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.