By Mariela Nava
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – It took accountant Anibal Pirela six travel days and $ 7,000 to reach Austin, Texas from Maracaibo, the capital of the once thriving western Venezuela oil state, from Zulia.
Pirela traveled with her four-year-old son Daniel, joining a flood of emigrants emptying the neighborhoods of Zulia, the main point of departure for Venezuelans leaving their crisis-stricken homeland.
“The people I know who have left the country are almost too numerous to count,” said Pirela, 48, from her new home in Austin.
The number of Venezuelans detained by US authorities at the southern border soared to 47,762 in the year through September, down from just 1,262 in the period the previous year, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
Hundreds of Zulians leave each month, advocacy groups say, although there are no official migration figures for any of Venezuela’s 23 states.
The state has historically been more immune to economic hardship because of the oil industry, but this has been crushed by US sanctions targeting the OPEC member, cutting off much-needed income.
Reuters spoke with eight families who have fled Zulia in the past two months due to lack of public services, drugs and jobs.
Houses and abandoned buildings are increasingly common in Maracaibo, home to 1.7 million people, according to current and former residents.
In 2018, half of Zulia’s households already had at least one relative living abroad, but since 2019 that number has risen to 70%, according to the Zulia Human Rights Commission (CODHEZ), an organization nongovernmental.
“There are areas where there are few people left,” said CODHEZ general coordinator Juan Berrios.
POWER OUTAGES, WATER SHORTAGES
Zulia, at the end of the national water and electricity transmission lines, experiences more frequent blackouts than other parts of Venezuela, according to residents.
The collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry – in part due to a series of recent US sanctions https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-venezuela-sanctions-idUKKCN1B521E by the Trump administration and this that critics say is mismanagement of the state – has led to high unemployment. Some analysts say the sanctions have exacerbated https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-sanctions/un-envoy-urges-us-to-relax-venezuela-sanctions-drawing-opposition-rebuke-idUSKBN2AC2HD aggravation of the economic crisis.
Even those who have jobs are paid so poorly that the cost of living is prohibitive, especially for imported or smuggled food.
Carmen Ortega, 74, takes care of her eight grandchildren with what she earns as a cleaning lady.
“We are in extreme poverty,” said Ortega in her mud-floored house built from cans. “We have two of the girls begging on the street. They bring a little bread; people give them flour.
The children’s mother is unemployed and their father has gone to Colombia. Ortega said the family had to start the day without food or coffee.
“I cry at night,” she said.
Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is equivalent to just $ 3. Inflation hit 631% from January to November, according to the central bank.
About 850 people per week traveled to Colombia from Zulia before the coronavirus pandemic, about half of whom returned after purchasing medical supplies or other goods, according to Juan Restrepo, president of the region’s largest transport union. .
Today, some 2,000 people leave each week, Restrepo said: only 30% return.
The United States is the ultimate destination for many.
Under pressure from Washington to stem the increase in the number of Venezuelans entering the United States illegally through the southern border, Mexico announced last week that it would impose visa requirements https://www.reuters.com/ world / americas / mexico-impose-visa-requirements -vénézuéliens-2021-12-17 for them to enter the country, although it is not clear when the measure will take effect.
LONG ROUTE NORTH
Residents of the impoverished Altos de Milagro Norte neighborhood in Maracaibo say food shortages are pervasive and their town’s collapse is even affecting funerals.
Jose Amaya’s family made a hole in their outdoor patio to bury his brother.
“The funeral home will do anything for $ 170, but we don’t have the resources,” he said.
The community had 2,200 residents before the pandemic, but only 1,500 remain, social worker Maria Carolina Leal said.
To bring her family to Austin, Pirela sold her car and withdrew her retirement benefits. That was enough to send his wife Daniela Mendoza, 31, and her 12-year-old daughter Paula by plane from Colombia.
Then he sold his appliances and withdrew all his savings to afford him and Daniel a series of flights north to Monterrey, Mexico.
A smuggler, charging him $ 4,400, took them to a small apartment building housing around 30 other Venezuelan migrants, about a third of whom were from Maracaibo, Pirela said.
The next morning, the group was driven seven hours north to the border, walking about fifteen minutes to cross the Rio Bravo on foot and enter the United States.
He was greeted by immigration officials and the next day he was enrolled in a Department of Homeland Security program that allows for the release of migrants with an ankle monitor, the surrender of his passport and fingerprints.
Pirela has so far had a registration appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the first of what he says may be a lengthy process to legalize his status. His next appointment is in February.
“Now I’m with my family, the reunion was great,” Pirela said, adding that what he wanted most was a work permit.
“I have to wait because I want to get it right.”
(Reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Vivian Sequera and Aurora Ellis)