On The Brazil Border, Venezuela's Political Crisis Has Become A Humanitarian Nightmare

Venezuela’s descent into chaos, which nearly culminated in an anti-government military uprising, has had profound effects on both sides of the border.

PACARAIMA, Brazil — Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has urged people to take to the streets in new mass protests on Wednesday after a call yesterday to bring down Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

Venezuela is mired in a deep political, economic and humanitarian crisis that has led more than 3 million people to leave the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

“I never thought I’d have to leave my country because I was starving,” chef Alberto Alvarez told HuffPost Brazil. Food for him was always more than a means of survival — it was his main work tool.

The 60-year-old native of Puerto Rico, who chose Venezuela as his new home years ago, now wanders the streets of Boa Vista, a city 150 miles from the Venezuelan border in the northwestern Brazilian state of Roraima, looking for jobs and food to feed his family.

Alvarez went to culinary school in Montreal and Lyon, France. Before fleeing Venezuela, he worked at a top-end restaurant in Caracas, where he lived with his wife and his two children, ages 6 and 8.

“I had to find a solution. We decided to come to Brazil and start over,” he said. “When there is no food, there’s no use in knowing how to prepare it, being able to speak English or French or having good memories from days past.”

Alvarez and his family are living with friends. Some days he can find the odd job, such as painting houses. But most of the time, he relies on the generosity of others, especially tourists, to buy meals that cost a little over a dollar.

Mayerlin González and her husband traveled for more than 30 hours with 10-month-old baby Ronner before finally arriving in Brazil.
Mayerlin González and her husband traveled for more than 30 hours with 10-month-old baby Ronner before finally arriving in Brazil.
Adriana Duarte for HuffPost Brazil

The Alvarezes are among the 30,700 people who have migrated from Venezuela to Brazil since last August, according to the Brazilian government. In the same time period, Colombia’s migration office estimates that 870,000 Venezuelans entered the country.

They are fleeing violent unrest and food and medicine shortages. In the last year alone, Venezuelans lost an average of 24 pounds due to hunger. According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s infant mortality rates are back to 1990 levels, and illnesses previously under control, such as measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria and malaria, are once again epidemic.

It is easier for Venezuelan families to come to Brazil: Unlike in Colombia and Peru, there’s no need to present a passport, which is hard to obtain since the Venezuelan government essentially stopped issuing them. Brazilians, however, speak Portuguese, which can be a challenge for the Spanish-speaking Venezuelans.

Even though the border crossing has been officially closed on the Venezuelan side since Feb. 22, asylum requests from people who manage to reach Brazil are overwhelming the camps the Brazilian Army and UNCHR have set up in Paracaima near the Venezuelan border. Around 350 people arrive on slow days, but more than 1,000 can show up on a single busy day.

Mayerlin González, 23, made the trip with her husband, Ronni Villalba, 25, and their 10-month-old son, Ronner. They traveled for more than 30 hours. First, they took a bus. Then, they walked through “las trochas,” illegal routes controlled by armed groups and used by Venezuelans fleeing the country.

González’s husband had tried first. He came to Boa Vista, stayed for about a month living on the streets, and found a job. Then he went back to Maturín, a Venezuelan town 500 miles from Paracaima, to bring back his family.

González said she doesn’t even think about going back to Venezuela. She wants to go further south into Brazil. “Paraná, Santa Catarina, someplace far away [from Venezuela],” she said. Venezuelans see southern Brazil as more prosperous because of the hardship they’ve endured in northern Brazilian cities like Boa Vista or Manaus.

Ricardo José, an Uber driver whose mother is Brazilian, is among those who have moved to southeastern Brazil. Two years ago, José, 31, left his country to move to São Paulo. His parents and his uncles decided to stay; leaving meant selling all their possessions for “next to nothing,” he said.

“Before moving here, my family was kidnapped more than once. We left as soon as possible. We didn’t want for thing to get to a breaking point. You can’t trust anyone in my country,” he said.

The current protests in Caracas are the “beginning of the final phase” of Maduro’s regime, Guaidó said on Tuesday. Guaidó currently has the support of Brazil and the United States, among other countries, but Maduro says he still has the support of Venezuela’s military.

Venezuelan families wait for food and drink inside a refugee reception center in Pacaraima, Brazil, in early April.
Venezuelan families wait for food and drink inside a refugee reception center in Pacaraima, Brazil, in early April.
Adriana Duarte for HuffPost Brasil

José has hopes in Guaidó’s movement. “He was elected president by the representatives because he was the leader of Congress. He is the president. Representatives are entitled to pick the president. He is our hope of bringing down Maduro’s government.”

“The only hope is that the military joins the opposition and more people take to the streets to pressure the government,” he added. “The support of the military is crucial to force Maduro’s hand. He knew a confrontation was imminent and, while it didn’t happen, he armed civilian groups to stand with his government.”

The Military ‘Toll’ For Crossing The Border

For those still living in Venezuela, Brazil is a source of everyday necessities like food and personal hygiene products.

Every week, Pemon Zoraide, who declined to use her real name for safety reasons, leaves the Venezuelan village of Kumarakapay, 50 miles from the border with Brazil, to buy food on the other side in Paracaima.

“We buy all kinds of things. There’s nothing [in Venezuela]. It’s very bad,” she told HuffPost Brasil. Although her 9-year-old son has witnessed the Venezuelan Army fatally shooting someone, she still hasn’t left the country. Her child has measles. “He needs to get better first,” she said.

Earlier this month, HuffPost Brasil took the same “underground” route that Venezuelans use to reach Brazil.

Venezuelans use “taxis” — in reality, old cars in a bad state of repair — for their trips from Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, to Paracaima across the border. Each leg of the trip costs $12.50. On the way back, if people are carrying a lot of supplies, which is not uncommon, it can cost almost $40.

Cars lined up at "las trochas," an unofficial route to Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela.
Cars lined up at "las trochas," an unofficial route to Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela.

But some go on foot, using trails alongside dirt roads or through the forest. The Brazilian Army has set up stations at the end of these routes to provide water, food and medical treatment.

HuffPost Brazil made the trip from Paracaima to Santa Elena de Uairén by car with a Venezuelan couple who brought back bags and boxes filled with staples, from butter to toilet paper.

Under normal conditions, the trip between the two cities usually takes no more than 30 minutes. Through “las trochas,” the main unofficial route into Brazil, it took almost an hour.

The taxis cross the border a mile from the official border crossing. At a makeshift crossing point, the Brazilian military doesn’t ask for papers from the vehicle’s occupants, since only the Venezuelan side of the border is officially closed.

A little further, we reach a dirt road in the Comunidad Indígena San Antonio Del Morichal, an Indian reservation belonging to the Pemon-Taurepang. There, the indigenous people, their faces covered, have their own checkpoint.

The car comes to a stop, the driver shakes hand with a member of the indigenous community, and we are on our way. A little later, another checkpoint and another handshake.

A few kilometers into Venezuelan territory, we reach an Army checkpoint. This time, instead of shaking hands, the driver hands the officer his driver’s license and 50 reais ($12.50 in U.S. dollars). The military also mans the fourth and final checkpoint. Another 50 reais note, and we are waved through.

We return to Brazil in the same car, this time occupied by two women and two children, plus the driver. We stop for fuel at a house along the road. The gas comes from big jugs and is poured into the tank with the help of a plastic Coke bottle.

Crossing the military checkpoints on the way into Brazil is not as easy as entering Venezuela. On our second check, we are told we can’t go on, despite having paid. The driver pleads his case with three officers, and we continue the trip, unsure of what the driver promised the Venezuelan soldiers.

The border between Brazil (on the left) and Venezuela, shown near Pacaraima in northern Brazil.
The border between Brazil (on the left) and Venezuela, shown near Pacaraima in northern Brazil.

Changes On Both Sides Of The Border

The profound crisis in Venezuela is also changing things on the Brazilian side of the border.

“If we had 10,000 sacks of flour, we’d sell them all,” said Rone Neto, manager of Comercial Brasil, one of Paracaima’s main food distributors. He moved to the town four months ago to deal with the increasing business.

“We’re opening a second store. If you see one store right next to the other, it might seem weird, but there’s room for everyone here. There’s huge demand. No matter how much we have in inventory, we sell it all.”

The most in-demand item is wheat flour. “We tend to think of rice and beans,” he said, referring to Brazilians, but Venezuelans are different. “They buy a lot of flour and butter.”

Shop owners may celebrate the increase in business, but some residents have complaints.

“More people were coming after each day. The town changed completely,” said Manoel Soares, owner of a restaurant in the town bus terminal.

He said the city was “sheer tranquility” before the Venezuelans arrived. Paracaima was a hub for tourists looking for hikes, waterfalls and a gateway to the tropical rainforest.

Topographer Ruy Hagge Barbosa, 62, moved to Paracaima 12 years ago and echoed those concerns. “It changed for the worse. It’s chaos. You barely see Brazilians exchanging money in the main street, only Venezuelans. They don’t comply with our laws because they are immune from them.”

Across the border in Venezuela, Santa Elena de Uairén looks now like a ghost town.

Santa Elena de Uairén on the Venezuelan side of the boarder has become a ghost town.
Santa Elena de Uairén on the Venezuelan side of the boarder has become a ghost town.

The duty-free shopping center was one of the first to feel the consequences. With the border closure and a dearth of goods, Brazilians looking for cheaper electronics and cosmetics stopped coming. The shopping center is now closed, and the area around it is deserted.

Things are no different in the town’s two main hotels. The Anaconda, once a grand hotel, has shut down. The Garibaldi, in the city center, has iron railings on its doors and the restaurant is permanently closed. In the town’s grocery stores, the shelves are empty.

The walls of Santa Elena de Uairén’s elementary school still bear signs of Chavismo, the movement of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez. One quote, by Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar, praises the value of education: “Education is the true foundation of happiness. Nations move to their greatness as they advance in their education.”

This story is based on reporting by HuffPost Brasil and translated from Portuguese.