At first sight, the small Amazonian border community of Pacaraima appears to be doing well amid the humanitarian crisis afflicting Venezuela, transforming itself into a giant grain warehouse, and supplying food – at considerable profit – to a country that cannot feed itself.
Boutique Charmoso has stopped selling smocks and bikinis and started hawking rice and flour. The Flip-Flop Shop is piled high with sacks of sugar and pasta. Four of the town’s seven butchers have given up carving meat and switched to flogging grain. Boxes of cooking oil fill the lobby of the Amazon hotel. Drinkers at the Ronaldo Bar have to weave between stacks of produce.
“I went for a haircut last week, but even my salon has switched businesses,” said social worker Socorro Lopes. “It’s madness here now. There is such a rush to get rich.”
Venezuela on the brink: a journey through a country in crisis
But the economic boom has come at a price: growing desperation in Venezuela is starting to send ripples across the border, where it is triggering a new set of social tensions.
An estimated 30,000 Venezuelan migrants have come to Pacaraima looking for food, jobs and medical care in an influx that threatens to overwhelm local hospitals, police and social services.
“The chaos in Venezuela is causing turbulence for us,” says Lopes, who is on the frontline of municipal efforts to cope with rising homelessness, begging, prostitution, hunger and ill health.
“We know this is just the start. We don’t know how bad it will get. But if the number of migrants keeps growing uncontrolled, we won’t be able to deal with crime and the demand for healthcare.”
In the past 10 months, 1,805 Venezuelans have sought refugee status in Brazil, more than the combined total for the previous five years. Deportations in 2016 are on course to be 10 times higher than in 2015. In the vast majority of these cases, they enter through the porous border at Pacaraima.
For most of its history, this Brazilian town was the poor neighbour of the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena de Uairén. Many Brazilian children crossed the frontier to attend the better-resourced schools of the oil-rich state. The sick would go to Venezuelan hospitals. Hundreds of workers would commute to higher-paying jobs. And Indian tribes in this indigenous reserve have never recognised the border, crossing back and forth to visit their ancestral territories.
Today, however, the relationship has been reversed by one of the greatest economic and social upheavals Latin America has seen this century. Venezuela has hyperinflation heading towards 2,000%, plunging supplies of food and medicine, and growing rates of malnutrition and murder.
By comparison, Brazil – even in the midst of its worst recession for decades – seems a sanctuary of stability, safety, provisions and profits. Since Venezuela dropped food tariffs a couple of months ago, traders have come from as far afield as China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon to cash in.
Mostly though, the influx is of Venezuelans filling cars and trucks with goods they cannot find in their own country. Some buy for themselves; most buy to sell on at a profit.
“For me, it’s a business,” said Elisa Flores, as she loaded up a battered Chevrolet with sacks of rice, spaghetti, cooking oil, mayonnaise and washing-up liquid. “This town should be grateful. They make more money from our government than anyone. But this situation is not good for the Venezuelan people. There is no starvation, but there are many people who don’t get enough to eat.”
At the bus station, a family of five Venezuelans waited to start their journey home, after putting in a few months’ work in Brazil. They were loaded up with provisions that they cannot find in their own country. “It’s terrible. There are shortages of everything. The government is robbing the people,” said the mother, who declined to give her name.
Drawn by availability of food and work, Venezuelans are moving toward the border region in droves. The population of Gran Sabana – the municipality closest to Brazil – has increased by about 40% in the past two years. “Basically, it’s because food production in Venezuela has collapsed,” Lopes said. “Their system is broken so they have no money, no products and no work.”
The knock-on effects on Pacaraima – and the state capital of Boa Vista – are increasingly evident.
As demand for goods grows, prices are going up. In four months, rice has increased from 1.8 reais (£0.46/$0.56) per kilogram to 3.8 reais (£1/$1.20), and flour has more than doubled from 3.4 reais to 7 reais. Scarcity is also a problem. Aspirin and vaccines are harder to find.
The local infrastructure is not built for the growing influx of cars and people. Hospitals are being overwhelmed. Police and social services cannot cope.
Venezuelan beggars and prostitutes are an increasingly common sight on the streets. Casual labourers offer their services – as cleaners or building workers – at a fraction of the minimum wage, which puts their Brazilian counterparts at a disadvantage.
“I think this might become a crisis,” Lt Maria Lima, commander of the border police, told the Guardian. “We are noticing a rise in criminality; we are seeing thieving and murders due to this rising influx.”
The Pacaraima authorities have installed more security cameras on the main roads and conducted surveys, but there are limits to what they can do.
Police arrest and deport underage sex workers, but they simply return the next day. It is a similar story for beggars and itinerant indigenous groups. Social services try to protect vulnerable children found on the street. Local hospitals help the sick. Church groups have opened weekend soup kitchens, but it is not enough.
“Once they hear there is food, they come in larger numbers,” Lopes said. “It’s a profound crisis because we have our own economic problems in Brazil. With this extra demand, our institutions are struggling to cope.”
Demand for medical treatment has tripled in the past year, as Venezuela’s health system – once the pride of the Bolivarian Socialist administration – struggles with a shortage of essential medicines and an exodus of doctors.
At the Hospital Délio de Oliveira Tupinambá on the outskirts of the town, about two out of every three patients are now Venezuelan. There has been a surge in demand for medicine to treat diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, leishmaniasis, malaria and HIV/Aids.
“Any treatment they can’t deal with over there, they send here,” said a nurse, who asked to remain unnamed. “The demand is beyond our capacity. We sometimes run out of antiseptic and anaesthetic. For us, it’s an emergency situation.”
Many – particularly those from indigenous communities – come as a family. “They are similar to refugees, though they are not officially classified as that. It’s a very delicate situation,” said the nurse.
Hospital authorities have called for more support from the federal government. In a private letter, seen by the Guardian, the hospital director asked the Brazilian health ministry to alleviate “the chaotic state caused by the immigration crisis”. He asked for a 27 beds, 18 nursing staff, a paediatrician, an anaesthetist, two odontologists, a psychologist, four radiology technicians, an ambulance and a laboratory. This would more than double current capacity.
The response has been piecemeal. The national guard – which is equipped for disaster relief – has twice been dispatched to the area in the past two months. They provide medical kits and extra doctors and nurses, but it is a temporary fix for a problem that looks unlikely to go away any time soon.
Jean Carlos Ferrer was diagnosed with malaria at a hospital across the border in Santa Elena de Uairén, but health workers could not help him, so he came to Pacaraima for treatment. “Everyone comes to Brazil for all medical problems. It’s free,” he said. After three days in the hospital, he was due to return home that evening, with medication. The hospital plans to halt this practice because of reports that Venezuelans are reselling their free Brazilian drugs on the black market.
Further along the corridor, María Rodríguez is nursing a newborn daughter. She had crossed the border from Venezuela that morning as her waters were about to break and said she planned to return the next day. “I would have preferred my child to be born in Venezuela, but that is not possible now. The hospitals there have nothing,” she said.
Along with the free treatment comes the added bonus of a new passport. Regardless of origin, the mother of any child who gives birth on Brazilian soil is entitled to citizenship. This stirs up both sympathy and resentment among locals.
Venezuelan health workers in Santa Elena say it is need rather than opportunism that is driving patients across the border. At the Rosario Verazuita hospital, both operating theatres are closed. “We can’t even perform something as simple as a C-section,” said one of the staff. “Most of the time, we just tell people to go to Brazil.”