By Simeon Tegel
LIMA, PERU — VENEZUELAN exiles Nayise González and Oswaldo Romero could not be clearer about their desire to return to their troubled homeland.
“Of course we want to go back,” says González, 38, who arrived in the Peruvian capital in November after an eight-day bus ride with not much more than the clothes she was wearing. “It is our country, our home. It is where our lives and our families are.”
But before that day eventually comes, González and Romero, a security guard and former police officer, are very clear about one other thing: They would like to bring their seven children, five with previous partners, to live with them in Peru first.
The couple are from the northeastern city of Barquisimeto, long a stronghold of opposition to the self-styled “Bolívarian socialism” of the late President Hugo Chávez and his political heir, current President Nicolás Maduro. Like millions of their compatriots who have fled the hunger, disease, hyperinflation, authoritarianism, corruption and epidemic levels of violent crime that has brought oil-rich Venezuela — with more crude reserves than even Saudi Arabia, to its knees — they face the dilemma of when to return if there is a democratic transition.
In recent weeks, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition-controlled Congress and self-declared interim president, appears to have harnessed public fury against the floundering Maduro regime in a game-changing manner.
Guaidó has offered Venezuelans a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel with the possibility of forcing free and fair new elections. Challenging Maduro’s democratic legitimacy and labeling him a “usurper,” the youthful lawmaker has won recognition from most Western democracies and, crucially, control of the international bank accounts into which Venezuela’s petro-dollars are pouring. He has also politically checkmated the regime into blockading a border bridge to prevent desperately needed international food aid arriving from Colombia.
Yet even if Guaidó achieves his goal, living conditions are unlikely to ease up for ordinary citizens anytime soon.
“It feels like things might finally be starting to change,” González says. “But until Maduro goes, I am not getting my hopes up. And until the economy starts to function again, and I can get food and other basic necessities for my family, we are better off staying in Peru and, if we can, bringing over our family.”
“Chávez was good for the poor, at least at the beginning. You can’t deny that. But not the people like us, who were neither rich nor poor. But now we are poor, too.”
Life Abroad: Better, Yet Precarious
Romero, who arrived in Peru six months ago, earns the minimum wage of just over 900 sols (roughly $270) a month working as a gas fitter.
González, who had her own small store selling meat and cold cuts in Venezuela until the supply of products to sell dried up, is once again looking for work after stints as a waitress and at a school. She quit the latter job, she says, after they failed to pay her. Asked what kind of work she wants, she responds: “Whatever. I’ll take anything that pays.”
The pair now lives in a small rented room with a shared bathroom in San Juan the Lurigancho, a grindingly poor mega-suburb on Lima’s dusty eastern margins. About twice a month, they wire 60 sols (approximately $18) back to family in Barquisimeto, enough to purchase the basic necessities of life, from toilet paper to cooking oil and rice, for about three people for two weeks.
Yet despite living on or below the poverty line in Peru and missing their children and home, there is no question that the pair is better off than back in Barquisimeto.
“Nearly all of them express their desire to go back,” says Marianne Menjivar, the Colombia country director for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to helping global refugees. “It is not a romantic desire. It is very concrete. They want to go back to the business of the farm they abandoned, to their home or their family. What has driven them away is the scarcity of food and medicine. They are not overly political. The impression is that politics is not a luxury they can afford. They come across as people who are traumatized.”
“All struggle to make a living here (in Colombia). There are no jobs for the Colombians here, let alone Venezuelans. They are selling ice creams and empanadas in the streets. They’re working as day laborers, whatever work they can find. It is all exploitative, underpaid, informal and precarious.”
‘You Can Get Rid of Maduro But There Will Still be Hunger’
The trend of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos of “Chavismo” – the left-wing political ideology based on the ideas of former President Chávez – is hardly new. Venezuelans have been leaving the country for years, although it is in the last 18 months that the numbers have rocketed to the point where the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, describes it as the worst refugee crisis in Latin America in recent history. Globally, only Syria has more citizens fleeing their homeland than Venezuela’s 3 million exiles.
“There is a radical difference with those coming now,” says Santos Guerra, a 43-year-old web developer who moved from Caracas to Lima in 2016 after power cuts and creakingly slow Internet combined with Venezuela’s overall economic meltdown to put him out of business.
Neighbors wait to receive bags of subsidized food to be distributed in the Catia district of Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 31, 2019. (RODRIGO ABD/AP)
“Those who came before were usually professionals and had some economic resources. Those coming now don’t have anything. Some of them may even have been sympathetic, once, to Chavismo. They lasted until the very last minute but have now had no choice but to leave.”
That also means that, unable to even afford a bus ticket, many of them are making the arduous journey to Peru and other countries further south on foot, trekking through tropical heat and freezing Andean highlands. Regina de la Portilla, an official with the UNHCR in Lima, says that the fittest and fastest take 17 days if they are lucky and are able to hitch rides along the way. Many take more than twice as long.
Life is also different for Guerra and other early arrivals like him. “I am not going back,” he says. “I just started again from zero. I’m not going to do it all over again in Venezuela now. A few weeks ago I just got approved for a credit card for the first time in Peru.”
“Besides, I’m not sure how quickly things can get better even with a new government because Venezuela is so indebted to China and Russia. You can get rid of Maduro but there will still be hunger. You cannot fix the country from one day to the next.”
Currently, the number of Venezuelans arriving at Tumbes, the Peruvian city on the northern border with Ecuador, is around 1,000 a day. The UNHCR is coordinating efforts to help them, providing health care with the Red Cross, a shelter for particularly vulnerable refugees such as families with small children and the elderly, and an information center with roughly a dozen staff members to explain the basics of keeping afloat in Peru, including the red tape regarding how to get a work permit.
Uneasy Relations Between Hosts and Migrants
The agency already has offices aimed at supporting Venezuelans in various cities in Colombia and Peru as part of its regional effort to coordinate the response from Mexico to Argentina, and is working on opening more as refugees fan out across the country and beyond the big cities.
The campaign has its own website and has also been organizing educational street theater within Peru and even workshops for Peruvian media. “Sometimes journalists don’t even realize how much hatred they can generate,” de la Portilla says.
Overall, many Venezuelans say they have been welcomed with open arms by the Peruvian populace, which has its own large diaspora in part born out of authoritarianism, economic desperation and violence in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In Lima’s recent mayoral elections, one left-wing candidate sympathetic to Maduro and who briefly led the polls accused the Venezuelan migrants of wanting to take over Peru. His support then promptly collapsed.
“Peru has provided an exemplary response,” says de la Portilla. “Both officially, providing an alternative legal status so Venezuelans can come into the country, but also the solidarity of the people, who have recognized Venezuelans’ need.”
Tensions could rise, however, she anticipates. “This is a country where many Peruvians have limited access to basic services such as health care and education. We need more access for both Peruvians and Venezuelans.”
Currently, between just 40 percent and 50 percent of Venezuelan kids in Colombia are thought to be in school, says Menjivar of the International Rescue Committee. In Peru, the number is around 70 percent, says Garrinzon González, a director of the Venezuelan Union in Peru, a nonprofit set up to help the refugees.
Romero and González are visiting the Venezuelan Union’s modest offices to seek help drafting a letter requesting official refugee status for her. Despite good intentions, Peru has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Venezuelan migrants in recent months and the government has gone back and forth over how many more it will allow to enter. Being recognized as a refugee is key to allowing González to continue to reside and work here. Romero has a special visa and work permit that Peru originally offered to Venezuelans but has now stopped giving out.
“I hope Guaidó can make a difference,” says Romero, who describes himself as apolitical. “Everyone is supporting him because they just can’t take it anymore. Maduro needs to be put on trial, not lynched. The only person who has the right to take life is God. But even if that happens, we are going to stay put in Lima for at least the next six or 12 months. We have no choice, now that we are here.”