“The whole community can feel the effects of the problems in our neighbor country,” said the Governor of Curaçao, Mrs. Lucille George-Wout, as she opened the parliamentary year last year. “Our monitoring team has confirmed that almost all the arriving persons are exclusively small-time criminals, illegal job-seekers, and prostitutes.”
The statement wasn’t well-received by Venezuelans on the island. “We feel it necessary,” a resident group said, “to express our discontent, not only for the misguided and inappropriate assertion but also for the stage on which it took place… If the government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands wants to avoid the effects of Venezuela’s conflict, we respectfully suggest that it make a pronouncement about the causes of the conflict and not only about its victims.”
I moved to Curaçao in 2004. Already, back then, many Venezuelans couldn’t imagine the country could get any worse. Crime was rising and President Chávez was drastically toying with our constitution. Locals have always been aware of the co-dependent relationship between our two countries. “Si a Venezuela le da gripe,” one told me, “Curaçao se resfría”.
If Venezuela gets a cold, Curaçao comes down with the sniffles.
Today, Curaçao is a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That means The Hague handles its foreign relations, but all internal matters —including immigration policy— are decided independently on the island.
For Curaçao, Venezuela has always been a close partner with close commercial ties. In Colonial times, when the Compañía Güipuzcoana tried to enforce a trade monopoly between Spain and the Captaincy General of Venezuela, the criollos merrily subverted it by smuggling their goods to Curaçao: Arturo Uslar Pietri wrote that elite Maracuchos were much more likely to meet elite Cumaneses in Willemstad than in Caracas. Today, many islanders describe going to Venezuela for a doctor’s appointment or to rumbear for the weekend. After all, the Venezuelan coast is just 65 km. away.
Mary Goiri is a co-founder of Venex Curaçao, a community group for Venezuelans who live on the island. In the 28 years since she moved to the island, she’s seen the relationship between the two countries radically transformed.
Curaçaoans simply can’t understand Venezuelan politics, she says. But then, who does, really? During the oil bonanza, islanders watched astonished as cash-flush raspacupos (currency-arbitrageur tourists) rampaged through island shops, buying anything not bolted down. Ten years later, the Venezuelans who come are astonished to find packages of Harina PAN on the shelves in every supermarket — at prices they can’t afford. (“Made in Colombia,” say the labels.)
Venezuelans, she tells me, lost their reputation for cheverismo. The people coming now aren’t so much emigrating as fleeing, desperately seeking a way out of the daily misery. Curaçaoans, not surprisingly, aren’t so happy with this new breed of newcomers. The island is suffused with anger, fear, and misunderstanding about the newcomers.
So the island has begun to tighten its immigration policies toward Venezuelans. The last time I flew in, this past June, I witnessed how an immigration agent returned seven Venezuelans right back home, putting them back on the same plane they’d just landed in. On flights from Curaçao to Venezuela, airlines have to set aside ten seats for passengers denied entry.
Mrs. Ferrazzini, a Venezuelan immigration consultant in Curaçao told me Hato Airport is known for its strict admissions policies, because illegal immigration from across the region is a recurring issue. “With Venezuelans you never know: sometimes their credit cards don’t work, and often buying extra dollars in an emergency is impossible.”
Venezuelans arriving at the island, whether legally or illegally, have unrealistic expectations about how easy it’ll be to improve their standard of living, Ferrazzini explains.
The parallels with the Cubans who fled to Florida are obvious, and similarities do exist. In Falcón state, local fisherman charge anywhere from $200 to $400 per person for a trip to the island on a peñero — a small shipping vessel. Others fly in as tourists and stay looking for work without a permit.
Local authorities are most concerned with the increase in Venezuelan peñeros, because they bring not just people but also drugs. According to local media, those who arrive illegally work mostly in areas like cleaning and construction, or else as sex workers under often exploitative conditions. Many of these women arrive brought by human traffickers are told they’re going to be hired as bartenders.
Mrs. Ferrazzini is careful to note that while the illegal immigration problem is very real, not all arriving Venezuelans are illegal. Many are professionals who wish to invest in Curaçao.
This past October, the Curaçao government joined a Task Force with Aruba and Bonaire to study the impact of Venezuelan refugees on the Dutch Antilles. So far, the investigation has not yielded a public statement. Curaçao government representatives didn’t respond to my request for comment.
All indications are that Curaçao doesn’t have the capacity to sustain a refugee crisis. However, as the situation in Europe has shown, lack of concrete information leads to misguided statements. So is Venezuelan migration really having such a negative impact on Curaçao, or are Venezuelans on the island the victims of prejudice?
A bit of both, I would think.