Venezuelan migrants cope with cold, culture shock, economic woes in Bolivia

By Gabriel Romano

La Paz, Sep 23 (efe-epa).- Helen’s family traveled more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) after leaving behind their crisis-hit Venezuelan homeland. Now they are struggling to cope with the high altitude and frigid temperatures of La Paz and come to grips with the more conservative social mores of the Bolivian people.

Helen told Efe that the cultural differences in Bolivia came as a surprise to them, noting that the way people interact with one another and their forms of expression are a “bit old-fashioned.”

Most Venezuelans in Bolivia arrived there after traversing Colombia, Ecuador and Peru or walking or hitchhiking across the vast expanse of Brazil.

Helen was part of that exodus, arriving in the world’s highest national capital along with her husband, four children, a brother and her mother.

“We’re battling through here,” said the migrant, a woman under the age of 40 who arrived in Bolivia in February just days before that country’s interim government ordered the borders closed and imposed a strict coronavirus-triggered lockdown that lasted for more than five months.

Venezuelans are “very open-minded,” whereas Bolivians are reserved and speak in a low tone and interpret Venezuelans’ extroverted style and loudness of voice as a form of aggression.

Helen said the migrants also have to adjust to temperatures that typically do not exceed 20 C (68 F) and contrast sharply with the generally warm, balmy climate of her homeland.

She said she has encountered a bit of everything in Bolivia, from “bad people” who openly reject her presence in the country to “good people” who have encouraged her to be strong until the conditions are right for her family to return to Venezuela, where she says her biggest fear is crime.

Helen and her household are part of a group of 30 Venezuelan families who are being lodged at a hostel in downtown La Paz thanks to the support of the Munasim Kullakita foundation, whose mission is to protect migrant women, adolescents and children.

But like many other immigrants, Helen’s family has no choice but to seek economic sustenance on the street.

A bridge linking La Paz with the adjacent highland city of El Alto has become a gathering place where Venezuelan migrants seek handouts from busy pedestrians as they walk past dozens of street vendors.

In one striking street scene observed by Efe, a 30-year-old barefoot man dressed in short pants begged for money on a cold, cloudy day as a young girl lay down next to him.

“They choose the city of El Alto due to the economic activity” associated with its markets and fairs, as well as the dynamic of nearby shopping and dining areas, El Alto’s citizen safety secretary, Dorian Ulloa, told Efe.

Speaking of the economic hardship facing Venezuelan migrants, that official said that in one operation authorities found a family of four living and preparing their meals in a room measuring just four square meters (43 square feet).

Immigrants pay between $8 and $10 a day for cheap lodging in El Alto, entering into informal arrangements with managers and owners in which the tenants are not even asked to show photo identification.

Venezuelan women are at risk of being lured into prostitution by individuals promising assistance with residency applications, while children find themselves forced to join their parents in begging for money on the street and are largely left out of the school system, Ana Llanco of the Munasim Kullakita foundation told Efe.

She added that there is no precise tally of Venezuelan migrants in Bolivia because many of these people cross the border without going through immigration controls.

An additional element of adversity is the lack of a Venezuelan consulate, which stopped operating in La Paz due to the tensions between Bolivia’s right-wing interim government and Venezuela’s leftist administration.

On the other hand, the politics of this small-scale Venezuelan exodus to Bolivia have made La Paz receptive to these unauthorized migrants and even led the interim government to issue resolutions that facilitate their stay in the country. EFE-EPA

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