As Venezuelans flee hunger, Maduro tries to lure them home with free flights

A Venezuelan exile sings in Colombia to make ends meet

Mery “Balvina” Muñoz, a Venezuelan exile in Colombia, doesn’t have a work permit. So she spends most days singing for spare change, including this song that her mother wrote while she was jailed in Venezuela.
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Mery “Balvina” Muñoz, a Venezuelan exile in Colombia, doesn’t have a work permit. So she spends most days singing for spare change, including this song that her mother wrote while she was jailed in Venezuela.

Facing financial ruin, hyperinflation, hunger and power-outages, the Venezuelan government has a plan to lure its fleeing countrymen back home: free flights.

As part of its ongoing “Operation Return to the Fatherland,” the government said it will be sending charter planes to pick up migrants in Perú on Saturday and Argentina on Monday.

The “rescue” missions come as South America is banding together to deal with the more than 1.6 million Venezuelans who have left their country and flooded the region in recent years. And regional leaders are demanding that President Nicolás Maduro modify his disastrous economic policies.

Maduro’s government claims the migratory crisis is “fake news,” an exaggeration designed to denigrate the socialist nation. And it’s hitting back, painting Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Perú, Ecuador and elsewhere as suffering and desperate to come home.

When Maduro announced the flights last week, he said they were a mission of mercy to help Venezuelans “escape the economic slavery, persecution and contempt” they were facing throughout South America.

“Quit washing toilets abroad and come to live in the fatherland, love Venezuela and value Venezuela,” he said.

Since the operation began, the government says more than 1,000 migrants have accepted free rides home, including 1,239 from Brazil, 89 from Peru and 92 from Ecuador. The Brazil numbers, however, likely include migrants who returned overland — not on flights — after anti-Venezuelan protests erupted along the border.

Calls to Venezuela’s Ministry of Information seeking clarification were not returned.

While there are certainly migrants in Perú struggling to make ends meet, the charter flights are more about propaganda than goodwill, said Óscar Pérez Torrez, the head of The Union of Venezuelans in Perú, an association that represents the estimated 400,000 Venezuelans in that country.

“This is just a show, trying to generate a smokescreen to hide the magnitude of the crisis” in Venezuela, he said. “They’re trying to create this fiction that things in Venezuela are changing and everyone knows that’s not true.”

The program also seems designed to create friction between Peruvians and Venezuelans by accusing the host country of being xenophobic, despite opening its doors to the migrants, Pérez said.

A growing number of Venezuelan migrants are dying in Colombia, and their families are too poor to afford a funeral. Sonia Bermudez, in Colombia's La Guajira, is offering them free funerals and a crypt in her cemetery.

State-run television in Venezuela has been broadcasting interviews of the returning migrants decrying long working hours, wage theft and other abuse. Pérez suggested the sniping was the price of the ticket.

“The flights are free,” he said. “But the way you pay for them is that once you get to Venezuela you have to talk bad about the Venezuelans in Perú and talk bad about the Peruvian people, and complain about abuse and discrimination.”

By all accounts, it’s a chaotic homecoming for migrants. Inflation is expected to hit 1 million percent this year, food and medicine shortages are chronic, and large swathes of the country lose power and water regularly amid infrastructure breakdowns.

The government claims it’s taming the inflation after it recently lopped five zeros off its bolivar bills and doubled down on draconian price controls. But economists are doubtful the schemes will slow the free-fall.

Jeicob Salas, a 29-year-old natural gas engineer, used to work with the state-run PDVSA oil company in Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela. His salary, plus benefits, added up to 4 million bolivares a month — or less than $1.20 at the time. A kilogram of flour, by comparison, cost about 7 million bolivares. So, like hundreds of thousands of others, he fled overland to Colombia four months ago.

“When I left the country I cried because I was leaving behind my 9-month old baby, my wife, my house, my car, my motorcycle, everything,” he said.

Now, Salas ekes out a living on the streets of Colombia’s capital selling cups of sweetened coffee and arepas. On a good day, he can make about $15 — money that he sends back home to support his family. Life on the streets has been hard, he said, dodging immigration police and sometimes getting insulted by passersby.

“I never wanted to leave Venezuela but I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “I can’t go back until things change there, until the government changes.”

Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez suggested that people like Salas are in the minority. He’s said migrants in South America are so eager to come home that the government has had to resort to the emergency “airlifts.”

“Fake news promises them gold…but when they get there they face the hard reality that Venezuelan women are encouraged to become prostitutes and they treat them like slaves,” he said.

On Tuesday, 11 nations gathered in Ecuador to try to forge a common response to the migratory crisis. The bloc agreed to keep its borders open to Venezuelans and to, eventually, accept expired Venezuelan passports and identification cards for migratory purposes. Identity documents have become difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in Venezuela, and the change in policy by the 11 nations could allow hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to legalize their stays abroad.

The nations also asked for international financing to deal with the crisis, and called on Venezuela to accept humanitarian aid to stop the “serious deterioration” of the economy that’s forcing people to flee.

Daniel Regalado, the president of the Venezuela in Ecuador Civil Association, said the free flights are just one more desperate attempt by the Venezuelan government to hide the truth. He said the government promised passengers jobs, medicine and subsidized food to get on the airplanes. And still, they had to recruit migrants from both Quito and Guyaquil to find 92 takers.

“The people who left were desperate or didn’t have their working papers in order,” he said.

But if South America really wants to solve the Venezuelan migratory crisis, it will need to attack the issue “at its root, which is the cancerous dictatorship of the government,” he said.

“If Venezuela returned to a democracy,” he said. “I think 95 percent of us would return to Venezuela.”