Why Venezuelan Migrants Are Dying at Sea

With at least 11 passengers drowned between Venezuela and Trinidad, the fatal count of a historic tragedy grows: our people are trapped between traffickers, Maduro’s dictatorship, and the indifference of the Trinidadian government

Photo: Composition by Sofía Jaimes Barreto

A version of this piece was originally published at Cinco8.

It’s the night of December 12th in Venezuela: while countries like the United States and Canada begin distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to combat COVID-19, Nicolás Maduro sends a video from the Humboldt Hotel in Caracas (which has become a new symbol of inequality), the opposition announces results of the popular consultation that don’t match the information that some media outlets have, and, in social media, images of the bodies of 11 migrants, including small children, who drowned in the Gulf of Paria make the rounds. The bodies were rescued close to  Güiria, at the north-eastern Venezuelan coast, by a Venezuelan Army patrol. Today, the government said that three more bodies were recovered.

The boat, carrying 19 passengers, had been reported missing. According to OAS Secretary General Envoy for the Venezuelan Migration and Refugee Crisis, David Smolansky, the boat could have been sent back by Trinidad, as it happened not long ago with another boat carrying minors that ended up returning to the island to be confined.

This is another disgrace that exemplifies, by itself, the dimensions of our country’s collapse. Another disgrace that keeps happening and we know will continue to happen.  Another disgrace that shows the way in which many Venezuelans succumb, facing an equation of vulnerabilities created by the State and its replacement by criminal networks.

Since when is this happening?

The accidents involving boats carrying migrants on their way to the islands neighboring Venezuela began with the explosion of our migrant crisis in 2018. The more reasons to migrate there are, the more risks migrants decide to take, and the more demand there is for human traffickers, the coyotes who, as they do in the trails in the border with Colombia, charge for taking people illegally from Venezuela to Trinidad, or to the Netherlands Antilles: Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire. And, as there is more demand for coyote services, there’s more money involved, more officials taking part in the business, and less safety measures. Migrants who are already established in the countries of destiny pay to bring their families, or traffickers recruit girls in the poor communities of Venezuela, offering them lawful work in Trinidad when in reality they end up being forced to work in brothels.

In that context, more shipwrecks occur, more frequently: out in the open sea, an overloaded fishing ship with no lifesavers or defenses is very dangerous. Dozens of Venezuelan children, women and men have succumbed in those since the beginning of the migratory explosion. Many have disappeared, so there isn’t a way to determine a reliable number. It’s another mystery within the dark reality of our tragedy, like that of those who disappear in mines at southern Venezuela, or among the irregular migrant groups in Colombia.

If boats that can capsize at sea and cause these disgraces are continuously leaving Venezuela, it’s because the security controls are not being applied, because the authorities in charge of doing so aren’t present or are bribed.

Who’s responsible?

A functional country has security bodies in those borders that include oceans, rivers and lakes, exerting controls over the merchandise and passengers that embark or disembark in their ports. Not only should those security bodies prevent the smuggling or trafficking of illegal merchandise, they should also make sure that passenger boats don’t set sail without meeting security standards. If boats that can capsize at sea and cause these disgraces are continuously leaving Venezuela, it’s because the security controls are not being applied because the authorities in charge of doing so aren’t present, or are bribed. The Venezuelan military and police, with all their limitations, are simply allowing this to happen, and charging for it. The first responsibility, then, belongs to the Army and bodies of civil security which aren’t guarding the marine borders as established by law, and that are participating not just in the trafficking of migrants but also in that of fauna, weapons, gold, and fuel, among other things.

The second responsibility is to guard the human rights of migrants, and it belongs to the receiving countries, beyond their prerogative to give them legal access to their territory, or not. That these countries meet it depends on political factors and operational capabilities. If managing the influx of Venezuelan migrants by the hundreds of thousands has been a mayor challenge for bigger and more organized countries like Colombia and Brazil, then it’s even more so for the small Netherlands Antilles, with security pressures and lack of water, and for the republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which isn’t used to receiving immigration and where the government, allied with Maduro, has opted for responding with xenophobic measures and abuses that contribute to these disgraces. For these islands, the Venezuelan crisis is an important problem: it means receiving thousands of hungry and sick people; having Venezuelan pirates assaulting boats in their waters; seeing their local contexts of crime worsen by the influx of drugs, firearms, and smuggling from Venezuela. In these places, as we’ve seen in Colombia, Panamá, Perú and Ecuador, many politicians and citizens tend to react like many Venezuelans used to do in the 70s and 80s, when they blamed South American immigrants for crime: xenophobia. Just like it happens today in Europe and the United States. As Trump, Vox, and many other political movements have demonstrated, the xenophobia increased by illegal immigration can help you get to congress, or the presidency.

What’s the root of the problem?

The first thing to consider here is that the economy of the Venezuelan coasts, and of the entire country, has collapsed. Historically poor regions like Sucre state and Delta Amacuro state have been reacting for years to the productive devastation that two decades of chavista management have caused. In the east of Sucre, beyond Cumaná, there’s almost no internal or external tourism. Beaches like San Juan de las Galdonas are today drug trafficking territory. The Atlantic fishing industry, which had tuna fishing boats that generated a lot of jobs, disappeared, and illegal economies have thrived in its place. Millions of Venezuelans in the east of the country have found themselves without income: they don’t have resources or land for agriculture; they don’t have gas to go fishing or to transport merchandise or people by land; they can’t work in the oil, tourism, or tuna fishing industries anymore. Many of them have contracted AIDS or malaria that comes from the mines. Others have been kicked out of their farms by gangs, which have been taking over the region to export drugs to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, along with the police and military.

It’s risky and there’s no guarantee of success, but for these people in the coastline it looks even harder to cross the entire country to try getting into the Andean countries, or to travel south to the hell that are the mines in Guayana.

It’s easy to see it in this tremendous series of reports from 2018, done from the ground by Isayen Herrera and Valentina Lares for ArmandoInfo: for adults in productive age at the states of Sucre, Monagas, and the Delta, there’s almost no other thing to do besides trying to reach Trinidad, which is 45 minutes away by boat from Macuro, the spot where Christopher Columbus believed to have found paradise.

It’s risky and there’s no guarantee of success, but for these people in the coastline it looks even harder to cross the entire country to try getting into the Andean countries, or to travel south to the hell that are the mines in Guayana. Your children, your grandchildren, are hungry. CLAP boxes, when they do arrive, aren’t enough to feed a family. Your people need medicines, clothes. You either start working with the drug trafficker, or you become a coyote yourself, or you try to go to Trinidad. What would you do?

Something similar happens in the state of Falcón. Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire are very close to Paraguaná by boat and, just like with Trinidad, centuries of relationship have left a strong knowledge of how to go to and come back from those islands. In that region, the collapse of the oil economy and of the Free Port has created unemployment and desperation. As many political dissidents have done, many Venezuelans opt for emigrating through those beaches. Challenging the sea to become an illegal immigrant in Aruba looks like a better scenario than staying in a Falcón town, seeing how day after day you have no food for your family.

The authorities in charge of these coasts know this desperation, and they commercialize it, as the rest of the State commercializes all the needs of Venezuelans. Just like there are guards charging for letting you get gas or take food to a relative in prison, there are soldiers and policemen charging for letting you sail with a boat full of migrants even if it doesn’t meet all the security measures. There are no coyotes without desperate migrants or without guards that are part of the business. This happens in the north of Africa, in the north of Mexico and on the Venezuelan borders. Emigrating illegally by sea, thus, involves the risk of drowning: it has been happening in the Mediterranean for decades with people from different nationalities, and in the Caribbean with Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and now Venezuelans.

How is this solved?

As long as the factors that force so many Venezuealans to try to emigrate however they can aren’t dealt with, only the implementation of security protocols and the respect for human rights from the marine authorities in those nations involved can reduce these tragedies. For that, all those countries must assume the political responsibility in fulfilling their duty, and must guarantee that the officials and military and police personnel have more reasons to do their job than to earn money for not doing it.

Human rights NGO Provea explains that when seven bodies of the United Nations demanded answers from the governments of Venezuela, Trinidad, and the Netherlands Antilles about the disappearance of at least 73 migrants in three boats, only the Netherlands answered to say what it was doing about it.  International pressure can help to change the policy towards these migrants, but above all is the pressure from citizens of those territories what counts. It wouldn’t help that the press in the United States and Europe talk about this issue, if it doesn’t matter to Venezuelans, Trinidadians, or  Curaçaoans.