Blackouts threaten death blow to Venezuela’s industrial survivors

Men work on the only operative production line at a food packaging plant in Valencia, Venezuela, April 8, 2019. Picture taken April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – The latest power outage kicked off another tough week for factory owner Antonello Lorusso in the city of Valencia, once Venezuela’s industrial hub.

For the past month, unprecedented nationwide blackouts have paralyzed the factory and the rest of the country, cutting off power, water and cell service to millions of Venezuelans.

Lorusso’s packaging plant, Distribuidora Marina, had already struggled through years of hyperinflation, vanishing client orders and an exodus of employees.

But now the situation was worse.

For the whole month of March, Lorusso said his company produced only its single daily capacity: 100 tonnes of packaged sugar and grains.

When Reuters visited on April 8, he was using a generator to keep just one of a dozen packaging machines running to fulfill the single order he had received. Power had been on for a few hours, but was too weak to work the machines.

“There is no information, we don’t know if the blackouts will continue or not,” said Lorusso, who has owned the factory for over 30 years. He said the plant had just a day’s worth of power during the previous week.

Power has been intermittent since early March, when the first major blackout plunged Venezuela into a week of darkness. Experts and the opposition have called the government incompetent at maintaining the national electrical grid.

President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition and the U.S. government of sabotage.

Venezuelan industry has collapsed during six years of recession that have halved the size of the economy. What is left is largely outside of the capital Caracas, the only major city that Maduro’s government has excluded from a power-rationing plan intended to restrict the load on the system.

In Valencia, a few multinational companies like Nestle and Ford Motor Co hang on. But according to the regional business association, the number of companies based there has fallen to a mere tenth of the 5,000 situated there two decades ago, when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez became president.

‘THE GAME IS OVER’

The government said on April 4 that the power rationing plan meant Valencia would spend at most three hours a day without electricity.

But a dozen executives and workers there said outages were still lasting over 10 hours. Generators are costly and can only power a fraction of a business’s operations, they said, and many factories have shut down.

“The game is over. Companies are entering a state of despair due to their inviability,” said an executive of a food company with factories in Valencia, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Industrial companies this year are operating below 25 percent of capacity, according to industry group Conindustria. It estimated companies here lost about $220 million during the days in March without power, and would lose $100 million more in April.

Nestle’s factory, which produces baby food, halted production during the first blackout in early March and operations again froze two weeks later, with employees sent home until May, according to Rafael Garcia, a union leader at the plant.

He blamed the most recent stoppage on very low sales of baby food which cost almost a dollar per package, or about what someone earning minimum wage makes in a week.

“My greatest worry is the closure of the factory,” said Garcia, as he sat at a bus stop on Valencia’s Henry Ford Avenue, in the city’s industrial outskirts where warehouses sit empty and streets are covered in weeds.

Nestle, in a statement to Reuters, said it had “temporarily interrupted its manufacturing activities” at its Valencia factory due to a lack of demand and would resume production in May.

Ford’s plant had been operating at a bare minimum for several months, union leaders said. In December, the carmaker began offering buyouts to staff after it received no orders for 2019, they said. Ford had said in December it had “no plans to leave the country.”

The outages have idled more than just factories. In the countryside, lack of power has prevented farmers from pumping water to irrigate fields.

Since January, farmers have sown 17,500 hectares of crops – a third of the area seeded last year – and they fear losing the harvest due to the lack of water, according to agricultural associations.

In the central state of Cojedes, several rice growers have already lost their crops, farmers said.

“In the rural areas, the blackouts last longer,” said Jose Luis Perez, spokesman for a federation of rice producers.

Producers of cheese, beef, cured meats and lettuce told Reuters orders had dropped by half in March as buyers worried the food would perish once their freezers lost power in the next blackout.

Back in Valencia, Lorusso was preparing his factory for the new era of scarce power. He has converted one unused truck in his parking lot into a water tank. He plans to sell another to buy a second generator.

“We’ve spent years getting used to things. Then we were dealt this hard blow, and now we’re trying to find ways to cope,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia; writing by Angus Berwick; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)

Backstory: Reporting from the dark in Venezuela

Locals gather at a street food cart during a blackout in Caracas, March 29. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

(Reuters) – Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.

Two waves of major electricity outages plunged Venezuela into darkness last month, putting even more strain on a nation struggling with food shortages and hyperinflation.

With a diesel-powered generator in their Caracas bureau, Reuters staff are better-placed than most Venezuelans to cope with the blackouts.

But reporting from a darkened city and making sure all journalists and support personnel are safe present multiple obstacles.

“Everything will go down for a minute or two, the TVs and screens will turn off, then maybe a minute later, the power generator will kick in,” said Brian Ellsworth, Reuters senior correspondent in Caracas.

That is when the problems start.

No electricity means pumps do not work, leading to shortages of clean water. Cell networks cannot operate, meaning mobile phones are useless. Bank networks go down. Transport is unpredictable.

“At first, we weren’t totally prepared for it,” said Ellsworth, who has come to accept short outages as normal after 15 years reporting in the country’s capital.

Once it was clear that March’s first blackout would be longer than usual, the bureau immediately stocked up on water and bought food for the team as payment systems collapsed.

Only the bureau has a generator, not the building it is housed in, which makes getting into the office more complicated. To make it easier, a staff member slept in the newsroom most evenings, opening the emergency staircase from the inside so reporters could start work early the next day.

Gathering the news gets more difficult to coordinate.

“Cell reception comes in and out. We can make calls over WhatsApp but we can’t call anyone in the country because no one has a functioning cell line,” Ellsworth said. “We have to rely on short-wave radios which function to about 3 km (1.9 miles), but that can be really fuzzy.”

UNCERTAINTY CLOUDS EVERYTHING

With phones unusable, Venezuelans are cut off from one another and from sources of news and social media.

Ellsworth reported on a rally in eastern Caracas to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.

“How did you know about the rally?” he asked one protester. The answer: she did not. She was looking for her mother. “When I got to her building, they told me she was here, so that’s why I came.”

Hospitals cannot perform some vital functions without electricity. Already scarce food starts to spoil. Schools are closed during power outages, which means looking after children becomes an added burden.

“All of that affects us as a bureau because people have to take care of their own homes,” Ellsworth said. “We try to make sure that all those folks have what they need,” he said.

During busy news periods, the Reuters team in Caracas can include as many as 25 people, from reporters, photographers and television staff to security, cleaning and transport crews. The bureau also tries to provide meals for the building’s security guards who are not formally linked to the company.

“They have the same problems, they are stuck here for 24 hours, and when they leave here they don’t know how they are going to get home, if they will have power at home. They don’t have a way to communicate with their families,” said Ellsworth.

“Reuters needs to look out for people that are helping us maintain the operation.”

Maduro and ruling Socialist Party officials have offered a wide range of explanations for the blackouts, including electromagnetic sabotage by the United States and opposition-linked snipers firing on the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as the country’s head of state, says it is the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

As Ellsworth walks up seven flights of stairs to his family’s apartment to light candles in the darkness, he reflects on the state of uncertainty he and 2 million other inhabitants of Caracas now face as a matter of course.

“They don’t give clear answers as to when power is going to come back on, people don’t really believe them when they say the power’s about to come back on, and when it is back, people don’t really believe it will stay back on,” he said. “The uncertainty starts to cloud everything.”

(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller)

Venezuela congress declares ‘state of alarm’ over blackout

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Shaylim Valderrama and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-run congress on Monday declared a “state of alarm” over a five-day power blackout that has crippled the OPEC member country’s oil exports and left millions of citizens scrambling to find food and water.

Much of Venezuela remained without power on Monday, although electricity had largely returned to the capital of Caracas following an outage that began on Thursday and which President Nicolas Maduro has called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage.

The outage has added to discontent in a country already suffering from hyperinflation and a political crisis after opposition leader Juan Guaido assumed the interim presidency in January after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

“Nothing is normal in Venezuela, and we will not allow this tragedy to be considered normal, which is why we need this decree of a state of alarm,” said Guaido, who heads the legislature, during the session on Monday.

The constitution allows the president to declare states of alarm amid catastrophes that “seriously compromise the security of the nation,” but does not explicitly say what practical impact such a declaration would have.

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state institutions, and the backing of Russia and China, among others.

Oil industry sources said that exports from the primary port of Jose had been halted for lack of power, cutting off Venezuela’s primary source of revenue.

During the legislative session, Guaido called for a halt in shipments of oil to Maduro’s political ally Cuba, which has received discounted crude from Venezuela for nearly two decades. The deals have drawn scrutiny from the opposition and its allies abroad as Venezuela’s economic crisis worsened.

“We ask for the international community’s cooperation to make this measure effective so that the oil the Venezuelan people urgently need to attend to this national emergency is not given away,” Guaido said.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton backed the measure, writing on Twitter that, “insurance companies and flag carriers that facilitate these give-away shipments to Cuba are now on notice.” He did not specify any measures the U.S. government may take.

Earlier on Monday, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a Russian bank over its dealings with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Russia’s Rosneft for buying PDVSA oil.

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city’s wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

RESTORATION ‘COMPLEX’

The blackout has left food rotting in refrigerators, hospitals have struggled to keep equipment operating, and people have clustered on the streets of Caracas to pick up patchy telephone signals to reach relatives abroad.

On Monday, Venezuelans seeking water formed lines to fill containers from a sewage pipe.

“This is driving me crazy,” said Naile Gonzalez in Chacaito, a commercial neighborhood of Caracas. “The government doesn’t want to accept that this is their fault because they haven’t carried out any maintenance in years.”

Venezuela’s electrical grid has suffered from years of underinvestment. Restrictions on imports have affected the provision of spare parts, while many skilled technical personnel have fled the country amid an exodus of more than 3 million Venezuelans in recent years.

Winston Cabas, the president of an electrical engineers’ professional association, told reporters that several of the country’s thermoelectric plants were operating at just 20 percent of capacity, in part due to lack of fuel. He said the government was rationing electricity.

The process of restoring service was “complex” and could take between five and six days, he said.

“We once had the best electricity system in the world – the most vigorous, the most robust, the most powerful – and those who now administer the system have destroyed it,” he said.

A source at PDVSA also said the government had decided to ration electricity, in part to supply power to the Jose oil export terminal.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts consulted by Reuters believe the nationwide blackout originated in transmission lines that transport energy from the Guri hydroelectric plant to the Venezuelan south.

The lack of electricity has aggravated a crisis in Venezuelan hospitals, already lacking investment and maintenance in addition to a shortage of medicines.

School and work activities are set to be suspended on Tuesday, the third working day in a row.

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama, Vivian Sequera, Anggy Polanco, and Deisy Buitrago; additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; writing by Daniel Flynn, Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuela grinds to a halt as blackout drags into a second day

A general view of a street during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela shut schools and suspended the workday on Friday as the worst blackout in decades paralyzed most of the troubled nation for a second day, spurring outrage among citizens already suffering from hyperinflation and a crippling recession.

Power went out late on Thursday afternoon due to a problem at Venezuela’s main hydroelectric plant, the government said, calling the event an act of “sabotage” by ideological adversaries.

“We will once again defeat this electrical sabotage. We are going to recover this important service for the population,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in comments broadcast over state television.

While blackouts are routine in many Venezuelan provinces, particularly along the western border with Colombia, nationwide power outages under the ruling Socialist Party have never extended for more than a day.

“This is a severe problem. It is not just any blackout,” said Luis Martinez, a 53-year-old construction worker walking to work in eastern Caracas.

Reuters witnesses could only confirm that lights were on in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz. It was not immediately clear if the power shortages affected oil operations in the OPEC nation.

State oil company PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Caracas, scores of people walked through the streets early in the morning due to the closure of the metro, while others took the few buses that were circulating. Many did not realize the workday was suspended because they could not watch television or listen to the news.

SABOTAGE

President Nicolas Maduro always attributes major power outages to sabotage by opposition adversaries.

Maduro, who was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, blames the crisis on a U.S.-backed sabotage campaign.

His critics say his government has mismanaged the power sector since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized it in 2007 while setting aside billions of dollars for power projects that were swallowed by corruption.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido slammed the government for bungling the country’s energy supply and dismissed sabotage accusations.

“Sabotage is stealing money from Venezuelans. Sabotage is burning food and medicine. Sabotage is stealing elections,” he wrote via Twitter, referring to humanitarian aid trucks that went up in flames last month when opposition leaders attempted to bring relief supplies across the Colombian border.

More than 3 million people are believed to have fled Venezuela amid a deep economic crisis marked by shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Venezuela suffered major blackouts in 2008 and 2013 that affected significant parts of the country, but both were resolved in less than six hours.

Maduro’s televised speeches have on several occasions been interrupted by power outages, spurring chuckles from opposition critics.

Local power outages continue to be chronic, particularly in the sweltering western state of Zulia where residents complain of days without power or with limited electricity and voltage fluctuations that damage appliances.

Venezuela is mired in a major political crisis, with more than 40 foreign governments disavowing Maduro in favor of Guaido. The United States in January levied crippling oil industry sanctions meant to starve Maduro’s government of revenue.

Maduro says Guaido is a “puppet” of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the Trump administration to control Venezuela’s oil wealth.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth,; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

Venezuela’s Guaido declares himself president, Maduro under pressure

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Corina Pons, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to demand an end to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a statement minutes later, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting “Get out, Maduro” and “Guaido, Presidente,” while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas. A rally the night before left four people reported dead, an echo of tumultuous riots two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido, in a speech before a cheering crowd, took an oath swearing himself in as interim president.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end of the usurpation,” he said.

He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections.

The Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens, according to sources.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a fraudulent. His government accuses Guaido of staging a coup and has threatened him with jail.

ARMED FORCES

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

“We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,” said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Venezuelan migrant exodus hits 3 million: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Colombian migration officers check the identity documents of people trying to enter Colombia from Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Three million Venezuelans have fled economic and political crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The exodus, driven by violence, hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines, amounts to around one in 12 of the population.

It has accelerated in the past six months, said William Spindler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which appealed for greater international efforts to ease the strain on the country’s neighbors.

U.N. data in September showed 2.6 million had fled.

“The main increases continue to be reported in Colombia and Peru,” Spindler said.

Colombia is sheltering 1 million Venezuelans. Some 3,000 more arrive each day, and the Bogota government says 4 million could be living there by 2021, costing it nearly $9 billion.

Oil-rich Venezuela has sunk into crisis under Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has damaged the economy through state interventions while clamping down on political opponents.

He has dismissed the migration figures as “fake news” meant to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela’s affairs.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR said the exodus was straining several neighboring countries, notably Colombia.

“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy,” said Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM Joint Special Representative for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

“…However, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community.”

Regional government officials are to meet in Quito, Ecuador from Nov 22-23 to coordinate humanitarian efforts.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

Fleeing hardship at home, Venezuelan migrants struggle abroad, too

FILE PHOTO: Colombian migration officers check the identity documents of people trying to enter Colombia from Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Colombia (Reuters) – Every few minutes, the reeds along the Tachira River rustle. Smugglers, in ever growing numbers, emerge with a ragtag group of Venezuelan migrants – men struggling under tattered suitcases, women hugging bundles in blankets and schoolchildren carrying backpacks. They step across rocks, wade into the muddy stream and cross illegally into Colombia.

This is the new migration from Venezuela.

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

For years, as conditions worsened in the Andean nation’s ongoing economic meltdown, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans – those who could afford to – fled by airplane and bus to other countries far and near, remaking their lives as legal immigrants.

Now, hyperinflation, daily power cuts and worsening food shortages are prompting those with far fewer resources to flee, braving harsh geography, criminal handlers and increasingly restrictive immigration laws to try their luck just about anywhere.

In recent weeks, Reuters spoke with dozens of Venezuelan migrants traversing their country’s Western border to seek a better life in Colombia and beyond. Few had more than the equivalent of a handful of dollars with them.

“It was terrible, but I needed to cross,” said Dario Leal, 30, recounting his journey from the coastal state of Sucre, where he worked in a bakery that paid about $2 per month.

At the border, he paid smugglers nearly three times that to get across and then prepared, with about $3 left, to walk the 500 km (311 miles) to Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The smugglers, in turn, paid a fee to Colombian crime gangs who allow them to operate, according to police, locals and smugglers themselves.

As many as 1.9 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015, according to the United Nations. Combined with those who preceded them, a total of 2.6 million are believed to have left the oil-rich country. Ninety percent of recent departures, the U.N. says, remain in South America.

The exodus, one of the biggest mass migrations ever on the continent, is weighing on neighbors. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, which once welcomed Venezuelan migrants, recently tightened entry requirements. Police now conduct raids to detain the undocumented.

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In early October, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia’s foreign minister, said as many as four million Venezuelans could be in the country by 2021, costing national coffers as much as $9 billion. “The magnitude of this challenge,” he said, “our country has never seen.”

In Brazil, which also borders Venezuela, the government deployed troops and financing to manage the crush and treat sick, hungry and pregnant migrants. In Ecuador and Peru, workers say that Venezuelan labor lowers wages and that criminals are hiding among honest migrants.

“There are too many of them,” said Antonio Mamani, a clothing vendor in Peru, who recently watched police fill a bus with undocumented Venezuelans near Lima.

“WE NEED TO GO”

By migrating illegally, migrants expose themselves to criminal networks who control prostitution, drug trafficking and other rackets. In August, Colombian investigators discovered 23 undocumented Venezuelans forced into prostitution and living in basements in the colonial city of Cartagena.

While most migrants are avoiding such straits, no shortage of other hardship awaits – from homelessness, to unemployment, to the cold reception many get as they sleep in public squares, peddle sweets and throng already overburdened hospitals.

Still, most press on, many on foot.

Some join compatriots in Brazil and Colombia. Others, having spent what money they had, are walking vast regions, like Colombia’s cold Andean passes and sweltering tropical lowlands, in treks toward distant capitals, like Quito or Lima.

Johana Narvaez, a 36-year-old mother of four, told Reuters her family left after business stalled at their small car repair shop in the rural state of Trujillo. Extra income she made selling food on the street withered because cash is scarce in a country where annual inflation, according to the opposition-led Congress, recently reached nearly 500,000 percent.

“We can’t stay here,” she told her husband, Jairo Sulbaran, in August, after they ran out of food and survived on corn patties provided by friends. “Even on foot, we must go.” Sulbaran begged and sold old tires until they could afford bus tickets to the border.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has chided migrants, warning of the hazards of migration and that emigres will end up “cleaning toilets.” He has even offered free flights back to some in a program called “Return to the Homeland,” which state television covers daily.

Most migration, however, remains in the other direction.

Until recently, Venezuelans could enter many South American countries with just their national identity cards. But some are toughening rules, requiring a passport or additional documentation.

Even a passport is elusive in Venezuela.

Paper shortages and a dysfunctional bureaucracy make the document nearly impossible to obtain, many migrants argue. Several told Reuters they waited two years in vain after applying, while a half-dozen others said they were asked for as much as $2000 in bribes by corrupt clerks to secure one.

Maduro’s government in July said it would restructure Venezuela’s passport agency to root out “bureaucracy and corruption.” The Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“VENEZUELA WILL END UP EMPTY”

Many of those crossing into Colombia pay “arrastradores,” or “draggers,” to smuggle them along hundreds of trails. Five of the smugglers, all young men, told Reuters business is booming.

“Venezuela will end up empty,” said Maikel, a 17-year-old Venezuelan smuggler, scratches across his face from traversing the bushy trails. Maikel, who declined to give his surname, said he lost count of how many migrants he has helped cross.

Colombia, too, struggles to count illegal entries. Before the government tightened restrictions earlier this year, Colombia issued “border cards” that let holders crisscross at will. Now, Colombia says it detects about 3,000 false border cards at entry points daily.

Despite tougher patrols along the porous, 2,200-km border, officials say it is impossible to secure outright. “It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket,” said Mauricio Franco, a municipal official in charge of security in Cucuta, a nearby city.

And it’s not just a matter of rounding up undocumented travelers.

Powerful criminal groups, long in control of contraband commerce across the border, are now getting their cut of human traffic. Javier Barrera, a colonel in charge of police in Cucuta, said the Gulf Clan and Los Rastrojos, notorious syndicates that operate nationwide, are both involved.

During a recent Reuters visit to several illegal crossings, Venezuelans carried cardboard, limes and car batteries as barter instead of using the bolivar, their near-worthless currency.

Migrants pay as much as about $16 for the passage. Maikel, the arrastrador, said smugglers then pay gang operatives about $3 per migrant.

For his crossing, Leal, the baker, carried a torn backpack and small duffel bag. His 2015 Venezuelan ID shows a healthier and happier man – before Leal began skimping on breakfast and dinner because he couldn’t afford them.

He rested under a tree, but fretted about Colombian police. “I’m scared because the “migra” comes around,” he said, using the same term Mexican and Central American migrants use for border police in the United States.

It doesn’t get easier as migrants move on.

Even if relatives wired money, transfer agencies require a legally stamped passport to collect it. Bus companies are rejecting undocumented passengers to avoid fines for carrying them. A few companies risk it, but charge a premium of as much as 20 percent, according to several bus clerks near the border.

The Sulbaran family walked and hitched some 1200 km to the Andean town of Santiago, where they have relatives. The father toured garages, but found no work.

“People said no, others were scared,” said Narvaez, the mother. “Some Venezuelans come to Colombia to do bad things. They think we’re all like that.”

(Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Anggy Polanco in Cucuta, Helen Murphy in Bogota and Alexandra Valencia in Quito. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Venezuelan streets quieter than usual after opposition strike call

People queue to withdraw cash from automated teller machines (ATM) at a Mercantil bank branch in Caracas, Venezuela August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s streets were quieter than normal on Tuesday but many businesses remained open despite an opposition call for a national strike to protest economic measures announced by socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The OPEC nation on Monday cut five zeros from prices in response to hyperinflation as part of a broad set of measures meant to address an economic crisis, including pegging the country’s currency to an obscure state-backed cryptocurrency.

Opposition critics slammed the plan as inadequate in the face of inflation that topped 82,000 percent in July and called for a one-day halt of commercial activities.

“Don’t got to work, you have the right to protest, because what’s at stake is your life, your future, and your country. Rebel!” opposition party Popular Will wrote via its Twitter account.

Maduro declared Monday a national holiday for banks and consumers to get accustomed to the new pricing scheme, under which items that cost 1,000,000 bolivars last week were remarked with price tags of 10 bolivars.

Fedecamaras, the country’s main business group, slammed the proposal as “incoherent,” noting that the plan’s 3,000 percent minimum wage increase would make it impossible for businesses to keep their doors open.

But the group did not take a position on the opposition-led strike, saying individual members should choose on their own.

Venezuelan 100 bolivar notes thrown by people in a trash bin are seen at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuelan 100 bolivar notes thrown by people in a trash bin are seen at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The ruling Socialist Party announced a march on Tuesday morning to support Maduro’s economic measures that was scheduled to end with a rally at the presidential palace.

The collapse of the country’s once-booming economy has fueled hunger and disease, spurring an exodus of migrants to nearby countries.

In recent days, Ecuador and Peru tightened visa requirements for Venezuelans and violence drove hundreds of Venezuelan migrants back across the border with Brazil.

The discontent has also spread to the military, as soldiers struggle to get enough food and many desert by leaving the country.

Two high-ranking military officers were arrested this month for alleged involvement in drone explosions during a speech by Maduro, who called it an assassination attempt.

Maduro says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by the opposition with the help of Washington, which last year levied several rounds of sanctions against his government and high-ranking officials.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

With inflation soaring, Venezuela prices shed five zeros

A 2.4 kg chicken is pictured next to 14,600,000 bolivars, its price and the equivalent of 2.22 USD, at a mini-market in Caracas, Venezuela. It was the going price at an informal market in the low-income neighborhood of Catia. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Tibisay Romero

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela on Monday slashed five zeros from prices as part of a broad economic plan that President Nicolas Maduro says will tame hyperinflation but critics call another raft of failed socialist policies that will push the chaotic country deeper into crisis.

Streets were quiet and shops were closed due to a national holiday that Maduro decreed for the first day of the new pricing plan for the stricken economy, which the International Monetary Fund has estimated will have 1 million percent inflation by year-end.

The price change comes with a 3,000 percent minimum wage hike and tax increases meant to shore up government revenue and a plan to peg salaries, prices and the country’s exchange rate tied to the petro, an elusive state-backed cryptocurrency.

Economists say the plan announced on Friday is likely to escalate the crisis facing the once-prosperous country that is now suffering from Soviet-style product shortages and a mass exodus of citizens fleeing for nearby South American countries.

Venezuelans are mostly baffled by the monetary overhaul and skeptical it will turn the country around.

“This is out of control, prices are sky high,” said Betzabeth Linares, 47, in a supermarket in the central city of Valencia. “What worries me is how we’ll eat, the truth is that the way things are going, I really don’t know.”

After a decade-long oil bonanza that spawned a consumption boom in the OPEC member, many poor citizens are now reduced to scouring through garbage to find food as monthly salaries currently amount to a few U.S. dollars a month.

The new measures spooked shopkeepers already struggling to stay afloat due to hyperinflation, government-set prices for goods ranging from flour to diapers, and strict currency controls that crimp imports.

Growing discontent with Maduro has also spread to the military as soldiers struggle to get enough food and many desert by leaving the country, along with hundreds and thousands of civilians who have emigrated by bus across South America.

Two high-ranking military officers were arrested this month for their alleged involvement in drone explosions during a speech by Maduro, who has described it as an assassination attempt.

The chaos has become an increasing concern for the region. In recent days, Ecuador and Peru have tightened visa requirements for Venezuelans, and violence drove hundreds of Venezuelan migrants back across the border with Brazil on Saturday.

Maduro, re-elected to a second term in May in a vote widely condemned as rigged, says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries with the help of Washington and accuses the United States of seeking to overthrow him.

The United States has denied the accusations. But it has described the former bus driver and union leader as a dictator and levied several rounds of financial sanctions against his government and top officials.

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Susan Thomas)