The beautiful country of Venezuela has made international headlines in the last years, and not for the reasons many of its fine countrymen would hope for. Although the first things that traditionally came to mind some years ago were the beautiful women & the enriching oil economy, sadly today the country & its people suffer greatly due to a socioeconomic & political criss that began in the country with the presidency of Hugo Chávez in 1999, and has only escalated to unimaginable horror today with the presidency of Nicolás Maduro.
The crisis is marked by hyperinflation, climbing hunger, disease, crime & death rates, & a massive emigration from the country – which we have come to hear of first-hand from personal friends with stories that seem like a thing of movies. In comparison to historical crises, the crisis in Venezuela is more severe than that of the United States during the Great Depression, of Brazil’s economic crisis of the 80s, or of Russia, Cuba, & Albania following the collapse of the Soviet Union!
The crisis has affected the life of the average Venezuelan on all levels. By 2017, hunger had escalated to the point where almost 75% of the population had lost an average of 20 pounds in weight, and more than half did not have enough income to meet their basic food needs. Reports also state that as of March 2019, 94% of Venezuelans live in poverty, and more than 10% have left their country – about 3.4 million people desperately seeking refuge in all corners of the globe.
Venezuela became dependent on food imports that it could no longer afford when the price of oil dropped in 2014. Chávez was responsible for decisions that lead to production shortages, which led to a diminished food supply. With the military in charge of food, food trafficking became profitable, bribes & corruption common, and food did not reach the needy. Venezuelans spend their days waiting in lines to buy rationed food – people gather evenings in search of food thrown out on a sidewalk. Sadly, this describes only the awful realities regarding food & water, but there are so many other issues with health care, poverty, human rights, disease, & housing that I cannot even begin to describe. Mental health is also a factor which is not given enough attention. Following the Bolivarian Revolution, the rate of suicide among Venezuelans quadrupled over two decades, with hundreds of thousands of people dying from suicide provoked by economic burden, hunger, and loneliness due to the emigration of relatives.
For millions of Venezuelans – and political refugees worldwide – life is cruel & unjust, and we can only hope for a better world, where the suffering of the helpless & the inhumane acts committed by a handful of people with no heart can be erased & forgotten for good. The news & images coming out of our countries in turmoil are tough to follow for anyone living away from home. It’s not easy to leave your country because it seems to be falling apart, let alone when it actually is. And at times when the crisis seems to escalate, it’s not easy to enjoy the liberties a stable country – your new home – has to offer when you know your people back home are suffering; much less go out & eat when you know people are starving…or eating from the garbage cans.
Many Venezuelan have come to Germany to seek refuge, and we have met some wonderful friends with amazing stories of survival & struggle. Many are eternally grateful they could get away & most are entirely aware of the freedoms they enjoy in their new homes along with the access they have to buy the necessities of life – the same things so many people today take for granted.
Being far away makes the heart sink and the belly ache for reasons we can all understand, but the truth is, the nostalgia felt when being so far away from home is characterized by a lack of the day-to-day things that made our lives ‘familiar’. Truth is, food plays a huge role in emigration waves. Even though arepas are the beloved front-runner of the Venezuelan food entourage, Pabellón Criollo stands proudly in the foreground as another most traditional Venezuelan dish, which emigrates along with many other traditions as people relocate. Pabellón, meaning flag, is the appropriate word to describe the way the dish is plated, meant to show the colors red, white, & black of a tri-color flag. Carne mechada, arroz blanco, caraotas & plátanos are the main stars here: pulled beef, white rice, beans, & fried plantains!
The dish originated in Caracas, the capital city, and is often related to a symbol of Venezuelan history and their miscegenation – the way the three colors symbolize the union of three races: African, European, and ingenious. Due to their proximity with each other, neighboring countries around the Caribbean & Central America also have their own version of this basic rice & beans combo. In Jamaica, their rice & peas is somewhat similar; in Costa Rica & Nicaragua, they have their Gallo Pinto; while in Cuba & Puerto Rico they call the dish Moros & Cristianos or Arroz con Gandules.
For the Pabellón Criollo:
- 1-1/2 pounds of flank steak
- 2 tomatoes, diced
- 2 beef bouillon cubes
- 1 chicken bouillon cube
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1-1/2 teaspoons of ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon of vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 6 servings of cooked white rice
- 6 servings of cooked black beans
- Fried plantains (tajadas)
Cut the flank steak into 6 equal pieces. Submerge the beef steak into a saucepan of water and add the beef bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then allow to simmer over low heat for one-and-a-half hours, until tender. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Heat the oil in a clean skillet. Sauté half of the onions and the minced garlic in the oil until soft. Add the beans, along with some of their liquid. Add 1/2 cup of water, the cumin, garlic powder, vinegar, and the chicken bouillon. Stir and add a pinch of salt. Allow the beans to simmer for about 10 minutes over low heat. When the liquid has reduced, turn off the heat and set aside.
Slice the cooled steak against the grain into thin, long slices; think pulled pork, we call it carne mechada, though! Shred completely and set aside.
Melt the butter in a separate pan, then sauté the rest of the onions. Add the shredded beef to the pan. Stir and add the tomatoes. Pour in a cup of the steak pan juices and allow it to simmer for about 5 minutes. When most of the liquid has been reduced, turn off the heat.
Arrange the plates with portions of cooked white rice, beans, and the cooked steak. Serve with fried plantain slices, avocados, or fried eggs and enjoy the blessed tastes of home! The joy that comes to most Venezuelans with being able to access all the ingredients their dishes require is priceless. Most people assume that when someone leaves their country, they simply forget about it…but the truth is, I still haven’t made up my mind of what’s harder – to be there amongst the struggle or to be so far away from so many beloved things.