venezuelan flag protests
CNN  — 

You’ve seen the news reports: the protests in the streets, the long lines at the stores. But you may not have paid much attention to the chaos gripping Venezuela.

Venezuela is holding a presidential election on Sunday. How are events in a socialist country of 30 million people, thousands of miles away, relevant to your life, you may have wondered.

Here are five reasons why the Venezuelan crisis should matter to all of us.

It’s creating thousands of new refugees

The food and medicine shortages, soaring prices, political instability and violence have forced tens of thousands of Venezuelans to flee.

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have left the country since 1999, when the populist regime took over, according to Tomas Paez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and an expert on emigration.

And they’re the top asylum seekers in the US, ahead of citizens from China, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. It’s the first time Venezuelans have topped the list.

Venezuela asylum applications graphic

“The US has enjoyed being in a peaceful, democratic neighborhood for many years … and this could change that,” said Fabiana Perera, a Foreign Policy Interrupted fellow at George Washington University.

Caracas, she added, “is only a three-hour flight from Miami.

A wave of new asylum-seekers would not be welcome in the current American political climate, said Christopher Reeve Linares, a freelance journalist who has covered Venezuela.

“There is a rise in xenophobia in the US, and a flood of Venezuelans from across social strata into the country risk local backlash and becoming pawns and scapegoats of US politicians,” he said.

It’s an assault on democracy - and that’s troubling

Many observers say what’s gone on politically in Venezuela over the last three years is nothing less than a democratic mugging.

President Nicolás Maduro stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters to block any impeachment attempts after the country’s opposition leaders won a majority of seats in the National Assembly in 2015.

Then the Maduro-backed Supreme Court briefly attempted to dissolve the National Assembly and acquire its legislative powers, sparking a wave of protests last year. More than 100 people died in the violence.

Opposition demonstrators clash with riot police ensuing an anti-government protest in Caracas, on July 26, 2017.
Venezuelans blocked off deserted streets Wednesday as a 48-hour opposition-led general strike aimed at thwarting embattled President Nicolas Maduro's controversial plans to rewrite the country's constitution got underway. / AFP PHOTO / FEDERICO PARRA        (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Why Venezuela is in crisis
01:49 - Source: CNNMoney

Back in July 2017 the country held a controversial – and disputed – election to create a new lawmaking body, the Constituent Assembly. The 545-seat legislative body, filled with Maduro’s supporters, has the power to rewrite the country’s 1999 constitution and effectively place all branches of Venezuela’s government under Maduro’s control.

Tamara Taraciuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who covered the country for eight years, says the attacks on one branch of a democratic government by another should make Americans sit up and pay attention.

“You should care about it because (the turmoil) goes at the core of your values,” Taraciuk said. “There is absolutely no check on executive power (in Venezuela). People in the US can see just how dangerous an autocratic government can be.”

It could give rise to anti-American sentiment in the region

Latin American dictators love to rail against the United States. Fidel Castro’s fiery denunciations of the American “imperialists” was a key part of the late Cuban leader’s persona. The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez infamously bashed former President George W. Bush at the United Nations in 2006.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Maduro is using the current crisis to whip up flames of anti-Americanism throughout both Venezuela and the region.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures after giving a speech in Panama City in 2015.

Latin Americans are sensitive to what some consider “imperialist” policies coming from Washington, making it easier for leaders like Maduro to foster mistrust of the United States.

“It’s important for the US to play an active role in Latin America so that democratic backslidings like this won’t happen again,” Perera said.

It’s causing unimaginable suffering

There’s also a fundamental human reason why we should care about what’s happening in Venezuela: People there are enduring suffering that would be unimaginable to most of us.

Rampant inflation (the International Monetary Fund projects prices will rise 13,000% this year) and higher food prices mean many people are skipping meals. The percentage of malnourished Venezuelans is growing rapidly, according to a national survey by three of the country’s major universities.

Many have dubbed this phenomenon the “Maduro diet” for the embattled president, who has said that doing without “makes you tough.”

There also have been shortages on such basic goods as toilet paper and medical supplies. Venezuela can’t pay to import goods because its government is desperately strapped for cash after years of mismanagement. The sight of people digging through trash to find food is common