Just outside Venezuela’s borders its refugees are under few illusions that they will be able to return home any time soon. Tensions may be rising between Washington and Caracas, with talk of regime change on everyone’s lips, but for ordinary Venezuelans, leaving their country remains the most attractive option.
Tens of thousands cross into Cúcuta, a punishingly hot city of 600,000 people on Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, every day. Most come to briefly work or shop for goods unavailable or prohibitively expensive in Venezuela, others for hospital visits. But for about 5,000 a day, the Simón Bolívar bridge that divides the two countries is the last they will see of their homeland for the foreseeable future.
Siblings Antonio and Gabriela Yany have fled Maracay in northern Venezuela, and are heading to Bogotá to join their parents who left last year. “We have nothing to eat, we go hungry for days and our salaries buy us nothing,” Antonio said, as he waited outside a bus terminal in Cúcuta, a city on Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela. “Things aren’t changing anytime soon there.”
Oil-rich Venezuela is mired in economic and political turmoil, with severe shortages of staple foods and basic medicines. Hyperinflation has rendered the currency practically worthless, and crime is widespread. The dire situation has triggered an exodus of Venezuelans, arguably the largest mass migration in Latin America’s history. More than 3 million have now fled, with more than a million in Colombia. The UNHCR has projected that 2 million more people could leave Venezuela this year.
Meanwhile, there is uncertainty around who leads the country. President Nicolás Maduro sits in the presidential palace but his leadership is no longer recognised by the United States, Canada and a dozen Latin American countries. They favour Juan Guaidó, the young leader of the opposition-held congress who last Wednesday declared himself interim president until free and fair elections are held.
“Maduro is a dictator and a clown, he laughs away while his people are starving,” said Alfonso Castro, who fled Venezuela last year. He now lives in Cúcuta and helps other migrants cart their luggage across the bridge for coins. “Guaidó is a blessing. If he takes power I’ll go home to my family tomorrow.”
When Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that “all options are on the table” should Maduro not cede power, implying the possibility of US military intervention, Castro was joyous. “I pray overnight that Uncle Sam’s soldiers come,” he said, grinning widely.
However, discussions of who will emerge victorious in the battle for the presidency remain largely academic for many Venezuelans struggling to get by in Colombia. “There may be discussions about new leaders but all of that is going on in Caracas,” said Felipe Muñoz, the Colombian government’s border tsar who was in Cúcuta to cut the ribbon on a new health centre set up by international NGOs. “You ask anyone here, they’ll tell you that all they care about is feeding their families.”
It is that desperation that led Keymar Luna make the journey to Cúcuta, where she is waiting to catch a bus to the nearby town Málaga, where her husband moved last year. “It’s no secret how difficult life is there,” the young woman said. “It’s horrible to have to leave your own country, and to leave your family. Nobody wants that.”
Analysts see no end in sight to the misery, despite the possibility of regime change in Caracas.
“I see it getting worse before it gets better,” said Trisha Brury, the International Rescue Committee’s deputy director for Colombia. “The only good thing to come out of the chaos in Caracas is that more attention is being brought to this humanitarian crisis.”
It is not only Colombia receiving refugees and migrants, with Brazil – which borders Venezuela to the south – another destination for those fleeing the crisis.
Migrants who have fled to the troubled Brazilian border town of Pacaraima express fear, cynicism, confusion and cautious optimism over the possibility their country’s spiralling crisis could lead to change. But there was no consensus that Guaído’s move to declare himself president would work unless the Venezuelan army did not back him.
Yasmira Veliz, 50, a former teacher from Caracas now helping at a Catholic church to serve breakfasts to 700 migrants every morning, said Guaído’s self-declaration was unconstitutional. “You can’t nominate yourself president,” she said. “You know what the solution is? To kill Maduro. This is the way out.”
Also helping serve the rudimentary breakfast of coffee with milk, bread and fruit to hundreds of migrants early on Friday morning was Delia Párica, 41, a former nurse. She agreed with Veliz: “Maduro will not deliver up power. He prefers to die,” she said. “If the US goes to war against Venezuela Russia will support it [the regime].”
Both women welcomed the confrontational stance of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, towards Maduro. “We feel safe in Brazil,” said Párica.
Others sought to find humour in the humanitarian crisis. “Venezuela has two presidents and two assemblies!” joked Helinger Cordova, 25, a shop-worker from Maturín who has been in Brazil for a year. “There will be a change. We don’t know if it will be for the better.”
So far there has not been a spike in the numbers of migrants crossing the border. Numbers in recent days have varied from 500 to 900, and the Brazilian army running relief efforts said its contingency plans mean it has the capacity to handle up to 1,200 newcomers a day.
“We are prepared for a possible wave from the other side,” said Col José Rinaldo, who runs the army base in Pacaraima.
The northern Brazilian state of Roraima has experienced an influx of tens of thousands of migrants in Pacaraima and the state capital Boa Vista, where many sell clothes, plants or stitch shoes on the street. Roraima’s new governor, Antonio Denarium, from Bolsonaro’s right-wing Social Liberal party, has declared a state of financial emergency citing debts, salary delays and the risk of collapse of health, education and security services.