The Venezuela Crisis Photographed

We all have been following the news and the crisis that has quickly escalated in Venezuela since the beginning of this year. The South American country went from being one of Latin America’s wealthiest societies to one the poorest and has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fueled by hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine. As a result, more than three million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years.

Alejandro Cegarra’s photo series “State of Decay” is an unflinching portrait of Venezuela’s collapse. Shot between 2013 and 2019, Cegarra’s remarkable series of black-and-white images takes us beyond these statistics. (This year, the project was nominated for a World Press Photo award.) A native of Caracas, Cegarra depicts life in his home town as precariously strung-out and pared-down, shorn of any softness. We see street preachers shouting, inmates weight lifting, children running in fear, bloodstains on the ground, predatory soldiers with masked faces and black helmets, men brandishing weapons, one of them a youngster standing purposefully with a sawed-off shotgun. There are listless people in supermarkets with empty shelves, funerals and mourners, women and children with fear on their faces.

An anti-government protester holds the Venezuelan flag during a protest demanding the resignation of Maduro, in 2017.   Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra .

An anti-government protester holds the Venezuelan flag during a protest demanding the resignation of Maduro, in 2017. Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra.

When did It all start?

At his swearing-in ceremony, in February of 1999, Chávez promised to transform Venezuela—and over the next decade and a half, he did just that. While a global oil-price boom brought a trillion dollars into his treasury, Chávez declared his country to be the chrysalis of a revolutionary political force that he dubbed “twenty-first-century socialism.” He aligned himself with Cuba and spoke out against the United States. Meanwhile, the oil money was spent as fast as it came in, much of it on social programs to alleviate poverty, but also on expensive Russian weaponry for the armed forces and on subsidies to Cuba and other friendly governments that signed onto Chávez’s vision of a world free of Yankee domination.

When Chavez died, of cancer, in 2013, the Presidency went to his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, a loyalist who has shown himself to be ill-equipped at handling the country’s crisis. Venezuela’s economic problems have gone from bad to worse during his time in office. On the political front, he has resorted to deception and brute force, imprisoning his rivals and sending troops into the streets to beat and shoot youthful demonstrators. Faced with an opposition-dominated National Assembly—the country’s main legislative body—he set about creating a new constituent assembly, stacked with his supporters. Finally, last May, after banning his main political adversaries from political participation, Maduro insured his reelection to the Presidency for a new six-year term, which began last month.

Anti-government protesters, in 2019.   Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra .

Anti-government protesters, in 2019. Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra.

The Present Moment

On January 23rd, the leader of the legislature, Juan Guaidó, declared himself acting president and said he would assume the powers of the executive branch from there onwards. The move was a direct challenge to the authority of President Nicolás Maduro, who had been sworn into a second six-year term in office just two weeks previously. Not surprisingly, President Maduro did not take kindly to his rival's move, which he condemned as a ploy by the US to oust him.

A woman tries to stop National Guard anti-riot officers during an anti-government protest, in 2017.   Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra .

A woman tries to stop National Guard anti-riot officers during an anti-government protest, in 2017. Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra.

Maria Vizcaya cries over the coffin of her five-year-old son, Gabriel Vizcaya, who died from the shock wave caused by a grenade thrown during a confrontation between police officers and gang members, in 2016 .  Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra .

Maria Vizcaya cries over the coffin of her five-year-old son, Gabriel Vizcaya, who died from the shock wave caused by a grenade thrown during a confrontation between police officers and gang members, in 2016. Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra.

A government-run supermarket, in 2015.   Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra .

A government-run supermarket, in 2015. Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra.