Fleeing Venezuela

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 11th day of October, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

The border between Colombia and Venezuela is a frenzy of activity. The kind that breaks your heart- people in the economically collapsed Venezuela fleeing west for help, for survival.

WORLD Magazine’s National Editor, Jamie Dean, visited the area and is here to talk about the latest. Jamie, describe the crisis in Venezuela. 

JAMIE DEAN, NATIONAL EDITOR: The situation in Venezuela is harrowing and it’s also really quite stunning. The country has gone from being once the richest nation in Latin America to a really a failed state. This is a country with the largest known oil reserves in the world, and it’s a place where many of its citizens are now struggling to find food.

It’s gotten particularly bad in the last five years, but the crisis is really a couple of decades in the making. It goes back to Hugo Chavez winning the presidency in 1998, and launching vast social welfare programs that he paid for with vast oil profits. This made him popular with the poor, but it also made the country very vulnerable. When oil prices tanked in 2014, the country ran out of money, and it couldn’t pay for these programs much less for some of the basic goods they needed to import – and food is one of those goods.

The current socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, just doubled down. Since there wasn’t enough money, he just printed more, and you can imagine how that went. The value of the currency plummeted, and the cost of basic goods soared.

Listen to what USAID administrator Mark Green told the Associated Press this summer:

GREEN: “What makes what we are seeing especially tragic is that the crisis these poor people are fleeing is entirely man-made. It is the direct result of a corrupt (Venezuela President Nicolas) Maduro regime who commits human rights abuses and denies its people access to the most basic of services.”

Now, I visited the Venezuelan border this summer from the Colombian side, and one of the souvenirs that a local pastor gave to me was a stack of Venezuelan bills about three inches thick. And he said, here you can have this—it means nothing.

This of course has left all Venezuelans in seriously desperate straits, including middle class Venezuelans. This isn’t just a poor person’s problem. The shortages of food and medicine affect people all across the economic spectrum, and have led to people fleeing the country in massive numbers.

REICHARD: How many people are we talking about and where have people been fleeing?

DEAN: At least two million people have fled Venezuela in the last three years, and they head to countries all over South America. But about half go into neighboring Colombia. And this is a really interesting turn of events for Colombia. For years, it was Colombians who were heading into Venezuela for better economic conditions, but also to escape the violence of Colombia drug and guerrilla wars. So a sizeable number of the people fleeing Venezuela are Colombians who are now coming back to their home country.

REICHARD: What did you see during your time on the Colombian border:

DEAN: I spent time in the border city of Cucuta, where most Venezuelans cross into the country each day. Lots of them are pushing suitcases and dragging boxes and carts. Many of them don’t plan to stay. They cross the border and spend the day in an area just on the other side called La Parada – the stopping place. They barter or buy what they can manage, and haul it back into Venezuela that afternoon. These are known as the boomerang people because they go back and forth everyday.

And it’s a really interesting economy that has sprung up in this border area. You have Venezuelans bringing household items they want to sell or trade, and sometimes they bring the government-subsidized products they still might be able to get, and they try to sell those for things they actually need.

I saw table after table of motor oil—that’s apparently something you can’t get in Venezuela. I saw people buying basically bald tires to put on cars that they can’t find other parts to fix. Certain parts of the area are known to be dangerous, where people are trying to obtain medicines they can’t find back home.

And people are desperate to get in. Not all have the papers they need. The day when I was on the bridge that spans a rocky river bed across the border, I saw a boy probably 14 years told who was scaling the side of the bridge on a pipe that ran across it. And I kept looking back, hoping he would make it to the other side safely.

REICHARD: Tell us more about that. What condition are the people in, in general?

DEAN: They’re very resilient, but it’s really, really hard, including for those who come to Colombia to stay. I saw hundreds of people lined up outside a Catholic soup kitchen who were visibly thin from rapid weight loss. Some people’s clothes were obviously now a couple sizes too big, bony shoulders were sticking out—just very sad to see.

In a refugee office nearby, I met a woman and her daughter who had her 2-year-old son and was also expecting another baby soon. They had just crossed into Colombia a few days earlier because they had nothing to feed the little boy. They did have a small box of crackers, and they were planning to sell those for some spending money. They were spending nights at the bus station.

And as this woman talked, she just broke down and wept. She really had no idea what their lives would be like now or what they would do. The pastor I was traveling with told her how to get Red Cross distributions of food, but even those are limited at this point. And he also gave her his card and information, and you could tell this was sort of like a lifeline. Just one person this woman now knows in Colombia who might be able to help them. And yet there are so many thousands that don’t have that.

I’ve been doing this kind of reporting for a long time in a lot of different countries, and I have to tell you, this little family was hard to walk away from. You wonder what will become of them? What will they do?

REICHARD: Yeah. I’m wondering, are there groups trying to help? What can you tell us about that?

DEAN: There are—the Catholic Church has food distributions and a large soup kitchen. There are a handful of other aid agencies on site. The UN has not declared this a refugee crisis, so you don’t have the massive setup of resources you might see in other border areas facing this kind of crisis. But there are lots of evangelical churches that are doing what they can do to help. I spent a couple of days with the pastor of a Baptist church who makes connections and tries to connect Venezuelans to the places they can go for help. He also collects food to take to Venezuelan pastors that he meets at the border, and they take food back into Venezuela, at some peril to themselves actually.

And of course it’s hard for the Colombians too. Conditions are much better than they used to be in Colombia, but the influx of refugees takes a toll on the city’s services and the employment situation. At night people sleep in the park. There’s been a rise in prostitution, including girls well below 18.

It’s a very difficult situation. But the churches keep sharing what they can and doing what they can in a situation that doesn’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. One Colombian pastor told me:

‘This is very stressful for us too, but we help because we as a church can’t be indifferent. We just can’t.”

REICHARD: Jamie Dean is national editor for WORLD Magazine. Jamie, thank you for joining us today.

DEAN: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Richard Drew/AP) Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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