Venezuela is now a world leader in the production of desperation. In the early 2000s, socialist strongman Hugo Chávez created a system, funded by oil revenue, in which food, education and health care were all essentially free. Salaries were small but were mainly used for extras, not essentials. When the price of oil crashed, so did the system of subsidies. Poor and middle-class Venezuelans were left only with their salaries, paid in a local currency that hyperinflation rendered essentially worthless. Some products are still available, but only when purchased with U.S. dollars.
The minimum wage in Venezuela is now worth about $6 a month, while one kilo of corn meal (about 2.2 pounds) costs about a quarter of that amount. Add to this the rolling blackouts, hospitals without gauze or painkillers, no propane for cooking and chronic shortages of toilet paper and hygiene products. Add to this a regime that stays in power through brutal oppression, enforced by the national guard, as well as deputized street gangs known as “colectivos.” The result is a country that more than 4 million refugees have chosen to flee.
The recently reopened Simón Bolívar International Bridge in Cúcuta is where most refugees walk out of Venezuela. Those fortunate enough to get remittances from relatives abroad can pick up dollars at a Western Union station on the Colombia side and pay for a bus trip to their destination. But the very poor are left to walk through the mountains, or subsist by begging or petty smuggling across the border.