Venezuelan Diaspora in Brazil Left Blindsided by COVID-19 as Migrant Flow Persists

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Venezuela’s economy has been mired in a crisis for years, having been rocked by hyperinflation and political turmoil long before the COVID-19 pandemic even hit. The virus has exacerbated the situation, but the trend of millions of Venezuelans fleeing for opportunities abroad — from the United States to Mexico to Costa Rica to Ecuador to Brazil — was already embedded in the culture.

It is hard to talk about what the Venezuelan diaspora in Brazil is facing in the wake of COVID-19 without exploring the conditions leading up to it.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years in hopes of escaping the economic crisis and finding better opportunities elsewhere. According to some estimates, nearly 5 million Venezuelans have left for greener pastures, close to 900,000 of whom made their way into Brazil.

As of early 2020, 500 Venezuelans were crossing the Brazilian border on a daily basis. And while Brazil is not always their final destination, hundreds of thousands of them have taken steps to stay there.

By the time COVID-19 invaded Brazil, the Venezuelan diaspora was hit especially hard, many of whom found themselves in the same despair that gripped them before they left. Now that the pandemic is here, with the threat of a potential second wave of coronavirus looming, Venezuelan migrants who fled to Brazil are having to start over once again.

Migrant Journeys

Most of the Venezuelan diaspora in Brazil is located in the border state of Roraima. It is no accident that 10% of Roraima’s population is comprised of Venezuelan migrants. 

The Brazilian Army is behind an effort dubbed the Economic Integration of Vulnerable Nationals from Venezuela in Brazil. As the name suggests, it’s designed to relocate Venezuelan migrants to south of Roraima, where they have a better chance of finding steady work and building a life. The program is responsible for relocating more than 27,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees to Southern Brazil.

Reuters spotlighted Jose Angel Perez, a former tanker truck driver for Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, and his family. They took one of the flights in hopes of finding a better life in Brazil. He said in January 2020, “I need a job, so does my wife. We plan to stay. Change will not come quickly in Venezuela.”

While the army’s efforts were deemed a success, COVID-19 has been a huge setback for that migrant community.

The Caracas Chronicles caught up with some Venezuelan migrants, including Adny Suárez, who migrated from Puerto Ordaz through Roraima in 2016 and eventually made her way to Sao Paulo, though the journey was far from easy. After nearly having to resort to begging, she was able to get on her feet from a bartending job, which she held for a couple of years before starting her own home therapy business. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, everything came to a screeching halt, Suárez told the publication, saying, “I had to cease all of my activities due to the lockdown restrictions.”

Adrián Zambrano migrated to Brazil from Caracas seven years ago. He came to São Paulo, where his wife was pursuing a postgraduate education. Zambrano knew that there was nothing to go back to in Venezuela and set down roots in Brazil.

As an event planner, one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy as a result of lockdown measures and social distancing, his livelihood was derailed as a result of the pandemic. Zambrano told the  Caracas Chronicles that he hasn’t worked an event since mid-March and is still searching for full-time work. He considers himself one of the fortunate ones, however, saying, “Luckily, I’ve been receiving emergency federal aid from the government. But I’m already months late on my rent and I’ve been doing delivery work to make ends meet.”

Economic Relief

Fortunately, there were programs in place even before COVID-19 hit that are designed to help the Venezuelan diaspora who in addition to seeking better lives for themselves send remittance payments back home to their families.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is one such aid program, and it has so far delivered close to $15 million in support directed toward Venezuelans living in Brazil.

In recent weeks, USAID revealed that it would direct $1.17 million in awards that are designed to improve the lives of Venezuelans living abroad across Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and even those who never left  Venezuela, to begin with. In Brazil, the focus is on a youth program that teaches “social cohesion, employability and integration in Brazil, Manaus and Sao Paulo” via an “entrepreneurship skills-building program,” which is available both in-person and virtually.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, the same program will have people on the ground to build new and sustainable farming strategies designed to bolster food security. They will also work with women to teach leadership skills including an entrepreneurship pilot program.

In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, USAID and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) introduced the Economic Integration of Vulnerable Nationals from Venezuela in Brazil Program. As part of the initiative, they earmarked $4 million in funding to improve the lives of Venezuelan migrants in Brazil and support economic integration in local communities with vocational and language training as well as job placement.

Migration Pace Picking UP

As bad as conditions are in Brazil, it’s only worse in Venezuela, where in addition to the economic crisis many households are now without the vital remittance incomethat used to help. It was these remittances that gave families a reason to stay put in Venezuela, but now that the flow of money has been interrupted, there is nothing preventing them from leaving.

Internal Law Professor at the Federal University of Roraima, Fernando Xavier, said that the flow of Venezuelan migrants had actually begun to decline, which he attributes to past remittances. Now, with the pandemic lingering, he believes that trend is poised to be reversed, telling the Caracas Chronicles,

“A substantial portion of the Venezuelan population came to rely on remittances sent from abroad for their very survival. Without this source of income, we can expect to see a new and larger wave of migrants crossing the border into Brazil toward the end of 2020 and well into next year.”

Venezuelans who are fleeing for Brazil are not limited by age. According to a report in The Guardian, unaccompanied minors were increasingly making the treacherous journey. In the second half of 2019, nearly 500 Venezuelan kids as young as 11 and teens made their way to Brazil alone. The pattern is even more pronounced over the long-term, where 25,000 Venezuelan minors have fled their home country for Colombia or Brazil.

Gerelyn Terzo is a staff writer at Sharemoney, a money remittance service that is passionate about improving the lives of immigrants. The granddaughter of an Italian immigrant from the town of Teora whose first steps in the U.S. were on Ellis Island, Gerelyn resides in New Jersey.

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