South America’s refugee crisis
Venezuelans flee to Colombia as economy totters
CUCUTA, COLOMBIA • 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.