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Hungry Venezuelans Turn to Colombia for a Plate of Food

  • Associated Press

FILE - A woman carrying a bundle on her head waits in line to cross the border into Colombia through the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, July 17, 2016.

Under a scorching sun just a short walk from Colombia's border with Venezuela, hundreds of hungry men, women and children line up for bowls of chicken and rice — the first full meal some have eaten in days.

An estimated 25,000 Venezuelans make the trek across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge into Colombia each day. Many come for a few hours to work or trade goods on the black market, looking for household supplies they cannot find back home.

But increasingly, they are coming to eat in one of a half-dozen facilities offering struggling Venezuelans a free plate of food.

"I never thought I'd say this," said Erick Oropeza, 29, a former worker with Venezuela's Ministry of Education who recently began crossing the bridge at 4 a.m. each day. "But I'm more grateful for what Colombia has offered me in this short time than what I ever received from Venezuela my entire life."

As Venezuela's economy verges on collapse and its political upheaval worsens, cities like Cucuta along Colombia's porous, 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with Venezuela have become firsthand witnesses to the neighboring South American nation's escalating humanitarian crisis.

According to one recent survey, about 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds (8.7 kilograms) last year.

The Colombian government has crafted contingency plans in the event of a sudden, mass exodus, but already church groups and nonprofit organizations are stepping in, moved by images of mothers carrying starving babies and skinny men trying to make a few bucks on Cucuta's streets to bring back home.

Paulina Toledo, 47, a Colombian hairstylist who recently helped feed lunch to 900 Venezuelans, said seeing how hungry they were "hurt my soul."

"Those of us here on the border are seeing their pain," she said.

People living on either side of the Colombia-Venezuela border have long had a foot in both countries: A Colombian who lives in Cucuta might cross to visit relatives in San Cristobal; a Venezuelan might make the reverse trip to work or go to school.

In the years when Venezuela's oil industry was booming and Colombia entangled in a half-century armed conflict, an estimated 4 million Colombians migrated to Venezuela. Many started coming back as Venezuela's economy began to implode and after Maduro closed the border in 2015 and expelled 20,000 Colombians overnight.

Oropeza said he earned about $70 a month working at the Ministry of Education and selling hamburgers on the side — twice Venezuela's minimum wage but still not enough to feed a family of four. Once a month his family receives a bundle of food provided by the government, but it only lasts a week.

"So the other three weeks, like most Venezuelans, we have to make magic happen," he said on a recent afternoon.

Desperate for money to feed his family, he left his job and traveled to the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio. He wakes up at 4 a.m. each morning to be among the first crossing the bridge into Cucuta, where he earns money selling soft drinks on the street.

He goes straight to the "Casa de Paso," a church-run shelter that has served 60,000 meals to Venezuelans since opening two months ago. On an average day, 2,000 Venezuelans line up for meals, getting a ticket to reserve their spot and then waiting four hours for a meal served at outdoor plastic tables.

Workers stir gigantic metal pots filled with chicken and rice set on the bare dirt floor. Volunteers hand out boxes of juice to tired-looking children. Adults sit quietly, savoring their bowl of food as chickens waddle between them.

"Every day I have to remind myself why I am here," said Oropeza, dressed in a faded striped collared shirt. "I try to repeat it to myself so that I won't, you know, so those moments of weakness don't affect you so much."

When he's not helping out or waiting in line at the shelter kitchen, Oropeza sells malted soft drinks for about 50 cents each. He's been able to bring money back to his family and has earned enough to buy a cellphone, which he'd lacked for two years.

Jose David Canas, a priest, said his church will continue to serve food "as long as God allows."

"Until they close the border," he said. "Until everything is eaten or until the province tells us that they no longer have lunches to give out. And then it's the end."

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