The Venezuelan Crisis

Ecuadoran floodThe Venezuelan crisis came into our living rooms a few days ago. Riots always bring out the television cameras. Burning cars, tear-gassed protestors, cops in riot gear wading into the crowd, all that anger and violence make for good American TV ratings.

But millions of displaced migrants in tent cities or begging in the streets, not so much. Between three and five million people have fled Venezuela since 2014. That’s a staggering number and much larger than the well-publicized exodus from Syria and North African countries.

But the riot got the attention of our government. Sixteen people were killed and a few hundred injured as the government of Nicholas Madura cracked down on a citizenry calling for him to step down amid the plummet of both human rights and the economy.

Donald Trump and other Western leaders want him out. Russia wants him in. At stake are relations with one of the world’s largest oil producers.

Oil. The root of all Venezuela’s evils. It made the country wealthy, and corrupt, but the severe drop in oil prices twice in the last decade have thrown Venezuela into poverty, lawlessness and chaos.

Just after Christmas I visited Ecuador, invited there by an Ecuadorian journalist I met while she was in New Jersey. She wanted me to see this humanitarian crisis first-hand and see its impact on her country.

The streets of Ecuador On the congested streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, Venezuelan women approached cars with cardboard signs, begging for money to send home to their starving children. Venezuelan men swarmed the stopped traffic, with rags and buckets of soapy water, hoping for even pennies.

In fishing village of Porto Lopez, impoverished Venezuelan men do the hard labor of hauling the day’s catch off boats through the surf, or cleaning fish for customers for pennies a day.  Ecuadoran fishermen

“This is horrible for these people,” said journalist and publisher Sylvia Jauregui.

“Most came through Colombia, which for a time didn’t check passports,” Jauregui said. “Some spent all their money on buses to come across Colombia to Ecuador. Some walked, all the way.”

She is especially interested in the plight of women, many of whom were professional people when Venezuela’s economy was booming when oil demands, led by China, spiked at decade ago.

“I know women who were educated people, with white-collar jobs,” Jauregui said. “They worked in offices, in cities. These were not all poor, rural people. Now they are here begging, or selling their bodies, to send whatever they can scrounge up to send home to their children, so they can eat.”

Jauregui works in the mining region of Zamora-Chincipe, in the southeast region of Ecuador near the Peru border. A gold deposit there called Fruta del Norte is among the world’s largest recent precious metal discoveries.

A boom of jobs and wealth drew desperate Venezuelan women to the area to find work, whatever it was. Jauregui said she knows of one group of nine women that share a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom. Sometimes the work is in the sex trade.

“They send the money home,” she said. “But they know the store shelves are empty. There is little food, no medicine and no basic necessities, and no hope. Gangs are now stealing food and robbing people of what little they have.”

Jauregui said the women spend almost nothing on themselves, just enough to be attractive to men. Many are like mistresses, getting just enough money to subsist but not enough to save and leave. They are captives, like all poor people in the vortex of international human trafficking.  We’ve all heard the stories of the abuse of house servants in wealthy countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, or workers kept in camps and underfed as they work in Middle East oil fields.

Why is it the wealthiest countries and people are the worst at exploiting the poor? It is all around us. I did a column two years ago about cleaning ladies being humiliated and underpaid in the homes of wealthy Orthodox Jews. That’s just one example. How many people who hire lawn services know how much the day workers are being paid?

It is old news that these are not welcoming times in the United States and Europe for refugees or desperate immigrants escaping violence or poverty.England, by contrast

A few days after I left Ecuador, I traveled to London. The papers were filled with news about the Brexit negotiations. When the British voted to leave the European Union two years ago, one of the driving reasons was immigration.

One of the Brexit mottos was “Take Our Country Back,” the English cousin of “Make American Great Again.” New stories tell of how England’s social services are being overwhelmed by foreigners. I met a social medicine doctor there who said most of the people she treats these days have recently come in from foreign countries.

In most places in the world, refugees are easily identified as “others” by skin color or language. The Africans landing on Southern Italy’s shores, for instance, standout in the society. Two summers ago, I visited the remote cave shrine of San Michele Arcangelo on a mountain high above the Adriatic Sea on the Gargano Peninsula. At the entrance, there was the unlikely scene of Africans begging or selling trinkets.

The Venezuelan crisis is different this way. The refugees assimilate easily. And many South American countries, poor as they are, offer universal safety nets of human services to them, even if they have no papers.

Those nets are fraying as more Venezuelans pile on. Ecuador says it needs $550 million to deal with the health and housing needs of the 600,000 Venezuelans now living in the country.

Those numbers are based on guaranteeing “the migrants’ human rights and ensure an orderly transition to their new surroundings,” Ecuador Vice Minister Santiago Chavez said in November. In other words, they are being welcomed.

That is a statement that you won’t hear from Western governments, including ours. And those numbers, while a burden in a small South American country like Ecuador, are about the cost of three American F-22 Raptor fighter jets.

To be fair, the United States has sent $46 million in aid to the countries absorbing the desperate Venezuelans. Some will say that’s not enough. Others will say it’s not our problem.

So the age-old question remains: Does a wealthy country and its people have a human obligation to lessen the burden of poor and hungry refugees, or should it protect its own resources, no matter how abundant?

In 10,000 years of human civilization, we haven’t been able to answer that question and probably never will.

So it comes down, as it always does, to the generosity of individuals and agencies that administer that generosity. Thank God there are enough of both. And that’s the only way I could end this column on a positive note.