and paid $50. Alternately, you can ship boxes via air and they will get there in a week. But those packages are costly and limited to 8 pounds.
    Solis and McGiver have now sent a handful of packages filled with items like toiletries, paper towels, and staples like sugar, flour, and dehydrated milk.
    To supplement these packages, Solis uses his family visits to bring in goods, packing his checked bags with items such as baby formula, clothes, and chocolate. However, this has become more of a challenge in recent months as well.
    As the situation in the country deteriorated, airlines have started suspending service into Venezuela. United Airlines stopped flights last July. American, Lufthansa, LATAM, AeroMexico and Air Canada have either ended service or severely cut back flights as well. And Delta recently announced their last flight to Venezuela will be September 17.
    This problem became all too real for Solis when, during a recent trip to the country, he found himself without a way back to the US.
    "I ended up buying 3 different flights before I got one (home for him)," McGiver said.

    Easing the burden

    Meanwhile, Solis' family, and thousands like it, continue to struggle.
    The car that Solis believes precipitated his mother's murder had to be sold for cash. It was only 10 years old with less than 50,000 miles. It sold for $3,350.
    Still, Solis' packages are helping.
    "I am preventing them from spending what little money they have on trivial things. I am alleviating the burden the economy has on their wages."
    And, he hastens to add: "My dad is an elderly man and his family helping him out is an emotional thing."
    For Solis, this help is also a way to cope with the tragic passing of his mother.
    "The void is enormous but this little bit that we are doing here is able to solve a lot of problems and gives me a sense of comfort," he said.
    Venezuela's situation continues to deteriorate. For now, there is no indication that more aid groups are coming. For those Venezuelans fortunate enough to have family living abroad, these small shipments are crucial.
    So, for now, all Solis can do is watch, pray, send the occasional aid package and hope it reaches his family.