Juan Liendo, a second-year student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, had a comfortable childhood in one of the safest neighborhoods in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.
Growing up, Liendo had a peaceful childhood. He studied at a private school and was always trying out a new sport. His father, Douglas, a local architect, picked him up from school every day to go to the park, get ice cream or just stroll around town. On weekends, his parents would take him to the beach or on a hike.
But Liendo’s relative sense of security was shattered last month when his father, a positive man with a great sense of humor, was killed in his home. Local police say two intruders killed Juan Liendo’s father. One man was arrested in connection with the crime.
Thousands of miles away from home, Juan Liendo is left to face the consequences of the growing economic and political turmoil that’s affecting the safety and stability of people living in Venezuela.
Liendo, 21, was in Walla Walla when his mother called with the news. She had to say it a number of times before he could truly understand that his father had died.
“Hearing that someone passed away, sometimes you’re like ‘OK, well, that’s fine,’” Liendo said. “But when it’s someone close to you, you just don’t connect the same, it’s like, ‘oh, your dad passed away,’ and it’s like, ‘My dad? No.’ It’s like, you know, you think they’re talking about someone else.”
Liendo, who had no one to tell and no close family member for thousands of miles to share in the pain, said that this was the first time he ever felt alone.
“It takes time,” he said.
A country in uncertainty
Venezuela, which boasts the largest known oil reserves in the world, was once the richest country in Latin America. However, in the past few decades, it has slipped into a state bordering on authoritarianism with an inflation rate quickly spiraling toward one million percent.
The government, led by President Nicolás Maduro since 2013, has changed the country’s economic model to benefit those in office and their allies, according to Victor Menaldo, a political science professor at the University of Washington. For example, the official government exchange rate for currency can only be used by Maduro’s allies. They then buy goods and sell them to regular citizens on the black market for a massive profit.
None of this was a problem for Juan Liendo growing up.
“I was not really worried about anything in my childhood,” Liendo said. “I was still privileged in many ways, which I didn’t even know I had.”
His parents always supported his dreams to travel the globe.
“I always had this curiosity for the world, for adventure, for different cultures,” Liendo said.
After finishing high school, he went to Germany to study at the Robert Bosch United World College. Then, Liendo spent time in China for an internship. While his parents were surprised by his sudden move to Asia, they were always supportive of his exploration.
He arrived in Walla Walla last year and embraced college life at Whitman. He’s in the climbing club. He works as a stage manager and builds sets for the theater department. He’s a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.
However, since he left Venezuela, Liendo’s prosperous neighborhood, like much of Caracas, has grown increasingly dangerous and violent. Blackmail and muggings are now commonplace.
Liendo’s parents were fanatic about security, but were still robbed of their wedding rings while sitting in their car on one occasion. These concerns led his mother to the decision to move out of his father’s apartment where she would later find him dead.
Juan’s mother spared him the gruesome details of the murder, but he later read them in Venezuelan news reports.
Liendo now worries about his sister, who is 10 years younger than him. Liendo never worried about food when he was growing up, but his sister doesn’t have the same guarantee.
“Imagine you want to just buy milk, and then you go to three supermarkets and none of them have milk,” Liendo said. “And then the one who has milk is 40 minutes far away from your house, you go to that one. And then it happens that you’re not the only person looking for milk, there’s 200 other people looking for milk,” and the market runs out before you can even buy a carton.
For nine months, Liendo’s mother was without cable TV, so he bought her Netflix to provide her with some form of entertainment. Meanwhile, she only has running water three days a week and has to deal with energy blackouts twice a week that can last up to 16 hours.
A change of plans
Liendo came to Whitman with high aspirations. He is one of 21 students spending a “Semester in the West,” one of Whitman’s most competitive programs, this fall.
The program brings students to 16 western states to study issues such as climate change and conservation. Along the way, the group will meet with nearly 80 people that control the future of the American West, including local officials, ecologists and energy experts.
This is a perfect program for Liendo who plans to study the environment and politics. His passion for these issues stem from what he has noticed in Venezuela recently.
The nation’s economy was built on its top import: oil. However, the country of more than 30 million people has been unable to deal with the environmental concerns that inevitably arise from that reliance.
Lake Maracaibo, home to many large oil reserves, has seen an increase in oil spills in the past decade as the government has neglected the estuary, instead using it as a space to help maintain the country’s fledgling oil production.
In addition, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries in the world, Venezuela also has one of the highest deforestation rates in South America.
“I wanted to make a change,” said Liendo, who wants to work on conflict policy-making after college. “I wanted to do something relevant to fix all the bad things happening.”
But since his father’s death, Liendo has found it hard to come to terms with the fact that he cannot return to his home country because of the danger he faces there.
He wouldn’t be the only Venezuelan making the decision to leave.
“There is a mass exodus of Venezuelans to Ecuador, Colombia and the United States,” Menaldo said. “This started with the wealthiest and most educated Venezuelans, causing a brain drain, but has spread to the broader population.”
The Guardian earlier this week reported that 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015.
Juan Liendo was supposed to speak to his father by phone the morning after he died. They both had busy weeks, but Juan figured he would call and try to talk to him for five or ten minutes. But that talk never happened.
Liendo learned a lot from his father. Douglas impressed upon his the son the importance of peace and the unnecessary nature of violence.
“One of the things my dad taught me was… to be someone for the good of the society, for the good of the world,” Liendo said.
This lesson is probably part of what is leading Liendo to a career fighting to end conflicts, rather than to capitalize upon them like much of Venezuela’s elites.