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Venezuelans Risk Crossing Sea to Get Basics
Venezuelans Risk Crossing Sea to Get Basics
Chronic shortages spur perilous and sometimes deadly journeys to Trinidad
By Kejal Vyas and Sara Schaefer Muñoz
June 24, 2017
Struggling to find basic staples in her own country, Mariana Revilla and five neighbors here took
to crossing a treacherous 60-mile gulf under the cover of night to Trinidad.
On her last trip, they made a good haul, securing seven tons of flour, sugar and cooking oil from
the former British colony in exchange for fresh shrimp from home. But on the way back their
rickety 46-foot boat capsized, leaving Ms. Revilla and her companions clinging to the wreckage
for nearly two days before she and two others ran out of strength and drowned, according to
survivors. Her stepfather says her 3-year-old daughter, Isabel, keeps asking, "Where is my
mama?"
As Venezuela's economy crumbles, desperate people are doing all they can to get food and
medicine. Here that can involve great peril.
Venezuelans make trips as long as 10 hours to hawk shellfish, plastic chairs, house doors,
ceramic pots and even exotic animals like iguanas and brightly feathered macaws. They are
exchanged for basic goods -- rice, detergent, diapers -- that Caracas is increasingly unable to
provide.
"It's thanks to Trinidad that we have any food here," said 49-year-old Angela Caballero, a
resident of this town on a peninsula that extends toward the island. "If that didn't come, we'd be
dead."
A decade ago, Venezuela's late strongman, Hugo Chavez, promoted bartering to boost food
production and create "a socialist market, a market of equals." But today, many in far-flung
towns like Irapa have a different take on that direct approach to the marketplace.
"This is savage capitalism," town councilman Guillermo Mendoza said. "The role of the
government in this is to just keep quiet."
Venezuelan and Trinidadian officials didn't respond to requests to comment on the cross-border
barter trade. Such evidence of economic desperation is an embarrassment for Mr. Chavez's heir,
President Nicolas Maduro, who denies the country is in a crisis. Trinidad, meanwhile, recently
signed a deal with its larger neighbor to develop a major offshore gas field.
Venezuelan fishermen have been making weekly trips to Trinidad since food scarcities
intensified two years ago, said Eutaquio Fernandez, captain of that ill-fated boat.
As the cash-strapped government slashes imports, Irapa residents say rations meant to last a
week reach them once every two months.
With the town left to fend for itself, Mr. Fernandez used his boat to transport neighbors looking
to buy and barter goods until the night of April 28, when the vessel overturned in choppy waters.
Fishermen rescued Mr. Fernandez and two others, badly sunburned and dehydrated after clinging
to the upended craft for two days. The bodies of Ms. Revilla and two others were found later.
Mr. Fernandez says he can't think about going back, even if he had a boat to do so.
Trinidadian officials say about 14,000 Venezuelans entered the country legally in the first four
months of last year. Human-rights workers say tens of thousands of others come illegally. Many
cross the Paria Gulf, braving pirates, drug-traffickers and the Venezuelan National Guard, who
fishermen say charge bribes of more than $100 a boat.
Ms. Revilla never planned to be a smuggler, her family said. After graduating from medical
school in western Venezuela, the 27-year-old returned home to become the chief medical
resident at Irapa's Freddy Mocari Hospital, specializing in kidneys.
Ms. Revilla earned $15 a month, not enough to support her retired parents and her daughter. So
last year, she decided to get in on the town's most lucrative business. Local shrimp-catcher
Xiomara Ruiz provided her with coolers filled with seafood.
With each trip, Ms. Revilla fed her family and sold food to local bodegas. But she hated the risk
and hoped to leave Venezuela, she told her family, vowing that her fifth trip, in April, would be
her last.
"She was looking for quality of life and she paid for it with her life," her stepfather Angel Garcia
said. Ms. Revilla's daughter still calls for her mother every day, he added. "We just tell her
'Mama's gone off to study.'"
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