Wall Street Journal
By Kejal Vyas
June 22, 2017
Struggling to find basic staples in her own country, Mariana Revilla and five neighbors here took to crossing a treacherous 60-mile gulf under the cover of night to the island of Trinidad.
On her last trip, they made a good haul, securing seven tons of flour, sugar and cooking oil from the former British colony in exchange for fresh shrimp from home. But on the way back their rickety 46-foot boat capsized, leaving Ms. Revilla and her companions clinging to the wreckage for nearly two days before she and two others ran out of strength and drowned, according to survivors. Her stepfather says her 3-year-old daughter, Isabel, keeps asking, “Where is my mama?”
As Venezuela’s economy crumbles, an increasingly desperate people are doing all they can to get food and medicine. Here that can involve great peril.
Venezuelans make trips as long as 10 hours to hawk shellfish, plastic chairs, house doors, ceramic pots and even exotic animals like iguanas and brightly feathered macaws. They are exchanged for basic goods—rice, detergent, diapers—that Caracas is increasingly unable to provide.
“It’s thanks to Trinidad that we have any food here,” said 49-year-old Angela Caballero, a resident of this town on a peninsula that extends toward the island. “If that didn’t come, we’d be dead.”
A decade ago, Venezuela’s late strongman, Hugo Chávez, promoted bartering to boost food production and create “a socialist market, a market of equals.” But today, many of his compatriots in far-flung towns like Irapa have a different take on that direct approach to the marketplace.
“This is savage capitalism,” town councilman Guillermo Mendoza said. “The role of the government in this is to just keep quiet.”
Venezuelan and Trinidadian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the cross-border barter trade. Such evidence of economic desperation is an embarrassment for Mr. Chávez’s heir, President Nicolás Maduro, who denies the country is in a crisis. Trinidad, meanwhile, recently signed a deal with its larger neighbor to develop a major offshore gas field.
Venezuelan fishermen have been making weekly trips to Trinidad since food scarcities intensified two years ago, said Eutaquio Fernández, captain of that ill-fated boat.
As the cash-strapped government slashes imports, Irapa residents say food rations meant to last a week reach them barely once every two months. CLAP, a year-old state distribution program, has been mired in delays and allegations of corruption, including from a congressional investigation that found evidence of $200 million in overpricing by government-contracted suppliers.
With Irapa left to fend for itself, Mr. Fernández, a father of six, used his boat to transport neighbors looking to buy and barter goods until the accident the night of April 28. He says floating globs of fuel from a Trinidadian oil refinery destroyed the vessel’s motors and it overturned in choppy waters. Fishermen rescued Mr. Fernández and two others, badly sunburned and dehydrated after clinging to the upended craft for two days. The bodies of Ms. Revilla and two others were found later covered in oil. Traumatized, Mr. Fernández says he can’t think about going back, even if he had a boat to do so.
Trinidadian officials say about 14,000 Venezuelans entered the country legally in the first four months of last year, the most recent figures available. Human-rights workers say tens of thousands of others come illegally on unauthorized routes. Many cross the Paria Gulf, braving pirates, drug-trafficking gangs and the Venezuelan National Guard, who fishermen say charge bribes of more than $100 per boat.
Ms. Revilla never planned to be a smuggler, her family said. After graduating from medical school in western Venezuela, the 27-year-old returned home to become the chief medical resident at Irapa’s Freddy Mocari Hospital, specializing in kidneys.
Though beloved by many of Irapa’s 9,000 residents, Ms. Revilla earned $15 a month, not enough to support her retired parents and her daughter. So last year, she decided to get in on the town’s most lucrative business.
Local shrimp-catcher Xiomara Ruiz provided her with coolers filled with seafood. As one of few people in town with a passport, Ms. Revilla started hauling them to Trinidad.
With each trip, she fed her family and sold food to local bodegas, making more money than she could from years at the hospital. But she hated the risk and like many other doctors hoped to leave Venezuela. She told her family that her fifth trip, in April, would be her last.
“She was looking for quality of life and she paid for it with her life,” her stepfather Ángel García said, teary-eyed. Ms. Revilla’s daughter still calls for her mother every day, he added. “We just tell her ‘Mama’s gone off to study.’”
Tragedy has also struck many others making the trek.
In late December, an indigenous Warao family from Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta traveled to Trinidad to exchange their prized goats for supplies, a Trinidadian immigration official said. But they lacked permits to import livestock, so the goats were confiscated and the hungry father, son, and grandfather were detained until relatives could raise money for their deportation.
“There are more coming, seeking food and trying to sell whatever they can,” said Shankar Teelucksingh, a lawmaker representing Cedros, Trinidad’s main port of entry for Venezuelans. He estimated 200 Venezuelans arrive weekly, twice the number of a year ago.
Those who enter illegally risk being sent to an overcrowded detention center, where they must wait for family or friends to pay for their return trip.
“Even if they put me in jail, it’s better to be here than to deal with the situation in Venezuela,” said Roiman Galviz, a muscled 26-year-old who recently reached Trinidad by boat and found work as a chef. “At least you’d be safe and you’d have a little food.”
Some traffickers trade food directly at port, while others drop anchor and head into Trinidad’s cities to shop at wholesale outlets such as U.S. chain-store Price Smart.
The harrowing story of the death of Ms. Revilla and her neighbors has spread fast around port communities but the boats keep crossing, said Venezuelan Cristian Prito, another mother who had taken up the perilous trade. On a recent day, she was buying rice in bulk along the sun-soaked docks of Trinidad’s Crew’s Inn marina, after having sold several dozen pounds of crab.
“Of course I’m scared,” the petite 40-year-old said. “I have a son, I have parents I need to get back to. How else can we get by?”
Write to Kejal Vyas at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sara Schaefer Muñoz at Sara.Munoz@wsj.com
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