On a crowded Colombian street packed with holiday shoppers and bathed in the sounds of Christmas music, Larry Centeno sat on the sidewalk and wept.
The 44-year-old, his wife and grown daughter all fled Venezuela earlier this month, and each headed to a different Colombian city in hopes that one of them would land a stable job.
“It’s hard here being alone,” the former electrician said as he wiped away tears and tried to sell small cups of black coffee to passersby. “But in Venezuela there was nothing for us anymore. They stole our hope.”
The number of Venezuelans who have fled to other parts of South America has increased more than seven-fold in the last three years, as hunger, chaos and helplessness are sparking a mass exodus.
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According to a new report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were more than 629,000 Venezuelans living in nine major South American countries in 2017 — up from just 85,000 in 2015.
The trend is remarkable in a region that’s usually a net producer of migrants to places like Europe and the United States.
Colombia is a case in point. Amid decades of a bloody civil conflict, millions of Colombians fled abroad, including to Venezuela. But in the last three years, there’s been a staggering 10-fold increase in Venezuelans coming to Colombia — spiking from 44,615 in 2015 to an estimated 470,000 in 2017.
Places like Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Argentina have also seen the Venezuelan population more than triple.
And those numbers exclude the growing number of Venezuelans seeking asylum.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, from 2014 to 2017 more than 100,000 Venezuelans sought asylum protection in foreign countries — half of those applications were filed this year.
“People are leaving Venezuela for all sorts of reasons,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Regina de la Portilla. “Some are fleeing armed groups, others because they’re being persecuted for their political vision, and others because of the lack of medicine, food and other basic necessities.”
Venezuela is being eviscerated by four-digit inflation and a shrinking economy. Food and medicine shortages sweep through the country. Despite sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, many are going hungry.
Jesus Montesinos, 42, said he once had an enviable job running a theater in northern Venezuela. But as the bolívar currency became worthless, and food became hard to find, he dropped from 308 pounds to 132 pounds.
He crossed into Colombia in August fearing for his health, and with the mission of sending money back home to support his family.
“The social, economic and cultural conflicts are killing the country,” he said. “And the government doesn’t want to acknowledge that it’s part of the problem.”
President Nicolás Maduro and his socialist administration blame the woes on an “economic war” waged by the opposition and shadowy foreign forces. While the United States has slapped the country with financial sanctions in recent months, economists say it’s the country’s draconian price and currency controls — along with declining oil revenue — that have turned the once-proud nation into the hemisphere’s basket case.
In the heart of Bogotá’s tourist district, on the steps of the Gold Museum, a group of four Venezuelans, dressed in the red, blue and yellow of their national flag, played traditional folk songs in hopes of earning some spare change.
All of them were teachers and educators back in Yaracuy, in northern Venezuela, and all fled without their families. The men said that on a good day they might make about $10 in spare change — the equivalent of their monthly salary back home.
Orlando Muñoz, 33, who was playing the maracas, said he sold his most valuable possession, a refrigerator, to buy a one-way bus ticket to Colombia.
While he said he would go home “immediately” if things got better, he described his decision in stark terms.
“We’re not here because we want to be — we had to escape,” he said. “We’re fleeing from the quiet death of hunger.”
Asked what the name of the band was, the drummer shrugged as if it was an unnecessary luxury.
“We don’t have a name,” he said. “I guess you can just call us Venezuela.”
For the most part, Latin America has opened its arms to this new breed of economic refugees.
Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru and Colombia have all carved out special visa programs that have made it easier for Venezuelans to seek temporary residence and find work.
Chile and Ecuador also have lax immigration policies that have made them a safe haven for Venezuelans.
Centeno, who was selling coffee, used to have his own construction company before the economy collapsed. He said the last straw for him came on Dec. 10 when the government won 305 out of 335 mayor’s seats amid opposition abstention.
“Everything is so corrupt there,” he said. “The only brave people left are the students, but they’re carrying flags and the army has guns, so what can they do?”
He and his immediate family crossed the border on a bus with $140 to their name. Once a proud entrepreneur, he now keeps himself on a pauper’s budget: $4 a night for a room and $1.50 a day for food. The rest of his earnings (about $15 a week) he sends home to support relatives.
Asked how long he thinks it will be before he can return to Venezuela, he starts to cry again.
“We can’t even say how long it will take us to rebuild the country,” he explained, “because we have no idea how long this problem is going to last.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss