Hungry Venezuelans Flee in Boats to Escape Economic Collapse
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.’ ”
Across Seas and Borders
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.
The plan had been a simple one: A seven-hour journey in a speedboat. If they were stopped by Curaçao’s coast guard, they would pose as tourists. And with their documents in plastic bags, they were ready to swim ashore, knowing that the smuggler wanted to make a quick getaway. Then they could find their contacts using cellphones tucked in empty rice porridge jars.
Mr. Cordero already had a Curaçao mobile-phone chip. Two years before, he had boarded a plane to Curaçao and worked illegally as a barber there, earning several thousand dollars that he sent to his wife and two children in La Vela. But in 2015, Mr. Cordero was deported.
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He returned to a new, grimmer Venezuela. Long lines for food were becoming startlingly common in La Vela and inflation hit triple digits.
Even in big cities like Caracas and Maracaibo, staples like corn flour, the cornerstone of the Venezuelan diet, have become increasingly hard to find, while a growing black market for other goods has driven prices beyond the reach of many. In rural towns like La Vela, residents are even more squeezed, with fewer goods than large cities and a poorer population with less money to pay for them.
Mr. Cordero tried to make the best of things by opening a barbershop on his sister’s patio, wearing a white uniform like the one he wore in Curaçao. But he earned only about 40 cents per haircut, compared with $35 or more per day in Curaçao.
The lure of the island grew more intense than ever. But the country had put the new visa restrictions on Venezuelans, and the door was shut behind him. The only way back was with a smuggler by boat.
Mr. Ramos, Mr. Cordero’s friend, knew a man who was collecting 200,000 bolivars each, or about $200 at the time, to run a smuggling boat. Mr. Ramos, a lanky 20-year-old, had also been deported recently after working as a gardener in Curaçao, but had not managed to find work back in Venezuela. Once the money ran out from his first trip, his wife and three children were spending many days hungry.
The smuggler found two other men from the area, and a fifth migrant named Jessica Márquez who had come from Mérida, a city nearly 400 miles away.
The five waited anxiously in La Vela for several days as the smuggler got reports from other fishermen in Curaçao about coast guard patrols, trying to decide which night would be safest to leave.
Mr. Cordero’s sister, Saribeth Cordero, recalled the group sitting in her brother’s barber shop on her porch one afternoon as a movie played on the television about a shipwreck.
“What if there are sharks?” asked Ms. Márquez, Ms. Cordero recalled.
“You can’t be negative like that,” Mr. Cordero said, his sister recalled. But she said her brother was scared too. “He was nervous about the ocean,” Ms. Cordero said.
The group finally headed off in good spirits. Mr. Ramos had sold his motorcycle to pay the smuggler, telling his mother he would not need it anymore. She packed him a waterproof bag with some meager belongings: soap, toothpaste, antibiotics and a few clothes. A van arrived and they left.
That afternoon, they arrived at the rendezvous point with the smuggler, a town called Tucacas. They stayed the night in a hostel there. The motor of one of the boats had failed recently, something that worried Mr. Ramos when he wrote to a friend who had agreed to meet him in the jungle once he landed in Curaçao.
“It’s O.K. man… just relax, you’ll be here soon,” the friend wrote in Facebook message that Mr. Cordero forwarded to his mother.
“Yes bro, tomorrow, God willing,” Mr. Ramos wrote back.
Mr. Cordero climbed aboard the boat and sent a selfie to his sister. He wore yellow board shorts and no shirt, making a peace sign with his hands.
It was the last anyone heard from anyone in the group.
The first to know something had gone wrong was Ms. Ramos. The friend in Curaçao wrote over Facebook that he had waited all night but her son never arrived.
“I cried all night,” she said.
Questions haunt the families of the lost migrants each time they look out toward the sea. Could the men still be alive somehow? Will Venezuela ever return to the country that it was, one where it was not necessary to swim to the shore in Curaçao after being tossed from a fishing boat?
Ms. Ramos is still waiting for her son and speaks of him in the present tense. Each Sunday, she goes to Mass to pray for his return.
“I always speak to God,” said Ms. Ramos. “I am always looking up at that picture of the Virgin. I am scared one day she will yell back at me, ‘Enough, already. That’s enough.’”
Whims of the Passage
Rolando Bello sat on a pier in Curaçao, worrying about his mother. It was September, a week before she stepped aboard a boat to join him in Curaçao. He knew the dangers well, having made the journey twice himself.
Last year, he says, Mr. Cordero and Mr. Ramos had approached him to join their doomed trip before they set off.
“I was this close to going,” he said. “You see what would have happened to me.”
Now his family was being subjected to the dangerous whims of the passage once more.
His mother’s boat was getting ready to set off. His sister, who had been dragged ashore by her hair, had been caught by the Curaçao authorities and deported back to Venezuela over the summer. Desperate to work, she had sneaked into Aruba instead, taking a loan from a smuggling ring to get there.
But at least his wife was with him. She came to Curaçao that month under a new scheme. Because she did not have the $1,000 needed to pose as a Venezuelan tourist at customs, smugglers rented her the money to satisfy the new cash requirement, which is imposed only on Venezuelans. The smuggler’s agents in Curaçao then quickly approached her at the airport to take back the money — and to collect the $100 rental fee.
Mr. Bello’s wife, Lennymar Chávez, sat next to her husband and the two ate a large lunch. A boat sailed past a row of colonial facades, and Venezuela felt a world away.
“I haven’t eaten an arepa for three months,” she said, referring to the Venezuelan staple of corn flour, which has become increasingly hard to find at home. “I ate one here in Curaçao for the first time.”
They had left their 7-year-old daughter in La Vela with relatives. Mr. Bello had trained to be an engineer in Venezuela’s oil industry. Now he was a construction day laborer, happily earning about $65 a day. Ms. Chávez trained to be a nurse, but held few hopes of working in her profession in Curaçao.
“I don’t mind cleaning now,” she said. “The important thing is that I’m working here.”
But the authorities in Curaçao, like many tiny islands, fear the immigrants will undercut the local labor force or bring violent crime.
“My preoccupation is what kind of people are entering Curaçao,” said Nelson Navarro, the island’s justice minister who argued that the increase in Venezuelans coincided with a 15 percent rise in crime, particularly armed robberies. “In Venezuela, they don’t hesitate to shoot a police officer, but here, this is news.”
Alex Rosaria, a legislator on the island, worries that the migrants will further strain Curaçao, where unemployment is at 11 percent.
“We have only a limited capacity to deal with refugees,” Mr. Rosaria said.
For now, the task has been left to the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard. Rob Jurriansen, a Dutch naval officer who heads operations in Curaçao, says his small fleet intercepted only a tiny fraction of the migrants, perhaps just 5 to 10 percent of the boats coming from Venezuela. Now he says officials in Netherlands, the former colonial power that is still formally tied to Curaçao within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, fear they will also get stuck with the bill of caring for a migrant tide.
“They want to prevent a situation like Libya,” he said, referring to the much larger flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
His station is close to Caracas Bay, now the landing point of many who flee Venezuela. Dense, thorny brush covers the island for miles in each direction, forming a maze through which the migrants wander as they enter Curaçao.
Far across the passage, the seas had calmed and Mr. Bello’s mother was preparing for her second attempt. After nearly reaching the island in September, her boat turned back, fearing it was being pursued by the Coast Guard.
It set out again on a clear October night at 9 p.m. Mr. Bello’s mother, Ms. Piñero, sent a message to relatives just before taking off. It had been a choppy ride on the first voyage, but this time the 13 passengers glided smoothly over the waves.
But the flat ocean also meant they were visible when they arrived early the next morning, before dawn. Somewhere on shore, Coast Guard officials say they saw what they called a “strange blip” on the water.
Ms. Bello was the first in the family to learn what happened next, when a friend called at 6 a.m.
“Girl, they got your mother,” the friend said. “They caught the boat with drugs.”
Ms. Bello didn’t want to believe the news, but opened her computer to see what she could find online. Already, images were circulating of the passengers being apprehended by the authorities. Ms. Bello recognized her mother.
“Yes, it was her with the red hair, the one covering her face so she could not be seen,” she said of her mother.
Ms. Bello’s mother landed with a dozen other passengers in detention, she said in a brief telephone interview, watched over by guards. She sounded desperate and tired, her voice cracking.
“I thought that trying would be worth it, but in the end it wasn’t, because I’m headed back,” she said, before the line clicked and she was gone.
Her son Rolando Bello remains in Curaçao with his wife, but his mother’s capture casts a heavy shadow in the small home they share with another Venezuelan migrant family. The couple was trying to gather the money for Ms. Piñero’s plane ticket back to Venezuela, which deportees are required to pay. They would send it through a third party to avoid being discovered themselves.
One evening last month, Mr. Bello was alone, wondering if the promise of Curaçao had been worth the damage to his family.
“Only God knows the sacrifice one makes,” he said. “But fine. This is life.”
Her daughter, Ms. Bello, was angry.
“It’s so sad because we hope we will arrive in one piece,” she said. “And then suddenly, after a journey so long, they catch you. And just send you back to Venezuela.”
“Just imagine the despair my mother is in,” she added. “She has no money. Now she may have to sell her house. What a crazy thing.”
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