FT | Venezuela’s decline prompts exodus

Andres Schipani in Bogotá | Financial Times

A woman with a sign reading "There is no food" protests in front of a line of policemen in Caracas

A woman with a sign reading “There is no food” protests in front of a line of policemen. Venezuelans started to flee — first were the sacked oilmen, then businessmen fleeing currency controls, then students seeking better opportunities.

Even without money and a stable job since his arrival in Colombia in early July, Eduardo — not his real name — has regained most of the weight he had lost at home in Venezuela.

The 44-year-old systems engineer used to make $18 a month in his home town of Barquisimeto, but that was not enough to feed himself and his son given the rampant inflation and chronic scarcities of food and medicine as Venezuela sinks deeper into its economic crisis.

Since fleeing to Bogotá, Eduardo, who declined to give his name as he is still an illegal immigrant, says he has been working “on this and that while a friend helps me out. At least I can find food here. Back in Venezuela we all lacked anything to eat”.

It has not been that long since Colombia’s bloody history has led to its own exodus. But that has reversed as Colombia nears a possible peace agreement and Venezuela sinks deeper into despair with the unpopular President Nicolás Maduro at the helm.

“Most Venezuelan families these days hope a member leaves, somewhere, in order to send money back,” the man adds. He is echoed by a Venezuelan accountant who entered Colombia this weekend and is determined to stay even if “I have to stand at a corner all day selling arepas”, a maize staple in both nations.

According to a senior Colombian immigration official, that is now the trend: “The number of Venezuelans crossing into Colombia, legally or illegally, has grown a lot.”

Indeed, in the past two months, in scenes familiar to the fall of the Berlin Wall, almost 300,000 Venezuelans flooded across the previously closed Colombian border to buy the food and medicines they could not find on Venezuela’s barren shelves. The Colombian government estimates a chunk of those never returned home.

People walk past a row of closed stores in the usually busy downtown shopping district in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Venezuela shut down for a week as the government struggles with a deepening electricity crisis. The government has rationed electricity and water supplies across the country for months and urged citizens to avoid waste as Venezuela endures a prolonged drought that has slashed output at hydroelectric dams. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg©Bloomberg

Shops are shut in the usually bustling capital Caracas as energy shortages bite

The influx of mainly middle and upper-class Venezuelans has been a trend not just in Colombia, but in Spain and Panama as well. Since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, Venezuelans started to flee — first were the sacked oilmen, then businessmen fleeing currency controls, then students seeking better opportunities.

Increasingly, Venezuelans of all social strata are desperate to leave what observers believe to be a humanitarian crisis in the making. Those left behind face chronic scarcities of food and medicine, spiralling murder rates, galloping inflation, and declining democratic liberties.

A Venezuelan reportedly died trying to reach the island of Aruba off Venezuela in a makeshift raft. Glenn Sulvaran, a member of Curaçao’s parliament, said that “in the worst-case scenario, a civil war will erupt and people will get on boats in large numbers. They will want to get out to the next best economic haven”.

An opposition supporter carrying a sign that reads "We starve. Total dictatorship" shouts at Venezuelan National Guards during clashes at a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins©Reuters

Venezuelan national guards hold back opposition supporters in May demanding the removal of President Nicolás Maduro

Guyana, one of Latin America’s poorest countries, is deporting Venezuelans seeking food. The number of Venezuelans asking for US asylum has soared 168 per cent since last year, said the Pew Research Center — placing Venezuela almost at the top for asylum applications, trailing only behind China and drug-infested Mexico.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the number of Venezuelans asking for refugee status jumped from 127 in 2000 to 10,300 last year. With the world’s attention focused on African, Middle-Eastern, and Central American migrants, Daniel Pagés of the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia wants to include Venezuelans “as part of that wave”.

Tomás Páez-Bravo, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela, who researches on the diaspora, estimates 1.8m Venezuelans have fled in the past 17 years. “Judicial and personal security, alongside the economic situation, have historically been the main drivers of those leaving Venezuela,” he said.

But Mr Páez-Bravo added: “As those two factors have dramatically worsened, in the past year there has been an enormous wave of people leaving the country.”

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro©Reuters

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro

The oil price fall has added to years of austerity to fuel Venezuela’s worst political, social, and economic crisis in living memory. The “pretty revolution” of Chávez has turned ugly, increasingly looking like a tropical version of the “culture of shortages” during the communist-ruled Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu.

“I’m very worried about the current situation, in which basic goods and services such as food, water, healthcare and clothes aren’t available,” said Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, during a recent visit to Argentina. “This triggers a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela which is created by political instability.”

As the opposition pushes to oust Mr Maduro, socialist officials rejected Mr Ban’s comments. They blame the problems on an “economic war” launched by rightwing foes. But the cash crunch may worsen as oil output in a country with larger reserves than Saudi Arabia continues to drop, said a report by Columbia University.

While officials deflect blame, scarcities may worsen. Mr Maduro’s radical advisers seem to have hindered recommendations from economists on how to fix a shambolic economy forecast to shrink 10 per cent this year.

“They are laughing at the people,” said the systems engineer. “I’d rather stay here doing whatever, than heading back while Maduro and his cronies are there.”

Bron: Financial Times

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