Venezuela – The bridge of desperation

The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has led to one of the largest mass migrations in Latin America’s history.

President Nicolás Maduro blames “imperialists” – the likes of the US and Europe – for waging “economic war” against Venezuela and imposing sanctions on many members of his government.

But his critics say it is economic mismanagement – first by predecessor Hugo Chávez and now President Maduro himself – that has brought Venezuela to its knees.

The country has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. It was once so rich that Concorde used to fly from Caracas to Paris. Now, its economy is in tatters.

Four in five Venezuelans live in poverty. People queue for hours to buy food. Much of the time they go without. People are dying from a lack of medicines. Inflation is at 82,766% and there are warnings it could exceed one million per cent by the end of this year.

Venezuelans are trying to get out. The UN says 2.3 million people have fled the country – 7% of the population. More than a million have arrived in Colombia in the past 18 months.

Many of those Venezuelans have come over the Simón Bolívar International Bridge.

The bridge is about 300m long and 7m wide. It straddles the Rio Táchira in the eastern Andes, a river that snakes along the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The river bed can sometimes dry up but heavy rains soon change that.

The two small towns the bridge connects – San Antonio del Táchira on the Venezuelan side and Villa del Rosario in Colombia – are in two very different worlds.

Colombians rarely pop over the border to do their shopping in Venezuela like they used to. It’s almost entirely one-way traffic nowadays.

Every day at 05:00 Colombian time, (06:00 in Venezuela), the sound of a fence being dragged across tarmac breaks the silence in the valley and marks the opening of the bridge to pedestrians.

The queue from Venezuela into Colombia usually builds steadily overnight. When the gates open, it’s like athletes out of the starting blocks. Venezuelans can’t get over quickly enough.

Some people are stopped by guards and told to open their bags. While most do so without drama, you can see panic in some faces when people realise they are about to be caught.

With Venezuela’s economy in crisis, there’s an incentive to smuggle staples like meat and cheese into Colombia so it can be sold for higher prices. The people doing it aren’t Mr Bigs – they’re mostly just Venezuelans desperate to raise money to buy other essentials.

One woman, whose meat is confiscated, wails: “What am I meant to do?” The guard replies gruffly: “This is a humanitarian corridor – you can take food into Venezuela but you can’t take it out.” And so it repeats throughout the day.

Those with nothing to declare – or perhaps just the lucky ones who aren’t stopped – walk on through. The trundle of suitcase wheels is the soundtrack of this bridge.

When you get to the end of the bridge, you reach what’s known as La Parada, or “the stop” in English. It’s a bustling community that makes its money from border trade. Market sellers, pharmacies, shops and bus companies all vying for sales from those crossing the bridge. Most of the street traders here used to be Colombians – this is after all Colombia.

But increasingly, Venezuelans have also started setting up shop here, trying to sell their wares in a country where the currency hasn’t been decimated.

Right at the end of the bridge, amid the chorus of street-sellers, one man shouts: “Who wants to sell their hair?”

In front of a metal barrier protecting the bridge, Laura Castellanos sits on a plastic stool. The 25-year-old has long wavy brown hair to the bottom of her back. She looks uneasy.

A woman is stood behind her, scissors in hand. Laura is about to lose most of her hair.

She’s nursing her two-month old daughter Paula who is wrapped up in a big fluffy blanket and wearing a stripy pink hat. She yawns as she lies patiently in her mother’s arms, unaware of the border chaos around her. Laura’s husband Jhon Acevedo is nearby looking after their two older daughters.

The hair-cutter is lifting up the top layer of Laura’s hair and cutting what’s underneath right back to the roots. She doesn’t want to talk much. It’s almost as if she’s embarrassed.

With every snip she hands a chunk of hair to another woman standing next to her. The hair buyer says nothing and looks away. It feels like a cold transaction, nothing more.

Laura is getting paid 30,000 pesos ($10) for her hair. It’ll be sold on to make extensions or wigs.

“It’s the first time I’ve done it,” she says with a mixture of nervousness and embarrassment. She’s come for the day from the town of Rubio, about an hour from the border.

Laura is selling her hair because her eldest daughter, eight-year-old Andrea, has diabetes and the family needs to raise money to pay for her insulin which she takes three times a day. The family has run out of supplies and it’s been three days since little Andrea last had her shots. Jhon’s salary as a saddler doesn’t always stretch to pay for his daughter’s drugs.

“There’s no medicine, it’s hard,” says Laura. “People are dying in Venezuela because they can’t get the medicines they need.”

After five minutes of cutting, the family heads off to find a pharmacy. At first glance you can’t tell Laura’s had most of her hair removed. The hair-cutter has left a thin layer of long hair on top to hide the truth. Laura admits she feels a bit sad.

“It will pay for something at least,” she says. Her husband Jhon says they’re looking for a “pirate” pharmacy – an informal stall that sells drugs in plastic cabinets on the street. Insulin pens will be cheaper there than in a walk-in drug store.

But on the streets around La Parada there’s no way of knowing that what they are buying is the real deal. Counterfeits abound but it’s a risk Laura and the family think is worth taking.

“There’s no insulin back home, you can’t get it anywhere,” Laura says as she eyes the best-before date on the side of the insulin pen. They pick up two dark blue pens for 8,000 pesos each ($2.65) and go on their way. That will last them nearly two months before they have to begin the search again. It’s not enough time for Laura’s hair to grow back.

Read the full article here:

Written By: Katy Watson

First Published 22.08.18:

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