Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Latin America

Venezuela Exports Its Crisis

Is Latin America ready for a flood of Venezuelan refugees?

Don’t bother looking for Pacaraima in your guide book. A pokey Brazilian town in the Amazon rainforest, it’s best known as the last trading post before the Venezuelan border. But thanks to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the disaster he’s made of South America’s fifth largest economy, some 30,000 Venezuelans have poured into Pacaraima since the beginning of the year.

Officials in Brazil’s Roraima State report that Pacaraima’s population has swelled nearly threefold. Over half of patients seeking treatment in public hospitals in Pacaraima are Venezuelans. Petty robbery, prostitution and other street crimes are on the rise, with Venezuelans as victims and perpetrators. Venezuelan families mill homeless through the town, sleeping under shop awnings, while children beg barefoot for spare change at stoplights and young men “swap day labor for a plate of food,” Edivaldo Amaral, head of Roraima civil defense, told me. “We’re already seeing this as a humanitarian crisis.”

What’s happening in Pacaraima is just one example of how Venezuela’s diaspora is taking on the dimensions of a regional calamity -- one for which its neighbors need to prepare.

Venezuelans began heading for the exits under Hugo Chavez, who turned the nation inside out in the name of Bolivarian socialism, leaving the economy in disarray and his compatriots poisonously divided. Skilled professionals, political dissidents and Jews led the flight from Chavismo’s increasingly authoritarian and obscurantist rule. Oil engineers were snapped up by producers in Norway and Colombia and physicians landed good jobs in the U.S. and Canada. After Chavez threatened Caracas director Jonathan Jakubowicz with arrest for his scathing 2005 film on corruption and crime, he moved to Los Angeles and directed the acclaimed Hands of Stone, about boxing great Roberto Duran, co-starring Robert De Niro. The Central University of Venezuela estimated that by 2015, some 1.6 million of the country’s most talented professional had left home.

Under Chavez’s successor Maduro, Venezuela’s economic plight has gotten measurably worse. Gross domestic product is on track to shrink by 10 percent this year, and another 4.5 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund. With falling oil production and hard currency reserves, the government will continue to be short of dollars to import food and basic goods. Soaring inflation means that ordinary Venezuelans can’t afford the pricey goods that remain.

As political repression has intensified, what used to be a trickle of asylum seekers has become a widening stream. So far this year, the number of Venezuelans applying for political asylum in the United States has jumped 168 percent, making that benighted country one of the U.S.’s top senders of would-be political refugees. Immigration data in Latin America is spotty, but Brazilian officials say that the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers this year (1,805) is more than five times greater than the total from 2000 to 2015, and that doesn’t include illegals.

More and more ordinary Venezuelans are concluding that their only way out of their country’s mess lies over the border. Accountants, merchants, schoolteachers and blue-collar job-seekers are pulling up stakes for more modest destinations. The Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama have all reported increases in Venezuelan migrants. Chile granted more than 8,300 visas to Venezuelans in 2015 -- a ten-fold increase in just five years – the vast majority of them for work. “Before, Venezuelans migrants flew into Santiago. Now they arrive by bus, with $100 in their pockets,” said Juan Nagel, a Venezuelan economist at Chile’s Universidad de los Andes.

For many the path abroad begins as a scavenger hunt. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed borders by bus or on foot in search of sugar, rice, cooking oil and medicine they can no longer find at home. Increasingly, many of the day shoppers are deciding not to return. For years, Colombians crossed the border to make a home in Venezuela and escape the raging war against Marxist insurgents. Now as Venezuela stagnates, Colombian authorities are bracing not just for the return of expatriates, but for what officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have called a quiet “avalanche” of Venezuelans seeking refuge.

In Latin America, with weak job markets and small foreign-born populations, the welcome is not always warm. Guyana has ordered the deportation of illegals, and Panama’s leading law school recently ruled “categorically” that Venezuelan law degrees are not valid in Panama.

After Venezuelans allegedly shot and wounded two police officers in Curacao, legislators of the Netherlands Kingdom islands Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten are weighing immigration restrictions. “It is not a question of when, for the influx has already started,” Curacao lawmaker Amerigo Thode warned fellow legislators. “This affects us all.” And if Venezuela’s recent migrants to Florida are willing to sleep on the street, imagine the plight of those now pitching up in Quito, Georgetown or Pacaraima. “Latin American countries are not prepared for this kind of crisis,” said Patricia Andrade, who heads the Florida-based migrant support group Venezuela Awareness.

She’ll get little argument in Roraima, where soaring debt has put state finances under duress, and a deadly prison uprising in the state capital on Oct. 16 left ten inmates dead. Governor Suely Campos has decided to set up a refugee crisis committee and called on federal government for back-up, as the Venezuelans turn up in Boa Vista, Manaus and other Brazilian cities. Whether the Brazilian efforts can contain the flood and help head off a wider humanitarian emergency is an open question. “All we’re doing now is applying Band-Aids,” said Civil Defense chief Amaral. Latin Americans should take note.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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