Desperate Venezuelans flood northern Brazil

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing their country's financial crises and seeking refuge and work in Brazil. Their presence places intense pressure on the already strained public health system, jails, and volunteer organizations.

Eraldo Peres/AP
Tents fill the Tancredo Neves Gymnasium that is operating as a shelter for Venezuelans in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil on March 8, 2018. Children roam the former gymnasium while groups of men and women chat about their hopes for finding work and worry about the families they left in Venezuela.

Hungry and destitute, tens of thousands of victims of Venezuela's unrelenting political and economic crisis are trying their luck in Brazil – a country where they do not speak the language, conditions are often poor and there are few border towns to receive them.

Many arrive weak from hunger and with no money for a hotel, food, or the $9 bus ride to Boa Vista, the capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima, known in Venezuelan circles as a place that offers three meals a day. In dozens of interviews over four days, many said they had not had more than one meal a day for the last year.

Kritce Montero traveled with her baby Hector and her young daughter 18 hours by bus from Maturín, a city in northeast Venezuela. After spending the night sleeping on the ground in Pacaraima, a dusty border town in the Amazon, they took another bus 130 miles to Boa Vista.

"We are desperate. We could no longer buy food," said Ms. Montero, adding it had been months since Hector had any formula or diapers.

While in recent years millions of Venezuelans have immigrated, until recently Brazil received relatively few of them. Hundreds of thousands have gone to Colombia, but authorities there and elsewhere in South America are tightening their borders.

Portuguese-speaking Brazil has become the latest alternative for Venezuelans. But they are not finding much comfort there.

On a recent day, Militza DonQuis, sat under a tree on the side of the main road in Pacaraima. In the two months since she and her husband arrived from Puerto Cabello, they have not been able to find work. With no money, they can't take the bus to Boa Vista, so they sleep on the ground and scrounge for food during the day.

"This is horrible," said Ms. DonQuis through tears, adding that in two months she had been unable to send money home to her children, who she left with a sister.

With no money for a bus, Jose Guillen, and wife July Bascelta, decided to begin the journey to Boa Vista at night on foot, setting off with twins Angel and Ashley along a road surrounded by forest.

"God will provide," said Mr. Guillen when asked how the family would eat during a trip that can take five days.

After walking 4 miles, a Brazilian driver stopped and agreed to give them a lift to Boa Vista, where the situation is arguably more desperate. Thousands of Venezuelans are living in the streets. They sleep in tents and on benches in central squares, have taken over abandoned buildings, and cram dozens of people into small apartments.

The largest of three shelters in the city, Tancredo, has 700 people despite being equipped for 200. Half-naked children roam the former gymnasium while groups of men and women chat about their hopes for finding work and worry about the families they left in Venezuela.

Charlie Ivan Delgado, said he came to Brazil several months ago with hopes of earning enough money so he and his high school sweetheart could finally afford a wedding. But each time he called home to El Tigre, he would hear the situation was getting worse, that their three children were always hungry. So he decided to abandon wedding plans and bring his family.

"Kids in Venezuela today don't think about playing with their friends or what they might study" in the university, said Mr. Delgado, sitting with his children and partner in a tent. "It's more, 'What am I going to eat today?' "

While the shelter offers three meals a day, the family's prospects are bleak.

The soccer referee has only been able to officiate a handful of games in rural areas outside Boa Vista, the kids are not in school, and it's hard to imagine how the family might leave the shelter.

"It's like Tarzan being in New York," said Delgado.

Brazilian authorities estimate 40,000 Venezuelans are living in Boa Vista, accounting for over 12 percent of the population in a city that was already poor and unable to offer many opportunities to its residents.

Most have arrived in the last several months, putting intense pressure on the public health system, the jails, and volunteer organizations and churches that are carrying the largest burden when it comes to keeping Venezuelans fed.

Police say Venezuelans are sometimes working for as little as $7 a day in everything from construction to yard work, putting downward pressure on wages. For many, even offering to work for less isn't enough: Several interviewed said many employers have told them flat out they won't hire Venezuelans.

Milene da Souza, one of a group of volunteers who periodically serve food, said many Brazilians were increasingly angry at the situation.

"Brazil has many of its own problems," she said. "Roraima has its own problems."

Last month, fears of a backlash intensified when an arsonist set fire to two Boa Vista houses filled with Venezuelan immigrants, injuring dozens, several severely. A man originally from neighboring Guiana has been arrested, and police have said he was motivated by anger at Venezuelans in the city.

On the Plaza Simon Bolivar, named after the South American independence leader who was the inspiration for late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' "socialist revolution," throngs are camping in tents or simply sleeping on the grass. When trucks pull up with food, hundreds run toward them, elbowing each other in a mad scramble to get a meal before they run out. Tempers flare as men accuse women and children of using their advantage to get extra portions.

Roraima's governor has declared a state of emergency to free up funds for overwhelmed public hospitals, where health officials estimate that 8 in 10 patients are Venezuelan. Last month, President Michel Temer canceled activities during Carnival to make an emergency trip to Boa Vista.

But residents say the federal government's plans, which include building a field hospital in Pacaraima and relocating a few thousand immigrants to bigger cities, are not enough. Between Jan. 1 and March 7 of this year, 27,755 Venezuelans crossed into Brazil from Pacaraima. Authorities estimate at least 80,000 are currently in Brazil, most of them in Roraima state.

Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, has one of the region's most inclusive immigration policies. Venezuelans are allowed to enter with just a national identification card, a lifeline for many who say that getting a passport in Venezuela has become impossible. Many immigrants who don't have identification cards but can show a birth certificate are allowed in if they request and are granted refugee status.

Being designated "refugees" can be problematic because such immigrants can't return to Venezuela; President Nicolás Maduro has called them "traitors" of the state.

Many say that as long as Mr. Maduro is in power they have no reason to return.

Despite skyrocketing inflation and a collapse of many businesses, Maduro has refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela. He denies there is a crisis and says international relief would lead to foreign intervention.

"Maduro's solution is that we just eat each other," said Diana Merida sarcastically while washing her clothes in a Boa Vista river. The mother from Maturín said she recently sent $3 home to her teenage daughter and young son, which would allow them to buy some rice.

While it took her three days of selling coffee to earn that, it was more than she could earn in a month as a saleswoman in a clothes store back home.

On the Plaza Simon Bolivar, Montero sits with baby Hector, who now has on a diaper and has spent the last two days gobbling up formula, all donated by volunteers.

It's been two days since the family crossed the border in Pacaraima. The first night they slept under a tree in the plaza, but then the second night somebody offered them a tent because of the baby.

"At least here, I'm able to feed my kids," said Montero. "Even if I'm living under a bridge, I would feel OK if my kids have food."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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