Dozens of Venezuelan families decide to cross into Colombia on foot, fleeing a country where starvation and the cost of living threaten to worsen an already massive exodus.
Their motivation: starting over in Bogotá, Lima, Santiago de Chile, or wherever fate takes them.
At least one and a half million Venezuelans have left their country in the past two years using Cúcuta, Colombia, as their primary escape route. Venezuela is currently experiencing unprecedented diaspora growth, spurred by a hyperinflation exacerbated since 2016 and reflected in symbolic wages, bankruptcies, starvation and violence.
The unrelenting devaluation of their currency, the Bolívar, makes the situation even more dramatic for Venezuelans crossing the Simón Bolívar Bridge into Cúcuta. While $1 Bolívar was worth $2.2 Colombian pesos in 2016, by May of this year that same Bolívar had a value of $0.0025 pesos. Many Venezuelans are shocked to learn that their currency is now worth nothing in Colombia; to survive, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. Whole families spend the night in parks and bus terminals in Cúcuta, work informally wherever possible, and sell anything they may have on hand: mobile phones, shoes, wedding bands and even women’s hair.
To collect $50,000 Colombian pesos (US$17 Dollars), which is the cost of a bus ticket from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga, a Venezuelan would have to pay $10,000,000 Bolívares—the equivalent of four months of minimum wage in Venezuela. For many migrants, this is an impossible figure, whether in Venezuela or in Colombia. Cúcuta is the border region with the highest unemployment rate in Colombia, and is the city receiving the most Venezuelans. Earning money there is no easy task.
Instead, many choose to gather their things and take to the road on foot. Such was the story of Junior Reverol, Joselyn Castillo and Karina Gómez (eight months pregnant), who are part of a group of 13 Venezuelans who departed from Cúcuta towards Cali on May 13, 2018—Mother’s Day. This is a journey of some 950 kilometers, which can take up to 18 hours by car.
Venezuelans lost on average 11 kilos of body weight in 2017, owing to the shortage and high cost of food.Venezuela Living Conditions Survey
“We have found better food to eat here, on the streets, than in Venezuela. People give us bread and soda for free. We can at least eat three times a day, and not two, as in Venezuela,” says Gerardo, one of 13 walkers. At 6 p.m., the group arrives at the sector of Donjuana, 29 kilometers from Cúcuta.
“What a difficult question,” says Luis Mora, 37 years old, a Venezuelan who works changing tires at Donjuana, and who took the group in.
“If 700 or 800 Venezuelans have walked by this week, it’s a small number. I’m not lying, it’s very sad, and it’s becoming worse because Venezuela is not getting better. So we will be seeing more Venezuelans on the road.”
What do you see as you walk?
Jovanny Barreto, or ‘El Muñequito Báez’, has been a road bicycle racer for some 23 years and once competed in the Táchira Tour. Three days ago, he left Barinas in western Venezuela, pedaling on his bike, looking to reach Ecuador. While he moves forward, his strategy is to enter local races that he finds on Facebook, fight for the podium and collect some money to eat and send to Venezuela. Every day he travels 70 kilometers, which he considers training. According to him, if this fails, he will look for a job as a blacksmith, painter, mechanic or salesperson. On May 14, he met the walkers on the side of the road and took a break with them. “Last week, one of my granddaughters asked me for food and I had nothing to give her, so I took off. I am not leaving for good; I will not give up Venezuela for another country. We had to migrate for now, but when my Venezuela has been fixed, I’ll come back,” he said.
Why walk while eight months pregnant?
Venezuelans crossing the Simón Bolívar Bridge share a similar, if unfounded, belief that the farther they go from the border, the easier it will be to start all over again. Wherever the road takes them is unimportant, be it Bogotá, Quito, Rumichaca, Santiago or Buenos Aires; whether the weather resembles that of Caracas, Valencia or Barquisimeto; or if their fates lie near rivers, near oceans, or surrounded by mountains—the destination matters not. Moving far away from present-day Venezuela, the unsustainable Venezuela, is the only chance they have to rebuild their lives.