Venezuela is currently in turmoil. The South American country has been in economic crisis since an oil price crash in 2015, which has led to severe food shortages and deaths through lack of food and power cuts, and now it's battling hyperinflation, which is causing further economic uncertainty. Desperate women have turned to sterilisation and illegal abortion out of fear that they won't be able to bring up a child, while many more have fled the country entirely as part of a mass exodus. Here, three Venezuelan women explain the difficult decision they've taken to leave their home country.
On the morning of 23rd July, Verónica Marquina was getting ready to enter an operating room to have her heart fixed. An arrhythmia had caused her health to deteriorate and the procedure was the only thing that could restore the vitality she once had. A week later, she had to take her bags and say goodbye to family and friends at the airport. In less than a month, her heart had been broken twice.
With a ticket to Buenos Aires, at the southern tip of South America, far from her home in Venezuela, Ms. Marquina, now 34, said goodbye to what she knew in the hope of finding a better life. The growing crisis in Venezuela had claimed another victim, one more among the millions who have already fled looking for help in neighbouring countries – countries that are closing their doors to a situation the UN has compared to the Mediterranean migration crisis.
With inflation in the country reaching 1 million% according to the International Monetary Fund, the only option for young women, and for the rest of the population, has been the border. The lack of employment and the scarcity of food in a country that imports everything it eats has made opportunities increasingly smaller. (To give you a snapshot of how dire Venezuela's financial situation is – the country is broke. The government owes pharmaceutical companies, airlines and food companies thousands of millions of Venezuelan bolívar. The situation is so desperate that the government is selling gold directly to individuals to make money.)
"I felt stuck," said Ms. Marquina. "My life used to be very different. I travelled once a year, I had good clothes, then everything changed." It is not only purchasing power, but political turbulence that has caused many families to separate. The Marquina family was one of the few that remained together, until now.
The floor of Caracas international airport, designed by the artist Carlos Cruz-Diez – today broken and neglected by the administration of President Nicolás Maduro – has seen millions of families break up. The hugs are eternal and at the same time, far too brief. It is full of children saying goodbye to their desperate mothers, women who leave the country looking for money so that their families don’t die of starvation.
"When I said goodbye to them," recalls Ms. Marquina, "it was one of the saddest moments of my life. My dad and mum cried and before I could put a stamp on my passport, I started to cry like never before." She recalls not being able to breathe and a woman approaching to give her a little bit of water, in the middle of dozens of tearful passengers experiencing the exact same feeling. In front of the plane, she calmed herself, only to start crying again.
Ms. Marquina is one of the lucky ones – until early August, the minimum wage in Venezuela was about one dollar a month, and airfare was out of reach for most people. The vast majority are forced to travel by road.
Andreína Villanueva is another young woman whose hand has been forced by the dire circumstances in her home country: "I really do not want to leave, but I do not have another choice." Villanueva, who at age 27 has seen the political debacle up close, is a member of an opposition party in Venezuela and works in the National Assembly. She has protested against Maduro, been persecuted by armed civilian groups in each electoral campaign and is familiar with tear gas bombs and repression.
With strong political roots, Ms. Villanueva never thought she would leave her country to find work. Like Verónica Marquina, Ms. Villanueva knows that she is more "useful" working elsewhere, sending money home to her family every month.
In September, Ms. Villanueva will begin a trip to Barranquilla, Colombia, where she plans to work until she can go somewhere else. She will become a statistic, one of the million people who have entered the country in just 15 months.
Today, Venezuela spits out its women, children and elderly, of all classes and colours, in an unprecedented crisis, spreading its people across more than 90 countries.
For Ms. Villanueva, her family and friends, as well as the beaches of Vargas state on which she grew up, will be far away in a short time. Her social networks are flooded with people asking for medicines or help finding something to eat, alongside pictures of malnourished babies and children abandoned in the streets by mothers who cannot find a solution to their problems. So dire is the situation in a country where nappies and baby milk cost four times the minimum wage that some women have chosen to be sterilised rather than run the risk of getting pregnant.
"I think there will be no change," Ms. Villanueva tells me, "you more than anyone else know what we have dedicated to this country," recalling the long political days "when there was democracy." A bag, food, a passport and some dollars is what the system left her, she says, because those are the only things she will take with her once she gets on one of the five buses that will take her to her new destination. The journey will take her a week.
Survival in Venezuela is a priority for millions of women. Exposed to the fate of one of the most violent countries in the world, Alejandra Prado, 25, left her home on Sunday at 5am to go to work, leaving her 4-year-old child with her grandmother. "Before, Sundays were sacred. I shared it with my son, but now I cannot. He does not understand it, but I do more for him here than at home," she explained.
Ms. Prado, a manicurist, takes her work in a suitcase that has already been stolen twice. She has perfected the art of doing nails over years, going to her clients' houses, and now she is dedicating herself to teaching it to a singular partner: her husband. "People are impressed because he knows how to do everything I do and attends to people when I'm in a hurry," she laughs. In a country like Venezuela, where men are rarely seen with their hands in water, the pair are a surprising duo. He is proud to help her, because together they can serve up to 10 people in one day. He uses his car to take her to appointments. "The good thing about this is that I talk to many people," she says, taking the hand of a client, who saw an opportunity to speak about the crisis.
"Do women now have children?" asked the woman with her hand outstretched.
"Well, it's difficult. I have a client whose boyfriend told her to get an abortion," Ms. Prado replies. "She did not do it, but she thought about it. Imagine not having money to feed your children. They cry all day asking for bread and you cannot give them bread."
Ms. Prado is waiting for her passport to be ready so she can leave the country. Like millions in Venezuela, she does not have the document because the government does not have the raw material for printing. "That's their fault," she said, referring to Maduro and his ministers, "they have everything and they give us crumbs."
For months Ms. Prado's family have not eaten meat. The government gives them a box containing what she calls "junk food" and which she has to "mix with other things to take it." She has never voted for Maduro and says she never will.
In less than a year, her life went from being acceptable to having to work more than 12 hours with her husband on weekends just to be able to eat three times a day. Her trip away is planned and depends, literally, on the government's capacity to get paper. The three women I spoke to are all connected by a thin thread of despair and misery.
"We are all connected by tragedy," Ms. Prado told me. "The girls you are talking about, me, all of us, we are all part of the same story; a very sad story."