Why Are So Many Venezuelans Going to the United States?

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have arrived at the United States border in the last two years, part of a historic wave of migrants headed north amid growing global crises.

But Venezuela has been in the midst of an economic and humanitarian crisis for roughly a decade.

Why are so many people going to the United States now?

Over the last year, we’ve interviewed hundreds of Venezuelans headed to the United States. The short answer is that people are exhausted by so many years of economic struggle, and global policies meant to change the situation have failed to keep them at home.

At the same time, social media has popularized the route to the United States, while a thriving people-moving business near the start of the journey has accelerated the pace of migration — even as a United Nations tally shows a record number of people dying on their way north.

Venezuela was once among the wealthiest countries in Latin America, its economy buoyed by profits from vast oil reserves — the largest proven reserves in the world — that supported celebrated universities, a respected public health system and a flourishing middle class.

But the economy crashed in the mid-2010s amid mismanagement of the oil sector by an authoritarian government claiming socialist ideals, now led by President Nicolás Maduro. Tough sanctions imposed by the United States in 2019 have exacerbated the situation.

For years Venezuelans have been scraping by, trying to feed their children on meager salaries, watching family members die of preventable diseases, waiting for hours in line for gasoline so they can take a trip to the hospital or the market.

William Añez, right, and his family in Necoclí, Colombia, in July. They are among many Venezuelans who have left their country for economic reasons.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

An influx of dollars in recent years has landed mostly in the pockets of the wealthy and well-connected.

The average salary for a public-school teacher or nurse is roughly $3 a month, the average salary for a private sector employee is $160 — and the monthly cost to simply feed a family of four is $372, according to the Venezuelan Finance Observatory, a nonprofit organization.

Many parents are now raising children who have only known crisis, and making herculean efforts to simply put food on the table.

In our conversations, many Venezuelans said that they were willing to take enormous risks just to find a semblance of sanctuary for their families.

“Every day I get older and I have still not secured anything for them,” said Williams Añez, 42, speaking of his five children. Mr. Añez, a former supporter of Mr. Maduro’s party, spoke from a northern Colombian town that has become a gathering point for Venezuelans headed to the United States.

Why are Venezuelans going to the United States? Why not go elsewhere?

In the early days of the crisis, millions of Venezuelans migrated to other countries in South America. Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor, received the largest part of the exodus — more than two million people.

Colombia, with the support of the United States, offered a generous visa program meant to keep Venezuelans in South America. But wages in Colombia are very low. Mr. Añez, for example, migrated to Colombia, where he made just $5 a day cutting sugar cane.

Peru and Ecuador were other popular countries for Venezuelans seeking new homes. But both suffer similar wage issues. Ecuador is now struggling with rising drug trafficking violence and with common criminals who extort small business owners.

Unable to build safe or stable lives in South America, many Venezuelans are moving on to the United States.

Venezuelans waiting to cross into the United States in July.Credit…Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

Isn’t life improving in Venezuela?

Not really.

In the early days of the economic crisis, widespread scarcity made everyday goods difficult to find for nearly all Venezuelans. Today, food and medicine are more available, they are just too expensive for most citizens to afford.

Life in Venezuela has gotten better — for an extremely select number of people.

For everyone else, public schools have been gutted as investment has dried up, while a teacher strike over low wages has put educators in the streets and students out of the classroom.

The health care situation is dire. Public hospitals lack basic supplies and are overwhelmed. To enter a private clinic, patients are sometimes asked to pay as much as $1,000 in advance, and then a similar price for every day of care. Formerly middle class families now resort to websites like GoFundMe, forced to beg for money to treat life-threatening cancers and other conditions.

At the same time, the electricity and gasoline shortages that characterized the early days of the crisis continue because of the country’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Caracas, the capital, has suffered almost daily electricity cuts in the last year, while lines for subsidized gasoline last up to six hours. The situation beyond the capital is worse.

Alicia Anderson, 44, a nurse in a Caracas suburb, said that she makes about $5 a month at a public hospital, along with two monthly bonuses — $40 for food and $30 explained by Mr. Maduro as an effort to combat the country’s “economic war.”

She makes ends meet by caring for patients in their homes, selling food out of her house and participating in a community loan system.

Running water arrives about once a week, Ms. Anderson said, and on those days the family fills every bucket they have, to save for the future.

Venezuela’s economy collapsed in the mid-2010s amid mismanagement of the oil sector.Credit…Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

What is the journey like to the United States?

Visa requirements mean that many Venezuelans cannot simply fly.

Instead, they are taking a grueling land route from Caracas or other points of origin, moving on foot, and via bus, train and car all the way to the southern U.S. border.

One of the most dangerous legs is a jungle called the Darién Gap, which connects South and North America.

In the past, the jungle acted as a natural barrier, making northward migration difficult. But in 2021, Haitians fleeing chaos at home began to cross the forest in large numbers. Last year they were surpassed by Venezuelans.

Today, Venezuelans are the largest group crossing the Darién, according to the authorities in Panama, followed by Ecuadoreans and people from many other countries, including China, India and Afghanistan.

Twin sisters María Valentina and María Alejandra, 14, traveled with their family through the Darién Gap last month.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

How does Venezuela’s government treat people still at home?

For nearly a decade, human rights activists have documented detailed allegations of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence orchestrated by the state authorities.

Since 2014, the year after Mr. Maduro took power, more than 15,700 people have been detained for political reasons, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit organization based in Caracas. At least 283 political prisoners are still in custody, the organization estimated in a March report.

For years, those held in custody say they have been treated in cruel and degrading ways, had limited access to a legal defense and often been detained with little or fabricated evidence. Rather than await justice, victims who are freed often choose to flee, increasing the U.S.-bound migration.

What role does the U.S. play in Venezuela’s demise?

The United States intensified economic sanctions on Venezuela in 2019, including a ban on oil imports, after having accused Mr. Maduro of fraud in the most recent presidential election. The goal was to force him from power.

Experts agree that sanctions hobbled the country’s oil industry. But they are split over how much the economic collapse was also caused by the corruption and mismanagement of the Venezuelan government.

“That these sanctions are still in place is a major impediment for the Venezuelan economy to be able to recover,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for International Crisis Group. “It is not the only factor.”

Francisco Rodríguez, a senior researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said he had found that sanctions and other foreign policy actions have played a central role in the country’s economic contraction since 2012 and are a major factor driving the exodus.

“If there had been no sanctions, Venezuela would still have suffered a major economic crisis,” said Mr. Rodríguez. “But by no means of the dimension of what we’ve seen.”

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela at the presidential palace in Caracas, the capital, in November.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Will the situation change in Venezuela?

A presidential election is planned for next year. But many international observers are skeptical that the election will be free and fair, especially since the Maduro government has disqualified leading opposition candidates.

María Corina Machado, a former lawmaker, is currently the most popular candidate hoping to challenge Mr. Maduro in 2024. It is unclear how she will participate, though, as she is among the disqualified.

At a recent Machado campaign event in the state of Guárico, south of Caracas, a teacher named Josefina Romance stood in the audience.

With a new president, Ms. Romance said, “We are going to begin to rebuild.”

“And we will have the hope that private companies that left the country will come back,” she continued, “and that there will be sources of work — so that my children can return.”

A street market in downtown Caracas in January. Many people struggle even to feed their families.Credit…Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and Bianca Padró Ocasio from Lima, Peru.

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