CÚCUTA, COLOMBIA – Trucks brimming with food, medical supplies and hygiene kits from the United States rolled up to the Colombia-Venezuela border Wednesday, offering the Venezuelan people a teetering new hope for their spiraling country.
But 27-year-old Ricardo Toreabo was one of the tens of thousands of migrants still streaming in the other direction, fleeing from the nation plagued by hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
“I come for my future, to help my children and my family,” Toreabo said, holding his two-year-old son in his arms. “In every part of Venezuela, people are scared because we don’t know what could happen.”
With no food and no money to survive in central Venezuela he, his wife and son joined a group of migrants in a more than 110-hour walk to the Colombia border city of Cúcuta, the largest gateway between the two countries.
A sea of over 40,000 Venezuelans like Toreabo flood over the border into Cúcuta every day. Migrants cross the border bridge in a steady flow that starts at 5 in the morning. They pass a tented checkpoint and continue in throngs to Colombia. Families roll strollers with young children, others carry luggage bigger than them as they begin a journey to nearby countries such as Peru and Ecuador.
Others without documents cross the river below in canoes veiled by reeds. Less than 160 feet from where authorities stand, they sprint with their possessions in tow, but their scramble doesn’t turn any heads.
The area has been a strategic zone in the Venezuelan migration crisis, which has been spurred on by rampant hyperinflation, shortages and deep political unrest.
That rampant hyperinflation has turned the Venezuelan Bolivar virtually useless and migrants can’t buy even the most basic food supplies like bread, fruit or rice. Instead, they starve.
And it’s gotten worse in recent weeks.
Three weeks ago, Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaidó made a surprising grab for power from the dictatorial regime of President Nicolas Maduro who, up until that point, maintained a firm autocracy over the country.
Guaidó was quickly recognized by world leaders as Venezuela’s new president, including President Donald Trump who said in a statement he will “use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”
The quick rise to power brought hope for millions of Venezuelans roaring back.
“If they take down Maduro, we won’t leave,” said Yudberto Ramirez, a Venezuelan preparing to flee to Chile with his family in 2019 as inflation is expected to reach 10,000,000 percent.
“If he does not fall, we have to look (for somewhere to go). It’s hard, but if they can get humanitarian aid here, it’s more practical to stay in Venezuela because we would have one hope for change.”
This week, millions of dollars of humanitarian aid – food, medicine, hygiene kits, nutritional products and other necessities intended for the Venezuela’s most vulnerable – arrived in Cúcuta, set to be distributed by Venezuela’s opposition.
Cases of medicine and white USAID bags stuffed with beans and rice, packaged foods and toiletries piled high near the border, ready to be delivered to the Venezuelan people.
But those resources were met with blockades Thursday, set up by the military still controlled by Maduro, who remained in fierce opposition of any humanitarian resources. Despite a starving population and an undeniable exodus from the country, the faltering president has for months insisted his nation is not in a state of crisis, saying last week “we are not beggars.”
Now, two blue shipping containers, a large orange oil tank and three black wire fences obstruct the pathway for potentially life-saving resources.
“(Maduro’s) recent decision to block bridges and cut off channels of food and supplies imperils the health and futures of the Venezuelan people, and must be immediately reversed,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Friday.
Other diplomats like U.S. Ambassador in Colombia Kevin Whitaker hinted that the Trump Administration would be open to military intervention if the aid was not delivered saying: “President Trump has been clear that nothing is off the table.”
Danny Bhar, an economist at the Brookings Institution, called the standoff a “symbolic” move for the future of the South American country.
“It has political significance perhaps more than an economic one,” he said. “The regime really holds the power in Venezuela and Maduro has said that he is not going to accept humanitarian aid because there is not an economic crisis.”
But for migrants like Toreabo, the Venezuelan who walked days to the Colombia border and now sleeps with his family on the streets of Cúcuta, the idea of international support is not something conceptual.
It’s his life.
He sat in a refugee kitchen Wednesday afternoon spoon feeding his two-year-old son, David, soup out of a red plastic bowl. David, he explained, had a stomach infection and it was aid organizations like the Red Cross and the United Nations refugee authority providing health services that keep their family going.
Outside, a line of migrants wound around the wire fence of one of the many soup kitchens that had popped up around the city.
“If their (U.S.) aid comes and it can help us Venezuelans, thank God for you all,” he said. “We need help. In Venezuela right now there is no medicine, there is nothing. There are children dying from malnutrition, they can’t eat.”
A study found that in 2016 Venezuelans lost an average 24 pounds. And that was before the brunt of the crisis hit in 2018.
It’s hard to know exactly how many have fled Venezuela. The United Nations put the number at 3 million, but the actual total is likely far more because migrants increasingly are taking illegal routes or move irregularly through various countries.
In Colombia, a Venezuela neighbor that has taken on the brunt of the crisis, the government estimated it could be home to 4 million migrants in the coming year.
“This crisis is stronger right now because you can’t survive,” said Eva Davielo, a Venezuelan woman who every day sells water and snacks with her sons and 3-year-old daughter in a stroller.
“We have to work in pesos, because without earning pesos the food would be too expensive to live. If we didn’t come here, we wouldn’t be able to eat.”
Some, though, have been following the aid.
Eduardo Gallego stood among mountains of suitcases, pink backpacks and plastic bags Wednesday morning, just minutes from the Venezuela border. Diapers and food sat at his feet and his wife was fiddling with suitcases and feeding their daughter.
Two years ago, before the growing trickle of migrants turned into a flood, he fled to northern Peru, where he hoped to work to feed his family, who months later followed him out of Venezuela.
That amounted to two years of struggle, he said, two years of missing his mother and two years of wishing he was home and not sleeping on the floor of an empty apartment. When they heard about the shift overtaking Venezuela, they decided it was time to go home.
Gallego peered over the border crossing with a feeling that he called a “nostalgia, a deep nostalgia” for the country that was.
“We’re returning for a hope,” he said. “We have hope for a new country, there has to be end to this. There has to be an end for us Venezuelans. We have hope for what this guy Guaidó is saying.”