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'Venezuela was beautiful once... It wasn’t until the very end that we realised we were losing everything'

Amanda Coakley interviews Venezuelans in Cali, Colombia

VENEZUELA WAS A powerhouse. Employment was high. The streets were clean and safe. The hospitals housed some of the best doctors in the region. Colombians crossed the border to take refuge from the civil conflict.

Investors from the United States, Italy and Spain dined in Caracas’ many restaurants.

The Bolivar was strong and its value a source of pride to all who traded in it. The idea that this would crumble was unfathomable.

Today Venezuela is on its knees.

Caracas Supermarket Empty shelves in Venezuelan supermarkets are now common. Adrien Vautier / Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press Adrien Vautier / Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press / Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press

Three million people have left since 2015. Hyperinflation has wiped out life savings and diminished salaries. Food is scarce. People queue outside supermarkets for hours
to get rationed rice or a piece of meat.

In the hospitals people are dying because of a lack of medical supplies. Blackouts have plunged the country into darkness.

In a bright apartment in western Colombia, Adolfo Doza, 60, and his wife Elizabeth Aguirre, 56, try to come to terms with this series of events.

Doza Family Two Credit_Amanda Coakley The Doza family Amanda Coakley Amanda Coakley

He is Venezuelan, she Colombian, they met in the Colombian capital Bogotá as students and later moved to Venezuela.

It was home to their two children Annick and Adolfo Junior and the place where Adolfo senior founded Induquip, a manufacturing company.

“Venezuela was beautiful,” Adolfo says, “There was no inflation, very little taxes, there was a lot of construction and nearly everyone had a job. I remember when I was studying employers would come into the university and hire students. The economic situation in Venezuela was good. As a family we were not rich but we had a high standard of living.”

Now their family is scattered across the world. Their daughter Annick lives in Dublin. Brothers and sisters live in Venezuela, the United States and Mexico. Four years ago they moved to Cali, Elizabeth’s birthplace. The decision to leave was difficult.

“We had a good life,” Elizabeth recalls, “The company was doing okay and everything was there. We were always hoping things would start to improve instead of getting worse. Then when the doctors said that if Adolfo Junior needed emergency health care, that he wouldn’t be able to get it in Venezuela, that was when I knew we had to go.”

Adolfo Junior, 42, requires care after a traumatic brain injury. Twenty-five years ago he was celebrating his graduation and was hit by a car while crossing the road. Years of recovery followed, leaving him in need of 24-hour care.

Theirs is a middle class story. In Cali, they can afford to rent an apartment, eat and travel. However, Venezuela’s collapse has taken its toll. Savings were lost due to hyperinflation. Induquip has two remaining employees and should they leave, the company may have to close.

The home they raised a family in – that was built lovingly – now lies dormant in Valencia. The secure retirement they worked for has essentially been wiped out.

“The price for my parents is the peace of mind you have in your 70s. That’s the part that is lost. Now they live hoping they will return to Venezuela one day,” Annick tells from Dublin.

The decision to leave was made because my mum was scared. She was fearful every day for my brother’s health. Everywhere she went she experienced a challenge and wanted to get out early before something bad happened.”

Annick adds, “My dad, he is the eternal optimist. He always thought things would get better. It wasn’t until he moved to Colombia that he realised how bad things were.”

Annick moved to Dublin more than 10 years ago because she loved Irish culture. Irish life, and the Irish climate, was a world away from Valencia.

“I loved the idea of living in Ireland. My parents thought I was crazy, but I’m happy here. I’ve studied and built a life.”

She is one of thousands of Venezuelans in the country. Previously Ireland was a top destination for Venezuelans looking to learn English.

However due to Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, the number of students and migrants has significantly reduced.

Venezuela Protest An anti-government rally in Barquisimeto, Venezuela on 28 April Ariana Cubillos Ariana Cubillos

When Hugo Chávez became the President in 1999 Venezuela experienced a shift to socialism. The military man, who was jailed for a failed coup in 1992, resonated with the poor who had grown tired of rampant corruption and social inequality.

According to Adolfo Senior, Chávez was a magician with words: “He never talked about socialism openly. His speeches were like ‘all these buildings will one day be yours’. If you’re poor, you believe that.”

From the early 2000s, Chávez began to nationalise key industries and this, coupled with other economic policies, slowly resulted in economic collapse.

In 2004, the Tascón List was published. More than 2.4 million Venezuelans signed a list, initiated by the politician Luis Tascón, to seek a recall referendum to remove Chávez from power. The signatories were seen as traitors by the government, people lost jobs, and the Dozas were refused travel to Cuba.

“There was a special rehabilitation clinic in Cuba that could help Adolfo Junior” Elizabeth says, “We signed up to go but then the authorities checked the list and we were all on it. We couldn’t go. He needed the care, but that was it.”

Adolfo Junior nods in agreement.

When Chávez died from cancer in 2013, Nicolás Maduro became President. The former bus driver was ill-equipped to manage the country and it fell further into ruin. “Things became a lot worse under Maduro, hyperinflation, business, security, everything,” Adolfo senior says flatly.

Two years of Maduro and the Dozas had left Venezuela.

Red Cross sends first relief supplies to Venezuela Venezuelans receiving aid supplies DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Elizabeth came first and then Adolfo Junior and Adolfo Senior.

The family regard themselves as lucky. As the situation in Venezuela deteriorates, people are becoming desperate. Many get a bus to the border city of San Antonio del Táchira and cross into Colombia through informal routes known as ‘trochas’, these are run by Venezuelan colectivos and Colombian paramilitary groups.

In the Colombian city of Cúcuta those unable to pay for a bus ticket to Bogotá, Cali or Medellin have to walk and face the extremes of the Colombian climate.

“It’s so sad,” Elizabeth says quietly. She shakes her head and glances to the ceiling. “You see them at the traffic lights and you want to help. When I moved back to Cali I tried to set up an organisation but the demand was too much and we didn’t have funding. Our employees in Venezuela always tell us how hard it is for everyone and it’s difficult to hear. I thank God every day that we could make it.”

The Venezuelan migrant crisis has moved in waves. At first people with wealth established safeguards in the United States, Spain or Colombia. Then those with savings and documentation went abroad to find work. Now, according to UNHCR, an estimated 5,000 people move to Colombia every day.

“I was back in Venezuela last year,” Elizabeth adds, “You could see the poverty, but you could also see the wealthy are still there. That’s something you might not expect. Those people fly to Miami for everything they need. Then in Venezuela they live as normal.”

In Ireland, Annick feels that people’s awareness of the Venezuelan crisis is fleeting.

“People think what’s happened to Venezuela is recent. They don’t understand that this is the complete unravelling of a nation and that is exceptionally painful for everyone,” she says.

“It’s also not just the poor who are suffering. It’s families who can survive but who have lost their savings, businesses, money for their children’s education. That’s what makes it so emotional.”
3.5% of all Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are living in Cali, according to Migración Colombia. On the drive into the city, they can be seen at the traffic lights or huddling together on grassy banks. They drive the taxis, wait the tables and work in industry from retail to agriculture.

Towards the beginning of many of their stories is the phrase: “Venezuela was beautiful once.”

“It’s true” Elizabeth says, “It was. Maybe now we look at those times with rose-tinted glasses, but it was beautiful. Many people had a nice life. We didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics or economics because we could live well. Then, it wasn’t until the very end that we realised we were losing everything.”

Amanda Coakley reports from Cali, Colombia. This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 


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