THOU­SANDS FLEE VENEZUELA FOR COLOM­BIA

Venezue­lans flee to Colom­bia as econ­omy tot­ters

Montreal Gazette - - NP - HAN­NAH STRANGE

• In his pass­port photo, Car­los Naranjo Moreno is chub­by­faced, a healthy 20-some­thing from a mid­dle-class Venezue­lan fam­ily in the An­dean town of Merida. Now, he is gaunt, his clothes hang­ing off his al­most 6-foot-5 frame, ribs clearly vis­i­ble when he re­moves his shirt.

The former chef at a gov­ern­ment ho­tel who cooked for prom­i­nent Chav­is­tas, Naranjo seems an un­likely can­di­date for the grow­ing ranks of Venezue­lans forced to flee their coun­try due to hunger.

But he too has fallen vic­tim to the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that has en­gulfed Venezuela amid hy­per­in­fla­tion and crit­i­cal short­ages of food and medicine. His fa­ther died af­ter open heart surgery when the hospi­tal was un­able to pro­vide med­i­ca­tion needed for his blood to clot.

Naranjo fi­nally de­cided to leave, he said, when he re­ceived his last pay­check, which would not stretch to much more than a lit­tle bread, rice and milk — if he could find it. “It was killing me, phys­i­cally and men­tally. I knew I couldn’t stay any longer,” he said.

So he joined the largest hu­man in­flux in Colom­bia’s his­tory: the first time since the begin­ning of its sixdecade civil con­flict that the flow of peo­ple be­tween th­ese two An­dean neigh­bours has been re­versed.

Ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, more than one mil­lion Venezue­lans fled to the coun­try be­tween 2014 and 2016, and the rate is ris­ing: ar­rivals in Jan­uary 2017 topped 47,000, more than dou­ble of last Jan­uary. Refugee NGOs say the true num­ber is likely much higher.

Three peo­ple, in­clud­ing a 23-year-old woman, were killed on Wed­nes­day as hundreds of thou­sands took to the streets na­tion­wide for the so-called “Mother of all marches,” bring­ing the death toll for this month’s demon­stra­tions to eight.

Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro has or­dered a se­cu­rity crack­down to crush what he calls a “shame­less coup at­tempt” di­rected by the U.S.

The lat­est un­rest was trig­gered by a move by the Supreme Court to seize leg­isla­tive power from the op­po­si­tion-led Na­tional As­sem­bly — re­versed af­ter an in­ter­na­tional out­cry — and a 15-year ban on run­ning for of­fice for two-time pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hen­rique Capriles Radon­ski. But it is the deep­en­ing eco­nomic cri­sis that has pushed the coun­try to the brink.

In­fla­tion is fore­cast to hit 1,600 per cent this year, ac­cord­ing to the IMF: a bag of rice now costs al­most 4,000 bo­li­vars ($540), while the min­i­mum monthly salary is just 40,683. Peo­ple queue for hours at gov­ern­ment su­per­mar­kets in the hope of buying a few ba­sic goods, and zoo an­i­mals have been stolen for their meat.

De­spite sit­ting on the world’s largest oil sup­plies, Venezuela’s petrol pumps too are run­ning dry as pro­duc­tion col­lapses.

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