Inside the Venezuelan Quarantine Camps

If you have no choice but to return to Venezuela by land, be ready to share bathrooms and bedrooms with strangers, endure many mysterious tests, and learn to survive like you’re in prison

Kafkaesque through and through

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Long before I returned to Venezuela through the border with Brazil on June 27th, I had heard terrifying news about what happened inside shelters for those that came back: inhumane conditions, people begging for help, arbitrarily detained Venezuelans subjected to mistreatment by the Army… but the financial struggles I was facing and the COVID-19 situation in the country where I had spent two and a half years, made irreversible my decision to return.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Venezuelan soil was that our luggage was checked by Army officers. One of my greatest fears was that, as they usually do, some soldier would want to keep any of my belongings. However, they only asked for my personal information, and other basic questions about how long I had stayed abroad, what city I stayed at, my profession, whether I had the patria card, and things like that.

Then an officer told us that we’d be quarantined for 14 days in a hotel in Santa Elena de Uairén, right at the border, where we’d get “three meals a day”. But first, we had to walk to a tent where they would do the rapid test for COVID-19. One of the doctors, with a Cuban accent, gave us a general talk about the virus and the test they’d perform. Once everyone’s blood was drawn, a few minutes went by, and they started calling us one by one, telling us to go to a line on the right side, or to another one the left. Obviously this was to separate the positive cases from the negative. Fortunately, I was on the negative line; five came out positive. Those of us who were clean after this first scaremore would comegot on the bus to the hotel.

Reggaeton Hotel, Santa Elena

At the hotel, we were received by a threatening looking (and acting) group of people. The feeling I got was that of going into a penitentiary and meeting the veteran prisoners, who’d look at us from top to bottom. They’d smoke or look at their cell phones as they mocked each other, or yell swear words among them. Others would yell things like “welcome to (the infamous prison) Tocorón!” or “yours just came in!” I was afraid about the possibility of sharing a room with them: it seemed that this quarantine would be a war for my physical and psychological survival.

The hotel was under command of a sergeant helped by a militiaman who informed us that there were plenty of unoccupied rooms, so we wouldn’t have to share with long-term “guests”. The sergeant gave us a welcoming speech and we settled into our rooms.

Since we came in after supper, we had to wait until the next day to grab a bite. However, “bad luck” was balanced out with the news that the group that had been isolated before us, would head out to the city of Puerto Ordaz the next day, after completing their established quarantine. That morning, when the old group had boarded the bus, the sergeant confirmed what we had suspected the night before when he said “those are a bunch of criminals”. 

Obviously, there was no social distancing.

With a more relaxed environment, along with the other two men I shared my room with, we decided to accept the offer by the militiaman to move to another room. Some were now unoccupied and apparently one had air conditioning. We found cigarette butts, burnt light bulbs, and a broken sink under one of the beds, whose curved mattress would put anyone’s back to the test. We decided to clean up all of that, in vain: the air conditioning did anything but cool the air.

The hotel meals were limited to a small arepa with small pieces of sausage for breakfast, rice with a thin slice of bologna for lunch, and torrejas with sausage or bologna, depending on the day, for supper. Obviously such a menu didn’t satisfy the hunger of any of us, so we had to look into other options. We could, through the militiaman, buy cheese, bread, sodas: all paid in Brazilian reales or U.S. dollars, at the mercy of the militiaman’s “good will”: none of us knew the real prices for things in the city.

Things were similar for drinking water: in front of the sergeant’s room there was a big cooler, which was empty most of the time. My roommates and I had to turn to “el Gordo,” who owned a pool hall right above the hotel, and who could also go out and buy whatever we might need. We sent him to buy a large water bottle which we kept in our room and it was a big relief. “El Gordo” would also supply us his WiFi password, in exchange for money in Brazilian currency, for a variable fee.

The days went by and new groups arrived. The atmosphere up until then had been peaceful; several newcomers had small, but powerful speakers with the volume all the way up. Under the indulgent eyes of the officers that looked after us, it became, day and night, a loud fest which made me think of the famous DJ wars from years ago. Vallenato and reggaetón would now be the background music of our stay.

Obviously, there was no social distancing. Some speculated that at night people would visit other rooms. All I did was watch how my companions behaved as a living representation of a dysfunctional society. There was this woman, about 35 years old, who was known as “La Negra”. She was determined to start a relationship with the sergeant, who knows in exchange of what and at what cost. You could always spot her sitting next to the officer, talking, laughing and joking around, until she had free access to his room. However, you’d later hear comments about how “the sergeant hooked up with this one,” or the militiaman hooked up with that one, that those other two got together last night, or that the uncle left his niece alone in the room so that she would be more comfortable with her neighbor friend.

Behind Bars in Puerto Ordaz

We had another rapid test on our 13th day of confinement. Those who tested negative would be moved to Puerto Ordaz, while the ones who tested positive had to stay in the border town, but at another hotel. Once again, the doctors who did these tests were all Cuban. I left unscathed from this second scare. The sergeant called out four people from a list he had and said, “the rest of you tested negative”. Surprisingly, he’d inform us that those “four positives” had had their tests “re-analized” and “their nerves had betrayed them”; the four “positives” were now “negatives,” ready to leave with the rest of the group the next morning.

The bars which separated the inside and outside of this place created an emotional and psychological effect.

When we arrived in Puerto Ordaz, we were told that we’d stay there “three of four days, tops”. We were received by the “doctor” in charge, who explained the protocol that we had to go through to get our official clearance. Conditions were different: 13 people slept in one room; another was for people who had been there for several days. There was only one bathroom and we shared it. There was no internet access, TV, and as we were told on our first day, packages from family members or acquaintances were forbidden. Most of us had a Brazilian phone chip, so we didn’t have a Venezuelan phone line to call or text our family.

Without the internet, TV, or a phone line, there wasn’t a lot you could do. The bars which separated the inside and outside of this place created an emotional and psychological effect; to distract ourselves and kill off boredom, we’d do the most curious of things. We’d count the pregnant women that we saw through the bars, heading to the hospital a few meters away from our jail. Others shouted unpleasant things to the women they saw.

In the following days, things moved faster and they moved us to a foundation for an interview. The questions were the same: personal info, date of entry to the country and of the rapid tests, information we had given over and over again since we arrived at Santa Elena de Uairén. 

Then the “doctor” in charge of our shelter told us that the epidermiologist (his pronunciation) was sick. We waited for two more days and yet another test, punctuated by the doctor’s words: “whoever comes out negative, leaves; the positives stay.”

It got very taxing, because it began to feel as if their objective was for us to just come out positive. We were all cleared the next day, fortunately, and now the wait was for transportation into our cities. For those going to nearby states, it was a couple of days while their bus arrived. For me, heading to Yaracuy State, the ride was on a plane. This could take a bit longer.

Freedom Is Having Your Feet Off the Ground

In the following days, I said goodbye to most of my cellmates. The only thing that the doctor would say was that “we had to be patient” and our shelter went from housing over 25 people to only three. Our food rations for lunch were larger now, a good thing after almost a month of isolation that meant that some of us lost six to eight kilos.

For several days, rumours about a flight that “would leave any minute now” went by, but the actual date remained elusive. After almost two weeks there, I realized I had to look for another alternative, offered by the aforementioned doctor: if someone you knew could go and pick you up by car, you were good to go. Leaving on foot, on your own, was impossible.

It was during that moment of anguish and uncertainty that I called a friend in the military who has lived for many years in Puerto Ordaz. Since his family still lives in Yaracuy, he travels frequently, so that was my last card, and I didn’t want to use it before because I didn’t want to impose, and I didn’t know if he was in town or in some other state.

When I called my friend and asked for his help, he told me that he was in town and he was planning on going to Yaracuy that same weekend. Without a second thought, he agreed to rescue me. For me, it was a miracle.

Two days later my friend picked me up, after making arrangements for filling up his car with fuel. On my way out, I had a strange feeling between being happy for ending my captivity and cautious for being a “free man” who had been over two years outside of a country where hardships evolve. I was kind of sad for leaving behind some of my companions, waiting.

The truth is, I was able to reach my home state, thanks to my friend who’s in the Army, without further complications, in spite of restrictions and quarantine announced by the government. One thing will be complicated, though: forgetting that prison experience.