Protracted political, economic, and humanitarian crises in Venezuela have spurred mass migration, with Venezuelans from across the social spectrum fleeing for neighbouring Brazil and Colombia, to other countries in the region like Chile or Peru, and as far away as the US and Spain.
To escape what they face at home, many Venezuelans endure more hardship abroad, sacrificing their meagre savings for transportation to places where, in part because a lack of documentation, they struggle to find work, lodging, and legal status — challenges exacerbated by discrimination and xenophobia.
Geoff Ramsey, the associate for Venezuela at Washington, DC-based research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America, spent April inside Venezuela and on the country's borders with Brazil and Colombia, meeting with Venezuelans seeking relief from their country's collapse, government officials trying to deal with the exodus, and others trying to address the situation.
Ramsey spoke with Business Insider in late May, describing the bleak outlook for Venezuelans who are leaving their homes in search of a better life abroad.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Woody: Regarding the situation on the border [of Venezuela], can you go into more detail about the conditions you encountered along the Colombian and Brazilian frontiers?
Geoff Ramsey: Yeah, so they're very different. The bulk of the Venezuelans that are fleeing the country ... the ones who can't afford to travel farther, I should say, are going to Colombia.
Colombian authorities estimate that there are about a million Venezuelans in the country today, and you very much get that sense on the ground. In Cucuta on the border, there are tens of thousands of Venezuelans working in the informal sector, in many cases sleeping in the streets.
The government every night comes through with trucks, and security forces round up people in the streets who are believed to be Venezuelans and can't provide identification, and they're shipped off to the border where they cross the next day.
I think there are real problems with ... the Colombian government's handling of the Venezuelan exodus, because since February they've essentially made it impossible for Venezuelans to cross into the country without proper documentation and proof of further travel, and it's a real problem, because in Venezuela, as I'm sure you know, it's extremely difficult to access papers.
People can't afford passports because of a combination of the paper shortages and corruption. ... While passports should ... essentially only cost something like 30 bolivares, if I'm not mistaken, Venezuelans are paying something like $800 to $1,000 to get access to a passport, so that's prohibitively expensive for most Venezuelans.
[According to the official Venezuela exchange rate, 30 bolivares is US$3, though the currency is worth considerably less at the more frequently used black-market exchange rate, which is now about 995,000 bolivares to the dollar, according to the website DolarToday.]
Ramsey: In Cucuta there's actually only two shelters. There is one that's being run by the church and another that's being run by the government in co-ordination with the Red Cross, and there this really just, I think, twisted dynamic where right across from the government-run shelter, there is a food pantry that serves about a thousand breakfasts every single day to the Venezuelans that have come across the border ... and it's flooded.
There are just every single day about 1,000, or I would say over 1,000, Venezuelans flooding into this food kitchen and into the streets, and the church people who run it are forced to close the doors and feed whoever they can, and right across the street you have the government shelter, [to] which ... they only allow entry for Venezuelans who have their documents in order, and of course that's very few Venezuelans.
So you have this dynamic where there's right across the street from this overflowing food pantry or ... essentially a shelter, you have the government-run shelter that has capacity for 300 or 400 people and is, on any given day, almost assuredly empty.
When I was there, there were two people in it. So there are shelves stocked full of food. There are bunks, shower facilities, and it's all completely just unused, and that's just because the Colombian government has adopted these measures that have, without actually saying so, closed the border to Venezuelans who are crossing without their passports.
Ramsey: ... The response of the federal government in Brazil has been entirely led by the military, and on one hand that's good because the military has a reliable logistical capacity. They can move large quantities of aid, but it's also problematic because the government has tasked the military with providing security at the various shelters that operate on the border, and these are soldiers.
These are not people that have much experience in providing direct humanitarian aid, and you see it on the ground.
When I went to the indigenous shelter in Pacaraima, which is directly on the Venezuelan border, I was taught a new word in Portuguese by the captain in charge of the shelter that I spoke with. ... He was telling me that he thinks that these Venezuelans, these indigenous Venezuelans who are crossing the border, are "gafanhotos."
And I was asking what that meant, and he was saying, "Oh, they're coming, and they're eating, and they're moving on." And I was like, "Oh, so you mean they're like ... their tribe is nomadic, related to their customs?" And he was like, "No, no," and he put it into his phone on Google Translate, and he showed me that "gafanhoto" actually means "locust," and he was saying that these indigenous Venezuelans that are crossing into Brazil are locusts, because he thinks that they're using up state resources and don't have any intentions of providing for themselves, and I think that really pairs with reports that I've heard from our partners of open discrimination from the military and a refusal to recognise local traditions in the indigenous shelters and a lack of respect for indigenous authorities in these shelters.
I think it's sort of an underreported aspect of the Brazilian response to the crisis, and one that I try to just put a pin in for everybody, because in many ways Brazil deserves praise for what it's doing, but there's problems there as well.
Woody: I'm glad you brought [the situation in Brazil] up. I was reading some of the stuff you've done on WOLA's Venezuela blog, and I got the impression that, as you said, conditions are better in Brazil, but there are all those ... policy issues in having the military running the response, and then, as you described in Brazil, as I'm sure is the case elsewhere, is there's kind of this resentment of the Venezuelans who are arriving and need attention.
Ramsey: Yeah, that's Brazil. That's in Colombia. That's essentially throughout the region. There's really alarming reports of xenophobia. Actually the week before I got to Boa Vista, there was an attack on a house in which there were a number of different Venezuelan migrants living there. Some guy just went up to this house and tried to light it on fire.
There's reports of people lynching Venezuelans that they suspect of committing crimes. Venezuelans who are fleeing their own crisis are dealing with the same kind of discrimination and xenophobia that immigrants face in many countries, and it's really troublesome.
Woody: I know a considerable amount [of Venezuelans] have gone to Chile where there has been some movement on immigration policy, and I know in Peru they opened up a tranche of visas so Venezuelans could come and go to school and work. Is there any kind of co-ordinated effort among governments in the region to respond to this?
Ramsey: Well, we haven't seen much regional co-ordination, really, but that could change. Actually, the Lima Group put out a statement this week that calls for regional governments to come together for a summit in early June, we haven't got a date yet, to address the refugee and migration crisis.
We'd really like to see that summit look at best practices, and I think we'd like to see the governments in attendance adopt measures that are more humanitarian and treat Venezuelans who are fleeing their country with the human rights and the human dignity that they deserve.
Woody: A lot of these Venezuelans ... have to cover a considerable distance within Venezuela before they can get to a border. In your conversations, [what] did you a sense of those logistical and geographical challenges required to migrate out of the country?
Ramsey: In many cases, some are walking, and you do hear stories of people walking miles with luggage, either dragging it behind them or over their shoulders, but I would say the bulk of them take ground transportation, and it's mostly buses. And the problem with that is that bus travel is, again, becoming increasingly prohibitively expensive for Venezuelan migrants because of hyperinflation.
... From the Colombian border to Lima [in Peru], I believe you can take a bus that only puts you back about $300, and right now the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela is around $2, so for the majority of working-class Venezuela those kinds of options are extremely expensive, and so you have many cases where you have people taking loans, essentially putting themselves at the mercy of what are in some cases like human-trafficking networks to pay for their travel, and they're in extreme situations of vulnerability.
Woody: The impression I get from conversations and from reading coverage out of Venezuela is that ... the sense among Venezuela is one of frustration and resignation. In your experience, what's the general attitude? How do they think this situation is going to end?
Ramsey: Venezuelans that I spoke with gave me, I would say, different shades of utter resignation. These are people who are ultimately voting with their feet.
They don't see any kind of meaningful end to the current crisis, and they're trying to seek better lives elsewhere, and it's truly heartbreaking talking to these people that are fleeing a deep economic crisis and hoping to find some kind of better alternative in a foreign country without any kind of guarantee that they'll ever be able to return to their home country.
Woody: Since the end of last year, when Trump broached military action, it does seem ... people are discussing forcing [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro out with more and more frequency. Is there an appetite in Venezuela ... for some kind of action to force Maduro out, whether that's a coup by internal forces or some kind of foreign intervention?
Ramsey: I've actually seen polling on that, and most Venezuelans, even today, reject the idea of a foreign military intervention as a possible solution.
I think most Venezuelans would like to see this government go, and they're obviously not happy with Maduro, but I'd think they'd like to see some kind of change present itself in peaceful, democratic means.
Woody: You mentioned that you and WOLA ... are kind of a "black sheep," in that you're still pushing for a negotiated solution. Is that how you would characterise it?
Ramsey: I think any kind of realistic path out of the current crisis has to lie in meaningful negotiations. Honestly, it's true that we haven't really seen the government negotiate in good faith so far. I think the previous round of failed talks in the Dominican Republic can attest to that, but this is not a government that's going to decide one day to cede power without seeking certain guarantees.
I think if there's going to be some kind of way out of this, that's going to lie in some kind of talks with the opposition and with opposition stakeholders, and I think that should be ultimately the goal of the international community ... [that] it exercises pressure on the Venezuelan government moving forward.