Photo: El Político retrieved

–      Hello, sir! How are you doing today?

–      Well, I’d rather be driving my truck, but those damn venecos stole my job.

–     Sir, I’m Venezuelan.

–     Oh, well…

This exchange with an Uber driver happened a week after I landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador; days after the May 20, election and a month before the exodus and its effect on the region became an international story in the news. My Uber driver had  lost his job because Venezuelans were getting paid well under the minimum wage ($386/month) to do the same work he did for a long, long time. “Our economy is not doing so good, we have no room for your people here,” he said trying to excuse his earlier statement.

My Uber driver had  lost his job because Venezuelans were getting paid well under the minimum wage ($386/month) to do the same work he did for a long, long time.

Venezuelans are now everywhere in South America; walking through mountains, rivers and valleys to escape the no-food, no-medicine, no-freedom regime of Nicolás Maduro. According to the United Nations, over 3 million have fled the country between 2015 and 2018. Middle-class professionals were the core of the first two migration waves, but the last wave is primarily made up of Venezuelans with limited resources who, in most cases, leave their families behind.

The most recent study of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has found that 37% of Venezuelans in Ecuador have suffered some form of discrimination. From this group, 98% claimed it happened because of their nationality. For the locals, like the Uber driver who lost his job, the problem with Venezuelans is that they are willing to work more hours for less money. According to the IOM, 87% have earnings below the minimum wage line. For (some) businessmen, this represents a cheap, qualified labor force that can mend the balance sheet in an stagnant economy. It’s no surprise that forced labor and human trafficking are lurking in Rumichaca (Northern border with Colombia) and Huaquillas (Southern border with Perú).  At least 5% of Venezuelans were forced into labor, while 11% experienced some form of violence in the workplace.

And then, there’s social media. Under hashtags like #PrimeroEcuador, xenophobic comments and news about Venezuelans in the country spread like wildfire, especially on Facebook. Back in August, reading through the almost 300 comments on Javier Vite’s piece on Venezuelans in Guayaquil, I almost cried. I certainly did in November, after scrolling down the first ten comments on this news report. The “V” word (venecos) feels like a stigma, often preceded by an expletive to put as much blame as possible on Venezuelans, for no particular reason: lost jobs, people asking for money on the street, crime, prostitution, and so on.

A tipping point was the murder of a taxi driver in Ambato, in Central Ecuador, at the hands of a Venezuelan national back in early May. Public outcry against migrants rose to an all-time high,  and even became one of the top ten concerns for Ecuadorians according to Cedatos, a local pollster.

But even though the man behind the wheel at my Uber was suspicious of me when I told him my nationality, the conversation was easing him up.

    – What do you do?

    –    I’m a journalist.

    –    I see. And do you have a job?

–      Yes, sir.

–     As a journalist?

–    Yes.

–     Good for you.

It’s not like Ecuadorians haven’t been on that side of the coin before. In 1999, after “el feriado bancario” (The Bank Holiday), dozens of thousands were forced to flee the country, after losing all their savings in the midst of an economic crisis that crushed the Sucre. Before, in the 1970s, some 16,000 Ecuadorian moved to Venezuela to escape the regime of Guillermo Rodríguez Lara. They were called “cotorros” because of the shape of their noses, but most blended quickly into the country’s dynamics. Venezuela was a prosperous country back in the day and actually needed the workforce to push forward.

Under hashtags like #PrimeroEcuador, xenophobic comments and news about Venezuelans in the country spread like wildfire. 

That’s not the case in Ecuador today. After a decade of 21st century socialism under Rafael Correa, when public investment increased from 4% of GDP in 2006 to 10% in 2016, spending became unsustainable after the collapse of oil prices. Now, under Lenin Moreno, the International Monetary Fund estimates a 1,1% GDP growth for 2018 and 0,7% for 2019. Adding a quarter of a million people carries a heavy weight on the economy. That’s one of the reasons Ecuador is leading the multilateral cooperation between the countries most affected by the Venezuelan migration and institutions like the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and CAF- Development Bank of Latin America. Quito estimates that 550 million dollars are the funds needed to finance the insertion of Venezuelans into society.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already warned that late December and early January can bring a new wave of Venezuelans through the borders of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, as the beginning of Maduro’s second term won’t be recognized by more than a dozen countries. These migrants will be poorer, with deeper need for basics like food of education for the countries that give them shelter.

By the time my ride was over, we had talked about family, lost love and the regrets of leaving family behind. “Not all Venezuelans are bad people, after all,” he yelled as I left.

–     Nope, we are not, I replied

–      Welcome to Ecuador, son!

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