John Otis for NPR
The town of Maicao, in Colombia’s Guajira Desert, just a few miles from the Venezuelan border, used to be jammed with visiting Venezuelans snapping up TVs, computers and 12-year-old Scotch. On good days, Jaider Heras, who owns a liquor warehouse, sold up to 300 cases of whisky and rum. But amid Venezuela’s worst economic crisis in modern history, Heras is struggling.
Venezuelans’ buying power has evaporated because of the collapse in the currency, the bolivar. The 100-bolivar note, the largest denomination, is now worth about 6 cents.
The country is also grappling with triple-digit inflation as well as critical shortages of medicine and food. Now Venezuelan shoppers in Macao stock up on basic foods, toilet paper and other staples that are hard to get in their country.
“Look how I have had to change my store,” Heras says as he points to boxes, bags and canisters of food. “I now sell rice, sugar and cooking oil, which is what Venezuelans are looking for.”
Heras’ profits have shrunk, but at least he’s still in business. More than 150 Maicao stores employing about 1,500 people have shut down, says Grace Aguilar, the No. 2 town official who oversees commercial and security issues.
The border problems began a couple of years ago amid a steep drop in oil prices and what critics describe as failed economic policies by the socialist government that has ruled Venezuela since 1999.
Those policies include import and foreign exchange restrictions, the confiscation of farms and businesses and price controls that can make it unprofitable to produce food.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blames the food shortages and other production problems on his country’s business leaders and the political opposition, whom he claims are waging an “economic war” against his government. He also blames smugglers who bring tons of subsidized Venezuelan food across the border to resell for huge profits.
To crack down on these so-called contrabandistas, Maduro last year closed Venezuela’s land borders with Colombia. But the move did nothing to alleviate the food shortages, while it hurt business owners in Maicao by cutting them off from their customers, Aguilar says.
The border reopened in August, but only for pedestrians.
John Otis for NPR
Even so, some Venezuelan vehicles manage to get to Maicao on clandestine dirt trails. Along the way, they pass informal tollbooths set up by Colombians who have been thrown out of work by the economic downturn along the frontier. They stretch lengths of rope across the trails, then demand small change from drivers.
One of these toll collectors is Enelbia Pedroso, a mother of five who used to make a decent living selling snacks to Venezuelan shoppers. But Pedroso says her business dried up when the border shut down.
“I haven’t been able to work for two years,” Pedroso says after a driver hands her a 20-bolivar bill, worth about a penny. “Now look at me.”
Ricci de Luque, who runs a 37-room hotel on the border, used to turn away customers but now she’s lucky to rent out a few rooms per day. She borrowed money to build the hotel 14 years ago and fears her bank will soon foreclose on the property.
“I could lose everything that I have spent my whole life building,” de Luque says.
But tough as things are on the Colombian side of the border, conditions are still better than in Venezuela. That’s why some Venezuelans are moving here. Immigration officials say about 65,000 Venezuelans have relocated to Colombia since the land border reopened for pedestrians.
According to Aguilar, the town official, this influx of destitute Venezuelans has provoked a sharp increase in street crime and prostitution in Maicao. In addition, Aguilar says Venezuelans are willing to accept lower wages and have displaced many Colombians in construction and other jobs.
One recent arrival, Juan Suárez, sells oranges and limes on the streets of Maicao to support his wife and 16-month-old son back in Venezuela. He’s now thinking of moving his whole family to Colombia, which he describes as an “escape valve” for Venezuelans.
“We are in the middle of an enormous crisis,” Suárez says. “There is nothing in Venezuela. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”