Photo: Reuters retrieved

In 1857, in a context of extreme poverty, disease and ethnic tensions, the papers of New York City created the “Dead Rabbits” moniker for an Irish gang that was active at the Five Points slum, an episode made famous by a book and a Scorsese movie. This labeling of fear and violence survived the gang’s disbanding and stuck to the Irish community, as a prejudice that went on for, at least, decades. 

The Irish immigration of that time was driven by famine; they were leaving their country en masse during an era later called “the Great Hunger,” to find the media-brewed hostility that other migrant communities have met: Tamils in British Columbia, Jews in Quebec, Zimbabweans in South Africa, Moroccans in France, Somalis in Italy, Gypsies everywhere. We’ve seen, more recently, how the fact that refugees and immigrants are portrayed in traditional and social media as enemies at the gates, has spread hate crimes, defensive legislation and the rise of nativist populism, especially Muslims in Europe and Canada, and Latinos in the U.S.

Now we’re witnessing more and more episodes of xenophobia against Venezuelans in the Andean region, especially in Ecuador and Peru, where a certain type of media has chosen to connect with a growing unease about the Venezuelan immigration, associating it to theft, kidnapping and brutal murder.

The Perfect Storm

We’ve been posting a lot about the explosive Venezuelan migration: there are around 4,3 million Venezuelans abroad, according to UN agencies. That’s more than 10% of the country’s 32 million population, as was established by the not very reliable national census of 2011. 

We’re witnessing more episodes of xenophobia against Venezuelans in the Andean region, especially in Ecuador and Peru, where a certain type of media has chosen to connect with a growing unease about the Venezuelan immigration.

What is less known is that a good deal of this Venezuelan migration, made of people with no history as migrants, is moving into countries way more used to sending people abroad than they’d like to admit. 

So, on one hand, we have a nation (Venezuela) with decades of experience on how to live with newcomersSpanish, Italian, Lebanese and Portuguese from the 30s to the 70s; Colombians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Chileans, Argentinians, Chinese and many others from the 70s until a few years ago with the institutional and social tools to integrate those immigrants into our society, especially if they were white and European. Those coming from places like Guyana, Haiti or the Dominican Republic had to endure racism and exploitation, in some cases. As for Colombians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians, in that order, they were frequently accused of introducing crime and prostitution among us, but they could live and raise their kids peacefully, until crisis under chavismo made them think of going back. Venezuelans used to see ourselves as a sort of superior South American: we’re so prosperous that these people come to live here by bus or crossing rivers illegally. 

On the other hand, we have nations with long experience in migration, used to receiving remittances, issuing laws for the nationals who come back, weaving networks of Peruvians in Miami, Ecuadorians in Madrid, Colombians in New York City, etcetera. Terrorism, economic crisis and centuries-long poverty forced these non-oil-blessed countries to send millions of folks to North America and Europe since the 70s. They looked at Venezuela as the rich, vain kid in the neighborhood. 

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans (many of them with no experience traveling abroad, with no professional skills, some of them sick, some of them criminals) are entering these countries, which are in better shape than Venezuela but far from capable of offering employment or social protection with the same strength that American, Canadian or European institutions can provide. These receiving countries have had to improvise new legislation and have required international assistance to handle this influx with their very limited resources of health services, schools, shelters and border security. The social and political pressure on the authorities is huge, as well as the temptation to use this crisis for the political advantage of local leaders and adversaries of their current administrations.  

“Veneco”

This is the context where a xenophobic wave against Venezuelans has been gaining speed in Peru, during these final weeks of September. In 2019, the speech about Venezuelan immigration has been turning sour, as the influx keeps growing and the scenes of Venezuelans begging or camping on the streets (which is more intense and dangerous in the border towns) get more common. 

Then came the news of a frustrated bank robbery in a Lima mall by Venezuelan criminals, members of the Tren de Aragua gang, one of the most dangerous in Venezuela but with no proof of being properly organized in Peru, besides the group captured on that particular event. Since then, the media has been labeling Venezuelans as criminals, using the pejorative veneco to tag newsworthy killers, kidnappers, rapists or robbers, whether they are indeed Venezuelans or not. 

This is happening especially in the so-called prensa chicha, the abundant tabloids still quite influential in Peru. The prensa chicha is so important that Alberto Fujimori used it successfully to attack and blackmail the opposition during his authoritarian regime. Cheap, with one or two daily editions, these colorful publications full of nude models, gore and fake news have connected with the real worries among common Peruvians on the effects of this massive immigration, and they have modeled the veneco as the common enemy, one who not only kills but mutilates and is capable of making cevichethe flagship dish of coastal Peruvian cuisine, raw seafood cooked with lime and pepperwith the meat of his victims. 

These receiving countries have had to improvise new legislation and have required international assistance to handle this influx with their very limited resources of health services, schools, shelters and border security.

According to this narrative, Venezuela is a country completely taken over by pillage and murder, and the migrants are a source of contagion not only for that violence but for disease, moral disintegration and even chavista socialism. The centennial newspaper El Comercio published an infographic describing the Venezuelan criminal as extremely violent, causing uproar in the Venezuelan public opinion, and also a UN report where 62% of the Venezuelans living in Peru say they have suffered discrimination.

The chicha paperssome of them owned by El Comercioare selling more issues while making the distrust spiral turn into widespread hate against Venezuelans. Of course, they’re not alone. In the fringe of Peruvian politics, there’s a nativist movement, etnocaserismo and its leaders have spent years calling for an armed insurrection against all politicians, favoring a regime inspired in the alleged purity of the Inca race. Now, the etnocaseristas are part of the agitators calling for the expulsion of venecos, as it’s shouted out loud in demonstrations. Carlos Scull, representative of the National Assembly in Peru, and the Peruvian government say they’re handling the situation, but it’s not looking good

There have been episodes of police harassing Venezuelans on the streets. Some Venezuelan women are being abused, under the suspicion of prostitution or their mere vulnerability: “Men are always harassing us for being venecas,” says Estefanía, from Merida. “Some girl I know was almost raped in the place where she lives. You won’t see that in the news, of course.” Andrés, from Cabudare, says that people in Peru used to be helpful, but now “they all see us as if we’re criminals.” And Andrea, also from Venezuela, says that all murderers in the media seem to be venecos: “I’m really thinking about leaving this country.”

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