They left their jobs, homes and all their worldly possessions behind, and now have to beg on the streets all day just to gather enough coins to sleep under a roof at night. But many Venezuelan immigrants in Colombia still say they are better off than they were before they crossed the border.
“Venezuela... I wouldn’t wish it on even my worst enemy,” a teary-eyed Luis Alfredo Rivas, 32, told el Nuevo Herald at a bus terminal in Bogotá, where he had just arrived from the neighboring country.
Rivas explained how he made the decision to leave. “Venezuela’s minimum wage is only 190,000 bolivars per week, when a kilogram of rice costs 210,000 bolivars. What can I do there?” he asked.
“My plan is to be here, to work and to move ahead and if I can, to bring my family over, too, to get them out of that hell,” he said.
As Venezuela’s economy continues to crumble, thousands of its citizens are trekking into Colombia every day — sometimes by walking hundreds of miles on foot through the Andes — to escape chronic shortages of food and medicine, frequent looting and rampant crime.
Bogotá officials believe that as many as 600,000 Venezuelans are now living in Colombia. President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to travel to the border town of Cúcuta on Thursday to announce measures to deal with the looming immigration crisis.
That hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have decided to flee their homes shows the degree to which the economy has crumbled under President Nicolás Maduro, the handpicked successor of the late Hugo Chávez to carry on his socialist revolution.
The once wealthy nation — which used to provide billions of dollars in aid to its allies — is caught in a hyperinflation spiral. Around four million people — of the country’s population of 30 million — might already have left the country, according to local polling firms.
Venezuelans begging for a few coins or selling candy on the streets of Bogotá said they really had no option but to leave.
“I have my house there. I have all my things there. But my salary and my husband’s salary was not enough for my daughters to eat breakfast. They couldn’t even eat bread, ” said Esperanza Tello, accompanied by her 6-year-old daughter, Edilianys Alexandra. “Here we are living badly, but it is better than in Venezuela.”
Tello and other Venezuelans living off the streets in Bogotá have the same challenge every day: trying to gather 12,000 to 15,000 pesos (or about $4.22 to $5.28) to pay for a room for the night. That’s the most important thing for Tello and her family. Her younger child is 2, and it gets cold at night in Colombia’s high-altitude capital.
Sitting nearby in the same square, two former students in their 20s, say there have been times when they failed to gather enough money and had to sleep on the grass at a nearby park.
Shelby Jesus Monsalve Pérez, 29, and Alexis Romero, 22, said they have been searching for odd jobs, but they’re very hard to find. Mostly, they wind up having to beg for money simply to pay for food. Despite that, Pérez said he is more concerned about the younger sister he left with his brother in Caracas.
“We had a good life, but then what happened, happened, and now I have spoken with my brothers and they tell me the situation is much worse, much harsher and more difficult,” Pérez said. “I feel very badly for my sister because she is there alone with my brother. I have been helping, sending them 20,000 or 30,000 pesos ($7 to $10) so they could eat, because there [in Venezuela], salaries are not enough to buy food.”
Just arriving in Bogotá, John Rodríguez, 29, said he knew a lot of people who have decided that there is no chance for them to make it in Venezuela and are planning to leave. He decided to leave Valencia in November, after hearing from friends that they were doing well, and he entered through Cúcuta.
Rodríguez said he and a friend, David Ortega, walked part of the 340 miles between Cúcuta and Bogotá, traveling on foot for dozens of miles through mountainous roads and getting rides for the rest.
“Colombians have helped us along the way. We did not go hungry because they gave us food,” Rodríguez said. “I am just arriving and I am trying to find a hotel so I don’t have to sleep on the streets. I don’t really want to do that, but if it can’t be helped, then I will do it.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM