“Hate is a strong word. But they definitely don’t like us.”
Carlos moved to Panama as a bridge between Venezuela and another destination. It was a good opportunity, he thought, where he could make easy money on a growing country with open arms. Like an American city but with calor latino, they needed professionals in many areas, and he was glad to lend a hand.
Now the change in how Venezuelans are perceived is obvious. “It’s hard to get to my house, turn on the TV and see how people talk about us, make fun of us, of the times in our country and our tragedy. I’ve seen shows where they talk about how to get Venezuelans out of Panama, or joke because we have no food. It’s humiliating.”
Laura, a designer from Caracas, was also attracted to Panama, with a wish to settle down and grow. She found very soon that the mockery extends beyond TV.
“I remember my first week here” she tells me over skype, “I took like four packs of toilet paper in the supermarket and a couple next to me giggled because there’s no toilet paper in Venezuela. They asked me how many years did I go without using it. I went home and cried myself to sleep, not only because of the incident, but for the family I left behind.”
“I will never forget that moment” she punctuated, still shaken.
Other complications have appeared in Panama. “When I came in,” Carlos says, “paperwork was easy. It got bad with all sorts of difficulties to work, because (Panamanians) took on the notion that we would steal their jobs. That’s when it started to go sour.”
I’ve seen shows where they talk about how to get Venezuelans out of Panama, or joke because we have no food.
Pausing for a sip of coffee, he reminisces:
“Everything was fine, I shared a flat with some Venezuelan friends and I had a job. My boss helped me with the papers and the rent. It was one of those companies that plan events for you and I was the most hardworking guy around. I stayed until late to make sure everything was fine, but people get jealous. This guy told my manager he’d go to immigration and complain about my papers, exposing the help I was getting. Suddenly, I had no money and no help of any kind. My Venezuelans friends helped me; and thank god, because I couldn’t even pay for food.”
Getting a job now is not easy, he says, because companies with Venezuelan workers are seen as traitors. “They don’t want people to know they hire Venezuelans. It’s like hating on us is trendy. And it’s everywhere, on the street, on Twitter…”
Carlos doesn’t regret his decision and, years after moving, he has no plans to go back to Venezuela. But if he had to do it all again, he wouldn’t pick Panama. “Now we realize it’s not just people on the street, it’s the Government that doesn’t want us here. They allow the bad press, the horrible paperwork, the visa tortures. I’m here now and I can’t do anything about it, but I wouldn’t recommend this destination to my friends.”
“They really remind you that this is not your home. Once they hear your accent, the show begins. I had a client that loved my project and we agreed on everything, until she found out I’m Venezuelan. She cancelled it all because ‘she supports the national talent’.”
She seems at ease away from home, but when she talks, you can almost hear her voice break. “You feel ashamed. You should defend your country, but that may get you in trouble. Nowhere is safe from what we’re living and what pisses me off the most is that this crisis is not my fault.”
It takes her a while to define the essence of her cruel shelter, like something she has thought for long, but never dared to voice.
“We were victims then by having to move out” she avoids my gaze, “and we are victims now by having to stay here”.