After Fleeing Crisis, Venezuelan Migrants Now Struggle In Coronavirus Lockdown

Apr 3, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 7:47 pm

Álvaro Callama is struggling to survive an economic double whammy.

A Venezuelan electrician, he fled his homeland two years ago amid a devastating economic crisis that left him too poor to buy food. He moved to neighboring Colombia, where Callama — nothing if not resourceful — worked three jobs: picking fruit, laying bricks and guiding tourists on horseback rides.

But just as Callama, the father of a 3-month-old boy, seemed to be marching toward stability, the Colombian government on March 24 declared a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nonessential businesses are closed and millions of people have lost their jobs, including Callama and several relatives.

"My mother works in a restaurant but all the restaurants have shut down," says Callama, who lives in La Calera, a farm town on the outskirts of the Bogotá. "My uncle is a welder but he was laid off. We are trying to figure out what to do."

They have a lot of company. Of the nearly 5 million Venezuelans who have fled their country in recent years, about 1.7 million have settled in Colombia. Many of them are undocumented migrants who get by working odd jobs. It's a hand-to-mouth with the worst off sleeping in the streets.

That makes them especially vulnerable to both COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as well as to the economic shutdown, says Daniel Pagés, president of the Association of Venezuelans Living in Colombia.

"It's a very difficult situation," Pagés says. "Imagine if you only had money for your food or your lodging for one day" and there was no work the next day.

Colombia has registered more than 1,160 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 19 deaths. It has closed land and sea borders and grounded nearly all flights. But due to a lack of testing, it's unclear how many Venezuelans in the country may be infected.

Although Colombian President Iván Duque's government says it will distribute subsidies to impoverished Colombians, no provisions have been made for Venezuelan migrants.

Last week, police were called in to disperse throngs of enraged poor people, including Venezuelan migrants, who showed up in front of the city halls in Bogotá and Medellín after they received false WhatsApp messages claiming that officials were planning to distribute emergency cash.

"It's incredible how, in these times, some are willing to play with the hopes of the people," tweeted outraged Medellín Mayor Daniel Quintero.

Hard times have also come to Venezuelans who have settled in smaller Colombian towns and villages. Among them is Alex Aguirre, a chef from the north-central Venezuelan city of Maracay. He used to own two Maracay restaurants but hyperinflation and food shortages forced him to close. Five years ago, he moved to Colombia and had a rough landing.

In a Bogotá restaurant, Aguirre worked such late hours that he was unable to catch a bus back to his cramped apartment. So, he slept on park benches until dawn when public transportation resumed. Then, he'd return home, shower, eat breakfast, then rush back to the restaurant.

"It was very difficult for me to try to start again in a new city, a new country," Aguirre says.

Eventually, he moved to the Pacific coast town of Tumaco and opened a seafood restaurant. But now he's had to close that place down, too. Not only is he dipping into his savings to survive, but he also says he's no longer able to send money to family members back in Venezuela.

For now, some of the few helping hands for Venezuelan migrants are coming from the United Nations' refugee agency and from private charities.

In La Calera, where the low cost of living and proximity to Bogotá has attracted about 600 Venezuelan migrants, many migrants depend on an organization called Sanando Heridas, or Mending Wounds. The charity was founded a decade ago to help impoverished Colombians but now more than half of its beneficiaries are down-and-out Venezuelans.

The organization provides emergency food rations and employs about 40 Venezuelan migrants to pick gooseberries on a nearby farm. But amid the health crisis, food donations to the charity have slowed to a trickle while the gooseberry project has been suspended to avoid the risk of spreading coronavirus among the workers.

María Victoria García, one of the founders of Sanando Heridas, points out that few Venezuelan migrants have health insurance. So, frustrating as it may be, she says it's especially important for them to spend the next few weeks at home.

"It's no good to be earning money," she says, "if people are getting sick or exposing themselves to the virus."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly 5 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, many from neighboring Colombia. They fled Venezuela's economic collapse, but now they find their lives once again upended as the coronavirus shutters the economy. John Otis reports.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the Colombian town of La Calera, Alvaro Callama receives bags of rice and lentils at a local charity. Like most of the needy who show up here, he's from Venezuela.

ALVARO CALLAMA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In his home country, Callama worked as an electrician, then tried farming. But he couldn't earn enough to buy food.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

OTIS: So two years ago, he moved to La Calera, a farm town on the outskirts of Bogota, the Colombian capital. He picked fruit, laid bricks and even guided tourists on horseback rides.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

OTIS: The income allowed him and several relatives to rent a cramped apartment. He then sent for his wife back in Venezuela. They now have a baby boy. But his family's march towards stability has come to a sudden halt. As the number of coronavirus cases increase in Colombia, the government is enforcing a nationwide lockdown. Businesses have closed, throwing Callama and several family members out of work.

CALLAMA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "My mother works in a restaurant, but all the restaurants have shut down," he says. "My uncle is a welder, but he was laid off. We're trying to figure out what to do."

They're not the only ones. Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have settled in towns and cities all over Colombia.

ALEX AGUIRRE: I am from Venezuela - Maracay.

OTIS: Among them is Alex Aguirre, a chef who sends money to his two kids in the Venezuelan city of Maracay. He used to own two restaurants there, but food shortages and hyperinflation forced him out of business. When he got to Colombia five years ago, he was so broke he slept on park benches.

AGUIRRE: It was very difficult for me try to start again in a new city, a new country.

OTIS: But he did start again. He opened a seafood joint in the Pacific Coast town of Tumaco. Now he's had to close that restaurant down, too.

AGUIRRE: I don't know, man. I don't know. I don't know. No. It's very, very big problem for me.

OTIS: Last week, the Colombian government announced it would start distributing food to Venezuelan migrants.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: For now, however, the only helping hand in La Calera comes from private charities like the one where Alvaro Callama picked up his rice and lentils.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But it's a shoestring operation, and donations have slowed to a trickle. The charity has also suspended its program that pays Venezuelans to pick gooseberries. Maria Victoria Garcia, one of the founders of the charity, points out that few Venezuelan migrants have health insurance. So, frustrating as it may be, she says it's especially important for them to spend the next few weeks at home.

MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's no good to be earning money," she says, "if people are getting sick or exposing themselves to the virus."

But rather than staying home, some are heading back to Venezuela, with the poorest migrants making the journey on foot. Though they have little hope of finding work in Venezuela, they can live rent-free with relatives. Among those considering the trip is Edixon Alvarez, who lost his job in Colombia washing cars.

EDIXON ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "In Venezuela," he says, "at least we'd be with our families and in our own country."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in La Calera, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.