Hope and doubt among Venezuelan refugees with country at fork in road

Election results elsewhere have boosted Nicolás Maduro but humanitarian crisis is far from over

As Venezuela crumbled and its people began to starve, pastor Jesús Campo founded a sanctuary for hunger-stricken refugees across the border in Brazil. He called it Vila Esperança – the Village of Hope. More than 7 million Venezuelans have fled their country’s economic meltdown in recent years and scores of them found shelter in his ramshackle shantytown in the border town of Pacaraima, cobbling huts together from recycled wood, scrap metal and mud.

But a decade after Vila Esperança was born on a hilltop near the frontier, Campo sees cause for optimism once again – this time back in his decaying homeland. “Little by little, our country is rising up,” the 76-year-old preacher said one recent morning as he sat in a shack built from black plastic and branches.

Campo’s confidence stems from the shifting geopolitical circumstances – partly linked to the Ukraine war – that have prompted a rethink of how the rest of the world deals with Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.

Just a few years ago, Maduro was an international pariah and a US-led coalition of more than 50 countries was pushing to replace him with the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó. But Maduro survived Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and threats, and Joe Biden’s administration has softened its stance.

Nicolas Maduro at a summit in Cuba recently
Nicolas Maduro at a summit in Cuba recently. Photograph: EPA

US envoys have visited Caracas, and the White House recently authorised the US energy firm Chevron to resume operations in Venezuela, which boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, in an apparent search for alternatives to Russian supplies.

The recent election victories of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil have also boosted Hugo Chávez’s heir, with Petro restoring diplomatic ties with Venezuela in August and Lula planning to do so after he takes office in January. Latin America’s top four economies – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico – all now have leftist leaders, who are more sympathetic to Maduro’s regime than the rightwingers they replaced.

Talks between Maduro allies and the opposition have restarted in Mexico, with plans for a $3bn (£2.5bn) UN-run fund to address Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. And Venezuela’s moribund economy has shown some hints of recovery after Maduro relaxed price controls and began dollarising the economy in 2019.

“I see a bright future for Venezuela,” Campo enthused as he reflected on those developments during a tour of the shantytown he built for some of his country’s huddled masses.

Pastor Jesús Campo
Pastor Jesús Campo founded a sanctuary for Venezuelan refugees across the border in Brazil. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

But Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis – which condemned three-quarters of citizens to extreme poverty – is far from over. Tens of thousands are still fleeing abroad, with record numbers arriving at the US border this year after braving the perilous jungle trek through the Darién Gap between South and Central America. After a lull during the Covid pandemic, Brazilian aid workers are also seeing more arrivals, with hundreds reaching Pacaraima each day.

Those exiles reject the idea that their homeland is bouncing back. “President Maduro completely destroyed the country,” said Anthony Llovera, a former paramedic, as he waited for a free lunch outside a migrant shelter in Boa Vista, the biggest Brazilian city next to the Venezuelan border.

Llovera, 41, was hoping to find work at a meat-packing factory in Brazil, having ditched his job at a Caracas hospital. He scoffed at the idea that Maduro would offer meaningful political concessions that would allow Venezuela to hold a free and fair presidential election in 2024.

Among Vila Esperança’s 176 residents, nearly all of whom are unemployed, there were doubters too. Regina Latinez, 40, a community leader, believed positive change would take decades, if not centuries, to materialise.

“I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist,” said the former teacher, who left her job in Venezuela because her salary was insufficient to buy food and who now lives off government benefits and “blessings” from NGOs in Brazil.

Regina Latinez and her family in Vila Esperança
Regina Latinez and her family in Vila Esperança. ‘What’s happening is madness,’ she says of the situation back home. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

In the meantime, Latinez has opened a community centre for exiled children, called Proyecto Nazareth. She hopes her teenage daughter Laura could study dentistry at university in Brazil. They have no plans to return home to the north-eastern state of Monagas.

“Only God can get him out,” Latinez said of Maduro. “What’s happening is madness.”

Phil Gunson, an International Crisis Group analyst in Venezuela, said that after years of pain and instability, Venezuela stood at an uncertain “fork in the road”. He saw limited, superficial signs of economic recuperation after Maduro “let the market rip” in an attempt to retain power. “If you come to Caracas, you see lots of fancy shops and people buying Ferraris and things are cleaner and painted,” he said.

The Mexico talks and greater international engagement brought some hope of a peaceful, negotiated transition back towards democracy, even if nearly 300 political prisoners remained behind bars and the electoral authorities remained loyal to Maduro. Talk of a coup or foreign invasion had largely evaporated. Yet there was no guarantee negotiations would bring concrete progress towards democracy, or that Venezuela would not soon slip back towards economic and social disaster.

“We are poised, at the moment,” Gunson said. “It’s possible that the arduous and lengthy process of negotiating a gradual transition in Venezuela could be about to start. But we could also be about to slide back into another cycle of repression and economic decline, discontent and mass migration – and much depends on what Maduro himself decides to do.”

Campo maintained that his country had finally turned the corner, having hit rock bottom in the decade since he fled to Brazil. “Venezuela reached breaking point. There was talk of war,” the preacher recalled, claiming divine forces had intervened to bring his country back from the brink by evicting Donald Trump from the White House in 2020. “God removed him because he didn’t want Venezuela to be destroyed.”

Eligio Báez says things in Venezuela are ‘getting worse and worse’.
Eligio Báez says things in Venezuela are ‘getting worse and worse’. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

In Boa Vista, there was no such hope. Eligio Báez, a 38-year-old leader from Venezuela’s Warao people, said families continued to arrive at the abandoned gymnasium where he and about 300 Indigenous people were squatting. “Things are getting worse and worse [in Venezuela],” he said.

Báez said two relatives had died last month back in Venezuela because of the lack of medical care. He has no desire to return. “I’ve taken the decision that my life will be better here,” Báez said, as two local anthropologists arrived to deliver food parcels to their dilapidated but now permanent home. “If we go back to Venezuela, we’ll go back to square one.”


Tom Phillips in Pacaraima

The GuardianTramp

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