democraciaAbierta: Feature

Hunger and desperation: Venezuela’s huge displacement crisis

With 95% of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty, every day hundreds are forced to walk to neighbouring Colombia in search of work

Catherine Ellis
12 March 2022, 12.00am
Nearly six million Venezuelans have left for neighbouring countries
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Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

“I gave my children a small cup of rice. That was all we had. Then I left,” says Emily, sitting on a grassy mound near a river and a road that leads into the Colombian town of Pamplona. Like nearly six million other Venezuelans, she has left home for a neighbouring country.

Emily crossed the border into Colombia and walked uphill for two days to reach Pamplona, a journey born of desperation. As a hairdresser in Maracay, in the north-west of Venezuela, Emily didn’t earn enough to buy food for her three daughters. “Leaving my daughters was painful, but watching them go hungry was worse,” she says. “Leaving became not a choice, but a necessity.”

Venezuela, once the richest country in South America and with the largest oil reserves in the world, is now facing an acute economic and humanitarian crisis that has been decades in the making. Venezuela’s oil wealth was used by the government of Hugo Chavez, elected president on a socialist platform in 1998, to fund radical poverty reduction programmes known as the ‘Bolivarian missions’. Although these missions expanded social services and cut poverty by 20%, they were very expensive, and Chavez also pursued policies that precipitated a steady decline in Venezuela’s oil production, meaning a decline in available revenue. After Chavez’s death in 2013, president Nicolás Maduro continued with his predecessor’s policies and the combined effects of economic mismanagement and widespread corruption have left Venezuela in a dire situation.

The result is that a country with abundant natural resources now grapples with fuel shortages, power blackouts and long queues for petrol. According to last year’s national survey of living conditions in Venezuela, known by its Spanish abbreviation ENCOVI, 94.5% of the population lives in poverty, with more than three-quarters considered to be in extreme poverty. Since 2015, a fifth of the population has left the country, making Venezuela one of the largest displacement crises in the world, according to the UN Refugee Agency, not far behind Syria.

Emily is not alone on this last stretch to Pamplona. She met fellow Venezuelan Oswual on the journey. “Walking in the cold. That’s the most difficult thing,” says 21-year-old Oswual, who now sits nearby, wrapped in a blue blanket. “Our feet hurt and the tiredness is unbearable.” He explains that his parents and young brother are relying on him to send money for food from Colombia, otherwise, they won’t get to eat.

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Emily and Oswual protect themselves from the cold

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Catherine Ellis/openDemocracy

A group of Venezuelans, wearing Crocs and carrying torn backpacks, is huddled near the grassy mound. Some are trying to comfort their cold and hungry children. On average, 2,000 Venezuelans crossed into Colombia every day in 2021, according to the UN. Many of the Venezuelan caminantes (walkers) pass through Pamplona once they enter Colombia. The tranquil university town is now firmly on the migrant route. Most of the caminantes don’t have the $5 bus fare to get to Pamplona from the Venezuelan border. Day after day, they arrive with sore feet, tired bodies and symptoms of altitude sickness. The flow of people may have slowed since Venezuelans first started to leave their country in droves in 2015, but it shows no signs of stopping.

“Before, you might see 500 people a day passing through Pamplona, now it’s more like 150. It’s never zero,” Vanessa Purlaez, director and founder of one of the town’s two shelters, tells openDemocracy. When the caminantes first started arriving in the town, Purlaez’s cousin would host 30 to 40 of them at her home overnight. Soon, Purlaez and her friends and family were all helping out, though they initially worked in secret, not knowing if there would be consequences from the authorities. Then, five years ago, Purlaez decided to open a shelter. “People really need transport. They need jackets, blankets, food and shelter,” she says, adding that they also need psychological support to help them deal with all they have been through and to prepare for what is to come. “Many are disillusioned… the hope has gone from their faces.” Once, many of the caminantes were searching for a better future; now they are just looking to survive, she says.

As we talk, a young couple arrives at Purlaez’s shelter and has to be turned away. The shelter, which prioritises women with children, is full. The young people stand in the darkness outside, before continuing up the road. They will wander around Pamplona, not knowing where they will sleep that night. It is a common enough scene in the town, where the number of caminantes exceeds the capacity of the two shelters. 

Inside Purlaez’s shelter, Zairet nurses her newborn. The baby arrived shortly after Zairet reached the shelter. She has named her Danna. Two of her other children play in the small room she shares with other Venezuelan women who have been walking from the Colombian border. “It was a sudden decision to come,” Zairet tells openDemocracy. “I was pregnant. I didn’t have enough money for food or nappies. I just got so desperate.” Zairet has four more children, but they are still in Venezuela, with her mother.

Zairet says there has been a change in the flow of people out of Venezuela. Before the pandemic, it was mainly young men who crossed into Colombia, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). But now, with the economic situation worsened by COVID, says Purlaez, “ you see more nuclear families and more women walking alone, or with children to find work, or join their families who’ve already left. Whole families are leaving Venezuela.” 

As her baby begins to stir, Zairet says that her partner left Venezuela for the Colombian capital, Bogotá, some months ago. Though he sent money home, it wasn’t enough to stop the family going hungry. That’s why the heavily pregnant Zairet set off with two of her children and her 16-year-old sister-in-law, who was also pregnant. “We came here with nothing – no money, no clothes – nothing. We were hungry and so we left,” Zairet says, before excitedly displaying the new knee-length socks that someone at the shelter had given her to help her keep warm. 

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Zairet with her baby girl Danna

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Catherine Ellis/openDemocracy

Hunger is one of the main reasons people leave Venezuela. The Venezuelan Finance Observatory, an independent group of economic analysts, said that a shopping basket for a family of four cost 75% more in January 2022 compared to the same period two years ago.

Zairet has first-hand experience of this, saying: “It was almost impossible to buy things like rice, flour and sugar.” Before she finally left Venezuela, she says, she was making a daily journey across the trochas, or illegal crossing points, into the Colombian city of Cucuta, to sell sweets to drivers at the traffic lights. The trochas are notorious; both border guards and criminals extract money and goods from the desperate people crossing over. But Zairet felt she had no choice. In Colombia, basic food items were cheaper than in Venezuela. “If I didn’t go [to Cucuta], then we’d have nothing to eat,” she says. Soaring inflation means that a monthly salary in Venezuela is equivalent to between $1.50 and $4, only enough to buy a carton of a dozen eggs or one or two bags of flour.

Jorge Luis has seen thousands of caminantes pass through Pamplona in the two years since he arrived from Barquisimeto, a city in north-western Venezuela. A middle-aged former traffic policeman, he has taken it upon himself to stand outside the town’s hospital to direct traffic and keep an eye on people’s parked cars in exchange for a few coins. “That’s better than nothing,” he says. Luis also makes it a point to encourage the caminantes. “I speak with a lot of them and try to motivate them, to help them keep going.”

Colombia has been generous to the 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants it hosts, which is equivalent to 32% of all Venezuelan migrants in Latin America, according to the World Bank. In February 2021, president Iván Duque announced a new ten-year Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Venezuelans already in Colombia. Luis is grateful but says TPS makes him realise he won’t be going home any time soon. He looks at his wife, who is selling hot tinto, sweet black coffee, from a small stand. The coffee’s aroma blends with the exhaust fumes of passing lorries and buses. Tears roll down Luis’s cheeks and his voice cracks as he remembers a Venezuela that no longer exists: “There was democracy in my country once, and I have good memories of those times. We were middle class. I worked for the government and my wife worked as a manager in a bank. We had good lives and didn’t worry about money. We even had two cars.” He adds, despairingly, “It’s like my country has been through a war, and I can’t see it recovering soon.” 

Before tinto sellers like Luis’s wife start for the day, Pamplona’s main square often doubles as a dormitory. One chilly Friday morning, three young men are huddled under thin blankets in the square’s bandstand. They have some cans of tuna, given to them by an international NGO, as part of a kit supplied to Venezuelan migrants. This sort of help is welcome, but it’s in short supply. The Brookings Institution has described the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis as “the most underfunded” in modern history. Since the pandemic hit, Purlaez’s shelter cannot house only 67 migrants each night, even though hundreds continue to pass through the town. The attitudes of Pamplona’s residents towards the caminante also appear to be changing. Townsfolk would once search out caminante to host for the night, but that seldom happens anymore, says Purlaez: “Now very few people open their doors to migrants.”  

Back on the road into Pamplona, Emily and other caminantes say the residents’ reluctance to help them is understandable. There have been stories of caminantes stealing from those who try to help them. Oswual says he has heard of migrants robbing the truck drivers who give them a ride.

For all the difficulties of getting to Pamplona, the migrants know their journey from here on will only get harder. A man in the group near Emily says he’s “heard the journey gets much colder the further we get once we get nearer to the páramo,” referring to the moorlands. These are feared by caminantes for their harsh winds, heavy rains and near-freezing temperatures. “I’ve heard if we pass the páramo we could freeze and die,” says Emily. “This is why I need some more money to get a bus ticket. I don’t want to walk on that part of the route.”

They all look at each other and smile, despite their exhaustion and fear of what lies ahead. “We’re tired, but we’re not giving up,” says Oswual, his enthusiasm spreading to the others. A passerby stops and gives them some coins, enough for a cup of coffee for everyone. It will keep them going for a while.

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