Aging and Abandoned in Venezuela’s Failing State

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On January 23rd, Venezuelan firefighters broke into the home of Pedro Salinas, a renowned engineering professor in the northwestern city of Mérida. Emaciated and dishevelled, the eighty-three-year-old retiree was found lying on his living-room floor, in a state of severe malnutrition. The corpse of his wife, Isbelia Hernández, who died of a heart attack, lay beside him. For weeks, neighbors had noticed that Hernández, the younger of the two, seemed besieged with worry. She told one of them that the couple was finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. Two days had elapsed since the couple had been seen. When the building manager tried to collect a payment for their monthly gas bill, no one answered the door. When he returned the following day, he was again met with silence. He alerted Hernández’s daughter, who left Mérida several years ago, and she called the fire department from Spain.

News of Salinas’s rescue spread rapidly across the country, but it shook one place in particular: the University of the Andes, one of the premier state-funded universities in the country, where Salinas had taught since the late nineteen-sixties. Revered by his peers, Salinas was the first professor there to earn a doctorate from the University of London. “Salinas has an enviable curriculum,” Mario Bonucci, the university’s rector, told me. “He always stood out.” In the course of a forty-year career, Salinas had won numerous prizes, trained thousands of engineers, and worked for private companies, local governments, and international corporations. When photographs surfaced of Salinas, gaunt and bare-chested, in an ambulance, many Venezuelans asked how a person of his stature could suffer such a fate. “It was the drop that made the cup run over,” Marcos Pino, the head of student affairs at the university, said. “It was a general cry.”

The university is so central to Mérida’s economy that locals joke that there is a city within the university, instead of the other way around.

Salinas’s family denied the news reports. His granddaughter Delia posted a video in which she claimed that her grandfather was not abandoned. The diagnosis from Salinas’s doctors, however, was unequivocal. The professor, they said, was malnourished, depressed, and dehydrated. In the eyes of many university retirees, the case of Salinas reflected their own suffering. They conducted sit-ins and demonstrations denouncing the state’s gutting of public universities, holding banners that read “NO to hunger salaries.”

While the protests were unfolding in late January, Antonio Suárez, a middle-aged security guard at the university, died of malnutrition. Seven years ago, Suárez had moved to a classroom because he was unable to afford rent prices in the city. At night, he would set up a handful of desks against a wall and sleep on top of them. He woke up every morning at 7 A.M. before classes started and never missed a day of work, until the morning that he was taken to the hospital, after falling from the desks to the floor, mid-sleep. He was pronounced dead at the hospital within days.

A statue of the writer and professor Pedro María Parra at a historic cemetery in Mérida.

In many ways, Salinas’s and Suarez’s lives in retirement mirrored those of the elderly across Venezuela. Almost ninety per cent of adults over the age of sixty live below the poverty line, according to Convite, a Venezuelan human-rights organization. By their count, eight hundred thousand of them spend their days alone, with little to no family support. They represent a forgotten generation in Venezuela—a country where close to twenty per cent of the population has fled abroad in the past six years. The United Nations estimates that the number of Venezuelans who have fled the country will reach eight million this year—making it one of the largest refugee crises since the Second World War.

Professor Emilia Márquez and her husband, Professor Álvaro Contreras, sit in the empty bedroom of their daughters, who migrated to Argentina four years ago.

Members of all classes have fled the country since former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, gained power and the country fell into decay. Venezuelans who are wealthy, or have relatives in Latin America, the U.S., or Spain, have fled in large numbers. Poorer Venezuelans have left the country on foot, crossing the border to Colombia, Brazil, or Peru. The regime’s policies have prompted Venezuela to go from South America’s richest nation to one of its poorest. The Venezuelan economy is now informally dollarized, but three-quarters of Venezuelans continue to live on less than $1.20 a day. For older adults, particularly those who rely on meagre government pensions, the economy’s dollarization has made their deprivation worse. At the University of the Andes, tenured public-university professors who once received generous salaries are now paid less than two hundred dollars a month.

Professor Orangel Estrada, an architect, says all of his clothes are now too loose for him.

The refrigerator in Estrada’s temporary home.

Decades ago, being on the university’s payroll was one of the most prestigious jobs one could find in Mérida. The Andean city, which is nestled in a luscious valley, has long been defined by the university’s presence. When Salinas became a professor there in the late sixties, Venezuela was enjoying a period of democracy after a decade of military rule. In the intervening years, Carlos Andrés Pérez became president, and the city attracted academics from other countries in the region, such as Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, where dictators governed. It was a period of bonanza and booming oil prices in which government leaders poured money into universities. “They understood education to be the basis for progress,” Bonucci told me. Aided by a prestigious state-funded scholarship known as the Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, students from neighboring rural towns flocked to the city. They then travelled abroad to learn new languages and pursue degrees, including doctorates.

The university rector Mario Bonucci swears in members of a group organizing the celebration of the institution’s two-hundred-and-thirty-seventh anniversary.

“We are a product of democracy,” Mery López, the university’s dean of humanities, who graduated from law school in the nineties, said in a telephone interview. Earning a higher-education degree was no longer reserved for the ruling classes. Across the country, the number of schools and universities ballooned. “There were people who had never even been to Caracas and were suddenly bound for Europe or the United States,” Alejandro Gutiérrez, an economics professor at the University of the Andes, told me. Recent graduates took on jobs in academia, earning about a thousand dollars a month. The university’s classrooms and hallways, along with its bustling bars, restaurants, and cafés, became a testament to Mérida’s cultural wealth. “Rare was the day when you didn’t see a professor coming back from Moscow, Paris, or New York,” Diómedes Cordero, a philologist, said.

Professors Mery López and Diómedes Cordero in their apartment. “I want to have a peaceful old age,” López says.

By the late eighties, the period in which the country became known as “La Venezuela Saudita,” or Saudi Venezuela, ended. Oil prices fell dramatically, and many of the social benefits people had come to rely on disappeared. The country was mired in debt, and its political leadership became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. President Pérez put forth a series of austerity measures that drew the ire of many. “The situation was prime for a messiah,” Gutiérrez said. When Venezuelans took to the streets and looting spread, the Army responded with deadly force. Soon after, Chávez, then an Army lieutenant colonel, attempted to overthrow the government. His effort failed, but Chávez’s vision for Venezuela stuck with many. In 1998, he won the Presidency in a landslide, promising to transform the status quo and restore justice through his Bolivarian revolution.

Adel Khoudeir Maurched, a retired physics professor, in his apartment in Mérida.

In the years that followed, Chávez founded numerous universities closely aligned with the regime. The public funds available to traditional institutions of higher education, such as the University of the Andes, were slashed. In doing so, the government marginalized independent thinking, as Chávez increasingly tightened his grip on power. Programs like the Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho shrank to a pittance. “It was a perfectly orchestrated plan to destroy universities,” Bonucci said. Slowly, salaries and benefits dwindled—a reflection of how few resources were available to universities. Where workers once had all their medical bills covered, they now had to fend for themselves while making twenty-five dollars a month, in many cases.

Retirees protest outside of the Social Security headquarters in Mérida.

Inevitably, those who suffered most were the employees ready to retire. In a report from last year, the Venezuelan news site Prodavinci found that a professor who contributed sixteen thousand dollars, or twenty years’ worth of work, to Social Security would earn back less than three hundred dollars in retirement. That is, under the current pension system, university professors would have to live fifteen hundred years to earn their contributions back. “They stole our money,” Diana Arismendi, a renowned classical composer who teaches at the Simón Bolívar University, in Caracas, said in an interview. “It’s probably sitting in an account in Andorra or Russia.”

Two years ago, López, the university’s dean of humanities, saw a viral post on social media by a retired professor in her department, who said he had not eaten in two full days. The man, Stalin Gamarra, was a beloved literature professor in his seventies and one of Mérida’s most prominent intellectuals. Since retiring, he had written a dozen poetry books, but because there was a shortage of ink and paper in Venezuela, none of them could be printed for publication. Gamarra started renting out two rooms in his apartment to create income. With a group of volunteers, López started preparing meals for as many as fifty professors in need—an initiative she called El Plato Solidario, or Solidarity Dish. But, early in the pandemic, López had to put an end to the program, and the conditions of professors worsened. “Every day, they seem more and more deteriorated,” she said.

Photographs, drawings, and letters hang on the wall in the apartment of Stalin Gamarra, a retired professor and author.

Gamarra stares at his refrigerator. “It’s an incredible modern appliance, but it’s empty,” he says.

In mid-2020, the mother of Mayda Hočevar, who leads the university’s Observatory for Human Rights, died after serving as a professor for twenty-five years. “We had to raise funds to be able to bury her,” Hočevar said. The following year, a university administrator was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unable to pay for the chemotherapy, the woman died within months of her diagnosis. “I am convinced that her death could have been prevented,” Hočevar said. Professors in Mérida were not alone. In other parts of the country, anecdotal accounts emerged of professors skipping a meal or sifting through garbage. Nashla Báez, an anthropologist from the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas, noted that more than half of their professors had lost weight in the span of a year—nineteen pounds on average. “It is an embarrassing situation to be in,” Gutiérrez, the economist, said. “People respect you for your knowledge, but they see you as an indigent.”

Juan Carlos Rivero, a professor of agriculture. He and his wife grow vegetables to supplement their income. The money they make from selling them far exceeds their university salaries.

Younger faculty members have found ways to get by. Many teach remotely in other countries. Others have taken one or two more jobs in Mérida. Juan Carlos Rivero, an agricultural engineer, recently started his own vegetable patch. “That allowed me and my wife to no longer buy food,” he said. Together, they also produce salsas and yogurts at home, which they sell to other professors. “The money that we make from those sales far exceeds our university salaries.” But not everyone could find an alternate source of income. Last year, word spread that a professor in his early forties was living on the street. Even though he was still attending class every week, his colleagues were convinced that he was sleeping wherever the night found him.

For older faculty members, it has been especially difficult to start anew, and many are struggling to pay their landlords, who now charge rent in dollars. Wilson Herrera, a physicist, had begun sleeping in a classroom, like Suárez, the security guard. He was in his fifties, but, over time, he had developed cataracts and begun to lose his sight. The surgery cost a thousand dollars per eye—an amount that neither Herrera nor his family could afford. He later contracted amoebiasis, a tropical disease affecting the intestinal tract, and lost thirty pounds in a matter of weeks. In the fall of last year, Herrera died after developing sepsis. “With the proper means, he could have gotten treatment,” his son, also named Wilson, told me. A student of mathematics at the University of the Andes, the son vowed to leave Venezuela after earning his degree. “There is no such thing as certainty,” he said. “You don’t even know if you can fulfill your class requirements—the assigned professor might have left or no longer be alive.”

Hugolino de Jesús, a retired law-school professor, says that to have “a cup of coffee at a café is a luxury.”

The university’s student body has shrunk to half its usual size in recent years. Still, about two thousand students graduate year after year. “We pay in order to work,” Pino, the head of student affairs, explained. The university was crumbling, operating with only one per cent of its designated budget. The electricity constantly cut off, graduates had to provide the paper on which their diplomas were printed, departments and libraries had been ransacked by thieves looking for wood, fibre-optics, or electronic equipment. Despite that, a remarkable number of staff members, including professors like López, Cordero, Pino, Hočevar, and Salinas, are determined to stay, even though their families have left. “The greatest act of resistance is to keep the university open,” Bonucci said. In its two-hundred-year history, he argued, the university had survived a civil war and a ruthless dictatorship. The current regime could not possibly last forever. That is why, on the occasion of the university’s two-hundred-and-thirty-seventh anniversary, this month, Bonucci chose the slogan “La universidad está viva”—the U.L.A. lives on.

The law-school campus of the University of the Andes. Some professors have organized themselves into cleaning crews to maintain classrooms.


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