Patrons line up on a supermarket parking lot in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The combination of shortages and spiraling inflation have shaken support for President Nicolas Maduro even among the poor who rely on the social programs launched by his mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. Fernando Llano AP
Patrons line up on a supermarket parking lot in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The combination of shortages and spiraling inflation have shaken support for President Nicolas Maduro even among the poor who rely on the social programs launched by his mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. Fernando Llano AP

Venezuela

Fleeing Venezuela: On foot and by raft, seeking a fresh start abroad

August 12, 2016 09:00 AM

BOGOTA, Colombia

Alexander and Katherine arrived in this bustling city with two backpacks, their university diplomas, $250 dollars in cash and the tricolor flag of their homeland, Venezuela.

Fleeing the violence and the crippled economy back home, they hoped to make a fresh start. But two months later, struggling to make ends meet, the couple found themselves selling corn tortillas and cheese — Venezuelan arepas — on a rainy street corner.

“I know things aren’t going like we expected here,” said Katherine as she fanned the charcoal grill, “but there’s no way we’re going back to Venezuela.”

The pair didn’t want to use their full names because they’re working illegally. They also fear that if they complain about home, relatives who remain in Caracas, some with government jobs, might face reprisals.

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Do you know what it's like to walk into a pharmacy and actually be able to buy deodorant?

Alexander, Venezuelan immigrant

They’re part of a growing number of Venezuelans fleeing an economic and political crisis that threatens to engulf a generation.

The Venezuelan government doesn’t provide migration statistics, but the figures that do exist paint a clear picture of a nation hemorrhaging.

From 1990 to 2015, the number of Venezuelans living abroad more than tripled from 185,282 to 606,344, according to the United Nations’ Population Division. More than half of the Venezuelan diaspora, 345,783 people, are living in the United States. Venezuelan media, citing researchers, claim the total number is vastly larger, estimating that 1.6 million people fled the country in the decade starting in 1999. But even by the U.N.’s more modest figures, almost 2 percent of Venezuelans live abroad.

What the data fails to capture is motive. It’s clear, however, that a growing number of Venezuelans aren’t leaving home to chase dreams, but to escape a nightmare. And every nation bordering Venezuela has been touched by the crisis.

Last month, more than 120,000 Venezuelans flooded across the border into Colombia seeking food and medicine. Brazil and Guyana have both stepped up deportations as Venezuelans have been crossing the border seeking food. And the tiny islands of Aruba and Curacao have reported desperate scenes familiar to South Florida: Venezuelans trying to reach the islands in makeshift rafts.

In addition, U.S. asylum applications filed by Venezuelans this year have soared 168 percent versus 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Venezuela used to be one of Latin America’s most attractive economies. Now there’s any number of reasons to flee. Falling oil revenue and draconian price and currency controls have generated shortages of just about everything. Medicine is scarce, hunger is on the rise, and the mood is sour. The IMF is expecting inflation this year to hit 480 percent, and surpass 1,640 percent next year, gutting purchasing power.

Working Poor

Katherine, 27, studied business administration and had a good job at a bank where she was making 12,000 bolivares a month, or about $23 at one of the official government exchange rates. But by the time she quit, that money would barely put food on the table.

The government sets the “fair price” of most staples, but those staples are nearly impossible to find. So while a kilogram of beef has a legal price of 250 bolivares, Katherine said she couldn’t find it for less than 3,000 bolivares — a quarter of her monthly salary.

To get more affordable food, families have to stand in lines for hours and sometimes days.

“You can either have a job, or wait in line for food,” explained Alexander, a 28-year-old industrial engineer, “but you can’t do both.”

And other items can’t be found at all. Katherine said her family is bathing with laundry detergent due to lack of soap. The couple’s first “tourism” outing in Bogotá was to the grocery store, where they snapped pictures of beans, lentils and other grains to send home. One of Katherine’s Venezuelan neighbors here is holding a raffle to buy oncology medicine for her 5-year-old niece with leukemia.

They can’t get over the full shelves in Bogotá. “Do you know what it’s like to walk into a pharmacy and actually be able to buy deodorant?” Alexander said in awe.

Shifting Tide

Just a few years ago, most Venezuelans who arrived in Colombia weren’t fleeing — they were looking for new business opportunities, said Daniel Pages, the president of the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia.

Local media fretted about how well-to-do Venezuelans were taking over the oil industry and driving up real estate prices.

People aren’t coming here looking for quality of life, they’re just looking for life.

Daniel Pages, Association of Venezuelans in Colombia

But Pages’ organization is now more akin to a social service, taking care of new arrivals in desperate situations.

“We’ve gone from being a community of migrants to being a community refugees,” Pages said of Venezuelans in Colombia.

In the last three weeks, the association has received a number of families with severely malnourished children. In one case, they met a 2-year-old who had never had milk — a scarce product in Venezuela — until arriving in Colombia.

“People aren’t coming here looking for quality of life, they’re just looking for life,” Pages said. “They’re here because they want to live, shop, eat, give their children a future.”

Reversal of Fortunes

That Venezuelans see Colombia as an escape valve is something of a historical irony.

For decades, it was Colombians who poured into Venezuela fleeing guerrilla and drug violence. In 2015, there were almost 1 million Colombians living on the other side of the border, according to the United Nations. Late President Hugo Chávez had an open-door policy with Colombians, giving them voting rights and easy access to working papers. Many are still grateful for that. Last month, hundreds of Colombians in Caracas marched in support of the administration.

But since Nicolás Maduro narrowly won election in 2013, the mood has shifted. He often blames Colombia for the country’s ails including violence and the economic collapse. In August of 2015, Maduro shut down border crossings and deported hundreds of Colombians who lived along the frontier. This week, however, he seemed to reverse course as both nations agreed to gradually reopen the borders starting Saturday.

It’s those longtime migrants who have double nationality that make up the bulk of the new arrivals, Colombia Migration Director Christian Kruger told RCN radio.

“There was a time in our history . . . when lots of people left for Venezuela and now they’re coming home,” he explained.

As they sat on wooden crates in their bare apartment, Katherine and Alexander unrolled their university diplomas. They’re proud of them, but the education didn’t prepare them for making arepas. When they first started their business, Alexander said he didn’t even know how to light charcoal and Katherine didn’t know if she should put the butter on the outside or the inside of the tortillas.

Thanks to the help of some of the locals, they’re finally breaking even, but they’re not able to save any money. If they can’t get working papers and find better jobs in Colombia, they say they’ll try their luck in Chile.

Asked what it would take for them to go back home, Alexander shook his head.

“Security has to get better, the economy has to improve, and the government has to change,” he said. “Mainly, the government has to change.”

Across Venezuela, cities are erupting in protests and looting over food shortages. Nicholas Casey, The New York Times’s Andes bureau chief, and the photographer Meridith Kohut provide a view from the ground.

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