Published On: Mon, Nov 28th, 2016

Hungry Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse

Venezuelan_illegalWILLEMSTAD - The dark outlines of land had just come into view when the smuggler forced everyone into the sea.

Roymar Bello screamed. She was one of 17 passengers who had climbed onto the overloaded fishing boat with aging motors in July, hoping to escape Venezuela’s economic disaster for a new life on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

Afraid of the authorities, the smuggler refused to land. He ordered Bello and the others into the water, pointing toward the distant shore. In the panic, she was tossed overboard, tumbling into the predawn blackness.

But Bello could not swim.

As she began to sink under the waves, a fellow migrant grabbed her by the hair and towed her toward the island. They washed up on a rocky cliff battered by waves. Bruised and bleeding, they climbed, praying for a lifeline: jobs, money, something to eat.

‘‘It was worth the risk,’’ said Bello, 30, adding that Venezuelans like her, ‘‘are going after one thing — food.’’

Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s richest countries, flush with oil wealth that attracted immigrants from places as varied as Europe and the Middle East.

But after President Hugo Chavez vowed to break the country’s economic elite and redistribute wealth to the poor, the rich and middle class fled to more welcoming countries in droves, creating what demographers describe as Venezuela’s first diaspora.

Now a second diaspora is underway — much less wealthy and not nearly as welcome.Well over 150,000 Venezuelans have fled the country in the past year alone, the highest in more than a decade, according to scholars studying the exodus.

And as Chavez’s Socialist-inspired revolution collapses into economic ruin, as food and medicine slip further out of reach, the new migrants include the same impoverished people whom Venezuela’s policies were supposed to help.

Desperate Venezuelans are streaming across the Amazon Basin by the tens of thousands to reach Brazil. They are concocting elaborate scams to sneak through airports in Caribbean nations that once accepted them freely. When Venezuela opened its border with Colombia for just two days in July, 120,000 people poured across, simply to buy food, officials said. An untold number stayed.

But perhaps most startling are the Venezuelans now fleeing by sea, an image symbolic of the perilous journeys to escape Cuba or Haiti — but not oil-rich Venezuela.

Inflation will hit nearly 500 percent this year and a mind-boggling 1,600 percent next year, the International Monetary Fund estimates, shriveling salaries and creating a new class of poor Venezuelans who have abandoned professional careers for precarious lives abroad.

The exodus is unfolding so quickly that since 2015 about 30,000 Venezuelans have moved to the border region that includes the Brazilian state of Roraima, officials say. Now the Brazilian army is boosting patrols along highways and rivers, bracing for even more arrivals.

‘‘We’re at the start of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in this part of the Amazon,’’ said Col. Edvaldo Amaral, the state’s civil defense chief. ‘‘We’re already seeing Venezuelan lawyers working as supermarket cashiers, Venezuelan women resorting to prostitution, indigenous Venezuelans begging at traffic intersections.’’

The small Caribbean islands neighboring Venezuela are far less hospitable, saying they simply cannot absorb the onslaught. The closest to Venezuela’s coast, Aruba and Curaçao, have effectively sealed their borders to poor Venezuelans since last year by making them show $1,000 in cash before entering — the equivalent of more than five years of earnings in a minimum-wage job.

Both countries have increased patrols and deportations, and Aruba has even set aside a stadium to hold as many as 500 Venezuelan migrants after they are caught, according to the authorities.

It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune for Venezuelans, who once went to Curaçao to spend money as tourists, not to plead for work.

‘‘They all say, ‘You are from Venezuela. You are from a rich country that has everything,’’’ Bello said of her encounters on the island. ‘‘And I say, ‘No longer.’’’

By Meridith Kohut, The New York Times

Photo: Archive

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