4 million. That is the number of Venezuelans who have fled the country’s economic collapse. If Nicolas Maduro manages to cling to power over the course of 2019, that number is certain to balloon. 6 to 8 million Venezuelans are almost certain to flee their homeland if the current socialist dictatorship is not forced from power.
Colombia has born the brunt of the Venezuelan migratory crisis, with an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans. The Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena has become an especially popular destination for Venezuelans, given its proximity to the border.
As I make my way from the airport to downtown Cartagena, I talk with the taxi driver about the impact of the recent Venezuelan arrivals. They are everywhere in every major city in Colombia, but their presence is especially noticeable on Cartagena’s streets. The taxi driver claims that Venezuelan refugees have swelled the city’s population from 1.1 million to 1.4 million people over the last two years. 300,000 may be an exaggerated figure, and refugee populations are understandably difficult to count.
At just 17, Alexander Pinto is not yet old enough to buy a beer, drive a car, or vote in an election. But already he and his wife and young son have been forced to leave Venezuela in search of better opportunities in Colombia.
They hail from Flores de Catia, a mountainous suburb to the northwest of Caracas.
The lack of food and running water is the hardest part, his wife Alexandra tells me. With a 2 year old son, it is nearly impossible to survive. When the water ran dry for a straight week, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many Venezuelans resorted to using filthy water from sewers and polluted rivers for drinking and bathing, because they had no other choice.
For the Pinto family, arriving in Cartagena was their best option. For 50 bolivares they took an express bus from Caracas to Maracaibo. From there, they paid $20.000 COP (about USD $6) for a ride from Maracaibo to the Colombian city of Maicao.
The Colombian-Venezuelan border is chaotic and dangerous. Like many others, they did not cross at an official border point, but rather paid local indigenous people $5.000 Colombian pesos per person, to ensure safe passage on dirt roads, bypassing official border crossing points.
Alexander was a construction worker in Venezuela, but here in Colombia he has been unable to find work, and is not legally permitted to do so.
He says that Colombia has been hospitable to him and his family.
“If we can raise enough money during the day, we sleep in a room in downtown Cartagena. If we can’t, we sleep in a park with other Venezuelans. The police come by from time to time, to check on us, but they don’t bother us. Sometimes they will even bring us food.”
In Venezuela, the food situation is every bit as dire as is often reported by the international media.
“In Venezuela food is impossible to get, or just too expensive. Everyone is getting by eating yuca and bananas,” he says. “Even rice is too expensive to get ahold of.”
“We try for days to get our hands on a can of tuna, but that is a real luxury with the way things are now,” says Alexandra. “People are sometimes even resorting to eating dog food.”
More than anything, with the way things are currently in Venezuela, they see no future for their young son.
When Maduro falls, they hope to head back to Venezuela.
I ask them what they think of Maduro.
“In our neighborhood, no one supports Maduro. He stays in power because of his craftiness, and because he has the support of the military.”
I ask if they would support a military intervention to force Maduro from power.
“Absolutely. That is the only way that he will leave. I’d like to see Maduro imprisoned in the United States,” he tells me. “Maduro’s election wins were illegitimate. Both Falcon and Capriles Radonski defeated Maduro in presidential elections, but Maduro stole the elections and stayed in power. Maduro is not the president of Venezula. He is the dictator of Venezuela.”
Under Maduro’s rocky 6 year tenure as president, Venezuelan society has slowly ground to a halt, to the point that the country’s institutions have stopped.
“Right now, everyone is frozen in place. The Venezuelan government made the mistake of giving away all of our oil wealth. Now we have huge debts with Russia and China that we can’t pay back. When people in Venezuelan protest, they get met with rubber bullets.”
Pinto speaks despairingly about the state of healthcare and education in Venezuela.
“Right now, if you go to the hospital, you have to arrive with your own medicine and surgical instruments, because the hospitals have none. No one is studying right now. All the schools and universities have just shut down. Many university students have joined the protests against Maduro.”
Pinto is optimistic about this week’s developments, which saw the defection of the head of Venezuela’s SEBIN intelligence agency, and the liberation of popular opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez.
“Maduro is too afraid to touch Leopoldo or Guaido, because he knows that that will provoke a serious reaction from the international community. If Padrino and the Venezuelan military continue to support Maduro, the only likely outcome is a civil war.”
Pinto doesn’t believe it’s likely that there will be a fracture within the Chavista movement.
“It’s like dominoes. If one of them falls…they all fall. So people like Diosdado Cabello, Cilia Flores, Maduro, Tareck el-Aissami…they are going to stick together until the end. They are all involved in drug trafficking. Our government is headed by a criminal mafia.”
Life is in Colombia for the Pinto family, but at least there is food and water. However, Pinto says that the Duque administration has not offered as much to Venezuelan refugees as the previous administration of Juan Manuel Santos.
“Santos helped Venezuelans work,” he says. “Duque hasn’t continued that policy.”
Pinto sees promise in Leopoldo Lopez. “It’s important that Leopoldo is free and that he and Guaido are working together. Leopoldo has a lot of respect from the Venezuelan people, and even within the ranks of the Venezuelan military. That’s a big part of the reason that you saw the soldiers with the blue armbands this week, who have defected and are now backing the opposition.”
For now, the Pinto family is stuck in limbo. They can’t survive back in Venezuela, and they can’t work in Colombia, at least not legally. For now, they survive on the kindness of strangers. On a recent morning of asking for money, Pinto had collected a handful of coins…just under $3.000 COP (USD $1). That money will go for food.
Pinto would like to work in construction, but companies won’t hire him given his current migratory status.
The Colombian government is being faced with a serious challenge when it comes to how to handle the situation with Pinto and the millions of other Venezuelans who have fled home for Colombia.
Generally, Colombians have welcomed the Venezuelan people, but there have also been some confrontations and protests, often revolving around the accusation that the newly arrived Venezuelans are undercutting Colombians in the labor market.
For many…the current situation is a case of deja-vu in reverse. A generation ago, as Colombia teetered on the brink of collapse, and endured the trials and tribulations of a long-running civil war with the FARC, and the narco-terrorism of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel…thousands of Colombians headed to then prosperous and stable Venezuela, where the economy was booming.
For them, Venezuela promised good jobs and safety and security. Now, the situation has entirely reversed.
For Pinto and the other 4 million Venezuelans in exile…they are watching this week’s developments with anticipation. But until Maduro is out of power, they can’t go home.