Hyperinflation, the worst homicide rate in the world and food and medicine shortages has seen the Bolivarian diaspora sharply accelerate in recent years. It is estimated that a total of 3 million Venezuelans, a tenth of the total population, migrated since the Bolivarian revolution began with Chavez, but nearly half of that estimate- 1.2 million- are believed to have left in the years of 2016 and 2017. Ecuador, one of the Latin American host countries for Venezuelans fleeing the economic and humanitarian crisis, has seen roughly 236,000 Venezuelans enter between 2016-2017, of which some 62,000 settled permanently.
The young Venezuelan women interviewed for this photo-essay make up a tiny fraction of that second wave of the Bolivarian diaspora. All 3 women are university educated and had enviable careers in their homeland. A model/ TV presenter, a doctor and a civil engineer/ business owner, Esla, Yarife and Karla now work in Ecuador as informal vendors in buses.
The work of the bus vendors is widely viewed with contempt by passengers. As a result, the vendors must first justify their work by means of a monologue (‘la charla’) which always precedes the actual selling of the sweets. ‘La charla’ is a humiliating act, as the vendor feels compelled to defend working in what is viewed as one of the most denigrating of jobs. They explain that they are forced into the work because of the economic collapse of Venezuela and a lack of employment opportunities for immigrants and ask that the passengers lend them their support. It isn’t uncommon for Bolivares to be handed out as gifts to customers, as a token of gratitude and as a material reminder of what vendors are escaping in Venezuela.
The following are excerpts from interviews that Esla, Yarife and Karla gave. They recount their experiences at home and as immigrants in their own words.
Some names and places have been changed.
'I have been in Ecuador for 1 month- I left my country 2 and a half months ago but initially I left for Lima. It wasn’t what I expected- I worked and I wasn’t paid because I was undocumented at the time as my application for political asylum was pending; I was granted refugee status in the end, but I still wasn’t paid.
Everything is luck. I know some Venezuelans who went there are it worked out very well for them, but I was nearly killed! I had a gun put to my head and chest the day before I left. I was working at a vehicle auction house for a few days, so I could save for my return ticket and I had to accompany the owner to another site. We were driving by a well-off area and these guys on motorbikes get off and point their guns to me, thinking that I was… that I was his daughter or, I don’t know, that I was his wife. But what could it matter to him if I lived or died? He didn’t know me, I had only met him 2 days before. I mean, they did not kill me in Venezuela where the danger that exists is so big, imagine me getting killed elsewhere?'
'I was a civil engineer as well as a student of Computer Electronics Engineering Technology. Here? I'm just riding the buses selling chocolates and sweets. I know that for the passengers it is uncomfortable, but for one it is also uncomfortable because we are not used to doing this type of work. But it is the only honest way we have found to earn our living here, without anyone disrespecting us or taking advantage of us. Because when one leaves their country the job that is offered the most is prostitution.
I have tried my best to get a job but here it is impossible. And well, every day we ride the buses with the intention of making money to be able to help our family, to see if we are able to take them out of Venezuela because every day the situation gets worse. Of course, we miss our loved ones a lot but that emotion isn’t as strong as the urgency we feel to help them. Despite the fact that every day we wake up with our souls downtrodden, our morale broken, because of that purpose we continue to fight.'
‘The economic crisis that is exists in the country? Now, there is neither food nor medicine. Inflation is eating the country up. We had to emigrate like so many other graduates and young adults; the majority of the young are emigrating searching for a better future and in the process, we have to abandon our careers, we have to abandon our families. Many will believe that we are abandoning our country because we want to, but we are doing it because we don’t have any other option.’
‘I was an opponent of the government. We fled the country because we were frightened of reprisals. The students go out into the streets with banners and placards and the government responds with bullets and teargas. Our group was made up of students from our university, we were protesting the corruption that exists in the country. Many of us see Maduro as a murderer because many people, many students have died for simply going out to protest and for not agreeing with his regime.
There is a lot of abuse of power. The actual police extort you, they do whatever they can to get some money off you. And what is their preferred way of doing so? They arrest you and then bribe you for your freedom. I have seen the very policemen who guard the marches grab people, they take their watches, everything they are carrying, hit them and send them off. Why? Because there is so much poverty and hunger that our social institutions allow themselves to be bought.’
‘Every day they kill someone. Why do you think that when they protest they hold placards that read 'Maduro= murderer?’
I went to university with a boy who protested the Maduro government and he was shot to death - he was marching, and they killed him. Previously there were marches when Chavez was in power, but now there is death after death- whomever goes out to demonstrate against the government is treated as a bigger criminal than a murderer or a rapist.’
8 out of the 50 most violent cities in the world belong to Venezuela. As a whole, the country is ranked as having the second highest homicide rate worldwide. A week after these pictures were taken Karla's father was robbed and murdered in the streets of Caracas. A few days after receiving news of her father's death Karla found out that she was pregnant.
'People are leaving Venezuela as if a war had broken out and there really is a war- an economic one. You can’t get basic food items, you go to the supermarkets in Venezuela and all you see are empty shelves and if they aren’t empty they are full of things like ketchup, of items that aren’t in demand by the consumer.
It's not only medicine and food- its everything! Clothing, car parts for repairs, building materials, household items…Look, to give you an idea of what it’s like, buying a fan costs you what you earn a month. Buying a cooker, a refrigerator is impossible. So, a young couple that are trying to set up a life for themselves, a home, its unattainable. Buying a fridge in Venezuela? Impossible. But here, I see that there are many possibilities and opportunities. My husband has found a good job. They pay him the basic salary and give him a good lunch and he is very happy there. He couldn’t work on the buses, he tried but it was too difficult for him.'
'Everyone has their tales from the buses. I have been disrespected. Nothing super heavy but when I hand out the chocolates to the passengers some of the men caress your hand as if they had another intention.
‘That’s what I wanted to ask. Have you had any problems because of your appearance? You look like a model and sexual harassment is a big issue here.’
I try to cover myself up a lot, but sometimes it’s too hot and it kills! You know, certainly, there are men who only buy from me so they can stare!
I had a boy who tried to touch me, he tried to grab me by the waist, of course, when it comes to things like that, I'm very drastic. I told him 'DO NOT TOUCH ME', I told him straight away!
Once I had this man who came and touched my leg, and he was drunk on the bus. I also told him to not touch me. I shouted at him to make space so that I could change seats.
But yes, it happens a lot and do you know what many think? That due to you being in a time of need they think that you are going to sell yourself for a few dollars, that’s something that I have had a lot, 'I have $100, I have $30!’ but I tell them that even if they had $2000 or $3000 it isn’t going to happen!
You know there is even a fellow vendor, this old man who could be my great grandfather who lives to bother me! There isn’t a way to make him understand! ‘Here! I have $20 or whatever’ and I just look at him and ‘GOD! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY ‘NO’?! I’M A MARRIED WOMAN! LEAVE ME IN PEACE! I’M NOT GOING TO GO OUT WITH YOU!’
‘Lower your voice, girl! Lower your voice!’
‘Well if you keep bothering me I’m going to keep shouting!’
'There came a time when my ‘quincena’ (15 day) salary lasted me only two days, and I had to wait another 15 days to get paid again. There were days that I did not have any money to eat dinner, that I couldn’t afford to buy a toothpaste to brush my teeth, that I didn’t have enough money to buy soap because it became so expensive.
I also have a brother who suffers from epilepsy and needs medication. We've had a lot of frights with him because we cannot get him any medicine. My father-in-law is also hypertensive and it’s been a travesty trying to get medication for him.
If you ask me what my dream is, it would be to return to my country, but to return to the country it used to be; the one where we had everything we needed, where we were happy and we didn’t even know it.'
'I was a doctor in Venezuela. I was a young professional and had a good job but, it was useless, it only kept up an appearance. My salary - almost double of the minimum wage - was not enough to survive on.
When I arrived it was a big shock, why imagine, I never thought I’d end up selling sweets on buses- NEVER - in fact, conchale, I remember being bothered by the vendors and thinking ‘oh god, these people, these drug addicts, conchale!’ and one day I even fought with one because he wasn’t selling much and complained, 'the people here don’t like to spend! That's why we have to steal from them instead!’
So well, when I arrived here it turned into something of a shock. Look, during the first week I couldn’t stop crying. In fact, on my third day here, in one of my first buses when I began to speak my tears came out and I could not continue. All I could think of was ‘Dios mio, what am I doing here?’ It enrages you, because I worked so hard and studied so much to become something but it’s worthless because in my country I don’t have the possibility to even eat decently. And so, I am here doing a job that is viewed with contempt, but no one knows our stories, no one knows the lives of the vendors.'
'Just as one receives support, we also receive dirty looks and comments that are unpleasant. And those things cause you…it makes you feel like a cockroach. You have to take a deep breath, ignore those comments and keep going forward, always keeping your goals in mind and why you are riding the buses. You have to send money to your family- that’s the purpose of all of the Venezuelans who have left.'
‘Hello ladies and gentlemen, good day to you all, I hope that you are all well. First and foremost, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise as I know that it is uncomfortable for you to have so many vendors on the bus. But unfortunately, due to the economic situation in my country- which is no secret- this is the only way I have of earning an honest living.
In this instance I come today to offer you some very tasty little chocolates. I will hand them out to each of you individually and if you are happy to accept them please know that you are not obliged to buy them. I only hope that you will choose to receive them so that I offer you today’s special price. Without anything else to say I would like to thank you all for your continued support and that you all have a wonderful day! Blessings!’
'In Venezuela I was a TV presenter and a model with a well-known agency. But sadly, because of the situation in my country, which everyone is aware of, I couldn’t continue.
Over there every day is a huge investment and the salary I was earning just wasn’t enough. I loved modelling and working in television, but I had also enrolled in university. I had to stop studying because there came a point in which I couldn’t afford it. That was painful, because it was an expensive university and I had won a scholarship, but I still had to pay for the course materials and the price of that had become too high. So, it was paying for my studies or eating.'
'It was not easy, as a foreigner the doors close for you a little, because for every country it is priority to support and sustain its own citizens- us foreigners pass onto the second plane, perhaps even the third.
I have 3 weeks here, the people have been wonderful, they have treated me well. Getting on a bus is not easy, I had never done it before and had never had informal jobs. Working in the streets? Forget it! It was something that I had never done!
So, doing this is nerve-wracking, one gets scared because you are aware that there are many opinions about this type of work, some will see it well, others will see it badly, and many will get annoyed. I understand why though, there are a lot of us doing it.'
'Doing this work is a daily struggle; even though I had nice jobs in Venezuela and I had the opportunity to meet many famous people…I let that be my motivation to keep moving forward.
Many people are mistaken in the sense that they see us informal vendors in a certain light, but no, many of us are people that have travelled, studied, had comfortable lives in the past, and now we are simply looking to improve our situation, because we are not able to find jobs like the ones we used to hold in our own countries.
We are not begging either, we are working. And always with a lot of respect- you should see me working- it's all 'sorry, excuse me, thank-you!’'
'I’m always praying a lot so that the economic situation in our country changes, because it is not only us who are facing difficulties. For those of us that have migrated it is challenging but it harder for those who we left behind. It’s like I was telling this lady, ‘when you look at me you see only one person, but behind me there are so many’- because we are fighting for the sake of our families.
My fiancé and I pray a lot in the mornings, we leave everything up to the will of God and we always leave the house with the best vibes! I always try to bring that with me to the buses. I tell the passengers, 'I am in a difficult situation but that does not stop me from smiling, I ask that when you are back home, you give thanks to God, you appreciate your loved ones and that you have a good day.' I always give them some words of encouragement, some motivation so they can see that we are trying to contribute something positive to their society.'