Venezuelans were previously able to enter Colombia and Ecuador using only paper ID cards.
Venezuelans were previously able to enter Colombia and Ecuador using only paper ID cards.

Passport rule that’s trapped a nation

LOCALS say that to stay in Venezuela is to die.

The troubled nation, once the richest country in South America, is crippled by murderous gangs, corruption, devastating food and medical shortages and a dysfunctional new currency no one can understand.

More than two million Venezuelans have fled their oil-rich homeland since 2014, when tumbling oil prices thrust it further into an economic tailspin.

While floods of people continue to pour out of Venezuela, tough new passport laws imposed by neighbouring countries are closing the window on those desperate to escape their economic misery.

And it's just another setback for Venezuela, which has just been struck by its most powerful earthquake in more than a century.

This year alone, more than 423,000 Venezuelans fled to Ecuador though neighbouring Colombia, by bus, hitchhiking and on foot - including close to 1000 that tried to make the treacherous crossing on Sunday. Many hope to make it through Ecuador and onto Peru.

But the sudden change in entry rules have left them holed up at the Colombia-Ecuador border.

Ecuador recently announced it would only allow entry only to people with valid passports. Peru made a similar announcement on the weekend.

Venezuelans were previously able to enter Colombia and Ecuador using only paper ID cards. About half of those who have made the journey so far didn't have passports.

But obtaining a passport in Venezuela is close to impossible. The country is struggling with shortages of paper and ink - so hardly any passports are printed, let alone issued.

And then there's the enormous cost of the document. Al Jazeera reports passports can cost up to $2700 in fees and bribes - way beyond what most people can afford in Venezuela, where the average monthly wage is currently about $1.40 a day.

Virtually trapped, and running out of options, desperate Venezuelans have been defying the passport rules and trying to get into Ecuador anyway.

Many have risked detention by simply walking across the loosely guarded border between Colombia and Ecuador, Reuters reported.

Others are stranded at the border, stumped by the sudden passport rule change.

Jorge Briceno trekked 1400km across Colombia towards Ecuador after quitting his job, selling his motorcycle and leaving Venezuela last week.

He hoped to make it to Peru where friends would help him find a job so he could afford bringing over his wife and children.

"To return (to Venezuela) is to die," he told Al Jazeera. "If we have to die here looking for a better life for our families, then we'll die. It's better than dying in Venezuela. We won't return."

Teacher Mayerly Isaguirre and her boyfriend had planned to legally cross the Ecuadorean border with their Venezuelan ID card before they were stopped.

"We have no money, we need to move on now and get our lives back," she told Reuters, adding the pair had spent 24 cold hours stuck at the border.

"They haven't told us anything - we are just waiting around like idiots."

Denny Gudiña told the Washington Post he spent seven days travelling on 25 different freight trucks to cross Colombia before making the Rumichaca border crossing to Ecuador.

"How demoralising," he said at the border. "So much time travelling here to arrive, and they tell us no."

Those that managed to cross the border into Ecuador have been heading along a mountainous 800km highway towards Peru, defying warnings from officials of fines and arrest.

Many South American countries have offered to take in Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship or political persecution.

But some are feeling the strain. In Brazil, there have been reports of mob violence against Venezuelan arrivals.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the new passport rules may force Venezuelan people to take dangerous routes to other countries or leave them vulnerable to human traffickers and other dangerous groups.

The UNHCR told Al Jazeera it was working with Ecuadorean authorities to arrange passage for those at the border but an agreement was pending.

The fresh trouble facing Venezuelans comes as the country struggles with a confusing overhaul of its struggling bolivar.

New bank notes featuring five fewer zeros have been issued from ATMs this week, leaving residents struggling to work out their new value.

The new currency is part of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to kerb hyperinflation and the plummeting economy.

 

Venezuela’s new currency has five fewer zeros and is part of measures to tame soaring inflation. Picture: AP/Ariana Cubillos
Venezuela’s new currency has five fewer zeros and is part of measures to tame soaring inflation. Picture: AP/Ariana Cubillos

Mr Maduro has also promised new economic measures from September 1, which includes the increase of the minimum wage by more than 3000 per cent, and new price controls.

But banks have capped daily ATM withdrawals at 10 bolivars - about 15 cents on the black market, Associated Press reported. At that rate, it would take seven days to buy a two-litre bottle of Coke, or two days to buy a single empanada.

Economists have warned inflation in Venezuela could reach one million per cent this year.

Venezuela was dealt a further blow today as the worst earthquake in more than a century shook its northeastern coast, forcing residents in the capital Caracas to evacuate buildings.

The 7.3 quake, the largest to strike Venezuela since 1900, also interrupted pro-government rallies in support of the new economic measures.


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