Translation – Exodus
[Official 1]: Collaborate with the documents.
[Official 2]: We’re moving along, please, have your documents in hand.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Borders are usually strange places. Places of transition, movement. Sometimes you feel like everything is in transit. People coming and going. Passing merchandise, food, cars, animals. Contraband, obviously. They’re places of cultural, linguistic, economic fluidity. Areas with clearly hybrid cultures.
[Official 1]: Good afternoon, sir.
[Man 1]: I’m well, thank you.
[Man 2]: Alright!
[Woman 2]: Thank you…
[Daniel]: Let’s take Cúcuta for example. The Colombian city that borders San Antonio del Táchira in Venezuela.
[Man]: Next up, tickets for Rumichaca, Bogotá, Cali.
[David Trujillo]: Cúcuta is the capital of the department of Norte de Santander. It’s in northeastern Colombia.
[Daniel]: This is our reporter, David Trujillo. He went there a few months ago.
[David]: It’s a very hot city. Very hot. It’s a medium-sized city, too, with some development.
[Daniel]: Neither its size nor its economy compares with Bogotá or Medellín, but it’s no small town either. Cúcuta has a lot of historical importance for the country because, among other things, it’s where the first political constitution was drafted, and they’ve tried to preserve some important buildings and promote cultural events. But at the same time, it’s a bit of a disorganized city. Some of the streets are in bad condition: they have pot-holes, they aren’t paved, and that makes the traffic worse. There are unfinished public works projects. In the early ‘80s, during the Venezuelan oils booms, the city flourished for a time.
[David]: A lot of Venezuelans went to Cúcuta and opened factories or businesses.
[Daniel]: At that time, the earning potential for Cucuteños was different than for the rest of the country: they would work in Venezuela for a while, they would make bolivars, which were rather strong, and the had a very favorable exchange rate to Colombian pesos. In addition, they crossed very easily over to the Venezuelan side to buy food, medicine, clothes, gas, and things that were very expensive in Colombia, or that you just couldn’t get.
But then, Cúcuta was also held back, also, by the Venezuelan crisis.
[David]: Cúcuta is always among the top three cities in Colombia with the highest unemployment.
[Daniel]: And now, according to David, it seems run down, directionless.
[David]: It looks like a city that’s also been stricken with corruption; it’s had a few very corrupt governments.
[Daniel]: Government that ended up not taking care of the city. But what’s interesting about Cúcuta is that, since it’s on the border, it has some of that special quality I mentioned. It’s a city where you can really see that close relationship between the two countries. Before 2000 —when there was no subscription TV in Colombia— the strongest TV signal in Cúcuta was Venezuelan, not Colombian.
(SOUNDBITE OF VENEZUELA’S NATIONAL ANTHEM)
On those transmissions, they played the Venezuelan national anthem and many Cucuteños who grew up in those years learned it.
Even though they felt Colombian, Cucuteños usually visited Caracas before Bogotá because it was a more attractive destination for a family vacation: Nice weather, There’s a beach relatively nearby. It’s fair to say that Cucuteños share more with the Venezuelan side —their food, their taste in music and even the weather— than with the south of Colombia, for example. It was common for people from Cúcuta to have dual citizenship, and binational families are not uncommon.
Colombia and Venezuela share more than 2.000 kilometers of border, but Cúcuta has become a key transit area.
[David]: In Cúcuta, there are three, uh, official points of entry of the seven in Colombia.
[Daniel]: There are seven in total on the entire border with Venezuela.
[David]: It’s the city with the largest number of official ports of entry.
[Daniel]: One of them is the Simón Bolivar Bridge.
It’s not only the most important port of entry between Colombia and Venezuela, but it’s also become the symbol of the mass exodus of Venezuelans.
The scene at this bridge is something you have to see to believe. Because at any point in the day, there are thousands of people on the Venezuelan side crossing into Colombia.
[David]: There are three lines from the Venezuelan side into Colombia: the one on the right is for Colombians, the one in the middle is for people with a passport, and the one on the left is for people with a migration card.
[Daniel]: A migration card or Border Mobility Card, a permit the Colombian government made in 2016 in order to try to regulate a border that had never really been under control. These cards —today more there are more than a million that are active— allows Venezuelans…
[David]: To cross the border and spend seven days in Cúcuta, in the urban area. You can’t move past that.
[Daniel]: You could apply for the cards online until February 2018. That’s when the government stopped issuing them. They realized they had to come up with a more long-term plan to deal with so many people. So they decided to register the Venezuelans who entered without a passport and give these people a document called Special Residence Permit, or PEP [by its Spanish initials].
The PEP had already been released a year earlier, in 2017, but just for Venezuelans with a passport who planned to stay in the country. Basically, it’s a document that for two years gives you access to health and education services and, most importantly, permission to work.
That registry of undocumented Venezuelans only lasted for two months, until June 8th, 2018. People who arrived in Colombia after that date, with or without a passport, don’t have PEP. And that’s a lot of people.
The figures vary a lot, but Colombian Migration calculates that 70,000 people come and go across the Simón Bolívar Bridge a day. Not counting the people who cross at other points of entry and those who don’t have documents, who cross illegally through trails and rivers.
They carry everything: clothes and other belongs they’re going to keep using, but also things they plan on selling, like blenders, hair dryers, cameras, computers, anything that might be worth some money. They carry it all in suitcases. Sometimes they’re small, and they don’t have many. Other times, when they’re big families, they’re large suitcases. A lot of them wear a yellow, blue, and red backpack —the Venezuelan flag— which has become a symbol of this migration.
They go dressed in comfortable clothing, jeans, tennis shoes, sweatpants, shorts, some of them wear hats and dark glasses. Generally, they’ve been traveling for several hours. The Simón Bolívar is a pedestrian bridge, so they walk across to Colombia. There’s no age limit: babies come over in strollers, and even older people wheelchairs. And, of course, you see it on their faces, hear it in their voices: that sadness, for some, that rage. The pain of seeing their lives and their country collapsing.
[Man 1]: You can’t live in Venezuela anymore. Everyone knows it now. You can’t get food anymore. There’s no meat. There’s no chicken. There’s nothing. You can’t get anything to eat.
[Woman 1]: Since my husband works here, I come and look for diapers for my daughter. Food, medicine, things like that he buys, to take them home to the kids.
[Man 2]: Fuck Maduro. If you ask me about the government, Maduro is a sonofabitch, all Venezuelans want him to die, for him to be robbed, for him to get killed.
[Woman 2]: We’re going to stick it out and see… you know that migrating is harder at this age. We’re going to wait and see when, praying to God to see if… if that government falls.
[Woman 3]: She has a cerebral malformation, hydrocephalus, and by law, she has to take anticonvulsants, and you can’t get them there in Venezuela. She’s 20 months old.
[Daniel]: Some cross into Colombia just for the day or for a few weeks, but then they go back to Venezuela. Some of these people —like the woman we just heard— crossed the border to have their children vaccinated, get basic medical attention, or even give birth. Others look for work doing what they can, getting together money to buy different things that they can’t get in their country anymore and go back.
And a lot of them —as we already know— cross with no intention of going back. The idea is to move, far.
[David]: There are other people offering bus tickets to Bogotá. Or Ipiales, which is on the border with Ecuador, or Quito, Lima. Santiago.
Do they go as far as Argentina?
[Man 1]: Wherever: Bolivia, Argentina.
[Woman 1]: It’s my mom, my two sisters, and me. Eh… We’re going to Medellín, by bus. We’re going to see family there and work.
[Woman 2]: We’re going to Ecuador. I don’t know how long it’ll take exactly.
[Man 2]: To Rumichaca, I think it’s 36 hours.
[Woman 2]: 36.
[Man 2]: To Rumichaca.
[Woman 2]: To Quito, I don’t know. No idea.
[Man 2]: No, no, to Quito…
[Woman 2]: I have no idea.
[Woman 3]: No, well, waiting for my brother to transfer me so I can move to the border there, to Peru, to see if they’ll let me in.
[Daniel]: The prices for a bus ticket vary depending on the company and if the person has a passport or not. If they don’t, they can charge them more for the risk that comes with transporting undocumented immigrants.
But OK, doing the math: a ticket to Buenos Aires —which is the longest route, about five days— won’t be under 450 dollars. Money that almost no one crossing the border has.
A lot of these people make it Cúcuta without money, and their plan is to find work so they can save and leave. But like we already said, this is one of the cities with the highest rate of unemployment in the country. So try as they might, they can’t save up to pay for a bus ticket.
[David]: And when they can’t find work anymore, when they’re dying of hunger, well, the only decision is to walk.
[Daniel]: Walk and walk and walk. A lot of the time, planning on traveling across all of Colombia to get to the border with Ecuador, about 1.400 kilometers from Cúcuta. That would be more than an entire day driving. Imagine walking it.
[David]: It’s like a very… it seemed like a very biological decision to me, like it was very much about survival.
[Daniel]: In other words, stopping would mean giving up. So they walk.
[David]: And that… that was really shocking to me, and it was very hard for me because there are people who have no idea how they’re going to find the border or the route they’re going to take, or where they’re going to end up. They just know that there’s a capital called Bogotá, and they just know if they walk a lot they’ll get to Ecuador. But that’s it. They don’t know that halfway through there’s a wasteland. There are extreme temperatures. There are highways that have turned to shit. Literally, they don’t know. They’re just going to look for food or something. But still they prefer that to going back, and that means a lot.
[Daniel]: In Cúcuta, David met this Colombian man.
[Mario Otero]: My name is Mario Alejandro Otero Velandia. By profession, I’m a social communicator, by vocation, I’m a defender of human rights.
[Daniel]: In 2017, Mario was in an office next to a highway that goes from the Simón Bolívar Bridge to a town called Pamplona. Pamplona is after Cúcuta on the way to Bogotá. And at that moment, a woman came in to ask for water. Mario noticed her Venezuelan accent.
[Mario]: “How far are we from Pamplona?” And I told her: “An hour, hour and a half.” She said: “No, but walking.” And I told her, “Ooof, walking, I don’t know because I’ve never gone by foot.” But her answer was very… she said: “The thing is I am walking.” And I said: “Ah,” then I said: “Oh, what do you mean that…” That was the first woman who told me she was walking all the way to… to Pamplona.
[Daniel]: The highway from Cúcuta to Pamplona is entirely uphill on a mountain. It was definitely going to take the woman talking to Mario almost 20 hours on that path.
The situation had a big impact on him, and since then, the amount of people walking the route has only increased. He decided to start helping them. Mario lives near the border, and…
[David]: When he goes home, he picks them up on the highway and brings them to the turnpike. He can’t take them past the turnpike because there are police there and if they see that he’s transporting Venezuelan immigrants, well, he’s fucked.
[Daniel]: David accompanied him one afternoon, picking up people he found along the highway. The trip in the car to the turnpike that David mentions saves them about two or three hours of walking. On one of those trips, they met this man.
[Mario]: We can take you as far as the turnpike.
[Alberto]: Really? You’ll drop me off there?
[Mario]: Yes. Wait, put your bag there.
[Alberto]: Hi, nice to meet you.
[David]: Hi, nice to meet you. David.
[Daniel]: You may not be able to hear him very well, but he’s introducing himself as Alberto.
[Alberto]: I’m from Venezuela, Caracas.
[David]: Alberto is a guy who isn’t over 30. He started his journey walking. He had his suitcase… two suitcases, one with a handle and one with wheels. He was wearing large dark sunglasses. You could tell he was weak from hunger.
[Alberto]: I’ve been here for four months but since it’s very dangerous here in Cúcuta —there are a lot of drugs, a lot of people on the streets— I don’t want to stay here. Instead, I want to keep going a little farther to see if it’ll get better for me.
[Daniel]: Alberto had not been able to find work. At that time, he had some food for the road, but no money. It was a little after noon and the heat was unbearable.
[David]: What’s your goal today? How far do you want to make it?
[Alberto]: Today? My goal is to get as far as I can. Really as far as I can, I don’t plan on stopping, the only reason I would stop would be if it rained.
[David]: And I asked him what his plan was.
[Alberto]: I’m going to Ecuador right now. My goal is to make it to Mexico and cross the border to the US, until Miami, where my best friend Gerald who I love very much is waiting for me, and he’s the reason I’m inspired… And, well, there’s no going back.
[David]: I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t even able to tell him he was going in the opposite direction of the US border. I wasn’t able to tell him because I felt that telling him that wasn’t going to change anything. I don’t know.
[Daniel]: They dropped him off a few meters from the turnpike and said goodbye.
[Alberto]: Thank you so much. See you later. Take care.
[David]: Good luck.
[Alberto]: Amen. Same to you.
[Daniel]: There will be others like Alberto: people walking without a map, walking by inertia. People moving because it’s the only thing left for them to do.
But this is a border. One of many in Latin America. At each one, today there are Venezuelans negotiating a new reality as wanderers. What’s happening with the Venezuelan migrants is a crisis, that we know. A crisis that affects the whole region —we know that too.
And as complicated at the Colombian border is in general —and Cúcuta in particular— at least there’s movement here. A lot of people come with their things, take a deep breath, and go.
But what happens if there’s no exit. If you cross over from Venezuela, and you’re stuck. If you can’t go back, but you can’t go forward.
After the break, we’re leaving Cúcuta and Colombia for another border country, this one south of Venezuela. The Brazilian border.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. In June of 2018, our producer Jenny Barchfield traveled to the state of Roraima, on the Brazilian border with Venezuela. She wanted to learn a little more about the condition of the migrants there. To see if the crisis was as serious as it was in Cúcuta. Her first stop was Pacaraima, the town closest to the line that separates the two countries.
[Jenny Barchfield]: Pacaraima is a small town, like many others in Brazil: hot, humid, where there are few paved roads, and everything is covered in mud. There are no luxuries. The streets are lined with modest restaurants with small chairs and clothing stores with basic wares. There are also a lot of evangelical churches, sometimes you’ll find two on just a couple of blocks.
What makes it unique is that it’s quite a remote place. I mean, very, very remote. If you imagine a map of Brazil and look for the spot that’s farthest from the big cities —whether it’s Rio or São Paulo— you would land on Pacaraima. It’s closer to the capital of Guyana or Surinam than any mid-sized city in Brazil.
And given the conditions in the jungle —the heat, the density— leaving requires a trip on a plane that doesn’t even depart from Pacaraima, but rather Boa Vista, which is a three-hour drive away. To get to Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River, you’d have to drive for three days straight.
Like in Cúcuta, Venezuelans are still coming and going across the border to buy medicine and food. Really, the Venezuelans coming and going are practically the only people who go in the town.
Here the border is open. You just take a two-lane highway, and that’s it. You’re in Brazil or Venezuela. There’s not even a line on the ground. The only sign that you crossed from one country to another is a pole with a Venezuelan flag on one side and a Brazilian flag on the other. The rest is jungle.
But a lot of Venezuelans have come to Brazil to stay, or as a first stop migrating to another country. On the streets of Pacaraima, they’re everywhere: exchanging bolivars to reals, selling whatever they can in the street —from fruit to little mirrors or combs— or they’re just waiting for something, anything, to happen.
On my first day, I found a makeshift camp where several families were living. It was on the town’s main road, in front of an abandoned storefront. There were ten tents organized in two rows. Women were making coffee on a wood fire right on the sidewalk. It had just rained, and the men were drying the tarps they put over the tents to protect them. There were children running all over.
[Yaretsi Correa]: You see we all look like ants every time it rains. Before we ran under little roof, but now, everyone runs to their tent like little ants: chiqui, chiqui, chi.
[Jenny]: This is Yaretsi Correa. She was one of the women at the camp. She was sitting on the sidewalk, washing clothes in a plastic bucket.
[Yaretsi]: I’m 37. I’m from El Tigre, in the state of Anzoátegui. I’m an integral education teacher.
[Jenny]: At that time, Yaretsi had been living at the camp with her family for two months.
[Yaretsi]: Well, mine is a four-person tent. The four of us sleep together: my two daughters, my wife, and I. And the other is my cousin’s. My cousin, his wife, his son and one of my kids. Because I have three kids. One is 13, one is 12, and the youngest is turning two, she’s 20 months.
[Jenny]: They bought that tent in Venezuela for vacations.
[Yaretsi]: It was to go to the beach, like normal… like good Venezuelans to… how do you say? go on vacation during Holy Week, Carnaval, spending two, three days at the beach. But because of the situation, we never used it, and then we had no choice but to bring it with us as a house, to Pacaraima. And we’re here, well, living on the street, but, well, at least we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re a little calmer.
[Jenny]: She told me her days start early.
[Yaretsi]: We get up at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, we go the cafe where the priest at the Catholic Church gives us some bread and a little cup of coffee with milk, thank God. Then we come here. If we have to put out our clothes, we put them out. We make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We talk. If we’re going to run an errand, we go to the Catholic church to take a Portuguese course.
[Jenny]: Yaretsi’s family and others in the camp were eating lunch and dinner thanks to the charity of some of the people in the neighborhood who sometimes brought them rice and sugar. And also thanks to the odd jobs they were able to do.
[Yaretsi]: There, the girls from the UN… sometimes they come, they bring some clothes to wash and thank God we’ve been able to stay afloat. We buy a little food, we buy it for the day. We’re not going to buy: “Oh, with this we can buy groceries for 15 days,” no. We buy food day by day.
[Jenny]: The girls from the UN Yaretsi is talking about are officials with the UN agency for refugees, the UNHCR. They’re giving humanitarian aid at the border. This group has supported the Brazilian government filing asylum application and setting up and administering the refugees with everything that implies: from giving out food to setting up tents where the Venezuelans sleep.
When I visited the area, there were ten UNHCR shelters, but just one was in Pacaraima, and it was specifically for the indigenous people of the Warao ethnic group who were emigrating from Venezuela for the same reasons as the rest of the Venezuelans: there’s no food, there’s no medicine. They’re desperate too.
The other five shelters that did accept Venezuelans like Yaretsi were in Boa Vista —the capital of Roraima— more than 200 kilometers from Pacaraima.
Today, eight months later, there are only 13 shelters: two in Pacaraima and 11 in Boa Vista. Despite the fact that it is estimated that about 300 people cross the border every day intending to stay. So you have an idea of the crisis: with the number of people crossing the border, they would need to open a new shelter practically every day to take everyone in.
Yaretsi hadn’t been able to stay at one of these shelters because she didn’t have the money to go to Boa Vista. The bus ticket from Pacaraima costs about eight dollars per person, much more than she makes washing clothes. But besides, if she did have the money, UNHCR had confirmed that all of the shelters in Boa Vista are full.
And getting a better-paying job than washing clothes is hard without the carteira de trabalho. That is the document all workers —Brazilian nationals or foreigners— need to work legally in Brazil. The problem is that to apply for that document, you have to go to Boa Vista. It’s the only way. And, well, for the Venezuelans who are arriving with a just a few dollars or with nothing, it’s impossible to make that trip.
Or, well, there’s another difficult, risky option: walking with the children to Boa Vista. It’s at least five days in the stifling heat of the Amazon. And even if they make it, there’s no guarantee that there’s room at any of the shelters.
You’ve definitely heard her reason for emigrating before. It’s the same story as hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelans: she just didn’t have enough money to eat. Her salary as a teacher…
[Yaretsi]: I only had enough for the round-trip ticket. I had… it was 15 bolivars, which isn’t even enough to buy even an egg. And that… my husband worked at a security company. He didn’t have enough either, not even to buy rice.
[Jenny]: They talk about hunger in Venezuela again and again on the news, but I think that a lot of people —and I include myself in this group— understand it in an abstract way. So, imagine how striking it was when I heard that her husband who weighed 90 kilos, 198 pounds, now weighs 70, 154 pounds. And yes, from afar he looks quite thin, even though he didn’t seem malnourished. And she also told me about her brother.
[Yaretsi]: I see my brother, and it hurts me to see how skinny he is. He’s lost 30 or 40 kilos. Everyone… everyone has… has lost weight. At least my family.
Anyone who wants to lose weight should go to Venezuela. Anyone who’s fat anywhere in the world should go to Venezuela, and they’ll lose weight there.
[Jenny]: And, well… If you have children and you live in those conditions, what can you do?
[Yaretsi]: They’re children who are developing and if you don’t give them proper nutrition, they could even atrophy, what do I know? Their mental development, their growth, their development is atrophying because of poor nutrition. Yes, and on top of that, they weren’t getting vitamins because you can’t get medicine either. You can’t get vitamins, you can’t get anything.
[Jenny]: Leaving has become the only option for the good of the family. The plan is to go to Peru.
[Yaretsi]: First: because of the language. Second: eh… they’ve told me because of my profession, it’ll be easier to work there rather than here.
[Jenny]: Yaretsi studied to be a Spanish, science, and math teacher. So, Peru sounded good. But going to Peru is expensive —about 250 dollars a person— and it’s a five-day trip. It was very hard for her small children. So…
[Yaretsi]: Brazil was the closest. From El Tigre, where we lived, this is the closest place there is.
[Jenny]: Even so, it was a 20-hour bus ride. Besides, going to Pacaraima also had its advantages compared to other places in Latin America because Brazil has kept a rather supportive policy toward Venezuelan migrants since the start of the crisis. This is Michel Temer, the former president of Brazil:
[Michel Temer]: Muitas providências foram tomadas no sentido humanitário, no sentido de acolher aqueles que nao tem condicoes de vida na Venezuela.
[Jenny]: He’s saying that a lot of humanitarian measures were taken to accept those who do not have adequate living conditions in Venezuela.
[Michel Temer]: Aqui tem representantes da Organização das Nações Unidas mostrando ao mundo esse sentido humanitário que o Brasil traz consigo.
[Jenny]: “Here there are representatives from the UN,” Temer says, “showing the world the humanitarian concern Brazil has.”
Since 2017, Venezuelans have had two options for regularizing their status in Brazil. The first is through a refugee status. That has one advantage: you don’t need papers, or an ID to be in the country legally and work. The disadvantage, of course, is that you can’t go back to your country of origin. And the second option is through a temporary resident permit.
When I went to Pacaraima, in June of 2018, to get the permit you needed a passport or an ID and a birth or marriage certificate. But, just a few months later, in August, the government of Brazil changed the rules so Venezuelans could apply for the temporary resident permit without any documents. The change was a response to the fact that the situation in Venezuela got worse.
Until November, more than 96,000 Venezuelans applied to regularize their migratory status in Roraima, either as refugees or residents. They can apply in the welcome center in Pacaraima, a two-minute walk from the border. With either of the two, Venezuelans can get a job if they have a carteira de tabalho. And the good thing is that, even if you’re in the middle of the process to get either status, you can work legally with the carteira.
Yaretsi’s plan was to get to Brazil and apply for a temporary resident permit.
[Yaretsi]: I have to leave at least to see my mom who’s still in Venezuela. My siblings, my aunts, my family. I mean, I miss them all.
[Jenny]: And with the temporary resident permit, you have this advantage: you can enter and leave the country like any other citizen or tourist, it doesn’t matter if you’re coming from Venezuela.
But there was a serious problem.
[Yaretsi]: Because my daughter, the two-year-old, doesn’t have a passport or ID and they need a document with a photo.
[Jenny]: They required identification to get her temporary permit. And getting a passport in Venezuela at that time was one of the hardest and most expensive things you could do. It costs you a minimum of 120 dollars, and you have to wait at least a year. There are people who say they’ve paid officials up to 500 or 1.000 dollars to have the document expedited.
[Yaretsi]: I couldn’t leave her behind. Wherever I go, I have to take my daughter with me. So, that’s why I chose refugee status.
[Jenny]: Refugee status meant leaving behind her mother and her siblings. The whole life she had made in Venezuela with persistence and hard work.
[Yaretsi]: My life in Venezuela was comfortable. I had my kitchen. Here I have a fire. I had my bath, now I have to pay a real or look for somewhere to bathe or ask a neighbor as a favor, thank God he’s Venezuelan too. Uh… sleeping in a tent on cardboard. I had my bed.
[Jenny]: But on top of that, when she arrived in Pacaraima, she never imagined she would end up in a situation like the one she was in. Living off the kindness of strangers, going to the bathroom at the church or in a bucket, or in the jungle.
[Yaretsi]: Like indigents because that’s what we are practically: like indigents. We’re looking for sticks or cans to pick up, if there’s anything we can collect to be able to survive.
[Jenny]: In Pacaraima, during the rainy season, there are showers almost every day: short bouts of rain, only minutes long, that stop as abruptly as they start, but they’re strong. For Yaretsi and the families at the camp, rain is a daily concern, practically the most important one after eating.
[Yaretsi]: Now we have to change the cardboard every day. We have to change everything, washing our clothes every day, putting out our clothes to dry in the sun because they get wet in the rain, every time it rains.
[Jenny]: Previously, they were camping under the roof of an unoccupied building. That way they didn’t get wet. But the owner put up a fence so they could set up under the roof. So they set up camp again, in front of the fence. With no cover.
But perhaps what bothers Yaretsi the most is not being able to leave Pacaraima. Staying wasn’t part of her plan.
[Yaretsi]: I know God has something good in store for us. Good, good, good. And He’s going to send us somewhere good where we can… because I don’t ask Him for wealth. I don’t ask Him for gold or diamonds. No. I ask him for a better quality of life where we can support ourselves, buy shoes, clothes, normal things like a normal person.
[Jenny]: Yaretsi looked for the nearest border, the easiest exit, without really knowing what was waiting for her on the other side. Surely, this isn’t what she imagined. Roraima, one of the poorest states in Brazil and one of least populous, with a little over half a million residents. It’s a place where a lot of the population is indigenous and lives on reservations, which make up almost half of the territory. Public affairs is a large source of employment for the state. There’s almost no industry, not even a strong economy in terms of agriculture and livestock.
And she didn’t think she’d be stuck. Without many options for leaving. And without being able to go back to Venezuela.
Unemployment in Roraima is a serious problem, and it’s gotten worse with the arrival of the Venezuelan migrants. Desperate, they tend to accept salaries well below the minimum wage. And that means it’s very hard for Brazilians to compete with them.
And of course, that creates tension, xenophobia. When I was in Pacaraima, it was palpable.
[Man]: Pacaraima, cidade pacata, cidade tranquila, sem violencia, e, pois se transformou em, hubo uma metamorfosis, violencia, roubo, assaltos em mao armada.
[Jenny]: People saying that Pacaraima was a peaceful city, but now it’s different. There’s violence, robberies.
[Woman 2]: Antes eu saia, mas nao vou mentir, agora eu tenho medo de sair que a gente nunca sabe se vai ser atacada. Ai eu tenho medo; nao saio mais de casa anoite.
[Jenny]: Saying they’re afraid to leave their homes.
This is the commander for the military police in Pacaraima, Josue Silva.
[Josue Silva]: Ha mais de seis anos sem ter um homicidio. Depois dessa problematica na Venezuela acontecer, sao quatro homicidios, ne?
[Jenny]: He’s saying: “It had been six years since there was a homicide. After the problems in Venezuela started, there have been four homicides.”
As a solution, in April of 2018, the government started an interiorization program.
[Journalist]: Hoje um grupo de venezuelanos embarcou para Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Bahia e também o Distrito Federal em mais um processo de interiorização.
[Jenny]: The plan is to distribute the Venezuelan migrants throughout Brazil, flying them to bigger cities like Rio, Belém, São Paulo or Manaos. The reasoning is that the more than 96.000 Venezuelans that entered through the state of Roraima will have better job opportunities and a better economic situation if they move to bigger cities. And this will alleviate the crisis on the border somewhat.
I interviewed a lot of Venezuelans when I was in Pacaraima, and almost all of them knew about the program, including Yaretsi. Almost all of them want to get on one of those planes, headed anywhere else, far from there.
[Yaretsi]: I would honestly, honestly, honestly, like for them to take us up and send us to Manaos, send us to Belém, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. And, well, we’ll have a better quality of life. If we weren’t in this tent, if we had a roof over our heads, if we had a place where our children were comfortable. For them to develop and have a peaceful environment as… as children.
[Jenny]: When I was in Pacaraima, in June of 2018, the government had done only three or four flights. They were planes that came from different parts of Brazil to drop off supplies for the refugees in the state of Roraima. The idea was to take advantage of these flights, that had to go anyway, to take people away from there.
Since then, the “interiorization” has accelerated: now the number of flights is in the double digits, and more than 4,000 people have managed to leave the border. But 4.000 isn’t really a lot of people. There are thousands more who are still waiting.
I left Pacaraima worried. About everything I saw: the desperation among the Venezuelans there, trapped by the jungle and the lack of affordable transport, the xenophobia that threatened to turn violent. Anyway,
I wanted to know if the situation was the same in the capital, Boa Vista. Specifically, I wanted to see the shelters. The few that manage to leave Pacaraima, make it to places like these. In Portuguese, they call them “abrigos.”
Brazilian Armed Forces are running the operation of these shelters along with UNHCR. Soldiers in the Brazilian Army are in charge of security and the people from UNHCR handle administration: giving out food, tents for them to sleep in, they also help the migrant to access medicine and medical attention.
In the streets of Boa Vista, the scene is like the one in Paracaima: dozens of Venezuelans living in conditions similar to Yaretsi’s. Sleeping in parks or on sidewalks. I wasn’t very optimistic about the conditions in the shelters. But I’ll be honest with you: I was really surprised by what I saw.
I visited the abrigo São Vicente, which has capacity for about 400 people. It’s an empty lot covered in a series of white tents. Each tent is divided in two, and a family lives in each side, in other words, between eight to ten people live in a tent. It’s a place that to me seem generally well organized and very clean.
More than 5.500 Venezuelans live in centers like this one. They get three meals a day. So far the government has given more than 265 million reals, more than 70 million dollars, to the Venezuelans reception operation.
I saw officials from UNHCR handing out food, resolving grievances among the immigrants, setting up more tents in the shelters. I spoke with a few of them, and they told me that they normally work 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
But the truth is the aid isn’t making it to everyone. And because of how remote the state is, the conditions for giving humanitarian support are very, very hard: for example, to set up the Welcome Center in Pacaraima, the Armed Forces had to clear the terrain which was dense jungle, which the rainy season had made entirely into mud. On top of that, all of the materials to set up the tents and the shelters —even the chairs— come from other states in Brazil by plane. All of that requires extraordinary planning and additional effort.
[Luz Mery Zacarias]: Adapting and thanking God that we at least have three meals a day here. That we have a roof over our heads, that we aren’t on the streets.
[Jenny]: This is Luz Mery Zacarias. When I spoke with her, she had been living in a shelter in Boa Vista for more than a month.
They’ve opened 12 shelters like this one there, taking advantage of buildings that were already there: firehouses, schools.
Speaking with Venezuelans in the state of Roraima, a recurring theme was the good Brazilians and the bad ones. Everyone recognized that there were “good” Brazilians that helped them. But they always said they were victims of xenophobia on the part of the “bad” Brazilians.
Luz Mery and other migrants I interviewed were resentful that everyone was paying the consequences for the few Venezuelans who come and do commit crimes.
[Luz Mery]: We have professional, good, honest, hard-working people there. But unfortunately, there were people who came here to harm us ourselves. Because before a neighbor went looking for a job… so as not to say plainly: “We don’t want Venezuelans here.” What they said was: “No, we don’t allow foreigners here. Foreigners don’t work here.” Sadly, because of other people’s behavior.
[Jenny]: The authorities in Roraima say that there are criminals that are taking advantage of the open borders policy to come into Brazil.
[Frederico Linhares]: Os serviços de inteligência já detectou fortes ligações do crime organizado brasileiro já cooptando cidadãos venezuelanos para fazerem parte das suas organizações criminosas.
[Jenny]: Frederico Linhares, the assistant to the previous governor, Suely Campos, told me in a phone interview that Brazilian gangs like Comando Vermelho and Família do Norte were recruiting immigrants.
[Frederico Linhares]: Você teve um aumento drástico do número de furtos, de arrombamentos em residências, de pessoas morando nas ruas —os abrigos não suficientes para abrigar todo o mundo— você tem um aumento drástico na ultilzaçāo dos serviços públicos de saúde.
[Jenny]: He also assured me that there had been a drastic rise in the number of assaults, burglaries, and people living on the street. He says there aren’t enough shelters to take everyone in and there and a lot more people have been using public health services.
And what he’s saying has a basis in fact. In May of 2018, the Secretary of Public Safety in Roraima, Haydée Magalhães, explained that the number of reports of crimes had tripled between 2016 and 2017 when the massive influx of Venezuelans began. And, of course, she blamed the immigrants.
Linhares also told me that the rise in crime is just one of the many problems the Venezuelans have brought. He told me that the migrants brought diseases like measles or diphtheria, which were already eliminated in Roraima. Malaria is another concern of his.
[Suely Campos]: Então nos decidimos a tomar medidas extremas, que fomos ao Supremo , eh, Tribunal Federal com uma ação em que pedimos em aquele momento o fechamento temporário da fronteira.
[Jenny]: This is Suely Campos, the ex-governor of Roraima. She’s saying —as she often did— that for all of these reasons, she wanted to take control of the border away from the federal government. Campos even went as far as to file a suit requesting that the state itself be given the right to control the flow of persons and vehicles at the international border, but the Supreme Court rejected it.
[Journalist]: Ministra do Supremo Tribunal Federal, Rosa Weber, negou na noite de ontem um pedido do Governo de Roraima para fechar a fronteira do estado com a Venezuela.
[Jenny]: The new governor, Antonio Denarium, made Venezuelan immigration a central theme of his campaign and said he would seek rigorous border control. Denarium is from the same party as the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.
But Bolsonaro rejected the idea of sending the immigrants back.
[Jair Bolsonaro]: Não são mercadoria nem objetos para serem devolvidos, ne? Nos devemos e, se tivessemos um governo democratico...
[Jenny]: I’ll translate. Bolsonaro says that the Venezuelans aren’t merchandise that can be returned. He does insist on the need to have “rigorous control” of the border.
There are many residents of Roraima who support a tougher policy toward the Venezuelans. No one agreed to speak with me on the mic —every time I would take out my recorder, they went silent— but practically all of the conversations followed this pattern. At first, they would say: “Poor things, things are hard for them in their country.” But they would immediately complain about how the Brazilian government treated them better than their own citizens. And they would end up saying that even though things may be hard, they didn’t have to let them in.
I understand their concern: Roraima is one of the poorest states in Brazil. It’s completely isolated. It feels abandoned by the central government. A lot of the residents live in very rough conditions, in extreme poverty, and now thousands of Venezuelans are filling their streets. Venezuelans with the same worries and needs as them: how they’re going to eat that day, how they’re going to clothe their children, in short, how they’re going to survive.
Everyone I spoke with had stories about awful crimes, supposedly committed by Venezuelan immigrants.
And of course, crimes have been committed by Venezuelans in Roraima. You can see them and read them in the news. It’s undeniable. It’s also part of immigration: people like Yaretsi, for example, or Luz Mery who we just heard, will come; and also people who are willing to commit crimes, people who would never talk to someone with a microphone. And like always, the worst actors are the ones that stand out.
I left Roraima thinking that everything could burst at any moment. A person I interviewed added me on a WhatsApp group for residents of Roraima. Often people shared messages complaining about the Venezuelans. And these messages also seemed to be getting more xenophobic and violent every day.
Until in August, the WhatsApp group was flooded with videos. They were of rioting in Pacaraima.
[Man]: Fora Venezuelano de dentro de Pacaraima. E assim que funciona a partir d’agora.
[Jenny]: Hundreds of residents filled the streets. They were shouting, setting off fireworks, and dosing makeshift migrant camps with gasoline and setting them on fire.
[Jenny]: Venezuelans ran toward the border, back to Venezuela, while Brazilians booed them.
[Journalist]: A fronteira do Brasil com a Venezuela está fechada em Pacaraima, estado de Roraima. Um possível conflito entre venezuelanos e brasileiros motivou o fechamento , e ao vivo, a gente vai ter as informações direto de Boa Vista com o repórter Denis Martins.
[Jenny]: And finally, the Roraima government closed the border for a few hours.
I watched the videos again and again, carefully reviewing the blurry images recorded on cell phones, looking for Yaretsi or one of the other Venezuelans I had interviewed. I can’t contact them directly: almost none of them had a cellphone, and they didn’t give me their emails since they don’t have anywhere to read them.
I watched dozens of videos, and I didn’t recognize anyone. But in several of them, something jumped out at me that gave me chills: Yaretsi’s red tent. It was broken, flattened out on the ground. It was in the same spot where I met her. Some people were stomping on the tent. Others where rifling through them to steal anything of value that might still be intact in the camp. In some of the videos, someone poured gasoline on the tent and burned it.
I don’t know what happened to Yaretsi and her family. And I’ll probably never know.
[Daniel]: In November 2018, the Colombian government launched a three-year public policy to address Venezuelan immigration. They plan to invest more than 130 million dollars.
Shortly after assuming the presidency in January of this year, Jair Bolsonaro removed Brazil from the Global Compact for Migration. Bolsonaro said: “Brazil has a sovereign right to decide whether or not it accepts migrants.”
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá. Jenny Barchfield is an independent journalist. She lives in Lisbon.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Mosley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.