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Hungry Venezuelans flee in boats to escape economic collapse

WILLEMSTAD, Curaçao — 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. Ms. Bello said he gruffly ordered her and the others into the water, pointing toward the distant shore. In the panic, she was tossed overboard, tumbling into the predawn blackness. But Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Chávez 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 last year alone, the highest in more than a decade, according to scholars studying the exodus. And as Mr. Chávez’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 that Venezuela’s policies were supposed to help.

“We have seen a great acceleration,” said Tomás Páez, a professor who studies immigration at the Central University of Venezuela. He says that as many as 200,000 Venezuelans have left in the past 18 months, driven by how much harder it is to get food, work and medicine — not to mention the crime that such scarcities have fueled. “Parents will say, ‘I would rather say goodbye to my son in the airport than in the cemetery,’ ” he said.

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 so symbolic of the perilous journeys to escape Cuba or Haiti — but not oil-rich Venezuela.
“It has all totally changed,” said Iván de la Vega, a sociologist at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. About 60 percent more Venezuelans fled the country this year than during the year before, he added. “The earnings of these people are low,” Mr. de la Vega said of the recent migrants. “The only option left to them is the nearby countries, ones they can get to on foot, or by rafts, or go on boats with tiny motors.”

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.

“Venezuelans like myself are coming to Brazil for a simple reason: It’s easier to survive here,” said Reinier Salazar, 30, an industrial engineer who moved to Brazil last year. Now he cooks at a fast-food restaurant for about $400 a month — much more than he made back home in Venezuela, he said.

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 bolstering 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.”

Some are paying smugglers more than $1,000 a person to reach cities like Manaus and São Paulo, officials say, while others just manage to cross the border into Brazil. In Pacaraima, a small Brazilian border town, hundreds of Venezuelan children are now enrolled in local schools and entire families are sleeping on the streets of town.

“It’s hard to see a solution to this problem because hunger is involved,” said the mayor, Altemir Campos. “Venezuela doesn’t have enough food for its people, so some are coming here.”

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,’ ” Ms. Bello said of her encounters on the island. “And I say, ‘No longer.’ ”

Empty homes now dot the streets of the fishing town of La Vela, Ms. Bello’s hometown in Venezuela, their owners having set off by sea.

They have mortgaged property, sold kitchen appliances and even borrowed money from the same smuggling rings that pack them on the floorboards alongside drugs and other contraband.

The journey to Curaçao takes them on a 60-mile crossing filled with backbreaking swells, gangs of armed boatmen and coast guard vessels looking to capture migrants and send them home.

Then, after being tossed overboard and left to swim ashore, they hide in the bush to meet contacts who spirit them anew into the tourist economy of this Caribbean island. They clean the floors of restaurants, sell trinkets on the street, or even solicit Dutch tourists for sex, forced by the smugglers to pay for their passage by working in a brothel, the authorities in Curaçao say.

Countless families in Venezuela are like the Bellos now. Unable to scrounge together more than a meal a day, they are scattered across seas and borders.

Ms. Bello’s brother Rolando works construction in Curaçao and his wife recently joined him, leaving their 7-year-old daughter with relatives back home. An uncle of Ms. Bello’s was not so lucky: He sits in a Curaçao prison, accused of smuggling migrants like his relatives.

Then there is Wilfredo Hidalgo, Ms. Bello’s 27-year-old cousin, who studied business administration in Venezuela but never found a job. Two years ago, he was deported from Curaçao after coming by plane. Now he is trying to return by boat, having saved half of the $350 he needs to pay the smugglers.

“What can I do?” he said.

There is also Ms. Bello’s brother Roger, whose 19-year-old girlfriend, Yaisbel, is six months pregnant. He, too, said he would go to Curaçao to support his child. Yaisbel said she would stay behind but take a loan from smugglers to pay for her boyfriend’s journey, using her mother’s house as collateral. Hopefully, she said, her mother would never find out.

“I am just watching her stomach,” Roger Bello said. “Before the child is here, I will be in Curaçao.”

And finally there is Ms. Bello’s mother, Maria Piñero, who gave her a life vest just before she left, knowing that she could not swim. But the smuggler ripped it off Ms. Bello just before she was thrown into the sea, saying that the swells were so high she was better off swimming under the waves.

Now, despite Ms. Bello’s ordeal, her mother vowed to make the journey by boat, too.

“I’m nervous,” she began. “I’m leaving with nothing. But I have to do this. Otherwise, we will just die here hungry.”

One evening at the end of September, Ms. Piñero, 47, climbed aboard a boat in a small town on the country’s northern coast. She dropped to her knees, praying to God that she would survive the journey and find a better life in Curaçao.

The other passengers, tears in their eyes, began to pray too, some joining hands in a circle on the beach. They muttered hopes that the coast guard would not catch them, that they were good people, that they were mothers and fathers.

They waded chest-deep into the water, hoisting their few possessions overhead, and climbed into the boat. Its motor started and it steered toward the horizon.
Even the smuggler seemed distraught at the misfortune bringing him profits.

“I would prefer that the crisis ended and my business was over,” the smuggler said after they had left. “I would prefer a thousand times that there was no crisis and we could live in the Venezuela from yesterday.”

The Vanished Boat

Jesús Ramos knew he would have to swim ashore from the smuggler’s boat. So he spent his last weeks in Venezuela doing laps in the sea in front of his home in La Vela, his mother recalls.

His friend William Cordero, 29, went too. He spent that month applying for a business license for the salon he planned to open with all the money he expected to make in Curaçao. He had already bought a sign.

“My Faith In God Barbershop” it said.

But the boat carrying the men never made it.

The two friends, along with three other migrants and a captain, vanished somewhere off the coast of Venezuela last year. No wreckage was found. The only evidence that their journey even occurred is a few selfies sent from their smartphones just before they departed. The men posed on the side of the skiff with big smiles.

“I try not to cry; I tell myself, ‘He’s well, that’s it,’ ” said Florangel Amaya de Ramos, Mr. Ramos’s mother.