As Venezuela crumbles, a mother makes a desperate journey to save her daughter

Yasmira Gordillo, 46, feeds her daughter Maria, 19, in Cúcuta, Colombia. The woman traveled 14 hours by bus from Valencia, Venezuela, with her daughter in order to find the necessary anti-seizure medication for Maria, who has cerebral palsy.
Yasmira Gordillo, 46, feeds her daughter Maria, 19, in Cúcuta, Colombia. The woman traveled 14 hours by bus from Valencia, Venezuela, with her daughter in order to find the necessary anti-seizure medication for Maria, who has cerebral palsy. Miami Herald

Yasmira Gordillo was desperate.

She’d spent months searching Venezuela — and failing to find — the three anti-seizure drugs that her daughter needs to stay alive.

“She was screaming day and night,” Gordillo said of Maria, her 19-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy and must use a wheelchair. “I wasn’t sleeping, she wasn’t sleeping, so we had to get out.”

Getting out meant sedating Maria and taking her on an excruciating 14-hour overnight bus ride with no plan in mind except to find medication in Cúcuta, the buzzing Colombian border town that’s both a lifeline and escape route for many Venezuelans.

Ten days after she got here, Gordillo, 46, still couldn’t quite come to terms with what she’d had to do: leave her home on an arduous journey to find commonplace medicine in a country that’s not her own.

“I’m a single mother without anyone’s help,” she said, her long black hair tucked into a bun and the stern, calm expression of a woman who has gone to extreme lengths for a child who will never walk or talk.

She navigated a spoonful of rice and beans into her daughter’s mouth before wondering aloud: “What am I doing here?”

Read More: Desperate for medical attention, Venezuelans flood into Colombia

The economic and political crisis in Venezuela has been cruel and broad, as a plummeting currency and spiking prices have made even basic goods and medicine hard to find or impossible to afford. And yet even as the nation is subsumed in one of the hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crises, President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to win another six-year term on April 22 and deepen his socialist policies.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years looking for food and opportunities. But for those with chronic diseases — or taking care of loved ones with medical problems — the country has become a deathtrap.

Convite A.C., a Venezuelan nonprofit that monitors the availability of drugs, found that most basic medicine — from insulin to hypertension medicine — had “scarcity rates” of 80 to 90 percent.

Venezuela “is a country submerged in a terrible and complex humanitarian crisis where the risk of contracting a chronic disease, or dying [from disease], is a highly likely scenario,” the organization said in its November 2017 report.

Gordillo said there was a time when she’d built a comfortable life for herself in Venezuela. Working from home so she could watch Maria, she tutored neighbors’ children and made pastries and cakes.

But as the economic crisis deepened, tutoring became a luxury reserved only for the wealthiest, and sporadic shortages of flour and sugar sank her baking business.

Instead, she became a key player in the crisis economy.

“Everyone is losing weight, so I started altering clothes,” she said with a touch of pride. “Pants, shirts, I can make anything smaller.”

Read More: How international ‘drug mules’ are saving lives

But one issue she couldn’t resolve was her daughter’s health.

For years, she has relied on cocktail of the drugs — sodium valproate, phenobarbital and carbamazepine — to control Maria’s seizures and muscle spasms.

Even on good days, like a recent Wednesday, Maria’s wiry arms and muscular neck jerked and shuddered as her mother tried to feed her. Only the straps on her wheelchair kept her from wiggling onto the ground.

But when she’s not on the medication, the tremors become uncontrollable; sometimes Maria’s entire body freezes in a painful spasm.

At the beginning of the medicine crisis, which began roughly in 2016, Gordillo said that she built a network of friends and family who would search for the drug in other parts of the country when it wasn’t available where she lived in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city, with a population of about 900,000.

But about a year ago, she says, the drugs simply couldn’t be found anywhere. As her daughter’s health deteriorated, the young girl began to lose weight, too, she said.

“Her condition just kept getting worse and worse,” she said. “And it was really scaring me.”

The government set up 0800-SALUD, a toll-free number for people seeking medicine, “but nobody ever helped me solve my problem,” Gordillo said.

Venezuela’s economy is entirely reliant on crude exports. And as commodity prices have plunged, the administration has dramatically cut back on imports of food and medicine. Draconian price and currency controls, along with rampant corruption, have also gutted the market. Medicine that, in theory, has a cheap regulated price, is often only available on the black market at inflated rates — if at all.

The journey

About two weeks ago, Gordillo, Maria and a neighbor with an infant decided it was time to flee. They had no real destination in mind, she said, other than simply getting out of Venezuela.

But as soon as they stepped across the clogged border, Gordillo said she knew she made the right decision. Directly across from the Simón Bolívar international bridge that divides the two countries are several pharmacies, tucked between money-exchange houses and pawnshops.

“I couldn’t believe how easy it was to buy medicine,” she said. “And you see stores that are full of diapers and baby formula. We haven’t seen those things in Venezuela in months.”

Gordillo said she can buy a 15-day supply of anti-seizure medication for about $6.

Gordillo and her group were lucky. They arrived here on Feb. 4, just four days before the Colombian government — alarmed by the wave of more than 600,000 Venezuelans who have entered the country in recent years — tightened border controls and immigration requirements.

Before, Venezuelans could apply for a “border mobility card” that would give them multiple entries into the country. But as of Feb. 8, Venezuelans who want to come here to buy food or medicine, need passports.

That’s an insurmountable obstacle for many.

Gordillo said she’s been trying to get a passport for eight months.

“Most of the times, the office was closed,” she said, “but when it was open they would tell me they didn’t have any of the materials.” That is, there were no passports.

Read More: The Venezuelan exodus is reshaping South America

The new border controls have dramatically reduced the flow of Venezuelans into Cúcuta, according to local authorities. But it’s also created chaos on the other side of the frontier.

A young man who struggled across the bridge Wednesday dragging a heavy red suitcase said there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people sleeping on the streets and parks of San Antonio, the Venezuelan town directly across the border. Presumably, they traveled from the country’s interior only to find they didn’t have the right documents to get out.

“It looks like a refugee camp over there,” he said.

In the two weeks she’s been in Colombia, Gordillo, the consummate survivor, has made a life for herself again. She sleeps in a small rented house with eight other Venezuelans, and gets a free breakfast and lunch provided by the Catholic Church.

Most days, she and Maria sell corn-flour arepas to hungry Venezuelans stumbling across the border. On a good day she can sell 60 arepas and make about $20 dollars — roughly three times Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage.

While she knows this isn’t an ideal life for her and Maria, she’s not sure what comes next.

Unlike other Venezuelans who cross the border and jump on buses bound for Ecuador, Peru or Chile, where work permits are easier to get, Gordillo sticks close to the frontier, within view of Venezuela’s mountains.

She said she’s hoping for some “miracle” to happen that will make it possible for her to head back to Valencia.

Asked if presidential elections on April 22 might bring the change she’s looking for, Gordillo shook her head.

“I think change will be slow,” she said. “But there has to be some kind of change. Nothing is impossible for God.”