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Venezuelan Migrants Face Hardships In Brazil, But Say It's Still Better Than What They Left

May 2, 2018
Originally published on May 2, 2018 9:06 pm
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Millions of people have left Venezuela over the last few years to escape the economic catastrophe that's been unfolding under President Nicolas Maduro. Tens of thousands have moved south to neighboring Brazil. NPR's Philip Reeves says this migration is now spreading into the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Jose Luis left Venezuela a few months back. His work on a farm had dried up.

JOSE LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He couldn't get a job. His money was close to worthless because Venezuela's currency's collapsed, Like many thousands of Venezuelans before him, Luis headed south and crossed into northern Brazil, yet he kept going, traveling hundreds of miles to a place he admits he knew almost nothing about. Luis came here to the city of Manaus deep in the Amazon rainforest. Manaus is by the Rio Negro, a huge river that flows into the Amazon itself. It has a busy port. Luis, who's 23, is now a thousand miles from home. He left Venezuela because he was hungry. In Brazil, he's still hungry.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We sometimes skip meals because we can't afford them," he explains. It's after dark. Luis is hanging out beneath some trees in a square. He spent the day looking for odd jobs around the port. It did not go well. On better days, he stays in a hostel.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: On this night, he must sleep here, he says, in the open. Right now, though, Luis is waiting with a handful of other Venezuelans to be fed. Volunteers from the Universal Church, an evangelical organization, come here at night with food.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The volunteers arrive with plastic chairs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The Venezuelans sit down for prayers and a sermon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The preacher hands out copies of the Universal Church's newspaper and tells the Venezuelans to place these on top of their heads...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...While he calls on God to rip their sins from their bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: After this large serving of religion, the Venezuelans are given a small serving of bread and soup. Life here is tough for these men, yet they say it's much worse back home. Some 52,000 Venezuelans have come to Brazil since the beginning of last year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. At least 40,000 stayed in the northern city of Boa Vista where Venezuelans now comprise more than 10 percent of the population. They arrive often penniless in a country where they don't speak the language. It's become very difficult to find work, says Enzo Perez, a Venezuelan truck driver who stayed in Boa Vista for a while.

ENZO PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "When you go looking for a job, seven fellow Venezuelans will have got there before you," he complains. Perez says that's why he took the highway through the rainforest to Manaus. He now sells bottles of water on the streets. Traveling that highway takes roughly 18 hours.

ANDREA TANIGUCHI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It can be dangerous," says Andrea Taniguchi.

TANIGUCHI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Especially for single women with children."

TANIGUCHI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: There are reports of robberies at bus stations and sexual assaults, including rape. Taniguchi is a social worker with Caritas, a Catholic relief organization providing legal and social support to Venezuelans. On average, more than 400 Venezuelans a week travel through the forest to Manaus. For many, though, it's not the road that's hard. It's the sacrifices they must make to support families back home. Virginia Vargas is a qualified primary school teacher. These days, she sells homemade snacks on the streets to make money to feed the kids she left back home...

VIRGINIA VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...A 2-year-old boy and a daughter of 11. Vargas hates being away from her children.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Yet Venezuela's meltdown has left her and many others like her with little choice. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Manaus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.