The northern Brazilian city of Boa Vista must have the cleanest car windscreens in the entire country. This is because on almost every street corner, at every junction, and around every roundabout, there is a Venezuelan, or four, offering their services. Their partners and children sheltering from the sun in some nearby shade.
Whether they were teachers, builders, doctors, carpenters, chefs, farmers, bankers, or shop assistants previously, they are now self-employed car washers and roadside salespeople. Cardboard signs serve the dual purpose of promoting their work and potential, whilst also providing some cover from the intense heat which accompanies their daily 12-hour shifts.
It is believed that some 40,000 Venezuelans are now living in Boa Vista, representing approximately 10% of the total population of the city. Some, like the family of five who I travelled with, are able to stay with relatives, but most are forced to camp rough and occupy empty buildings.
Public squares have become makeshift refugee camps as hundreds of Venezuelans gather and attempt to gain a foothold in the ascent towards a new, better life.
The Brazilian press report on the situation daily. Newspaper headlines in hotel lobbies and on taxi dashboards label it a “migrant crisis”. Live reports are a feature of TV news shows with presenters and camera crew located at the nearest border crossing between the two countries – a three-hour drive north of Boa Vista.
Crime is said to have increased in the city in the last 12-months, and tensions are beginning to show as the city struggles to deal with the influx of political and economic refugees.
200 additional soldiers have been deployed to help with the crisis and the Brazilian President, Michel Temer, has vowed to keep the borders open and relocate Venezuelans to other areas of the country, easing the burden on cities such as Boa Vista.
Regardless of these measures, the Venezuelans will continue to arrive. Perhaps that is why these measures were introduced in the first place, because the Brazilian government know that there is no end in sight.
The desperation of some Venezuelans becomes even more evident once you leave Boa Vista and head north along the highway to the border crossing at Pacaraima. After an hour-and-a-half of near constant 120km per hour driving, you begin to see groups of people walking in the opposite direction.
The highway runs through Brazil’s northern savannah which offers little in the way of protection and contains few human settlements. But despite the unforgiving environment, a steady trickle of humans can be seen, each of them laden with as much weight as they can carry.
At the border crossing in Pacaraima, there are hundreds of Venezuelans, officially and legally in Brazil, families wait for relatives and try to arrange transportation. Cardboard serves a different purpose here as it is unfolded and used as temporary bedding.
There is a near constant movement of taxis shuttling people down to Boa Vista (for the right price) and many have now installed top boxes so that additional luggage can be stored.
I was just one of a handful of people doing the Brazil – Venezuela journey – as opposed to the Venezuela – Brazil one, and though I was told it was a “quiet day”, it still took me over an hour to get my passport stamped.
Maria, a guide I would be trekking with in Venezuela, told me that approximately 3,000 people cross over into Brazil through that border crossing every day.
Santa Elena sits on the Venezuelan side of this border crossing and provides a glimpse into the continuing nightmare that is life in Venezuela currently.
Inflation is rampant and continues to increase on a daily basis. All menus and prices are written in pencil. The one banknote worth 50 Brazilian Real that I exchanged at the border – approximately £11 GBP and/or $15 USD – was worth 1.5 million Venezuelan Bolivars, and was made up of 600 banknotes.
Sales of money pouches, cash counters, and elastic bands must be through the roof, but the reality is that such inflation has eliminated bank savings, forced people to live on a day-by-day basis, and has economically imprisoned them in the country.
With such a low international monetary value, cross-border travel is a luxury that bankrupts many Venezuelans.
One man I spoke to, Jose, has family in Europe, but despite working three jobs, he cant afford to travel to see them. His 90+ work weeks bring him less than £14 GBP/$20 USD in wages.
When I asked him why he doesn’t go to a fellow Spanish-speaking country in South America, he says that “there are already too many Venezuelans in Chile, in Peru, in Colombia…” Jose realises that living a hand-to-mouth existence in Venezuela is better than living in absolute poverty, homeless and unemployed, in another country.
Those that I spoke to in Santa Elena are just about keeping their heads above water. Local businesses cannot invest money or save due to the rocketing inflation, so as soon as they receive any income, they spend it. Due to the ludicrous amount of banknotes needed to purchase anything, some of the locals of Santa Elena have established a credit system with shops where wire transfers are done to settle bills. This is at times a necessity because there are in fact not enough physical banknotes to go around.
Astonishingly, for a country that holds the largest known oil deposits in the world, Santa Elena is also suffering from a fuel crisis. For hours every day, trucks and cars queue or sit by the roadside as they wait their turn to receive the 20 litres of fuel that they are allowed each day. The Venezuelan National Guard have been called in to oversee this and are said to be making a tidy profit on black market sales.
Maria says that she will not leave Venezuela, but she admits that every day of her life, things have got worse. She hopes that things will get better, Gabriella is another from Santa Elena who longs for a better future.
This future does not look likely through the upcoming elections however. Gabriella believes that they are a farce and are rigged in favour of the current government “I don’t vote in elections”, she tells me, “there is no point. In elections, even dead people seem to vote for the government.”
The possibility of a revolution has crossed her mind, but things will have to continue to deteriorate before this becomes more likely. With the military still in support of the government, and allegedly profiting from black market activities, and students getting shot when they protest in Caracas, there appears to be little firm opposition. “Nobody is willing to take a stand,” says Gabriella, “nobody has weapons to take a stand”.
*names have been changed to protect identities
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