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The sad taste of Venezuelan candy

3 months across South America to explore one of the largest crises of our times



Photo Credit: The World Bank

Story published on

January 15, 2020

This year, the number of people fleeing Venezuela is expected to equal and even surpass the Syrian exodus at its peak. It is already one of the largest migration dramas of modern history. Unlike the Syrian crisis, this one is severely underfunded, which has huge implications for a region plagued by instabilty and social unrest. In late 2019, I’ve travelled across South America and witnessed how the Venezuelan crisis unfoldes on the continent. 

From Colombia, to Peru, Argentina and Brazil, this is a story of desperation. It is one that talks about human kindness and fear, about security and social dangers that far suprass the crowded borders these unfortunate people have to cross in their hope of securing their children a humane living.

In a world erecting walls and fearing “hordes” of migrants coming to take local jobs, the countries of Latin America have shown incredible generosity to Venezuelans. After all, they came from a state that, not so long ago, gave others a home, when they forced to leave their countries behind. The response by neighboring countries has been even more impressive when you consider how little they could afford to give it. As these host countries are further strained by the influx of Venezuelans, their approach might change, leaving the fate of millions uncertain.

Please also read this story, to understand the scale of the Venezuelan tragedy – the economy and the exodus.

Buy me a coffee!Buy me a coffee!

“Don’t go out after dark”, my host warns, as I settle in a cat-crammed apartment on the outskirts of Candelaria district in Bogota, Colombia. “It’s dangerous, because of Venezuelan crime and homelesness in the area”, she explains.

There are about 4.8 million displaced Venezuelans and most of them, 1.6, are in Colombia, a country from which, until fairly recently, people were fleeing to Venezuela.

During the day, as I wander the colorful streets of Candelaria, I see them. Some of them, that is. These Venezuelans don’t look scary at all. They’re selling Bolivar-artwork, that is they’re taking piles of worthless bills from their home country and transforming them into anything they can think of.  

They paint on them – like Kristian Vasquez (seen here), from whom I bought a Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a Frida Kahlo sketch on bills, that I would carefully transport in my backpack for 3 months to come. He even gave me a business card, with his Instagram and Facebook accounts!

Other Venezuelans craft origami-style toys and bags out of their currency. Don’t you find it ironic to see wallets made from worthless Venezuelan currency?

Those less artistically inclined, such as Jesus, whom I met on a bus in Guatape, tell you the story of how they fled Venezuela and walked for days on end to reach neighboring Colombia. Like many others of his countrymen, Jesus just shows you a big pile of money and asks if you could give him any other coin instead – anything has more value compared to what he holds in his hands. “To buy a carton of eggs back home, you need four stashes like this one”, Jesus tells me, as he holds a 15 cm-thick bundle of Venezuelan Bolivars.

“A plastic box with candy was all the lawyer owned”

Top recipients of Venezuelan refugees

Colombia: 1.63 million

Peru: 863.000

Ecuador: 385.000

Chile: 371.000 

USA: 351.000

Brazil: 224.000

Argentina: 145.000

Source: BBC

The Venezuelan refugee crisis, in numbers

4.76 million Venezuelan refugees (December 2019) – Source HERE

Projection for 2020: 6.5 – 8 million Venezuelan refugees – Source: UNHCR, Brookings Institution

It was only after I had reached Medellin that I started to see what is a pattern among this desperate community and what, for me, has become the most striking image of the Venezuelan migrant: the candy seller. You see, everywhere on the streets and beaches of Colombia (and other Latin American countries), in intersections and tourist areas, you will come across Venezuelans of all ages and walks of life asking you to buy a candy from them. 

The first such Venezuelan I saw was a gorgeous and very young pregnant woman, sitting with a bag of sweets, in a small park in the fancy neighborhood of Laureles-Estades, in Medellin. She wasn’t begging, she wasn’t saying anything at all. At first, I didn’t even understand why she was there. I thought she was connected with the guy sitting at the opposite side of the park, who I suspected was the neighborhood drug pusher. But no, the girl just quitely held a piece of candy in her hand and discreetly showed it to passers-by. 

It was something I would see again and again over the coming weeks. Them approaching tourists, a bagful of cheap candy. Some more discreet, others pushy. Some would even come to you several times a day. 

Former British Minister David Miliband, now President of the International Rescue Commitee, the NGO founded at the request of Albert Einstein also met a similar candy seller while visiting Colombia.

Back home in Venezuela, the man used to be a lawyer. Now, a plastic box with candy was all he owned. “There’s nothing more crushing than that”, Miliband told a high profile gathering.

This candy is the most bitter of them all – it’s the symbol of an entire country’s demise.

4.76 million Venezuelan refugees (Dec. 2019) – Source HERE

Projection for 2020: 6.5 – 8 million Venezuelan refugees – UNHCR, Brookings 

History repeating itself: refugee from father to son

Max is a 31 year-old Venezuelan who manages a hostel in Santa Marta, on the Colombian coast of the Carribean. It was a somehow ironic place to move in, when he left Venezuela, in 2017. „The history repeated itself”, he says, one windy afternoon, as we sit on his rooftop terrace. „45 years ago, my father left Colombia to go to Venezuela.  45 years later, his son goes to the same city, for a new life, for a better life… It’s so weird!”

What’s even weirder is that, with that journey coming full circle from father to son, his dad was talking to him again. They stopped talking after Max told him he was gay, a bold confession in a Venezuelan conservative family with a muslim mother and a catholic father.

The life he has in Colombia is much better than what he had back home, but, as is the destiny of so many imigrants and refugees, Max is not happy. He doesn’t have peace. “Sometimes I feel empty, because my family is very, very far away from me”. On the other hand, going back is not an option: “In Venezuela, it’s impossible to live”, Max says. With what he makes in a day in Colombia he can provide they money his mother needs to live for 2 weeks.

Max sees a lot of Venezuelan refugees where he lives. In fact, the largest concentration is on the Carribean coast. He also sees the candy sellers and says that it pains him. “I’m hurt by it. All people have talents. Something they can do for work. That candy is not the definition of the personality of a people”.

Colombia: 1.63 million Venezuelans

Peru: 863 000  Venezuelans (Source)

Colombians used to flee Venezuela. The tables have turned

Over 4.7 million Venezuelans have already fled their country, escaping violence, hunger, sickness, social and political unrest. These are figures from early December 2019 and they amount to 17% of the entire population. 

Colombia has welcomed the largest number of Venezuelans: 1.6 million. That’s the response of a poor country that is only now rebuilding itself after decades of poverty.

Colombia is a country whose people go to other countries in search of a better life. It’s still the place with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. It has no social and economic infrastructure for 1.6 million extra people. And still, it received them, helped them, sent the Venezuelan children to school.

Minimum wage in Venezuela is worth $8/month (Bloomberg)

In a world erecting walls, open arms

The Venezuelan economy's demise

Contraction between 2013-2018: 45%

Inflation in 2019: 500 000%

Inflation projection for 2020: 10 million % Source: IMF

94% of population under the poverty line in 2018

Minimum wage worth $8/month (Bloomberg)

Malnourished and without education

21% of Venezuelans are malnourished

70% of Venezuelan children lack access to regular education

Source: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell

When I was visiting the country, in August-September of 2019, about 2000 people a day were pouring into Colombia from Venezuela. Not too long ago, the trip would have been in the other direction.

Part of the explanation for the Colombians’ response to the Venezuelan influx lies in their common history. First off, they used to be the same country. Secondly, when Colombians had to flee violence during the guerilla and narco wars, they went to Venezuela. And they were welcomed. Now, it’s time to show their gratitute.  

Not less impressive, Ecuador and Peru, countries with serious social problems of their own, have welcomed 1.2 million Venezuelans. Another half a million are in Chile and Argentina combined.

As welcoming as these nations and their respective peoples might be, they’re not perfect. They can’t be. As you get to the Caribbean coast in Colombia, the area with the largest concentration of refugees in the country, more and more locals will tell you their stories regarding the Venezuelans. Stories about petty theft, about sex trafficking and, most often, about how Colombians lost their job because of Venezuelans willing to work for less money and undocumented.

“I know not all of them are bad”

As I travelled southwards on the continent, I saw even more worrying signs. Some were a strong reminder of 2015 in Europe.

In Peru, for example, not a day went by during the month I spent there that I didn’t see a media report about crimes perpetrated by Venezuelans. We all know the road this overexposure – of what might otherwise be singular event – can lead to. Xenophobia is one of its destinations.

“There’s not much talk in the news anymore about Peruvian hitmen or thieves, but of Venezuelans”, Angelica Torres, a young woman who just opened a small hostel in Cuzco, tells me, as we’re sitting on her rooftop terrace. “This makes all Venezuelans look bad.  They all look bad and I know it’s not their fault. I know that not all of them are bad”, she stresses. Still, she refused to offer housing to a Venezuelan, out of fear.

“I feel very sorry for them and wish I could help them. But that means taking a risk. It’s taking a risk that at the moment I could not take. I have just started my business and if I offer a job or housing to a Venezuelan, I risk that I myself will be left with nothing. I can get robbed or something like that”. Or maybe that won’t happen, Angelica admits, but she can’t take that chance at this moment in her life, when she has bet everything on that newly opened hostel.

It is true that, since the beginning of the crisis, some countries, such as Peru, have imposed some barriers to Venezuelans. Still, one can’t help but be impressed by how generous they have been with so little help from the international community. 

Inflation in 2019: 500 000%

Inflation projection for 2020: 10 million % (IMF)

The international consequences of Venezuela’s collapse

Latin America is not a region that can sustain this size of a burden on its own. Furthermore, when I travelled there, most of the countries had been or were mired in turmoil – huge protests, political crises. Though none of them were related to the Venezuelan influx, the social climate fueled xenophobia and violence against the migrants.

The Venezuelan problem has long left its national and even regional borders and it is on the verge of being everybody’s problem, because it has become a security issue. Here’s the most obvious example: ELN, the largest Colombian terrorist group, has thrived off the chaos in Venezuela, de facto ruling ample areas, according to this report.

Moreover, it is believed that Nicolas Maduro’s army is using these fighters to destabilize the neighboring country. The scale of the economic turmoils in Venezuela also make the country’s hungry people a recruiting ground for the guerillas.

Similarly, in Brazil, as in other countries in the regions, Venezuelans fall prey in the hands of drug and human traffickers, as well as other organized crime rings.

This is why, experts fear, if the Venezuelan crisis will keep on being tackled so timidly, it might very well become the number one international crisis of the coming years.

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