RADHICA DE SILVA
Leaving their loved ones behind in a country torn by violence, starvation and political persecution, hundreds of Venezuelans continue to risk their lives to come to Trinidad in search of a better life.
While the wealthiest of Venezuelans can afford to come here legally often through the port of Cedros, hundreds more Venezuelans board pirogues and ferries and sneak into the island through the hidden inlets and bays along the coasts. They sell their homes, furniture, jewelry, and even their hair to save enough US dollars to make the trip.
Since 2014, more than 1.8 million people have fled Venezuela because of horrific living conditions. Many get a three-month tourist visit but end up staying here for months.
Cedros Councillor Shankar Teelucksingh said with the closure of the Cedros port for eight days last week, more than 800 Venezuelans are on standby to come to the island legally in the first week of February, with about 300 carded to go back home.
"Many are fleeing from political persecution and have no intention of going back. They pay ferry operators US$200 to make the trip," Teelucksingh said. Those who come illegally pay up to US$500 to cross the 20-kilometre stretch between Trinidad and Venezuela.
Illegal points of entry
During an interview, a senior officer from the Immigration department said many Venezuelans are continuing to enter the island through several illegal points along the Columbus Channel where the Orinoco River flows such as Icacos, Galfar, Erin, Chatham, Mon Diablo, Buenos Ayres, and Quinam.
"In days gone by Quinam was once one of the most popular beaches in south Trinidad. However, with coastal erosion and a recent rock revetment project done by the Ministry of Works to arrest erosion, the Quinam Bay is hardly frequented on weekdays so people use that area for illegal activity," a source from the area said.
A man who works near the newly opened beach facility confirmed that every Tuesday in broad daylight a boatload of Venezuelans arrive.
"You can see them looking scared and starved. They run out of the boat as soon as they reach. There are always people waiting for them. I just turn a blind eye because these days people who see too much end up dead," he said.
The forests around Penal is a wildlife sanctuary but with the absence of game wardens, patrols are not frequent. There is no cellular signal there, so arrangements are conducted openly.
In Erin, Los Iros
Meanwhile, in Erin, villagers said it is not unusual for Venezuelans to arrive at Los Iros and Erin Bay which is nearby to Chatham and Buenos Ayres.
Resident Paul Nehal said the Venezuelans are well connected and some of them may be into crime.
"There are people in the area who earn money from the Venezuelan crisis. I have a van and they often hire me to pick up the Venezuelans from Erin and drop them in Chaguanas," Nehal said. He said most people are cautious about bringing the Venezuelans into their homes in fear that they could be criminals.
However, some Trinidadians have taken this chance.
One woman, who did not want to be named, said she rescued two Venezuelan children who she found wandering in a community in Oropouche.
Unwilling to give their names, she said the children were brought in with an aunt who was later deported back to Venezuela.
The children, aged eight and ten, stayed with the woman for several months before she bought a ticket and took them back to Venezuela to be with their parents. The woman said when she went to Venezuela to drop the children it was like a scene from a horror movie.
"I remember walking along a street and there was a place where a man sat with a big gun and there were dirty hungry children there with him. This child not more than three years old stood looking out...there with a cut over her face and blood streaming down. She looked at me. I cried but the tour guide told me don't look. They could kill us. I stayed in my hotel room and I could not go out on my own. It was too dangerous. I feel worried about the children who live there with no food, no medicine, no help," she said.
In Cedros, residents said Venezuelans have been coming through Cedros for decades.
Suraj Chickurie said in times gone by they used to come to Cedros to sell ceramic pottery and jewelry. "Now they no longer sell in Cedros. They go to Point Fortin instead," Chickurie said.
Terry Assong, who has been helping Venezuelans at Bonasse Village, said many of them were good people. He said the Government should find a way to help the Venezuelan nationals who come to Cedros by providing an avenue where they could get medical aid, housing, and food.
'A blessing and a curse'
Venezuelan Judge Manuel Romero who fled to T&T with his wife, Lorimar Silva and their two children said his friends were starving in Venezuela.
"The crisis was so dire that they are breaking up their furniture and using it as firewood," Romero said.
Trinidad seems to be both a blessing and a curse to many Venezuelans who live here. Romero said since he came to Trinidad in August last year, he has done a variety of jobs including fishing, painting, security guard, labourer, construction worker, and salesman.
He refuses to speak about the exploitation he suffered but instead expressed gratitude to all the good people he met along the way who provided his family with food and shelter.
At an agricultural estate in Debe, Venezuelan labourers could be seen working hard to cultivate a hot pepper estate. Unlike many Trinidadians, they work in the scorching midday sun. Most of them could not speak English and despite their working conditions, they smiled when approached by this reporter.
A Venezuelan who works at a store in Duncan Village said she has managed to build a life in Trinidad but it was always difficult.
"People think I am a prostitute. Long ago when I first visited here, people used to treat me with respect, but now they think I am a prostitute so they no have respect. I am happy to work here. In Trinidad at least I can find food. Right now I am very worried about my people in Venezuela," she said.
Louis Rodrigo, who works in a clothing store at Gulf City said it was painful being in a place where he was not wanted.
"People have told me to (expletive) get out of here. All we are doing is trying to live. I cannot wait to go back to Venezuela one day," Rodrigo said.
Several Trinidadians said they were concerned that the Venezuelans were taking away their jobs and strangling T&T.
Marilyn Neptune said, "They are invading our country, many are coming illegally and are contributing to crime. They are making things hard for us."
Marissa Peters of Fyzabad said since the Venezuelan crisis, prostitution has also increased.
Exploitation of the Venezuelan people occurs in all sector. In the construction sector, skilled Venezuelans are paid $300 a day, $100 less than a Trinidadian construction worker. The unskilled labourers get $200 a day while the Trinidadians work for $300 a day.
Bring migrant laws—UWI professor
Faced with this exploitation, Dean of Faculty of Law at the University of West Indies, Professor Rosemarie Bell-Antoine said proper migrant laws were needed in T&T. She said nobody knows how many Venezuelans are currently in T&T as attorneys were finding it challenging to get statistics from the detention centre and children's homes where the refugees are kept.
Saying the statistics may be alarming, Bell-Antoine said she was disappointed that adequate laws were not put in place as yet.
"Three years ago, we warned that it was going to get worse in terms of the amount of Venezuelans coming in and nobody was taking us seriously. Now there is some recognition that something needs to be done," Bell-Antoine said.
Saying there was now a move to provide national cards to identify the Venezuelans, Bell-Antoine said, "That is a good first step. The laws must be implemented in a structured and humanitarian way and not in an ad-hoc manner."
She noted that the refugee crisis was happening throughout the world.
"That is why we have these international conventions to help us. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. People are saying too many Venezuelans are coming in, but it is a temporary situation. We have now realised that something positive and structured needs to be done and we can get it going," she added.
Bell-Antoine, who has been lobbying for the introduction of legislation in line with established human rights conventions, said over the past three years, attorneys and immigration personnel have been trained on refugee rights.
"We need to extend a hand of friendship in Venezuela," she said.
Minister of National Security Stuart Young said last week that border patrols will be tightened as the Venezuelan crisis intensifies. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said the Air Guard will be monitoring the coasts.
Venezuela has been experiencing a steep downward spiral since 2012 as oil prices fell sharply, a year before the late president Hugo Chavez died. His protégé and successor, Nicolas Maduro, 56, has faced criticisms of economic mismanagement, corruption, and political oppression.
On January 23, Juan Guaido, 35, the president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, announced that he would assume Maduro’s powers temporarily, a move recognised by the US, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Peru, Chile and other countries in Europe.