Irish missionaries have vowed that they will stay with the people of Venezuela in the midst of a deepening political crisis and widespread food shortages that has seen some people forced to scavenge through rubbish tips for food.
This is despite the fact that one of the Irish Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) priests has had to be evacuated from the country after 50 years due to a shortage of life-saving medicine to treat his diabetes.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic MSC provincial Fr Joe McGee, who has recently returned from a visit to the Latin American nation, said the situation facing Venezuelans was desperate.
“This is the first time that I’ve witnessed people scavenging in rubbish heaps to get food for themselves”. He described a palpable sense of distress including “the fear of the people, afraid to go out, afraid to protest, afraid to raise their voices”.
“I’ve been going there for the past 12 years, and I’ve noticed the deterioration in the facilities, deterioration in services, in infrastructure, in roadways and so on,” Fr McGee said.
Referring to Roscommon-born Fr Joe Ruddy who had to be evacuated, Fr McGee said “he came home because, literally, there’s no medication. And when I went to see another specialist because another one of my members was very sick, and asked ‘Would you be able to look after this man?’ he said, ‘Well, no, because I’m leaving the country’.”
Fr Ruddy leaves behind him four Irish priests who remain committed to accompanying the Venezuelan people in their time of hardship, while a fifth priest, Kerry’s Fr Seamus Kelly, is in Ireland after having spent 40 years in Venezuela but intends to return to the country regardless of how difficult the situation is.
The country’s collapse has followed an economic crisis caused by a dramatic drop in global oil prices in 2013. With 95% of Venezuela’s export revenues depending on oil, the popularity of socialist President Nicholas Maduro fell.
The Supreme Court’s attempt this March to dismiss the opposition-controlled National Assembly sparked months of violent protests, and an election last month has been condemned by the EU. Protests continue, with inflation in the country now topping 700%.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the MSC congregation this week, representatives of the Venezuelan community in Ireland paid tribute to the work of the Irish missionaries.
“Despite the chaos and misery that is in our country today, we have been blessed by having these priests adopting our homeland as their second home and providing their help and support in the cities of Maracaibo and Caracas,” they wrote.
“It is important for us to let all the family of the Sacred Heart know how priceless is the sacrifice and commitment that you are demonstrating by staying there against the backdrop of conflict. God’s will you can stay longer,” they added.
Food in the country is not merely expensive and scarce but of poor quality, Fr McGee said, explaining that although he has been a regular visitor to the country for over a decade, he has never seen things as bad there as when he visited this summer.
Describing how two of the country’s bishops had pleaded with him not to forget them when he returned to Ireland, Fr McGee stressed that the Irish missionaries are committed to staying in Venezuela. “Our men are just trying their best to stay along with the people and be with them and serve them – to accompany them, really – they don’t want to leave them,” he said.