Yorgelis del Carmen Beli Fonseca fled Venezuela two years ago to try to scratch out a living in neighboring Colombia, selling candy and garbage bags on the streets of the port city of Barranquilla.
On a good day she makes about $5, enough to rent a two-room house that she shares with her infant son and eight other people.
“Things were going pretty well,” she said in a telephone interview. “The work was hard but we could make enough to cover our costs.”
That all changed in March with the arrival of the coronavirus.
Colombia — like many other countries in the region — has shut down all non-essential businesses and declared a 19-day quarantine that runs through April 13.
The decision to sacrifice the economy in order to save lives has hit everyone in the nation of 50 million. But for those already living on the edge, the results have been devastating. And few groups live closer to that edge than the 1.6 million Venezuelan migrants residing in Colombia.
Beli Fonseca, 20, said she now spends her day trying to keep her 2-year-old son entertained and hoping neighbors will bring them food. The one day she tried to work on the street she was run off by police enforcing the quarantine.
“Some days we don’t eat, some days we do,” she said. “What can I tell you? It’s been really hard.”
More than 4.5 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, as the once-wealthy South American nation is mired in a political, economic and social crisis without precedent in the region.
The coronavirus is not only depriving migrants from making an income but has also shuttered many of the institutions they relied on.
In the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, David Cañas, a Catholic priest, was providing free meals to about 5,000 Venezuelans a day. But he had to close the operation, called Divina Pastora, on March 13, when the government issued orders to enforce social distancing.
“First they said no gatherings larger than 500 people, then they said no gatherings larger than 50 people, and now they say no gatherings,” Cañas said from his home in Cúcuta where, like everyone else in the country, he’s been on lockdown.
The border town is usually buzzing with Venezuelan migrants washing windshields or selling trinkets on the corner. Now it’s dead.
“This is a ghost town,” Cañas said. “If they catch you on the street you have to pay a fine, so Venezuelans have no one to sell to, no one to provide services to. They’re just going hungry.”
“Even if you wanted to rob someone you couldn’t, there’s no one to rob,” he said.
Colombia has been one of the most generous nations in the region amid the Venezuelan crisis. It has offered temporary work permits to more than 415,000 Venezuelans and given them access to already strained emergency medical services.
But the pandemic is testing the limits of the region’s largesse.
While Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and others are rolling out financial aid programs to help their most vulnerable citizens amid the lockdown, those benefits don’t extend to migrants, who are often undocumented.
When Colombia announced its quarantine, thousands of informal workers, many of them Venezuelans, protested in the capital.
“We’re worried that migrants are going to become invisible in this crisis,” said Juan Carlos Viloria, the coordinator for Coalición por Venezuela, an association of groups that work on behalf of the Venezuelan diaspora. “Countries are taking care of their own, which is understandable. But Venezuela, which should be taking care of its citizens inside and outside of the country, is not doing it, because the government is more worried about staying in power than saving people’s lives … that’s why so many of us have had to leave.”
His organization has delivered about 6,000 pounds of produce to Venezuelan migrants stranded in Barranquilla in the last three days, but the demand is far greater, he said.
Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is ruling over an economy in shambles. The nation is highly reliant on oil sales to stay afloat, but a combination of crashing crude prices, widespread corruption and U.S. sanctions have gutted the economy. While human rights organizations are asking Washington to lift sanctions during the pandemic, the Trump administration is doubling down, indicting Maduro and some of his closest allies last week on drug trafficking and terrorism charges — further complicating the government’s ability to get outside financing.
By all accounts, Venezuela is woefully unprepared to handle the pandemic. Its hospitals often struggle to keep water running and the electricity on. By some counts the entire country of 32 million has fewer than 90 ICU beds. When the United Nations launched a $2 billion COVID-19 appeal last week, it singled out Venezuela, Haiti and Venezuela’s more than 4 million refugees and migrants being hosted by Latin America and Caribbean nations as being in most desperate need of help.
Carrie Fipiletti, the deputy assistant secretary for Cuba and Venezuela in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Venezuela’s shortcomings will likely have a regional impact.
“If Venezuela is not able to address the challenges it faces with controlling COVID-19, then going into the future (we’ll see it) going into Brazil and Colombia and the surrounding region,” she said during a conference hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “Just as we have seen with the refugee crisis, we will too see an expansion of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Venezuela had reported 135 cases of the coronavirus and three deaths, but health experts say the actual number is likely much higher. Colombia, by comparison, has reported 798 cases and 14 deaths.
Daphne Panayotatos, an advocate and program coordinator with Refugees International, a nonprofit, said that the pandemic threatens to shove refugee and migration issues into the background, even as those populations are some of the most vulnerable.
A report issued by the group this week found that migrants like Beli Fonseca often live in cramped conditions with little access to health care, basic sanitation and the information they need to stay safe.
“Viruses don’t recognize borders, they don’t discriminate between migrants, refugees and citizens,” Panayotatos said. “We are only as strong as the least healthy person of our society.”
In that sense, caring for migrants “is not just morally right, it’s the smart thing to do,” she said.
While Colombia has declared a moratorium on evictions during the health emergency, that’s not being respected. Viloria said his organization is tracking at least 50 Venezuelan families who have been thrown out of their homes for not paying rent.
Beli Fonseca said she’s trying to stay calm and wait for the quarantine to lift so she can get back to work. Despite the depth of her hardships, she has no intention of returning to Venezuela.
“They are even worse off there than we are here,” she said. “Even when you can find food there is no way to make enough money to buy it. … Things were ugly there when I left, and that was before the coronavirus.”
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