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A decade under Maduro, migration marks Venezuelans’ lives

As people continue to migrate, mostly to elsewhere in Latin America, there’s an increasing divide between those who stayed and those who left. These are some of their stories

San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela
A man peaks over the crowd waiting on the Simon Bolivar bridge to cross the border into Colombia, in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, in July 2016.Ariana Cubillos (AP)
Caracas -

Few Venezuelans have not had their lives touched by migration over the last decade, when more than seven million people left the country amid a political, economic and humanitarian crisis that has lasted the entirety of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

In the 10 years since Venezuelans learned on March 5, 2013, that polarizing President Hugo Chávez was dead and his chosen successor, Maduro, would take over, a drop in oil prices coupled with government mismanagement have sunk the country into an economic tailspin, pushing many people into poverty, hunger, poor health, crime and desperation.

As people continue to migrate, mostly to elsewhere in Latin America, there’s an increasing divide between los que se quedaron and los que se fueron, those who stayed and those who left.

The split has political implications. Opponents of Maduro’s government frequently talk about the diaspora – their preferred term for migrants – and the reasons that drove them to leave, while the president and his allies like to highlight the entrepreneurial spirit of people who remain.

There are also social consequences. People long for weekend or evening gatherings around a grill with loved ones who are now far-flung, or lament missed birthdays, graduations and funerals. These are some of their stories.

‘Los que se quedaron’ (those who stayed)

José Francisco Rodríguez has been a cobbler for 46 years in the capital, Caracas, doing everything from repairing oil workers’ boots to adding lifts to sneakers to covering bridal shoes with delicate fabric.

Unlike with other businesses, clients have kept going to his shop throughout the crisis as prices soar for all manner of goods.

“With the situation right now, buying a new shoe is a little more difficult for people,” said Rodríguez, 71. “So, people prefer to get them repaired.”

Rodríguez said he has “faith in Venezuela” and would never leave, a decision he acknowledged he can make because he owns a well-established business. He has high hopes for the country’s future but admitted they depend on a rebound in oil production and the return of foreign energy companies.

One of his daughters does not share his optimism and moved to Chile with her two daughters in 2018. He misses them, but the remittances she sends home proved crucial when he got Covid019 and racked up medical bills of at least $3,000 – roughly 50 times the annual minimum wage.

Many of his clients don’t see a future in Venezuela either. In mid-February, he gave away 70 pairs of shoes that customers abandoned long ago. “They left,” Rodríguez said, “and they forgot about the shoes.”

Iraida Piñero, public hospital cleaning worker, poses for a picture in a square in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, February 24, 2023.
Iraida Piñero, public hospital cleaning worker, poses for a picture in a square in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, February 24, 2023. Ariana Cubillos (AP)

Another story of those who have stayed is that of Iraida Piñero. She has never held her 2-year-old granddaughter. Her only child left Venezuela six years ago and gave birth in Colombia. Unable to travel, the grandmother has settled for watching via video calls as the girl grew from a newborn into a toddler.

The absence of her daughter, granddaughter and 11-year-old grandson has led to a mix of sadness, gratitude and fear, even as she turns to prayer for strength.

Piñero, 53, earns roughly $5 a month plus some bonuses cleaning a public hospital in Caracas. That’s nowhere near enough to buy a day’s worth of food for a family of four.

Remittances from her daughter, who sells Venezuelan-style empanadas, have kept her afloat. People without such help, Piñero said, struggle to afford necessities.

“We are going through a very difficult situation, too difficult,” she said.

But Piñero said that rather than leave, as her daughter has suggested, she would wait for Venezuela “to be the same that it was 15 years or 20 years ago.” “My grandson wants to return ... and I want my daughter here again with me and my grandchildren,” she said.

The days when oil company executives, middle-class workers and tourists constantly hailed cabs or motorcycle taxis around Caracas are long gone. But César Sandoval, who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, entered the business four years ago and has not looked back.

Sandoval, 28, started out offering motorcycle rides and saved enough money to sell that vehicle and buy a used car. He now owns two cabs.

Every day, he is motivated to go into the streets and work by thoughts of his wife and three children.

“They are my engine,” Sandoval said, standing next to his red, rusting, mid-2000s Fiat.

A number of fellow taxi drivers and close friends have left the country because, he said, “they want to succeed ... live better.”

Sandoval does not blame them for that decision, but it’s not for him. He cannot fathom separating from his family or enduring the hostility many Venezuelan migrants have experienced abroad. “I wouldn’t want to go to another country where they humiliate me,” he said, adding, “If I was born here, I’ll die here.”

Like millions of others, Luzmilla Arrechedera, 53, spent countless hours in food lines when acute shortages were the norm. She staved off hunger by eating cassava, plantains and mangoes.

She’s seen heartache as well: Her only child was killed in a robbery seven years ago, and two of her three grandchildren moved to Spain with their mother.

Still, Arrechedera thanks God every morning for waking up one more day and tries not to dwell on the past. “What am I going to gain by crying over his death?” she said.

The Caracas beauty salon where she works as a hair stylist has become her refuge and something of a surrogate family.

“Here we joke around, we cry,” Arrechedera said. “We are all like sisters. We love each other very much.”

Arrechedera hopes to visit her grandchildren one day. But her wages are just enough to pay for basic foods, bills and the occasional indulgence such as ice cream or a pair of pants.

If she were to leave Venezuela, Arrechedera said, she fears nobody would hire her because of her age. So she stays put. “With difficulties, but I survive,” she said at the salon. “Thank God we still have customers here. Not like before, but we have them.”

Luzmilla Arrechedera, a hair stylist, poses for a picture at the salon where she works in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, February 23, 2023.
Luzmilla Arrechedera, a hair stylist, poses for a picture at the salon where she works in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, February 23, 2023.Ariana Cubillos (AP)

Some of Jorge Montaño’s friends have urged him to go to Colombia, saying he could make more money there than in Caracas. But others have warned against such a move, saying no one will gift him a plate of food should he need it.

The optometry office worker has followed the latter advice. “If I’m going to face adversities, I would rather face adversities in my country,” said Montaño, 51, who lives in an apartment with his mother and three siblings.

Montaño said he loves his country and asserted that Venezuelans live well in comparison with people in some other countries.

But he is still buying fewer groceries than before the crisis – mostly basics like sugar and flour, never meat – as prices continue to rise. He has lost clients and seen many businesses shut down.

A childhood friend did make the decision to leave, for Peru. With tears in his eyes, Montaño said the friend died there. “He never came back,” Montaño said.

‘Los que se fueron’ (those who left)

Lorena García spent years at a nongovernmental organization in the city of Valencia working to promote a democratic transition away from Chávez’s government and then later Maduro’s. That change never came, and in 2015 she moved to South Florida after winning the US visa lottery.

“I wanted to have opportunities that I knew I would not have” in Venezuela, the 47-year-old said.

García, who migrated alone, said the US has become her home and she no longer misses anyone from her native country. She holds a degree in mechanical engineering but now works as a real estate agent. As a legal resident, she helped her parents join her in Florida.

“I am so grateful to this country,” she said an interview at the house they share in Doral, a small city near Miami that’s often referred to as “Doralzuela” for its large Venezuelan community. “I always feel included.”

Had she stayed in Venezuela, García said, she would have regressed professionally and felt frustrated and hopeless. For her to even consider returning, there would have to be “drastic political change.”

Runaway inflation and widespread shortages pushed mechanic Christian Salazar to leave the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz in 2018, bound for Peru. He settled in a neighborhood in the outskirts of the capital, Lima, and found a better-paying job than the one he had back home.

But it has been tough going. Peru’s minimum monthly wage is roughly $269, and Salazar, 35, spends much of what he earns from fixing cars on rent and utilities.

“The minimum wage here in Peru ... is not for a Venezuelan to live in a dignified manner because the costs of rent and the basic basket (of goods) practically eat it all up,” he said.

Salazar separated from his wife before migrating, and he also left three teenage children back home. He now has a new partner and a 3-year-old son with her, and he credits them for making life in Peru “more bearable.”

Salazar talks with the teens in Venezuela every night after work but said there is no father-child bond. “I wanted to boost my children’s well-being,” Salazar said, his voice cracking.

Flor Peña, 39, decided to leave when her father died of a heart attack after being denied treatment by four overcrowded hospitals. She, her husband and their two young children headed to Peru in 2017.

Peña who was an industrial safety engineer in Venezuela, spent four years selling food on the streets of Lima, cleaning houses, taking care of an older man and helping other Venezuelans with immigration and remittance paperwork.

The children were harassed at school for being Venezuelan, and in 2021 the family moved to start all over again in Mexico City. She now cooks and waits tables at a small Venezuelan restaurant and has found a better, more stable existence.

“Peace of mind is priceless,” Peña said. “Your children go to the park and are calm. They go to school. ... Back there (in Venezuela), you are worried that your phone will be stolen. Here things are different.”

Peña misses her mother and two younger sisters who still live in Caracas, and she also has great nostalgia for Venezuela’s beaches. But she won’t move back until there is a change of government.

Migrating has been hard, and she draws strength from the children. “I want my children to be where the opportunities are,” Peña said.

Ali Mora did not want to leave — even when he could no longer afford food on his hospital worker salary, even when his nephews were losing weight before his eyes, even when he resorted to picking through the garbage of greengrocers and butcher shops in search of something to eat.

“I never felt like leaving my country, even if I was starving,” said Mora, 32.

But after repeated prodding by his mother, he finally went in 2018 to join a sister in Ecuador, where he worked early on in construction and selling fruit in and around the capital, Quito. Mora is now married and has a son.

Like many Venezuelan families, his is spread out across the Americas. His mother is also in Ecuador, his father remains in Venezuela and his other sister is in the United States.

Mora, who is currently unemployed, tried to reach the United States last year but got only as far as the foot of the Darien Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama where migrants frequently die or go missing. He said he was about to attempt the journey when authorities blocked access due to a visit from a foreign official and said “no more Venezuelans were going to go through.”

So he headed back to Ecuador. “I said, ‘Dear God, you closed the door for a reason,’” Mora said. “‘I’m going back to my son, who is my happiness.’”

Ángel Bruges, from Venezuela, poses for a portrait at his empanada stand in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, February 22, 2023.
Ángel Bruges, from Venezuela, poses for a portrait at his empanada stand in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, February 22, 2023.Fernando Vergara (AP)

Ángel Bruges and his wife arrived in the Colombian capital, Bogota, in 2019 and began selling Venezuelan empanadas from a cart. They have since parlayed that fledgling business into two larger carts and a brick-and-mortar shop, and last year they used some of their earnings to bring their daughter over as well.

“We have not taken a break from work,” said Bruges, 50, who owned an assorted goods store in the eastern Venezuela city of Carupano.

The family had been making do back in Venezuela thanks to the store and his wife’s teacher salary. But they were unable to find chicken, beef and other foods.

They now have a permit that lets them live legally in Colombia for 10 years. But the empanada business has been struggling lately as many of their Venezuelan clients have left Colombia.

Bruges said he misses his mother, who cannot migrate because of her age and is stuck back in Venezuela experiencing the country’s “deficiencies.”

“There is no electricity, there is no internet, there is no gas, there is no gasoline, there is no transportation,” he said. “You go to hospitals, and there are no medicines.”

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