Venezuelans Are Trapped by a Chronic Passport Shortage

Updated on
  • Hundreds queue for documents government can’t deliver
  • Estimates that of 1.8 million requested, 300,000 were supplied

Joel Bustamante was fed up with the soaring cost of living and the shootouts and petty crime in his working-class Caracas neighborhood. He was ready, he decided, to do as so many of his fellow Venezuelans have done and flee the crisis-torn country. He lined up a factory job in Chile, bought a one-way plane ticket and packed his bags.

All he needed was a new passport. He ordered it six months before his scheduled flight. Plenty of time, he was told. But days of waiting turned into weeks, then months. To this day, eleven months after that flight left for Chile without him, Bustamante, a 24-year-old cab driver, continues to wait.

“I’m in complete disbelief,” he said. “If not for this mess, I’d be gone.”

Of all the shortages that plague Venezuela today -- of food and medicine, even money -- the lack of passports is in some ways the cruelest. For sheer hardship, it can’t match the kind of suffering inflicted by a scarcity of, say, drinking water or high-blood pressure pills, but it has the surreal effect of making people feel like they’re trapped, like they’re prisoners in their own dysfunctional land.

The blue Mercosur Venezuelan passport is displayed for a photograph in Caracas.

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

Hundreds of thousands are marking time, as the passport emergency slows down an unprecedented exodus. Ever since the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s interventionist policies sank the economy into full-blown crisis, Venezuelans have been leaving in droves. They land in neighboring Panama or head north to the U.S. or try their luck in Spain.

The government doesn’t publish such statistics, but Tomas Paez, author of “The Voice of the Venezuelan Diaspora,” estimates close to 2 million have left in the past 18 years.

That may not seem to be much when compared to nations like Colombia or Mexico, but Venezuelans, it should be noted, were never migrants on any kind of meaningful scale prior to Chavez’s ascension in 1999. Blessed with the world’s largest oil reserves, the country was for decades one of the region’s richest. There wasn’t really any need to leave. If anything, Venezuela was a recipient of immigrants, from Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America but also from Spain and Italy and Portugal.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has acknowledged the passport problem, and last week launched a new “express” online option that offers to deliver one within 72 hours for more than double the standard price. It’s unclear how many have managed to try the expedited process; the website’s been crashing.

The reason the passport agency, known as Saime, has given for the shortfall is that it doesn’t have enough “materials.” It might be the government just can’t afford to buy all the paper it needs. Phone calls and emails to the agency and the Interior Ministry weren’t returned.

People wait in line outside Saime headquarters in Caracas.

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

On some days, hundreds queue up outside Saime’s headquarters in Caracas, arriving as early as 5 a.m. Even for those with more mundane reasons for wanting a passport -- to visit family or travel for business -- the process can be excruciating.

Sofia, a 58-year-old retired school teacher, has taken four 100-mile bus trips from the city of Valencia to Caracas in her quest to be in Spain for the birth of a grandchild this month. The last time she asked if the elusive materials had arrived, she said, “they practically laughed in my face, saying, ‘Don’t you realize this is Venezuela?’”

Scores are stuck abroad too. “Basically, I’m imprisoned in Canada,” said Elena, 43, who is a legal resident there and has been trying for two years to renew her passport so she can travel with her two children; like many interviewed she asked that her last name not be used.

The wealthy can often grease some palms to finagle a way around the famine of goods. That appears to be the case with passports, with fixers who have connections or officials themselves willing to expedite the process for the equivalent of several hundred dollars, or more. Most of Venezuela’s 30 million residents can’t come up with that kind of money: The monthly minimum wage, plus the food vouchers the government gives to all, equals less than $30 on the black market.

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The head of Saime, Juan Carlos Dugarte, appeared on TV last month to announce the government had cleaned up illegal activities at the agency and to promise Venezuelans that demand for passports would be met. Eventually, that is. “If you do not need to travel soon, wait for your turn and your travel date,” Dugarte said. “In the meantime, don’t do it.”

Of 1.8 million passports requested last year, as few as 300,000 were supplied, according to Anthony Daquin, a former adviser to the Interior Ministry. Luis Florido, an opposition congressman, puts the current deficit at 3 million.

Jose Azuaje

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

Waiting outside Saime headquarters before dawn, Jose Azuaje, a 36-year-old office manager, said he applied nearly four months ago for papers for his asthmatic son. Desperate to have him treated in Colombia, he returns again and again for fresh word on his request.

“You can’t do anything,” a bleary-eyed Azuaje said. “You’re trapped.”

— With assistance by Patricia Laya, Noris Soto, and Fabiola Zerpa

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