14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón/Antonio Delgado — Tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the border with Colombia every day in search of food and work. They sell candy, bread, chewing gum and contraband gasoline. They prostitute themselves or simply ask for handouts on corners. They are the new faces of the Venezuelan migration in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, the epicenter of a humanitarian crisis triggered by hunger in the neighboring country.
“The children come alone. They don’t want to speak or say anything. They are very tight-lipped about their family history,” says Whitney Duarte, a 24-year old social worker who was helping two orphans, Henry and Steven, in a social center where they come every day to have lunch.
Duarte has been volunteering for two months in the Casa de Paso Divina Providencia, a Catholic Church home in Cúcuta that shares more than 1,000 meals daily with children, women and old Venezuelans who wander through the streets of the city.
The oldest of the orphans is 15 but has the physical build of a child of eight. To help his two little brothers, who are about five years old, he works as a cart-pusher fetching and carrying suitcases for people who cross the border.
“We know they are orphans. They come from San Cristóbal, in Venezuela. They spend the day playing in the streets of Cúcuta and, of course, they don’t go to school,” relates Duarte. The children are fed thanks to the charity of the Colombians. Steven says they escaped from Venezuela hidden in a mini-bus.
“They don’t want to speak about their family history because they fear they will be separated or returned to their country,” explains Duarte, who believes that, like the rest of the immigrants, they are “very emotionally damaged.”
Henry is thin and brown-skinned. He never smiles. He says it pays about 2,000 pesos (70 cents) to carry suitcases from Venezuela and that he feels responsible for his little brothers. Steven has six brothers, but only three crossed the border. He likes to play soccer but won’t say what he wants to do when he grows up.
“The tragedy of the parents who see that their kids have to sleep on the ground and barely have enough money to bring them a mouthful of food is terrible. There is a lot of frustration and anger among the Venezuelans,” says the social worker. The Colombian government offers protection to 23,314 Venezuelan children and adolescents.
The Casa de Paso is nothing more than a back patio rented by the local Catholic church where some barracks were constructed to provide food to more than 500 migrants every day. A group of volunteers cooks the food (pasta and soup) with firewood on one side while others distribute the food and clean utensils.
“Padre, padre, come here, he collapsed,” yells a woman. On the dirt floor lies a man of 30 who can’t even stand up. Dozens of people around him are saying that “his blood sugar dropped” from lack of food.
Jesús Alonso Rodríguez, a deacon of the local church who shares lunch with the Venezuelans, explains to 14ymedio that situations like this are common in Cúcuta: “Finding Venezuelan brothers sleeping in the streets, below bridges, at the foot of trees, sometimes with a cardboard box or something to cover themselves with — this is something you see every day.”
Alonso considers that the overflow of Venezuelans in the border areas is “out of the hands” of the local authorities, who await the arrival this Thursday of the President, Juan Manuel Santos, to help them manage a situation that becomes more difficult every day.
“Last year, the cucuteña church distributed more than 300,000 plates of food in eight locations in the city to take care of the hunger of the Venezuelans,” she says. The Casa de Paso Divina Providencia is sustained thanks to the aid the church receives from the local worshippers.
Relations with the local population have occasionally been very tense. Paola Villamizar, a young Colombian of 24 who works as a volunteer in the Casa de Paso, says that the neighbors have tried to close the center. “They accuse us of filling the place with scum and say it’s our fault that hundreds of people are hanging around, looking for food. We’re only trying to help,” she laments.
In a report presented last month in Bogotá, the General Director of Colombia Migration, Christian Krüger, estimated that there were more than 550,000 Venezuelans in the country, 62 percent more than last year.
More than 50 percent of the Venezuelans who emigrate to Colombia or use this country as a transit point to third countries come across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, in the department of Norte de Santander, and, also, more than half are undocumented. Some 58,000 Venezuelans live in the streets of Cúcuta. Deacon Alonso believes that the official figures are too low.
“In Cúcuta there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Venezuelans. It’s a situation without precedent in the country,” he explains.
Many local businessman take advantage of the difficult conditions in which the migrants find themselves to hire them for half the minimum wage. This situation has shaken loose the phantoms and fears of immigration among some of the town’s workers.
“In Cúcuta, there’s not even work for the locals, much less for the Venezuelans. In the last months, crime has increased, and there are many Venezuelans who take over zones of the city to live,” says Francisco, a local taxi driver.
According to official statistics, Cúcuta ended 2017 with an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent, the highest in the country, and an indication of illegal workers at around 70% of the labor force.
Along the highway that connects the regional capital with the village of La Parada, adjacent to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that is shared by both countries, dozens of people brandish a plastic tube in the form of a gas pump to indicate that you can buy contraband Venezuelan fuel there.
“Gasoline costs between 4,000 and 5,000 pesos a gallon ($1.50). In Venezuela it’s cheaper to buy gasoline than water. They pass it to Colombia on trails (hidden steps in the more than 2,000 km of terrestrial border that both countries share),” explains Francisco.
Carolina Sánchez is a traveling vendor. She is 33, and her skin is burned by the tropical sun. In her hands she holds six bags of bread baked in Venezuela, which she waves every time she sees a car pass by.
“I have to go out and struggle for my kids,” she says between tears. With what she sells in Colombia, she buys food for three boys who depend on her in Rubio, on the other side of the border. “It’s hard, but God has to have pity on us,” she says while regaining composure. The Colombian police already have expelled her more than once from the highway, but she keeps coming back. “They don’t let us sell because we don’t have permits.”
The exodus of Venezuelans has been taken advantage of by some bus companies, who relocated their branch offices directly to the immediate vicinity of the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. The destinations vary: Bogotá, Quito, Lima, Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. Everything depends on the amount of money the Venezuelan is ready to pay, always in dollars or in Colombian pesos.
“A trip to Buenos Aires costs 490 dollars. If you want to go to Bogotá, it’s 125 dollars, and if you go to Peru, 230 dollars,” says one of the ticket sellers who waits for Venezuelan clients on the Colombian side of the bridge.
After waiting 24 hours near the bridge, several Venezuelans start to protest because the bus line requires patience, and they will have to sleep on the ground under a tarp. “I had to buy every dollar at 270,000 bolivars before leaving Venezuela,” says Neyla Graterol.
“Venezuela’s economic model has collapsed. We’re worse off than we were 30 years ago. The politicians are the only ones who live well while the people are dying of hunger. The only thing left for us is to get out,” laments an engineer while she waits for the transport that will take her and her family to Chile, far from the hell that her country has become.
The low price of Venezuelan oil, which has contributed to worsening the crisis of Nicolás Maduro’s government, has affected those who depend on it directly. This is the case of Renzo Morales, 33, who is “fleeing the country” to go to Peru.
Morales hopes to be able to travel with another five Venezuelan businessmen who, like him, supplied jackhammers to PDVSA (the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company), but the defaults on the part of the State petroleum business hit his business hard.
“We were broke because we were contractors for PDVSA, and the Government takes almost three years to pay us, and it’s in a currency that is being devalued day by day,” explains Morales.
The migrant hopes to make money to send to his family so they can leave the country. “I left my heart in Venezuela.” The old guys and Maduro are the only ones who can stay there,” he says, speaking fast and with the conviction that the end of chavismo is near. “This Government is going to fall. We’re coming to the end. What’s sad is that we’ll need many years to reconstruct what they have destroyed,” he says.
The most varied businesses are accommodated in Cúcuta. “I buy hair, I buy hair!” yells Javier Yoandy, 16, toward the flux of people who are coming from Táchira and crossing the bridge.
“My job is to bring Venezuelans who want to sell their hair to wigmakers,” explains this intermediary who earns a commission for his services. “The price for a good head of hair runs between 25,000 and 60,000 pesos (from nine to 25 dollars).”
The adolescent carries a border mobility card authorized by the Colombian State to regulate the situation of Venezuelans who cross the border every day for work.
Veronica Arrocera, 23, has dark skin, mistreated by the sun, and bags under her eyes that make her look older. She says that the situation in her country dragged her into prostitution six months ago, so she could get some pesos and help her family in Venezuela, like so many other compatriots.
“I studied business administration. There are many whores here who are educated: nurses, businesswomen, teachers, everything,” she says. She doesn’t want her face recorded because she’s ashamed of her situation. Veronica earns 10,000 Colombian pesos, less than three dollars, and between 10 and 100 times less than a Colombian woman, for the same thing.
To Arrocera, the Colombian authorities act xenophobic toward them. “They hit us with pistols, they jump in aggressively. They even have hit us with hoses, and they only do that with Venezuelans,” she reports.
A few yards from the corner where Arrocera works, a closed police truck is taking away a half-dozen Venezuelans. “Here they come again. Every day it’s the same shit. We play cat and mouse until they catch me; they deport me, and I come back,” she complains.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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