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By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS, March 2 (Reuters) - Just after dawn, dozens of Venezuelans gathered at the dark bus station in Caracas. They lugged one big suitcase each, as well as blankets, toilet paper, cheap bread and jugs of water. Weeping wives, confused children and elderly parents hugged them over and over until it was time to check tickets and weigh bags, then hung back, waiting hours for the bus to leave. When it finally pulled out, the passengers looked down at their loved ones, pounding on the windows and blowing kisses as they speeded out of this crumbling capital city.
On board the bus, web developer Tony Alonzo had sold his childhood guitar to help pay for his ticket to Chile. For months he had been going to bed hungry so that his 5-year-old brother could have something for dinner. Natacha Rodriguez, a machine operator, had been robbed at gunpoint three times in the past year. She was headed for Chile, too, hoping to give her baseball-loving son a better life. Roger Chirinos was leaving his wife and two young children behind to search for work in Ecuador. His outdoor advertising company had come to a bitter end: Protesters tore down his billboards to use as barricades during violent rallies against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.
Their bus tells the story of a once-wealthy nation in stomach-dropping free fall, as hundreds of people flee daily from a land where fear and want are the new normal.
By the time dawn rises over Caracas, hungry people are already picking through garbage while kids beg in front of bakeries. Come dusk, many Venezuelans shut themselves inside their homes to avoid muggings and kidnappings. In a country with the world’s largest proven crude reserves, some families now cook with firewood because they cannot find propane. Hospitals lack supplies as basic as disinfectant. Food is so scarce and pricey that the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds last year.
“I feel Venezuela has succumbed to an irreversible evil,” Chirinos said.
Many blame the country’s precipitous decline on the government of Maduro, who has tightened his grip on power, holding fast to statist policies that have throttled the economy. His government says it is facing a U.S.-led conspiracy to sabotage leftism in Latin America by hoarding goods and stoking inflation.
Poorer by the day, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have concluded that escape is their only option. With the country’s currency virtually worthless and air travel beyond the reach of all but elites, buses have become Venezuela’s caravans of misery, rolling day and night to its borders and returning largely empty to begin the process all over again.
The 37 Venezuelans leaving on this day had hocked everything – motorbikes, TVs, even wedding rings – to pay for their escape. Most had never been outside the country before.
For nine days, a reporter and a photographer from Reuters accompanied the migrants as they headed for what they hoped were better days in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. For nearly 5,000 miles, they rolled through some of South America’s most spectacular landscapes, including the vertiginous Andean mountain range and the world’s driest desert in Chile. But even though the Venezuelans were awed by the views whizzing by their window, their minds were mostly on the land they had left behind – and the uncertainty facing them in the lands ahead.
A heavy silence fell over the bus after it pulled out of the Rutas de America terminal. Passengers glumly texted family members or stared out the window as the packed vehicle rolled by mango trees, shuttered factories and crumbling murals of the late President Hugo Chavez.
Natacha Rodriguez, the machine operator, had been running on adrenaline in the mad rush to pack, sell her television and washing machine, and endure long lines to get her documents in order. Now, on this day in November, she was near exhaustion as she tried to get comfortable in her seat.
The 29-year-old single mom was traveling with her 12-year-old son, David, her sister Alejandra and a family friend, Adrian Naveda, to what she dreamed would be a quiet life. The group was bound for Concon, Chile, a beach resort where Venezuelan expat friends assured them there was plenty of work.
Rodriguez said she had hoped Venezuela’s youth could bring about change. Like millions of her countrymen, she took to the streets to protest the unpopular Maduro last year, only to despair when he responded by consolidating his authority.
Fear added to Rodriguez’s hopelessness: Her story of three robberies at gunpoint is a familiar one in a country awash with drugs and gangs. And with inflation fast outrunning her paycheck, the already petite woman had lost 13 pounds as she cut fruit and soft drinks from her diet so that David would not go hungry. She knew she had to act.
“In Venezuela you go to sleep thinking about what you’re going to eat the next day,” Rodriguez said. “I never wanted to leave, but the situation is forcing me to.”
She had never left the country, and the enormity of what she was attempting was sinking in. In the days ahead she would visit four new countries, cross the equator and see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. But she couldn’t stop thinking of how far she had traveled from the home she still loved.
Venezuelans elected Chavez, the late leftist firebrand, in 1998 with a mandate to fight inequality. A charismatic former lieutenant colonel, Chavez transformed the country during his 14-year rule, pouring oil revenue into wildly popular welfare programs. But he also nationalized large swaths of the economy and implemented strict currency controls, state meddling that economists say is the root of the current crisis.
Once a magnet for European and Middle Eastern immigrants during its 1970s oil boom, Venezuela now exports its people along with petroleum.
Spooked by Chavez, a first wave of engineers, doctors and other professionals began fleeing for the United States, Canada and Europe in the early 2000s. Most arrived to warm welcomes in their adopted homes, many with their savings intact.
Now, financially ravaged Venezuelans with fewer skills are pouring across South America in a frantic search for work in restaurants, stores, call centers and construction sites. Some travel only as far as their savings will stretch: A one-way bus ticket to neighboring Colombia from Caracas costs the U.S. equivalent of around $15; the fare for a trip to Chile or Argentina can run as high as $350, a small fortune for many. The plunging currency and rocketing inflation make financing the voyage more expensive with each passing day.
Sociologist Tomas Paez, an immigration specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, estimates that almost 3 million people have fled Venezuela over the past two decades. He believes nearly half of them have left in the last two years alone, in one of the largest mass migrations the continent has ever seen. The socialist government does not release emigration statistics, but Maduro says his enemies have exaggerated the extent of the exodus.
Neighboring Colombia has taken in the bulk of migrants in Latin America, although Argentina, Chile and Peru are also seeing a big influx.
In contrast to refugees fleeing Syria, Myanmar and North Africa who have met with violence and resistance, Venezuelans are moving easily across land borders on tourist visas. But tensions are increasing as their numbers strain the resources of South America’s developing countries, which have their own problems with poverty and crime.
Carmen Larrea has a front-row seat to the migration. She is the owner of Rutas de America, a small Caracas-based bus company founded nearly 50 years ago to ferry Peruvians and Ecuadoreans to Venezuela in search of work.
At 75, she has lived long enough to see the world turned upside down. She now survives on Venezuelans heading in the other direction. Her customers included the 37 migrants whom Reuters followed.
Larrea’s terminal sees dozens queue up daily to purchase tickets. Many must return repeatedly to pay in installments. Daily withdrawal limits on debit cards no longer keep up with inflation-fueled prices. Card readers frequently crash.
Requests for tickets abroad had roughly doubled in the last six months, Larrea said. Around 800 Venezuelans leave the country every month on her company’s handful of Caracas-based buses alone.
But skyrocketing prices for spare parts and the plunging bolivar have hammered her profits, Larrea said. And while Rutas de America buses leave Caracas jam-packed, they often return empty, further denting business.
“We’re fighting against the tide,” she said.
By daybreak, the bus had arrived in the garbage-strewn Venezuelan town of San Antonio del Tachira, near the Colombian border. The teeming frontier is a lifeline for desperate Venezuelans. They cross daily to sell goods like liquor, copper, even their own hair, often making more money in a day in Colombia than in a month back home.
Maduro has increased security at the border in an attempt to crack down on contraband. The bus riders were forced to disembark and pass through half a dozen checkpoints on foot, struggling to haul their suitcases, backpacks, blankets, food and water jugs under the searing sun. Trudging to the narrow Simon Bolivar International Bridge that links Venezuela to Colombia, they walked under a big government sign that read: “Here no one speaks ill of Chavez.”
The gauntlet took five hours, in part because the Venezuelan migration office’s computers crashed. The travelers’ apprehensions grew as Venezuelan soldiers, known for shaking down border crossers, searched their bags repeatedly.
Passenger Chirinos, the ad man, was carrying $200 in U.S. currency, a precious hedge against inflation. A National Guard soldier demanded half of it to let him through with an old Playstation video game console deemed contraband. Chirinos handed over a $20 bill to end the standoff.
“Our own people rob us,” Chirinos said later, recounting the humiliation.
The Armed Forces did not respond to a request for comment.
Just a few years ago, the 34-year-old Chirinos was solidly middle class. He boxed at a gym and splurged on vacations, including a 2014 trip to Rio de Janeiro with his wife.
But as the crisis worsened, even small indulgences like movie tickets spiraled out of reach. Chirinos cut down on his own food intake to ensure his two children had enough to eat. He began to pray daily that his kids would never fall ill; there was no medicine to treat them.
The coup de grace came during anti-government protests last year when the demonstrators outside the capital knocked down his company’s billboards to shield themselves from National Guard soldiers. The enterprise his parents had founded in the 1970s was all but lost.
Several passengers around him wept as they listened to his story. Chirinos, an athletic man with a shaved head and goatee, remained stony-faced.
“I don’t have time for resentment,” he said. “What I feel is deep sadness.”
Once over the border in the buzzing Colombian town of Cucuta, Jehovah’s Witnesses, vendors and hustlers of all stripes descended on the overwhelmed migrants. The streets of Cucuta were already full of poor Venezuelans, some sleeping in parks and washing their clothes in creeks because they had no money to travel farther.
The bus passengers immediately bought Colombian pesos in crowded exchange houses where wads of near-worthless Venezuelan bills flew out of money-counting machines. The bolivar has lost a mind-boggling 98 percent against the U.S. dollar in the last year, meaning $100 worth of local currency a year ago is worth just $2 now.
Pesos in hand, the migrants boarded a new Rutas de America bus waiting for them in Cucuta. The vehicle climbed upward into the foggy Colombian mountains. Out the window, farmers in traditional Andean ponchos tended their herds.
Crossing the city of Bucaramanga, Naveda, the family friend who was traveling with Rodriguez and her son, learned by text that his great-grandmother had died. The 23-year-old felt an urge to turn back. But he knew the rest of his family was depending on him to send money home once he reached Chile and found employment.
“I have to be strong and continue,” Naveda said.
Even though entering other parts of Latin America on temporary tourist visas is easy for Venezuelans, some are struggling to secure jobs and work permits. Those who strike out often get back on the road to try their luck in another country. In the United States, for example, Venezuelans now lead monthly applications for affirmative asylum.
Others are forced to return to Venezuela, broke and distraught. Maduro has warned Venezuelans that life in “capitalist” societies is tough.
“In six months you’ll be back in Venezuela,” the president said in a recent televised address.
Meanwhile, his government is benefiting from migrant remittances that are helping to prop up Venezuela’s economy and keep a lid on unrest in the nation of about 30 million. The government does not release remittance figures. But the Inter-American Dialogue think tank estimated that some $2 billion flowed into Venezuela last year from citizens working abroad.
Other Latin Americans have been largely sympathetic to Venezuelans’ troubles. Chileans, for instance, note that Venezuela sheltered thousands of their exiled countrymen during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship in the 1970s.
But the influx is stoking tensions with some South American workers who view Venezuelans as rivals. News broadcasts increasingly feature stories about Venezuelans committing crimes. In Brazil, Venezuelans are already living in shelters just over the border in Boa Vista. In Colombia, the government says it has treated more than 24,000 Venezuelans for medical emergencies, and authorities in January evicted more than 200 homeless Venezuelans from an athletic field in Cucuta. In a possible sign of further crackdowns ahead, Brazil and Colombia tightened their borders in February as they grapple with the influx.
Despite the hardships of starting over, almost all Venezuelans on the bus journey said they planned to help relatives leave – or “get them out,” as most now say.
The bus plowed on, stopping in Colombia’s western Cauca province on the third day to let the Venezuelans shower and eat. The week before, hundreds of Venezuelans had been stranded there for several days after indigenous Colombian protesters blocked the highway to demand better living conditions from the government.
Milena Ramos, who works in a store at the roadside stop there, recalled the helplessness of the marooned Venezuelans.
“Some slept on the bus, others on the floor. People from the area brought them food and water. They were in a bad state,” Ramos said. She estimated that up to eight buses full of Venezuelans pull up every day.
Just before 2 a.m. on the fourth day of the journey, the bus arrived at the frigid Colombian border town of Ipiales, near the Ecuadorean border, 9,508 feet high in the Andes. The shivering Venezuelans, almost none of whom had warm coats, lined up in the dark to get their passports stamped. Several more buses pulled up, unloading more of their countrymen.
As they crossed into Ecuador, the Venezuelans told border agents they were tourists; the bored-looking officials stamped their documents and waved them through. Any who are rejected just wait to cross during the next shift, handlers and food sellers there told Reuters.
As the bus kept heading southward, the Venezuelans expressed amazement at the views from their windows: Plump cows. Functioning traffic lights. Fully stocked store shelves. Thriving corn and coffee fields. People nonchalantly wearing gold jewelry on the streets.
“It’s a new world!” exclaimed 7-year-old Josmer Rivas. Back home, the boy sometimes missed school because his family couldn’t afford a few U.S. cents’ worth of transport costs. In the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, Josmer was so excited to find soap in a bathroom that he insisted on dishing it out to everyone.
Still, the mood on the bus was often heavy, especially among parents who took advantage of stops to call children left behind. Billboard company owner Chirinos, who disembarked in Ecuador and headed straight to the home of some Venezuelan friends who were putting him up, felt lost without his kids. Some migrants had swollen ankles or painful backs after several days on the road. Others were sick of munching their stashes of white bread and other cheap staples.
For Rodriguez, the single mom, warm food at the rest stops was a luxury she splurged on only for her son, David. He was excited about the trip at first, thinking it was a sort of vacation. But as the voyage dragged on, he became tired and threw up one night on a winding mountain road in Colombia. He wondered why they hadn’t taken a plane.
Although many Venezuelan parents entrust their children to relatives and send for them once they have a toehold abroad, Rodriguez said she couldn’t risk it.
“What if they limit emigration or entry to other countries, or everything becomes more expensive and I can’t get him out?” she said. “I wasn’t going to be at peace with myself if I went and left him.”
When in the early evening the bus pulled into Guayaquil, the last stop on the Rutas de America line, little Josmer Rivas flew into the arms of his overjoyed father, who had emigrated to Ecuador four months earlier.
Rodriguez’s foursome and a few others boarded a midnight bus to continue their journey south to Chile, some carrying tuna and crackers given to them by those who had disembarked. Again, the buses were mostly filled with Venezuelans – easily recognizable by their bulky bags and jugs of water – although they were now rubbing shoulders with grungy Western backpackers.
The voyage across Peru was uneventful, punctuated by views of the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood action films on video screens hanging from the bus ceiling. But potential trouble loomed at the crossing into Chile, one of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous nations. Police grilled the Venezuelans sharply.
“How much money do you have?” one officer asked Rodriguez. “Do you know Chile is an expensive country? Do you know there are Venezuelans sleeping under bridges here? Are you and your child going to sleep under a bridge?”
Rodriguez, unflustered, responded that she had a place to stay and enough money to get by.
She and the rest of the group eventually were admitted into Chile. Beaming, they hugged quickly before yet another bus journey, to Santiago – nearly 1,300 miles to the south. Alonzo, the Chile-bound web developer, was not so lucky. He had tarried a few days in Peru to spend time with a cousin. Arriving at the same border crossing just a few days after Rodriguez, he was refused entry by Chilean police.
It was just the latest in a series of setbacks for Alonzo, who had been trying to leave Venezuela for two years. His trip had been thwarted twice after he was forced to use savings for medical bills, first for a lung problem and another time to fix an infected molar.
When the 26-year-old web developer finally left Venezuela, he had just $230 in his pocket, scraped together from loans from friends as well as a fire sale of his dearest possessions.
“I sold the guitar I had since I was 16. I sold my computer. I sold my bed,” Alonzo said.
He had hoped his programming skills would be snapped up in Chile, a budding technology hub. But after he was turned back at the border, Alonzo had little choice but return to his cousin’s apartment in the Peruvian capital, Lima.
Chirinos and Rodriguez have fared better, both quickly obtaining work and legal papers.
Chirinos has rented an apartment in Quito and is working six days a week at a graphic design and advertising company. He spends what little free time he has with old friends from Venezuela.
A family man to the bone, Chirinos says he feels incomplete without his wife, 9-year-old son and baby daughter and wants to bring them over as soon as possible.
“I’m terrified about what’s happening in Venezuela, and I don’t want my children to grow up in such a heavy and negative environment,” said Chirinos, whose family is surviving off the money he sends.
Down in Chile, Rodriguez waits tables at a busy seafront restaurant popular with tourists. She initially slept on the floor in a crowded two-bedroom apartment packed with Venezuelans. Now she sleeps in a room with David because her sister and friend Naveda moved to their own place, freeing up space in the apartment.
Rodriguez relishes simple pleasures: walking alone to a nighttime party; finding soap at pharmacies. She was especially thrilled to buy her son a bicycle for Christmas.
David loves his new home. He quickly made friends – all Chileans – and has ditched baseball, a major sport in Venezuela, in favor of pick-up soccer at a field near his home. Photos sent from Rodriguez’s cell phone show the boy grinning astride his black mountain bike in one shot, tucking into a hamburger at McDonald’s in another.
Rodriguez herself, meanwhile, gets frequent news about Venezuela from her mother and siblings. Hungry mobs have been looting stores as shortages and inflation worsen. Maduro has just announced he is running for re-election in May. With the opposition’s two main leaders barred from holding office, the unpopular president looks likely to clinch a six-year term.
In Chile, Rodriguez has found the tranquility she longed for. Still, she cannot let go of Venezuela.
“Every day I ask myself – how long will it be until I can return?”