Venezuelans Hawk Snacks on Dominican Streets as Revolution DiesBy
Lower-income Venezuelans join exodus from economic collapse
Dominican Republic has region’s fastest-growing economy
This is not the life Edgar Leon hoped for when he voted for the socialist revolution of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela -- standing on a street corner in the Dominican Republic selling snacks and lemonade out of a bucket to support his wife and children back home.
“We were a rich nation,” said Leon. “This is an embarrassment. I never wanted to leave my country.”
He’s one of the record number of Venezuelans who arrived in the Dominican Republic this year, escaping chronic shortages and spiraling prices back home. But these latest emigrants aren’t the Venezuelan doctors, lawyers and university students of the kind who can be found working in cities from Santiago to Miami. The streets of Santo Domingo are hosting a new group of emigrants -- the very people who were meant to benefit from subsidized food, cheap housing, labor protection and free education guaranteed by Chavez’s government.
Venezuela’s decline has been so pronounced that the new arrivals are competing in the informal economy alongside immigrants from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Back in 1980, Venezuela had the second highest income per capita in South America, almost triple that of the Dominican Republic and more than 20 times Haiti’s.
Now Venezuelans are turning up at busy transit stops, highway intersections and shopping districts across the Dominican Republic. Others are serving in bars and restaurants, or working in hotels and bagging groceries.
“In the last few months, you’ve seen lower-class Venezuelans doing things that you’d more readily associate with Haitian migrants,” said Bridget Wooding, director of the Santo Domingo-based Caribbean Migrants Observatory.
In the Streets
“I started to see them in the last six months,” said Louis Joseph, a Haitian who first came to Santo Domingo 15 years ago and sells bottled water and candy to motorists and university students. “They can’t survive in their country. They’re in the streets now with us.”
Leon didn’t want to leave Venezuela and tried everything to make ends meet, from driving a taxi to sweeping up hair at a barber shop. Yet, the 100,000 bolivares per month he earned --more than the current minimum wage-- was only worth about $37 on the black market by the time he left, and he couldn’t feed his two sons. He can earn more in two days as a street hawker in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he said.
About 170,000 Venezuelans are expected to arrive in the Dominican Republic this year, triple the rate of five years ago. Most come on tourist permits that last 30 days, but many stay longer and pay a fine if they leave. There are no official figures for how many stay.
The immigrants cut across the socio-economic ladder; from Jean Carlos Porteles, who worked in shops in Caracas before coming to Santo Domingo to sell juice, to Marianela Aponte, who arrived four months ago with a degree in business administration and is now hiring other Venezuelans to hawk cellphone accessories to motorists.
While Venezuela has the worst-performing economy in the western hemisphere, the Dominican Republic has the best. Its predicted 5.9 percent expansion this year will make it the fastest-growing economy in the Americas for a third straight year, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. Venezuela’s economy is forecast to contract 10 percent.
The influx is beginning to strain relations, and Dominican migration authorities said they have stepped up checks to make sure Venezuelans are not overstaying their visas. The Directorate General of Immigration on Dec. 14 rounded up and arrested more than a dozen Venezuelans who officials said were working illegally in restaurants and hotels around the Punta Cana tourist zone. Calls to the office for comment were not returned.
Leon isn’t being deterred. If he can save enough, he wants to move from the studio apartment he rents on the outskirts of Santo Domingo near the city’s main airport into a place large enough for his wife and children. Sometime next year, he wants them to join him, he said.
"I can’t go back there, not how it is now,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”