Hunger Highway: desperate Venezuelans take hard road to Brazil

Venezuela holds elections on Sunday but 5,000 people a day are leaving – many trekking a 215km route through the Amazon

Daniel Guerra hit the Hunger Highway at dawn hoping to steal a march on the punishing heat of Brazil’s northern savannah and consign 21st-century socialism to his past.

Daniel Guerra.
Daniel Guerra. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

“Necessity forced me to come,” explained the 24-year-old Venezuelan as he trudged along the BR-174, a 215km (134-mile) ribbon of asphalt that cuts south across the Brazilian Amazon and is the main entry point for tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic meltdown back home.

A month earlier, Guerra had watched with joy as his first child, a baby girl called Carmeyn, was born, nearly 1,000km north in the Venezuelan city of Maturín.

Already, though, he had been forced to abandon her, propelled over the border into Brazil in search of food, work and, perhaps eventually, a fresh start for his family.

“It was so difficult, just imagine,” Guerra said of the decision to leave his child.

Guerra’s four marching companions, like him penniless, famished and unshaven, nodded grimly in agreement.

José Luis Moya shows a gaping hole in his right sole.
José Luis Moya shows a gaping hole in his right sole. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

“There’s no future in Venezuela,” said José Luis Moya, a 24-year-old from the north-eastern state of Anzoátegui who was making the trek with a gaping hole in his right sole. “We’re escaping because we don’t want to die.”

Mired in economic, political and social crisis, Venezuela will hold a presidential election on 20 May – a vote the country’s mainstream opposition will boycott and which much of the international community has condemned as rigged.

President Nicolás Maduro, who took power after Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, rejects such criticism and has pledged to use a second term to bring a “new era of rebirth, hope and renewal” to a country critics say he has brought to its knees.

Under the late Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Venezuela’s socialist revolution in 1999, a new constitution and numerous elections placed nearly all government institutions under the control of the ruling Socialist party. 

This concentration of power was aided by a feuding opposition which carried out ineffectual campaigns and electoral boycotts. After Chávez died of cancer in 2013, he was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro who is even less tolerant of dissent.

Growing political authoritarianism has coincided with greater state dominance over the economy. But expropriations, price controls and mismanagement have led to a 40% contraction of the economy in the past five years. 

Oil accounts for 96% of Venezuela’s export income but many foreign companies have been driven out and production has dropped to a 30-year low. 

The resulting fiscal crisis has prompted the government to print more money, which has led to hyperinflation and a collapse of the currency. 

It also means that the government can’t import enough food and medicine to meet demand. 

Maduro has rejected economic reforms out of loyalty to socialism and because many government officials are allegedly getting rich off the economic distortions – through exchange rate scams and by selling scarce food on the black market.

For the 5,000 Venezuelans reported by the UN to be streaming out of the country each day those are fantastical claims.

“Let’s be clear: we have no hope,” said Yorquis Rísquez, a 24-year-old mother who fled into Brazil earlier this year and now lives with her family in a dilapidated squat in the city of Boa Vista. “There’s no such thing as hope in Venezuela under this government. Our hope is bringing our kids here.”

brazil venezuela hunger highway

More than a million Venezuelans have headed west to Colombia since an exodus some call Latin America’s worst-ever migration crisis began in 2015, fueled by a toxic cocktail of economic strife and rampant violence.

But a growing number, like Rísquez and her family, are choosing Brazil, which many see as a safer and, so far, less oversubscribed destination.

For those unable to pay a bus fare, that means a grueling odyssey on foot down a road Brazil’s press has dubbed the Rota da Fome or Hunger Highway.

Yorquis Rísquez, a 24-year-old mother who fled into Brazil earlier this year and now lives with her family in a dilapidated squat in the city of Boa Vista.
Yorquis Rísquez, a 24-year-old mother who fled into Brazil earlier this year and now lives with her family in a dilapidated squat in the city of Boa Vista. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

The Highway starts just over the border from Venezuela, in the town of Pacaraima, and runs south to the regional capital Boa Vista, through the São Marcos indigenous reserve – a tapestry of sun-scorched settlements that are home to the Macuxi, Taurepang and Wapichana peoples.

Media reports have highlighted the growing animosity towards migrants as they flock to this sparsely populated borderland, as well as their exploitation by unscrupulous ranchers. Several towns have seen protests; in one a shelter was ransacked.

Brazil’s far-right presidential frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, fanned those flames during a recent visit to Boa Vista, where thousands of Venezuelans are camped out in public squares, abandoned buildings or army-run shelters. “Nobody wants to show them the red card, load them on to trucks and send them back … But we also can’t carry on like this.”

Yet the migrants have also found solidarity and kindness along the BR-174.

“Today it’s them, but tomorrow it could be us,” said Oton Guimarães, the deputy tuxaua, or chief, of Vila Três Corações, a Macuxi village about 110km, or two days’ walk, south of Pacaraima.

Oton Guimarães, the deputy chief of Vila Três Corações, an indigenous village that has taken in dozens of Venezuelan migrants.
Oton Guimarães, the deputy chief of Vila Três Corações, an indigenous village that has taken in dozens of Venezuelan migrants. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Seated in the shade of a tamarind tree, the softly spoken 67-year-old recalled how his community had opened its arms to Venezuela’s tired, poor and huddled masses, on the condition they obeyed local rules: “No fooling around, no disrespect, no alcohol.”

“They show up here with their feet covered in blisters, very weak, dehydrated,” the headman said, adding poetically: “It’s an adventure, a destiny with no address.”

Guimarães said dozens of passing migrants were offered free board and lodging in exchange for their work. “They’re trustworthy folk … They do a bit of everything and we are thankful,” he said. For a time, Guimarães even opened his own home to a migrant. “He built this toilet for me,” he remembered, pointing to a breeze-block outhouse nearby.

Not all of the Highway’s indigenous communities have been so welcoming.

In Entroncamento, village chief Maria Joana da Silva said she pitied the migrants. “But there’s nothing we can do … We don’t want them living here.

“Lots of prisoners were released over there in Venezuela,” she added suggestively.

In Boca da Mata, another roadside hamlet, chief Leoneide Torres said it was her Christian duty to help the families she often saw splayed out beside the road: “They arrive in a seriously precarious state. It’s hunger, real hunger.”

But Torres, 53, was nervous too. “Our biggest worry is that in among them there are traffickers, drugs. We know this is happening. Some of them are coming over the hills back there … they have a detour so they don’t have to pass through the checkpoint.”

Efraín Godoy, 29, one of dozens of migrants who have found shelter in the indigenous village of Vila Três Corações.
Efraín Godoy. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Despite such suspicions, Efraín Godoy, a restaurant worker from the city of Barcelona, on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, said he had been humbled by the reception he had received from the Macuxi.

Godoy, 29, remembered staggering into Vila Três Corações in February, after three days on the Highway, sunburned, covered in insect bites and so dehydrated he was on the verge of vomiting.

Locals offered him a hammock in the malocão – a traditional palm-thatched hut at the heart of their village – and, weeks later, he could be found helping cater for a summit of indigenous teachers that his adoptive home was hosting.

“It’s all new to me … new and marvelous,” enthused Godoy, who planned to stay until his application for refugee status is approved and he can start looking for work to help the eight-member family he had left behind.

Venezuela was marching backwards but Godoy was determined not to do the same, using his exile to learn Brazil’s language, Portuguese, and study its indigenous traditions. “It’s a unique experience that will stay with me forever.”

Richard Villahermosa, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant, treks into Brazil.
Richard Villahermosa, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant, treks into Brazil. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

For Guerra’s ragtag expedition such a reception still lay several days off – and their final destination, Boa Vista, further still. After a 15km slog in searing Amazonian heat they paused at Sorocaima, the first indigenous village south of the border.

Guerra slumped to the ground outside a butcher’s shop, too exhausted to speak and apparently suffering from heat stroke. His comrades, though, were defiant, vowing to march on through the night.

Moya said the Highway’s hardships paled into comparison with the suffering back home.

“I feel happy because I’m moving towards a future,” he said as the men prepared to hit the Highway once again. “In Venezuela I felt dead. At least walking I have hope.”

Tom Phillips on the BR-174 highway

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