According to the latest report by Caritas Venezuela, the inflation of food prices exceeded 1,300 percent in the country in 2017. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation in Venezuela will reach 13,000 percent in 2018, the highest rate in the world. On May 1, 2018 the minimum monthly wage was increased from 1.3 million bolivars to 2.5 million bolivars, the ninth increase since January 2017 and the third this year alone – and still most everyday purchases are beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

Now this economic crisis has been exacerbated by a political crisis, the government having suddenly decided to hold presidential elections on May 20, 2018, rather than in October or December as originally planned.

In its most recent communiqué, the Venezuelan bishops' conference declared that these elections lack legitimacy, because, the statement said, "as conceived, and without the necessary guarantees common to every free, trustworthy and transparent electoral process, and with the innumerable disqualifications of potential candidates, such an election, far from bringing about a solution to the crisis the country is facing, may even aggravate this crisis and lead to a humanitarian catastrophe without precedent."

Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Cardinal Jorge Urosa, Archbishop of Caracas, about the situation.

Members of the opposition, arguing that there is no time to organize a campaign on such short notice, have called on people to boycott the elections.

This bringing forward of the presidential elections to May 20 is an affront to the political rights of the Venezuelan people. We have the right to elect our leaders in freedom and in an appropriate manner, with the possibility of achieving a viable democratic outcome. This is like playing a game of football, where one team moves up the date of the match by 10 days from the date agreed on, without giving the other team the chance to gather its best players. These elections should be organized for the last quarter of the year, as established in the Constitution.

The press release by the episcopal conference also speaks of the elections as having no legitimacy.

These elections will not resolve the problem of the social crisis, and for that reason they are without legitimacy. These elections should be postponed, because in reality they are neither legal nor democratic.

It appears that the opposition is not very active. There appears to be no real mobilization ahead of the elections. It seems as though Venezuela is in shock. Is that the case?

Last year, 140 people died in the repression of the protest marches. Some victims had absolutely nothing to do with the protests. I saw a video of a woman who was walking down the street; she wasn't part of the marches, she was in fact walking away from the crowd, and then "bang"-a shot rang out and she fell down, dead. That really shook me. We are all in shock. It seems as though evil is getting the upper hand, and that it doesn't matter if children die or if someone surrenders and still gets murdered. In the face of so much suffering and without any answer, the people are despairing and discouraged.

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Is the Church the only institution in Venezuela to raise its voice in protest?

No. There are many other groups that are not in agreement, and which are speaking out, for example political groups, the National Assembly. But these are very fragmented and weakened, and they are all heavily threatened. The Church is not the only voice, not in the least, but perhaps we have more impact because confidence in the bishops within Venezuelan society is very high. And not just now; this has been the case for many years already.

Some suggest that the elections were moved forward because of the grave economic situation of the country. Is that one of the reasons?

I cannot say. What I do know is that the reality of life in Venezuela is deplorable. The shortage of medicines and medical supplies is extremely serious, including medical care in hospitals; the shortage of basic foodstuffs and the high cost of food, the problem of transport, and the lack of ready cash. A kilogram [2.2 pounds] of meat costs the equivalent monthly minimum wage; the same goes for a 1 kilogram of powdered milk. Who can afford it? How can it be that there is no money available in a country? That's enough to kill any economy. We in the Venezuelan bishops' conference have raised our voices to denounce the social emergency and humanitarian crisis which exist in our country. The lack of electricity and water. No one has bothered to look after these structures or maintain the supply systems. It is desperate; it is terrible to see the country in ruins.

Venezuela seems to be bleeding to death. Caritas International speaks in terms of more than 4 million people who having left the country. That is 10 percent of the population!

There is an exodus because there is no future. There are people walking all the way across the border into Cúcuta (Colombia). The situation is critical. At the present time, practically every Venezuelan family has a member who has left the country. This exodus is also affecting the Church; for example, here in the Archdiocese of Caracas, we have already lost four of our permanent deacons. And there are also many religious congregations that are taking their sisters out of the country because they don't have the resources to feed them or give them medical care.

What needs to be done to get Venezuela out of this crisis?

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The situation is difficult to change. How can there be change when the government has occupied every position on the public institutions? There is no one to turn to. We have the National Assembly, but it is practically paralyzed, just as political parties have been effectively side-lined. At the same time, it could be said that Venezuela has been "mortgaged" away in the grand international geo-political game. The country has abandoned cooperation with some nations and established strategic partnerships with others, for example in the exploitation of oil and mineral reserves.

In the south of Venezuela there are diamond mines, gold and coltan reserves. It's like the famous Eldorado. Certainly, the damage to the environment as a result of the uncontrolled mineral exploitation poses other worrying issues. Today we can say that any conflict in Venezuela is not merely a conflict among Venezuelans. The country is a pawn in the international geo-political and economic game. This makes everything even more difficult. But we must not cease to pray for our country or hoping for a peaceful solution.

Maria Lozano writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international papal charity providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.