CARACAS. – After fleeing Venezuela like millions of others due to the harsh humanitarian crisis in the country, Misael Cocho arrived by bus in Peru, where he got sporadic jobs to send money home every month to his mother and his five-year-old son.
But as soon as he got his most stable job for now in Lima, coronavirus cases skyrocketed. He lost his job, sold his television to buy food, and for months he has been unable to send money to Caracas for food for Cocho’s child and mother.
The consequences of the pandemic left many Venezuelan emigrants abroad and their dependents left behind behind in dry dock. And as employment in countries like Peru and Colombia disappears, humanitarian groups point out that many Venezuelans who fled hunger now have trouble eating.
Cocho, 24, faces a dilemma. Should you stay in Peru in case the economy improves, or return to Caracas, where life is precarious but might not get worse?
“This pandemic has really hit me hard,” he said.
Venezuela’s population peaked with 30 million people in 2015, but in the face of the country’s economic collapse, five million migrated to other places in South America, the United States and Europe, according to the UN-dependent International Organization for Migration. Most of those left behind live on a minimum income of about two dollars a month.
About half of Venezuelans who migrated to other South American countries are informal workers – laborers, vendors, street performers, and waiters – according to estimates by Provash Budden, regional director for the Americas for humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps . The economic impact of the virus hit those workers, who have little or no support networks, squarely.
At first, Cocho found employment shoveling manure and sweeping streets, and recently got a better paying job at a family food store. But he was fired as the virus spread. Peru has some 65,000 confirmed cases and, with more than 1,800 deaths, it is the second Latin American country with the most deaths behind Brazil, where more than 10,000 people have died.
Cocho sleeps on a mattress in a house crowded with Venezuelan immigrants. The landlord has let them not pay the rent for now, but Cocho doesn’t know how long that generosity will last.
“I’ve had to choose to sell the things I don’t use in order to survive,” he said.
Venezuela was a wealthy nation, located on the largest oil reserves in the world. But years of political confrontation, corruption, and mismanagement of resources by the socialist government left most Venezuelans with increasingly poor services of running water, electricity, gasoline, and medical care.
Of the 15% of Venezuelans who left the country, about 1.8 million went to neighboring Colombia. Others migrated to Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. Those who were more successful than informal workers started businesses and enrolled their children in local schools.
But the coronavirus abruptly disrupted the aspirations of many migrants and limited their ability to financially help affected relatives they left behind.
“Like everyone, (…) my mission to be in Peru is to help my family in Venezuela,” said Cocho.
Due to strict confinement orders imposed in Colombia to combat the pandemic, many immigrants in Bogotá must break the law to go out and earn money to eat or be held and starve, according to humanitarian groups.
“Suddenly they have become invisible, locked behind closed doors,” said Marianne Menjivar, director for Colombia and Venezuela of the humanitarian group International Rescue Comittee.
Some 20,000 Venezuelans have returned home since early March, according to the Colombian government, which has paid about 396 bus tickets to take them to the Venezuelan border.
Yonaiker García, 22, made a good living after arriving from Venezuela to Bogotá. He made $ 500 a month as a graphic designer until the pandemic left him homeless and homeless.
“They take us out on the street,” Garcia said outside Bogotá in a protest last month calling on the Colombian government to pay for more buses to the border.
Venezuelan emigrants in South America are at high risk of infection because they must either work facing the public or be held in increasingly crowded departments, said Budden of Mercy Corps.
“From a public health point of view, it is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro has said that Venezuelans will be welcome if they return, though images shared by some of the returnees say otherwise.
Some of those who arrived last month in the small town of San Cristóbal, near the Colombian border, were held for two weeks in a sports complex under military surveillance, in a confined space that made social distancing difficult. An Associated Press journalist heard those inside crying out to be allowed to go home.
Returning migrants find communities with hospitals closed because thousands of doctors and nurses left the country.
So far, Venezuela has only reported 402 coronavirus cases and 10 deaths from COVID-19. Experts believe the actual number is much higher because so few tests have been done and the type of test being used does not reveal recent infections.
In Caracas, Cocho’s mother, Maylin Pérez, 48, said she was very distressed by the possible scope of the outbreak.
You have to climb several flights of stairs to reach the austere three-room apartment where she lives, with photos of her son on the walls. Cocho’s last shipment was $ 10 in February to help her buy food for herself and her grandson.
So she weaves colorful masks to exchange for products to add to the lentils and rice that arrive each month in the government-subsidized food box. Eggs, cheese and meat cannot be allowed.
Pérez said that the best of his day are the text messages from his son, who also calls every few days so that the boy can hear his father’s voice.
She said she is trying to convince Cocho not to worry about sending money, because she is more concerned that he will catch it.
“Take care of yourself,” he said he repeated. “First (…) your health, your life.”