The Dallas Morning News
Desperate Venezuelans flee toward uncertain future
Some arrive with only a suitcase, hoping to start anew
CÚCUTA, Colombia — For three weeks, Wilya Hernández, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter have been sleeping on the garbage-strewn streets of Cúcuta, a chaotic city on Colombia’s side of the border with Venezuela.
Though Antonela, the toddler, often misses meals, Hernández has no desire to return home to Venezuela.
“I need an angel,” Hernández said, holding back tears at 1 a.m. on a humid recent night. “We can’t go back, and we can’t stay here.”
It is a view shared by thousands of her compatriots who have fled to Cúcuta, where the struggles of adapting to life in a new country can seem more attractive than the hunger and upheaval they endured back home.
Venezuela is steeped in economic and political turmoil. Inflation last year surpassed 2,600 percent, according to opposition lawmakers, which has exacerbated severe shortages of food and medicine.
Venezuela is now governed by a Constituent Assembly, composed of close allies of President Nicolás Maduro. The opposition-controlled Congress has been sidelined, the highest court is stacked with Maduro loyalists, and the national guard has been ordered to take a hard line on any protests.
Maduro has called for presidential elections to be held in April, though neighboring countries have urged him not to do so given the number of opposition politicians who have been barred from running or have fled.
As authoritarianism continues to tighten its grip on the oil-rich nation, large numbers of its citizens are fleeing, citing the economic crisis and rampant crime as reasons for departure. In the last six months of 2017, 210,000 Venezuelans came to Colombia, according to Colombian officials, and the exodus is straining other neighboring countries as well.
In Colombia, most of those who legally cross the country’s porous border do so on foot at the Simón Bolívar Bridge, just outside Cúcuta, where migration officials say around 30,000 people cross daily. Some buy rice and pasta to take home. Others, with only a suitcase, plan to stay and start anew.
Without passports or the right to work, thousands of Venezuelans in Cúcuta who held down decent jobs back home are now begging for food and change. When work is available, often in construction or reselling contraband candy at traffic signals, pay is low.
A good day brings in 15,000 Colombian pesos, or about $5, which goes to food, water and paying to use bathrooms in cafes. There is seldom anything left over.
“I sold my hair to feed my girl,” Hernández said, adding that wigmakers now walk the plazas of Cúcuta, wearing signs advertising that they give cash for hair.
The going rate in the border town for women’s hair is 30,000 pesos, or about $10, less than a third of the price in Bogotá, the capital.
The city’s police officers, tasked with dispersing congregations of homeless people from public spaces, said the vast majority of people they have arrested for street crime are Venezuelan. Since January of last year, 1,869 Venezuelan citizens have been arrested for crimes committed in Colombia, according to the country’s attorney general.
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, along with the country’s foreign, defense and interior ministers, traveled to the border city in early February to discuss ways to tackle what he described as “a growing problem that Colombia has never lived through before.”
Santos announced a number of measures to counter the crisis, including a special task force to keep people off the streets, alongside promises of aid and stricter border controls.
A program granting access to residency for Venezuelans already legally in Colombia was rolled out this month. But Hernández, her husband and toddler, who did not get passport stamps, now risk deportation under Santos’ new rules.
Late one recent night, Hernández lay down on a bench, holding her toddler close, and tried to sleep. Her husband had walked a few blocks to an all-night casino to ask for some water.
“We want to carry on,” she said. “But we have nothing left.”