“Is this the line to go back to Venezuela?” someone asks, and the line bursts in that strident laughter, a sound we all know too well. Less than a hundred meters away, in a smaller line, another group of Venezuelan citizens are handing over the requirements to apply for the Plan Vuelta a la Patria. Some have their worn luggage with them, there are whole families with small children: nobody laughs.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Lima, Peru, is in the corner of 298 Arequipa Av. An old estate painted in red with a dummy of Chávez flapping like a flag in the main balcony. In the fifth year of dictatorship, depending on when you start counting, over 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country due to the economic crisis, and since the Plan Vuelta a la Patria was announced last August, 8,031 people have returned to the country with the support of Nicolás Maduro’s government.
“Everyone told me about it, but I came anyway.”
Miriam (not her real name) is a 48-year-old Venezuelan who arrived in Peru three months ago. “People will think I’m chavista because of this red sweater, but it’s the only thing I have,” she says. In Lima, the average temperature in the winter is 16° C with a thermic sensation of 10° C, due to a humidity that may reach almost 90% in districts close to the sea. Miriam comes from Maracaibo: 30° C in the shade, patacones, pink sauce and Regional beer. “Everyone told me about it, but I came anyway.”
Miriam sold two air conditioners and a TV set to make the seven-day trip on her own, by land. The hardest part was crossing the border with Colombia and the path through the mountain range in Ecuador. Damn cold. She arrived at Chorrillos, a low-income area in eastern Lima, with two hundred dollars. Merely renting a room was $130. She started working cleaning houses, but she was earning less that $7 a day. The math was failing her.
One of the dramas of the forced Venezuelan migrations through the continent, especially in recent years, has been the absence of planning, with that historical habit of “we’ll see when we get there,” now coupled with despair. There’s more people on the road with pretty much what they’re wearing, and that’s it. We’ve also been isolated for years in a regulated economy, where subsidized public services cost far below their actual price, work has lost its true value and key economic concepts like savings, supply and demand have been forgotten; landing in a free market can be strenuous, if not downright disastrous.
Lima isn’t a cheap city. At least 15% of the average budget disappears in public transport, because distances are huge; workdays can be as long as ten or even 12 hours, you need to invest in proper jackets and laundry, an unforeseen expense, because the city is humid: clothes take two days to dry outdoors. Medicines aren’t cheap, and neither are power, phone lines or the rent. Everyone demands a month in advance, a month of deposit and, in some cases, an income certificate.
Moreover, adapting costs money.
Moreover, adapting costs money. Tiny things hit your wallet, like spending more to move around because you got lost in the city, or immigration fees, or paying more for items whose actual price you’re still unsure about; you may also get sick with the change of weather or the water. Being a newcomer, you’re also prone to scams.
Finding work isn’t less complicated, either. By law, companies can only hire 20% foreigners. The informal market, where competition is fierce, is ripe with distortions like those pushing Miriam to tears: she tried to work as a waitress, but wasn’t hired due to her age; then she went to an interview to care for an old man, it was a live-in maid service, but they offered her less than minimum wage and she had to sleep on a cot with no free days. “The only thing left for me is crying blood,” she said, maracucha as she can be: exaggerated, but true as hell.
The drama of Venezuelans who want to return is real. It’s not about a rush of nostalgia for white cheese, it’s about people going through real bad times, or unable to adapt. The government has presented the Plan Vuelta a la Patria as an epic of the solicitous father who runs to aid the prodigal son when, in truth, it’s result of the institutional abandonment we’re experiencing in a failed country, incapable of offering its citizens the minimum conditions to subsist in their own land. The least the government can do is to provide a plane so Miriam, who can’t pay for food, much less for a plane ticket, can meet with her family and a country in worse shape than the one she left three months ago. And not even that is easy.
Since the Plan Vuelta a la Patria started, there have been seven Lima-Caracas flights of returnees. Every Tuesday, a plane departs from the Jorge Chávez with 98 seats occupied by priority cases: elderly citizens, pregnant women, parents with children, people with disabilities. Miriam made her request three weeks ago, she comes every Monday with hope of hearing a “grab your things, you leave tomorrow.” It’s not happening. She’s healthy, young, she’s got no children. She wants to leave, but she must wait. Math fails her again.
If the nearly 500,000 Venezuelan citizens in Peru would want to return home, we’d take 5,102 weeks at a rate of 98 repatriations weekly, or 102 years.
If the nearly 500,000 Venezuelan citizens in Peru would want to return home, we’d take 5,102 weeks at a rate of 98 repatriations weekly, or 102 years. This is a very maracucho example, but it helps in illustrating the disproportion between emigrants and returnees.
It’s a common thing these days to hear people talk about “Maduro’s plane.” If you don’t like the papa rellena, get on Maduro’s plane. If you don’t have documents but you don’t want to take less than minimum wage, get on Maduro’s plane. If working conditions seem unfair to you, you know what to do.“I do want to leave this shit,” says Johan, who also chooses to remain anonymous because the dictatorship’s tentacles are long and nobody wants to take risks. Johan saved over $1,000 in cash to bring his children, and that money was stolen at the inn where he was staying. No, opening a bank account isn’t a priority for emigrants. “I miss my kids, I haven’t seen them in over a year, I want to leave this shit.” It’s a favor he’s doing to the xenophobes who don’t want Venezuelans here either.
But you don’t need the plane to actually return. In the noisy lines of those staying, there’s people who slept on the sidewalk overnight to sort out some consular paperwork: getting the passport extension, asking for an identity certificate because their ID card was stolen or presenting a newborn Venezuelan baby. When the lady who sells coffee arrives at 4:00 a.m., there’s people waiting already because the embassy only works for three hours a day, between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 m. “That’s one hell of a fucking workday,” I hear someone say in a central Llanos’ accent.
There are no tickets for service, no information booth, no cordiality, but there’s a middle-aged guy who answers your questions from behind a grill window with that all-too-familiar public servant tone that makes you insecure and a bit threatened. If you close your eyes, you’re back in Plaza Caracas, crushed against the SAIME gate while someone says that there are no supplies, that the person who signs the documents hasn’t arrived yet, that the president’s secretary got delayed, that you’re missing two letter-sized copies but there’s no toner, cash, patience or country. “But stick around, who knows what we can do for you,” while you make a quick estimate of how much you’ve got to pay for those bribe-drinks.
“Oh, ineffable joy! These are the banks of my beloved Homeland!” said Pérez Bonalde. If Miriam hadn’t spent a week eating only bread with butter, Vuelta a la Patria would sound more poetic. In these circumstances of regional migration and crisis of devastating magnitude, as Vallejo would say, “Forgive me for the sadness.”