April in Venezuela

“Ella es todo que yo tengo.” Tears streamed down Lucia’s face as she cried out to God to protect her baby. She had spent all day calling and texting friends and relatives in Venezuela, using a friends phone 10 blocks away when hers failed and my Whatsapp as well. I had known something was wrong when she came into my room almost unannounced earlier that morning asking to use my phone. She hadn’t heard from Maria, her 9-year old daughter, since yesterday.

The night before, after what must have been one of the most agonizing decisions of her life, she had decided to send Maria back to Venezuela. They had originally fled Venezuela as a family, Lucia, Humberto, and Maria, in late February and were staying in a friends empty apartment for the time-being. They only had as long as their tourist visa to Colombia would allow, but they were determined to not go back to Venezuela, which is what made this decision even harder. Their financial situation was quickly becoming more dire, and the mom wasn’t able to work or manage to send the daughter to school here. And so, she painstakingly decided to send the daughter back with a friend of hers who was also returning to Venezuela where she could stay with family who were able to make ends meet and could finish up school.

Venezuela is in the midst of social, financial, and economic ruin following President Maduro’s rise to power. Researchers estimate inflation to be between 350 – 720%. The country has quickly run out of food, and is now rationing food at an exorbitant cost to its people. Venezuela provides a monthly allowance for food, but due to inflation, it only covers half the cost of the staples for a person, much less a family. To even access the food, you have to wake up early in the morning and stand in a government-run ration line for hours, only for the possibility of being turned away if the food runs out. There’s a new industry now, bachaqueros, who buy the government-rationed food and sell it at a mark-up for those who can not afford to stand in line. Since most households need multiple incomes to afford the food, it can be hard to find someone to stand in line without giving up a day’s pay.  And for those who can’t afford the food, or don’t receive it, there is the trash. Children and whole families pick through the trash just to be able to eat.

The family had sold everything they had and left using their last dollars to buy a plane ticket to Colombia. What normally had been an affordable flight was now triple the price. They had left the land of no food, no medicine, widespread corruption and robbery for hopes of a better life. We spoke at length about the predicament in Venezuela and what a future might look like. The father wanted desperately to speak better of his country, but he merely couldn’t. Although he wanted to, he couldn’t be sure they would ever be able to return. No hay nada como tu pais, he said. Before Maduro, and towards the beginning of Chavez’s term, Venezuela had been a thriving paradise. That Venezuela was unrecognizable now as children dug through the trash and died from basic diseases from a lack of medicine in the country – not even aspirin.

Both Humberto and Lucia had a work contract at a factory in the U.S., but their visa had been denied. Now, they were both looking for jobs in Colombia to earn enough to ask for the visa again. Their money was running down fast, and Lucia still hadn’t found a job.

I had heard them discussing work over the past few days. Their conversations sounded pained, but they had remained hopeful. When we finally spoke about what was happening in Venezuela, I wasn’t shocked, but my hope had fallen. I was hoping the videos and news I’d read had just been an exaggeration. They were not the only ones who had come to Colombia to escape the horrors of Venezuela. In just a period of two months during 2016, over 300,000 Venezuelans had crossed the border by foot into Colombia and thousands more by plane.

Just a day before, the family had had some friends come over. Another little girl about Maria’s age was with them and the two played and laughed together out in the living room, coloring in their drawing books. Little did I know, this was Maria’s going away party. And on what had to have been an incredibly bittersweet night, the mother, Lucia, still took it upon herself to offer me some hazelnut spread, knowing from our conversation a few days ago we both loved hazelnut. The next night, Maria would head out with the family that had come, taking an overnight bus to the border at Cucuta. From there, they would take a series of buses and taxis back to Caracas.

She had sent a phone with Maria to text back when they had arrived at the border or had crossed into Venezuela, but they’d heard nothing since they’d gotten on the bus. Lucia was wrecked with worry. Where were they? Were they okay? Was this the right decision? Que pasa con mi hija? A question no mother ever wants to ask. By early afternoon, we had texted, and called all the numbers we knew. We had DM’ed people on Instagram and sent emails to family and friends. There was nothing left to do. But wait. And pray. We clasped hands and bowed our heads as Lucia’s hushed sobs painfully punctuated the air.

Desperation and despair does not always look like tattered clothes and dirt-streaked faces. It can be found in the face of a fearful mother whose guilt at trying to do the best for her daughter is eating her alive. It is in the raw, blistered hands of a husband who dreams of Spain while he works all day in a factory.

En el nombre de Jesus, Amen. I finished my prayer and she cried out to God again, pleading He not punish her daughter for her sins. She held her head in her hands, and her shoulders shuddered. The phone vibrated on the plastic fold-up table in the living room and I hesitantly opened Whatsapp.

“Tranquila, Lucia. Todo está bien. Tenemos noticias de ella. La niña está bien.”

Note: I am looking for reputable organizations in either Colombia or Venezuela that provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the crisis in Venezuela. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

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