Guyanese slowly rebuilding lives after fleeing Venezuela’s hardships
Johnny Ram, 32, lived in Venezuela for 20 years, enjoying a comfortable life due to his flourishing joinery business. According to him, he never thought that he would be forced to leave under the circumstances in which he did—in the aftermath of two home invasions, including one where an armed robber threatened to kidnap one of his three children.
Ram is among a number of Guyanese who have taken the decision to leave behind hard-earned assets and resettle here after facing hardships in Venezuela due to the country’s crumbling economy and escalating crime rate.
Venezuela was very nice, a remigrant told Sunday Stabroek in an interview, while noting that there were few robberies and everything was selling cheap.
However, after Nicolas Maduro assumed office as president in 2013 following former president Hugo Chavez’s death and world oil prices fell, the country’s economy took a serious dive. Prices started skyrocketing and there was a scarcity of food, fuel and cash along with a collapse of the health care, education and transport systems.
The Venezuelan government provides a bag of groceries to each family every three to four months at a low cost.
For days, many line up for the supplies and if they are lucky there may still be some left by the time they reach the front.
The dire situation has led to looting, robberies and protests, some of which have turned deadly.
When the crisis just started, Ram’s business started to decline. With the prices for food and other items spiraling out of control, he was even forced to drive for 12 hours to Brazil to purchase food.
He said decided to move back after he was attacked and robbed by armed bandits on two occasions.
The first attack occurred in March, 2016, when bandits scaled his 15-ft fence and gained entry into his house through an open door. They held him at gunpoint and demanded that he hand over US currency.
Although he told them he did not have any, they continued to terrorise him and his family and ransacked his house. They had also threatened to shoot him if they found any US currency. In the end, they escaped with only local currency and other articles.
One week later, three bandits again barged into his home and carted off electronics. They also attempted to steal his vehicle but were foiled after neighbours raised an alarm. The bandits had also threatened to kidnap one of his three children.
A few months later, Ram packed up and left with his family. He now lives at Tuschen, East Bank Essequibo, where he is still trying to re-establish his business and fully resettle here.
According to Ram, many people are struggling and desperately want to return but they don’t have anyone to help them. “Some are old and they won’t be able to start life all over again,” he said, before adding, “Guyanese don’t punish; they try to make ends meet. Most people boil cassava and eat that everyday….”
The only good thing, Ram said, is that residents do not have to pay for electricity, water and garbage collection.
Ram’s cousin, Michael Sukhu, 21, who was born in Venezuela, still lives there with his Guyanese parents and his siblings. He has been staying with Ram for the past five months and is planning to return home in three weeks.
Sukhu is an electrical engineering student at the government university but the teachers have been on strike for the past eight months.
The reason for the strike, he said, is the lack of transportation, food and the fact that teachers are not being paid. He is hopeful that the university will reopen but said it depends on the outcome of the country’s presidential elections, which will be held at the end of April.
If it does not reopen, he told this newspaper that he would have to look at continuing his studies at a private university.
Roberto Ramnarine, 33, fled with his wife Theresa Persaud, 24, and their three children, ages two, four and six, almost two years ago, when the situation became unbearable. Bandits had also attacked and robbed him seven times.
A joiner by profession, it took him three months before he could finally land a job at a furniture factory. Relatives helped him with his rent and provided basic food items until he started earning.
Ramnarine said that while life is much better now, he is still finding it hard to pay the $28,000 per month in rent for his current home.
And as if his misery was not enough, he injured his shoulders in a bicycle accident a few weeks ago and is presently unable to work.
He hopes to obtain a plot of land so he can build a home and curtail some of his expenses.
In Venezuela, he operated a flourishing business supplying kitchen cabinets and other furniture to trailer homes belonging to an oil company.
He also owned a home with modern appliances and a car, which he left behind in his search for a better life for his family.
Ramnarine recalled that when his business started to collapse, he had to lay off his two employees and work alone. Eventually there was no work for him either.
Persaud added that it reached a stage where they could not afford basic food items or even milk and diapers for their youngest child.
They spoke of lining up from the afternoon before to get food supplies from the government. There were many fights for space in the line during that time.
Ramnarine recalled one instance when the army shot and killed a woman because she vented her frustration at others cutting in line ahead of her.
His parents and other relatives are still in Venezuela facing dire conditions and cannot afford the passage back home.
His father earns a small pension and although it is not enough for food, he tries to make ends meet.
The Venezuelan currency has inflated so much that the family paid 26 million Bolivars (Bs 26 million) to travel to Guyana.
It was noted that a person could take Bs 1 million to the market and would not still not be able to afford everything they needed.
The price for rice is Bs 200,000, while 12 eggs are sold for Bs 232,000; one litre of whole milk cost Bs 125,000 and 16 ounces of cheese cost Bs 250,000.
The government provides Bs 500,000 to residents to assist with groceries. So desperate for the help, Ramnarine’s mother spent three days in the line without food waiting for the money.
Ramnarine’s brother, Ricardo, 32, a carpenter, came to Guyana three months ago and only recently got a job.
Ricardo thought he could have survived the hardship and only decided to move when bandits attacked and robbed him of his car at gunpoint.
Another young man, Sheik Ally, 22, remigrated with his parents over a year ago. He had preferred to stay in Venezuela and said he would love to return if he gets the opportunity.
He was engaged in gold mining in that country but he is currently working at sea as a fisherman.
Parbattie, a housewife, moved back from Venezuela about two years ago with her husband and their 14-year-old son when they could no longer face the tough life.
When they first got there, her husband worked as a “weeder” and within a month they started building a wooden house, which they later upgraded to a concrete structure.
The woman related that her husband gave up after all the produce from his cassava and plantain farm was stolen. “We don’t know if it’s Guyanese or Spanish people who thief them because everybody hungry,” she said.
Her daughter, son-in-law and their four daughters, ages three, eight, 12 and 14, remained there trying to survive in spite of the hardships.
But three months later her daughter called and told her that they hardly had food. They were eating mangoes for breakfast and for lunch they ate boiled rice and a “cheap fish.”
Parbattie decided to go with the hope of bringing them back to Guyana immediately. But she too was caught in struggle as she tried to raise the money to get the family over. She recalled eating soursop for lunch a few times.
She tried in vain to sell her house there to get enough money. After she returned, a woman who was left in charge of the house sold it and gave her G$30,000.
While there, she sold her fridge and freezer but she had to use that money to buy food items. Her grandchildren were unable to attend school because there were reports of girls being raped.
According to her, many people are suffering from malaria but there is no treatment in the country.
Parbattie is sad that life turned out the way it did and prays that one day the country would “get good again….”
Roberto Ramnarine and his family
Parbattie and her four granddaughters