Nicolle González, a doctorate student studying mathematics at the University of Southern California, is one of the millions of people who have left Venezuela in recent years. The crisis in Venezuela continues to affect her as well as the people she left behind.
The Venezuelan political situation shifted dramatically last week when over 20 world leaders, including the United States, recognized the official opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela.
Most recently, the European Union formally recognized Guaidó as president today, Reuters reported.
Maduro was sworn in on Jan. 10th after being re-elected last year, winning 67 percent of the vote. Following that, protests have erupted in the streets in dissent against Maduro, and the U.S. cut off oil sales from Venezuela, halting a significant cash flow into the Venezuelan government, the New York Times reported.
"If I could say anything to the people in Venezuela right now…I would tell them that I'm sorry," González said. "I'm sorry that I can't weather the difficulties they're suffering right now."
It's been developing for years. When oil prices crashed in the 2010's the last two presidents took desperate "short-run measures," Venezuelan journalist José González Vargas told Annenberg Media. He explained that this, coupled with the neglect of investment in infrastructure caused utilities to fail, further pushing the government into a downturn.
Oil prices in Venezuela fell over 350,000 barrels per day in the last decade. PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, is in increasing debt. This, coupled with economic mismanagement by Maduro and an inflation rate nearing 1 million percent has pushed Venezuela into an economic downturn, according to a Columbia University study.
Since then, further political turmoil developed from Maduro's increasingly desperate strategies to curb inflation, Vargas said.
"Venezuelans have lost a lot of weight. They're not eating properly due to this crisis. There are actual health indicators that show that they're going back to a third-world country," said Joseph Palacios, a lecturer in sociology and a University Fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC.
Lack of food and political persecution has led to an outpouring of more than 2.3 million refugees from Venezuela into neighboring countries like Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, according to U.N. figures. The refugees are in search of a better life, but this migration is leading to unintended consequences that may in fact strengthen Maduro's hold on the country, according to Palacios.
"When you have the middle class leaving the country, you have a vacuum of competent candidates and opposition," Palacios said. "You are leaving the country, and it is being run by dictators."
A lack of voting power, international involvement and an opposition regime will likely mean that the conflict will rage on until something – or someone – reaches a breaking point, Palacios said.
"They are so poor and dependent on the handouts from the government that they don't see themselves as actors of opposition," Palacios said. "If you have the opportunity to leave, you leave. You don't want to raise your children in such violence. It is a tragedy because Venezuela had such riches – a rich culture, a rich economy. Under Maduro, they've traded their riches for a new poverty."
Now with international recognition of Guaidó as the interim president, an opposition force is pushing forward.
Venezuelans like González who have moved away from home often find that people's perception of Venezuela itself has been warped by Maduro's regime.
"I've been in the U.S. for 10 years now," González, a USC doctorate student said. "A few years ago, when I told [people] I'm from Venezuela, it'd be 'Oh, okay, cool.' Now, it's more like 'Oh, damn.'"
As for what the future may hold, some Venezuelans see a brighter way forward.
"What I like about Venezuela is its future," Vargas said. "I like to think not on how things are now, but how things will become. How we can use and learn from all our previous experiences – especially the critical moments like this – to grow and improve."
Additional writing and reporting: Nisha Venkat