Three weeks ago, Irene Martínez and her husband Alveiro Izarra abandoned their newly constructed home in Maracay, Venezuela, to travel 2,500 kilometres by bus across the Brazilian border. From Manaus they caught a one-way flight to Buenos Aires where Irene’s 23-year-son Adam was waiting for them with food on the table and a place to stay.
“We couldn’t have done this without Adam,” 52-year-old handyman Alveiro explains, interjecting to speak on behalf of Irene, 45, who holds back tears over her mother’s recent health problems. “We didn’t have the money to fly out of Venezuela so he bought us tickets from Manaus.” Adam began sending money back to his family in Venezuela six months after his arrival in January 2015. “At the beginning, it was just a little and slowly I was sending more and more.”
The political and economic crisis in his home country is pushing middle- and upperclass families to consider leaving permanently. Many head to countries like Argentina, Mexico, Chile and the United States.
Already three of Adam’s five brothers and half-brothers live in Buenos Aires, and another is on his way.
“We worry about our sons because they’re young and very social, they spend a lot of time outside of the house [in Venezuela],” Irene says. Like most Venezuelan cities, Maracay suffers serious insecurity problems. The city is regularly paralyzed by public transport strikes because of the high rate of violent crime on local bus services.
The young men are living with their grandparents for the time being. “It was so difficult to leave our sons behind,” Irene says. “But we were no use to them there, we couldn’t provide for them anymore.”
Inflation in Venezuela is the highest in the world at around 1,100 percent, according to data compiled by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
With the exception of the upper classes and ruling elite, food shortages are a daily reality while looting and armed robberies are regular occurrences.
Irene’s 80-year-old father has just come out of retirement to take up a job as a watchman. He earns 40,000 bolivars a week in a city where a bag of coffee costs 70,000. Irene says: “One of the most horrible things for a person is being forced to be selfish. It’s gotten to the stage where one prays that nobody comes to visit. How am I going to feed that person, a relative or a friend, if I can’t even feed myself?”
“It’s gotten to the stage where people bring their own coffee and sugar to one another’s houses just so we can maintain our relationships,” she explains.
A GENERALLY WARM WELCOME
Six hundred Venezuelans arrive to Argentina per week, or four per hour, according to the Immigration Department, which registered 35,000 new arrivals from that country in the 18 months from January 2016 to July 2017. María Nouel, 31, came here in August 2016 with her 12-year-old son Nicola. The single mother found work at a coffee shop in Palermo. After a nasty experience with her first landlady, the owner of the coffee shop helped her find a private rental nearby.
“I’m one of those people who believe that others treat you the way you behave,” María explains. “Personally, I haven’t had many bad experiences here. Argentines tend to feel sorry for us.” María had turned to selling used books in Valencia, her home city. But a close encounter with armed gunmen forced her to question the sort of life she wanted for her young son.
“Nico and I were delivering some books when we got caught in traffic. All of a sudden a gunfight broke out a few cars ahead of us. All I remember was spinning the car around. It got damaged but we made it out safe,” she recalls. “It was exasperating, I could never get over that experience.” Soon after, María sat down with Nicola to discuss the prospect of leaving the country.
“I was very cautious about how it would affect him. We agreed to keep the plan to ourselves for a while so my family didn’t overdramatise the situation. I then started selling everything I owned and slowly my family came around to the idea and supported us.” María recalls the demoralising feeling of having to queue for food.
“My mother and I would go out on daily tours of the city. One day it would be food, the next medication. We once visited 13 clinics to find the medication we were looking for.” She says she had tired of the feeling of not belonging to a society that until recently had proven unable or unwilling to stand up for itself. “I thought: what am I doing in this place? Instead of using our rights to protest, we’re stuck in these endless queues for food. I had had enough.”
María’s colleague Paola Bravo, 23, from Guyana City, has similar memories. “People in Argentina underestimate the situation. That’s natural though, because they only see a fraction of the things that go on in Venezuela.” “I went out on the streets with fear, each and every day. From around 6.30pm, when it gets dark, the feeling of danger intensifies,” she says. “The last time they tried to rob me I got so panicked that I threw myself in front of traffic without even looking. Fortunately a driver picked me up and took me home. The robber, on his motorcycle, yelled at me as I got in: ‘What a nice backpack you’ve got.’ As soon as I got home, I broke into tears.” “Look at my hands,” she says. “I still shake when I think about it.”
Paola was five years into a degree in psychology when she left the country. Like her compatriots, she is determined to move forward with her life. “I thought: What am I doing here? Where I am going? I had to leave,” she says. For Irene and Alveiro, the novelty of Buenos Aires is still having its effects. But they are well aware of the difficult task ahead of them. “God willing, we will both find work. That’s always been the case, we’ve always landed on our feet,” says an emotional Alveiro. “The key is honesty and hard work.” Irene is “optimistic” she can get back into teaching primary- school children. “The people I’ve met have been very encouraging. We want to be part of this society, we want to take on its customs – and give back something too.”