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Venezuela to Cuenca: A grueling 800-mile journey by wheelchair of sadness and hope

By Margaret Winter

Maritsa Ochoa with Esperanza Pelaéz and José Pelaéz in Cuenca.

Maritsa Ochoa, 69 years old, arrived penniless in Cuenca on August 22 after a three-week odyssey from Venezuela through the mountains. She is nearly blind and too disabled by osteoporosis and diabetes to walk. She traveled to Ecuador in a decrepit wheelchair, pushed by her 41-year-old daughter Esperanza Pelaéz and two grandsons.

We met last week in the courtyard of Iglesia San Francisco, where I volunteer at a soup kitchen for Venezuelan refugees.

Even exhausted and in pain, Maritsa has a warm smile and wry sense of humor. She explained that her most immediate worry was where the family would find shelter for the night while eleven-year-old José tenderly rearranges the blankets on her lap.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the largest in Latin American history. Four million Venezuelans have fled their country, over one million of them since last November. The Venezuelan economy, once the pride of Latin America, has collapsed; hyperinflation has made its currency worthless; inflation in 2019 exceeds ten million percent.

In Maracay, the coastal city with a population of 900,000 where Maritsa and her family lived, civil order and basic government services have broken down. Electricity blackouts plunge the city in darkness and leave it without running water. There’s no way to purchase food, medicine or clothing. Many children are too weak from hunger to attend school. Death from hunger and violence is commonplace.

For Esperanza and Maritsa, the most nightmarish aspect of daily life in Venezuela was the routine violence against civilians by the police, the National Guard, and gangs of thugs who support the Maduro government in exchange for government protection, access to food, vehicles, and impunity from interference in their criminal enterprises.

The authorities were as bold in their crimes as the gangs, they say. Police entered the family business, a shop where Esperanza sold CD and DVDs, and seized all the merchandise.

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia earlier this year.

Esperanza and Maritsa take turns describing the events that made them to leave Venezuela. Their voices break and their eyes well with tears only when they recount the fates of young Gina and Gino.

In May 2018, Esperanza’s 20-year old daughter Gina was admitted to hospital for emergency treatment for a wound in her leg. The hospital was filthy, with no disinfectant or even basic cleaning supplies available and contagious disease was rampant. While in the hospital, Gina contracted a severe bronchial infection. The medications the doctors needed to save her life were unavailable. Gina died five days after she was admitted.

A year later, Gina’s 15-year old brother Gino was kidnapped by a family of gangsters, who beat him, stripped him naked, doused him in water, and gave him electric shocks. He had been specially targeted as a bisexual, in a culture where violence against gay people is widespread.

Esperanza received a phone call from Gino: “Mami! The Caprilez family have got me, they’re beating me!” She says, “I arrived outside the gangsters’ house and through a doorway into the courtyard I saw my son with a gun pointed at his head. They told me to deliver my car to them and that if meanwhile Gino tried to jump over the wall they would shoot him.”

The gang released Gino to his mother in exchange for her car. But after that, uniformed police threatened Gino whenever he left the house.

“Our greatest fear was for Gino,” says Esperanza. The family decided to get him out of Venezuela immediately, even though it meant leaving behind Maritsa, who was too ill and weak to make the arduous trip.

Esperanza, Gino and José walked and hitchhiked from Maracay to the frontier at Cúcuta, Colombia, and then to the international bridge at Rumichaca, the principle crossing into Ecuador. From the Ecuadorian frontier, they walked through the mountains to Quito.

I asked José, who had been just ten years old at the time, what the journey had been like for him. He said, “I was always hungry and exhausted and it was very scary, we knew that there were refugees who got robbed and raped along the way.”

Once in Quito the family tried to accumulate enough money to take Maritsa out of Venezuela by bus, but it was impossible. With the few dollars they were given by charities in Quito, they returned twice to Maracay to bring Maritsa a little food and clothing, purchased in Colombia and impossible to obtain in Venezuela.

Finally, a brother in Spain was able to send them just enough money for Esperanza, Gino and José to return once more to Maracay and take Maritsa with them by bus across the frontier into Colombia.

From the Colombian frontier onward, Maritsa became a hitchhiker in a wheelchair, Esperanza and the two boys pushing her chair through the mountains, spending frigid nights on the ground by the roadside, or on the floor of churches and bus terminals. “The family back in Venezuela has had a really hard time imagining me as a backpacker,” she says.

At a few points on route, they were helped by international organizations providing aid to refugees in flight through Colombia. Oxfam gave them $25 for food; the Red Cross, operating out of a tent, provided emergency medical care to Maritsa, and Fundación Mujer Futuro transported them and other refugees by bus to a primitive shelter where they could use a bathroom and take showers.

On August 13 they arrived in Quito, penniless and weak with hunger, cold and exhaustion. They wandered around in a cold rain until they found shelter in an abandoned house without power or running water. They had nothing to eat for five days. Maritsa jokes, “Oh my God, after five days without food we thought we were back in Venezuela!

After drug dealers chased them from their shelter, the family found its way to the Norwegian consulate in Quito. With a donation of $60 from a United Nations fund for refugees, they bought bus tickets to Cuenca for Maritsa, Esperanza and Jose. Gino stayed behind in Quito to search for the family’s lost suitcases

When the family arrived in Cuenca, they found their way to the Cuenca Soup Kitchen, which operates out of Posada San Francisco. Founded by North American Bob Higgins, and staffed by North American and Cuencano volunteers, it receives funding and support from the local Rotary Club and other private donors.

The Soup Kitchen provides Maritsa and her family with hot lunches five days a week, and through a major donation it replaced her broken-down wheelchair with a new one. San Francisco church provided Maritsa and her family with emergency beds at night for the first several days, but they have passed the seven-day limit and the family fears from day to day that they will be sleeping in the street again.

Maritsa and her family have also received critically important help from Hogar de Esperanza, a private foundation that provides support for refugees with serious medical needs. The director, Gary Vatcher, a Canadian transplant to Cuenca, and director of services Oscar Rebolledo, a young Cuenano, quickly arranged for Maritsa to be admitted on an emergency basis to the regional hospital, where she was treated and given supplies of all her prescriptions medications.

Maritsa’s family has been lucky so far in finding food, temporary shelter at night and emergency medical care in Cuenca. But like thousands of other recent arrivals in the city, their existence is precarious. They are still homeless. Private charities as well as public services are overwhelmed.

In early August, Ecuador announced that beginning August 26 it would require Venezuelans to have passports and visas, which are almost impossible to obtain from the Venezuelan government. The announcement triggered a surge of Venezuelans rushing to beat the deadline, with at least 4,500 daily lining up to enter Ecuador.

At the end of August, Mayor Pedro Palacios, petitioned the Ecuadorian national government to declare a humanitarian emergency in Cuenca, and asked for at least $1.5 million in aid through the end of 2019. Some estimates put the number of Venezuelans living in Cuenca as high as 15,000.

The Venezuelan refugees I met in Cuenca in late 2017 had arrived by air: surgeons who could no longer operate because there were no functioning hospitals, university professors who could no longer teach because the universities had shut down. By late 2018, those with the resources to flee by air had already done so, and the new refugees barely managed to scrape together bus fare. Today, the refugees pouring into the city arrive on foot: families who make the harsh three-week trek through the mountains carrying infants and toddlers in their arms. And at least one elderly woman, brave Maritsa Ochoa, who hitchhiked through the Andes by wheelchair.
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Margaret Winter has lived in Cuenca since 2016. She volunteers at the Cuenca Soup Kitchen. In the US she was a constitutional lawyer and Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

50 thoughts on “Venezuela to Cuenca: A grueling 800-mile journey by wheelchair of sadness and hope

  1. I have great sympathy for what these Venezuelan refugees are going through. The world, unfortunately, has seen far to many similar situations in my lifetime. However, Ecuador can ill afford to care for these people. The government of Ecuador has had to severely cut back many of its own social programs, which has hurt the poorer people of this country. The Ecuadorian government should have acted more quickly to stem the flow of Venezuelans entering this country. Now it’s too late. I fear the crime rate, which has had an up tick since the arrival of these refugees, will only get worse. The government of Ecuador is always reactive instead of proactive. Now I think they have a problem which is most likely to big to fix.

    1. Interesting Danny. Can you think of any circumstances where you would steal to buy food for your wife or children?

      1. We all have a responsibility to help another, and to pass this along to governments is simply by-passing…these people are here, homeless, hungry, and in deep struggle, as a human being, we each and everyone of us, must help! This is what is wrong in this world, too many living in their comfort bubble, when they could be a cog in the wheel of helping!

      2. If Ecuador didn’t open the floodgates for Venezuelan refugees, they would be stealing to buy food in their own country and not in Ecuador.

        1. Don’t you get it? THERE IS NO FOOD FOR THEM TO STEAL IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY! They have fled for their lives. You have about as much empathy as trump.

          1. You are wrong again. Trump has sent the U.S. military to the Bahamas to help rescue, feed, & restore this nation. Why must you always slam Trump for your own failings?

            1. Come on, Ray, even you are smarter than that. You cite one example of trump doing the right thing and that is supposed to change the reality of all the other venomous things he does?

              Your last sentence makes absolutely no sense. Explain it if you care to.

              1. Ray’s last sentence makes A LOT of sense…. While I don’t presume to talk on Ray’s behalf, what I think Ray is saying is that your own cognitive dissonance, and dogmatic thinking, rob you of the ability to see things clearly, and formulate practical and well grounded conclusions, making it much easier for you to blame everything negative that may be going in your disappointing life, on someone else,…….. these days, people in your situation tend to make Trump the main target, while we all really know that it all had to do with the way you were parented, and your indoctrinational educational experiences, thus sending you down this road by always pointing at someone else, and not taking responsibility, yourself.

        1. “And you have opened your home… and are hosting and feeding how many of these people?”

          Oh, I’d estimate his number to be roughly twice as much as yours.

          1. I never claimed that I did make such accommodations… however Globetrotter (to whom the question was directed) has no problem, from his lofty perch prescribing who should do what, for whom, as if he were the sole arbiter for what is decent, righteous, and humane. That goes for his nutty perspective on weapons and the military as well.

            1. I don’t recall globetrotter claiming that he has made such accommodations either, thus if you don’t have to address the question, why should he?

              I agree with your subsequent comments except those about weapons and the military because I don’t know what you are referring to, specifically. However, our agreement about that aspect of GT’s character in no way makes up for the logical inconsistency of your information request from GT

    2. You’re right. If Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the rest of the world had acted sooner, we could have prevented these people from leaving Venezuela at all and they surely would have suffered the slow, agonizing death you seem to wish on them.

      I pity people like you; “I’m here and I’m okay, close the door and don’t let anybody else in to spoil it for me.”

  2. Thanks for your big heart Margaret!!
    I also Volunteer at the Cuenca Soup Kitchen, I’m a native Cuencana, and with our Outreach Program, we provide between 80 or 90 lunches daily, to poor Venezuelans & Ecuadorians, outside the Church and nearest areas.
    I am Volunteering for almost 2 years here, and I have never seen the needs very close, because I am not in that position, thank God; but to Volunteer at the Soup Kitchen, made me feel blessed for what I have, and because I am able to help others. This is a great opportunity to live the daily reality, in our streets of Cuenca and inside the San Francisco Church, where our Cuenca Soup Kitchen is located.
    Thanks to all the Private Organizations, like Club Rotario Tomebamba, for a magnificent help & support; and to kind people that support our Outreach Program, in the head of Mr. Joe Moon, thanks all for helping us to help:))
    “UNIDOS SOMOS MAS”
    “TOGETHER WE ARE MORE”

    Cuenca Soup Kitchen
    Mr. Bob Higgins
    Founder & Director

  3. Really well-written story, Peggy. When I think of you at our Tuesday shift, I see you walking along the outside patio with a pitcher of juice, refilling the glasses of our clients.
    I’m totally impressed with your grasp of the circumstances that Maritsa Ochoa and her family have endured over the past couple of years. You’ve made a great contribution to our understanding of what’s at stake in the lives of Venezuelan refugees whom we meet in the Soup Kitchen.

    1. I so agree. Peggy really did a great job writing this article. Sadly her message seems to be lost on those like Danny.

      1. The message is not only list in me. All of my Ecuadorian friends feel the same way I do. Just wait until you or a loved one is mugged at knifepoint on the streets of Cuenca. This happened to a young Ecuadorian female friend of mine. She told me they were Venezuelan. Maybe then you change your tune.

        1. All three of your Ecuadorian friends? That hardly amounts to statistical evidence.

          So I’m supposed to wait until I’m mugged at knifepoint on a Cuenca street? What if the mugger is a Cuencano? How about a Gringo? How about someone from Europe? Do I have to wait for a Venezuelan before my experience will cause me to be as prejudiced as you are?

  4. Margaret this brings me to tears. Is there any way that I could contact Esperanza directly? Thank you

  5. These are the refugees most Gringos, would generously help.But I find, it difficult to decide on who are the banditos and who are genuinely in need of help.Can someone post the accredited NGO’s that one can donate too ..That are assisting the “Venezuelans”…

    1. Yes, there are criminal organizations operating here in Cuenca and we need to do everything we can to not support that activity. I will give you an explanation of how the services work.

      When a migrant arrives to the city, their first contact is Casa del Migrante. They are the city run organization who coordinates the services and refers people to other organizations. The person is then referred to Posado San Francisco, run by the Catholic Church, where they receive temporary accommodation and food for a week or two while their needs are assessed. The person also is assessed by HIAS, which is an international organization who provides services to refugees. They will be given financial and/or food assistance depending on their needs.

      We, Fundacion Hogar de Esperanza, are a legally registered non-profit here in Ecuador, the US and Canada. We work very closely with these three organizations and meet with them regularly. If a person needs further assistance they can be referred to us. We provide clothing, food, transportation, medical and temporary accommodation. Our focus is high-risk individuals with medical or other needs. For instance, Esperanza and her family are staying with us at the moment until we can find permanent accommodation for them.

      The needs can be varied. We have worked with Casa del Migrante to reunite people with their families in other countries. We help people get medical appointments, help in job search, help with beds and clothing. We are in the process of renovating a 28 room house given to us by the Catholic Church to help us provide for the many needs of Ecuadorians and the migrants. I would be more than happy to meet with you, give you more information and even a tour of the other facilities who help the migrants. You can contact me at Juan Montalvo 8-18 and Marical Sucre or through email at info@hogaresperanza.org

  6. I spoke with a man holding his year old baby yesterday. He, his wife and baby had walked 14 days away from their home to get here. Seeing dead bodies on the streets and constant robberies made them leave. Seven people sleep in one apartment, and he needed $7 to pay for the day before, so they wouldn’t all get kicked out. He had worked here a bit in construction, and hurt his foot. The boss wouldn’t pay him, because he was Venezuelan. I contributed lunch for the 3 of them, and some cash for food and some rent. That helped 7 people.

    1. I can’t read this and just go on with my day. Do you know where these people are now so I might be able to help them with a little direct support?

      1. I don’t have contact info, but they are staying near the 9 de Octubre market, he told me. He was wearing those black plastic shoes that cover the front of his feet, and are open in back. He is tall and thin and fairly light skinned, his wife is short, a black lady, quite buxom, and the baby is also dark skinned. If I see them again I will try to get contact info for you. He was very hungry; he ate his entire ‘almuerzo’ with soup,rice, pork chop, salad. I ate some veggies and a bit of the meat that came with my spagetti. But some meat and all of my spagetti was left. I offered it to him and he ate the whole thing, really, he ate a meal and a half.

          1. I have his contact info now. His name is Rafael, he is working for a man selling bags of limes, making 20 cents a bag. He sold 20 bags today. His boss’s cell phone # is 9799 16772. His wife Diana and his baby Milagro so appreciate the assistance. Both he and the other family I am trying to assist were turned away at the Casa de Migrante because they do not have papers. (passports, visas) So they cannot go to the soup kitchen.

            1. Genie, thank you for this but you seem to have left out a digit in Rafael’s boss’s cell phone number. It is probably a 0 and I will try that, but could you please confirm?

              I have a friend that works at the Soup Kitchen and I know Bob Higgins well. What you tell me makes little sense and I promise I will look into it for you. Even if that is their policy, perhaps an exception can be made.

            2. Genie, I just checked with my neighbor who works at the Soup Kitchen and basically, he confirmed what you have told me. The Soup Kitchen is capable of serving only 150 people a day and there is a demand for up to 1,000 people per day. Before the SK turned screening of the people that were eligible to receive meals from the SK, over to Casa de Migrante, there were fist fights on the street between some of the people that wanted to be fed. This, of course, is a tragedy, but the workers at the SK couldn’t cope with the chaos and serve people inside as well so they turned the determination of who should be fed to the Casa de Migrante, who developed a voucher system.

              I am told that priority is given to mothers with young children and that vouchers are issued for 15 meals at a time and can then be re-applied for. I suggest that Rafael’s wife, Diana goes to the Casa de Migrante with their baby, Milagro, and apply again.

              In the mean time, I will seek out Rafael myself and do what little I can to help him directly.

              Genie, no luck with contacting Rafael’s boss even adding a 0 to the number you posted, but I left a message for him and perhaps he will return my call.

            3. Genie, we’re all set. I met Rafael, Leana and Milagro at Feria Libre and fed them a huge meal. You are right, Rafe can eat a lot. Then I took them to their place to get their dirty laundry and now we’re at my place washing about a ton of laundry. They have both had showers and next will be that precious little Milagro. I have purchased a little food for them to take home and when they’re all through with the laundry, I’ll have my friend take them back to their place.

              Thank you very much for assisting me with this.

              1. This is wonderful! I am so happy that you were able to assist with their laundry, very important! And showers!!! Meals and food. With some help here and there, they will get on their feet!!

                1. They are both willing to work and want to work. I told them if they find jobs I will watch Milagro for them. I can’t help them much financially, but I’m happy to do what I can.

  7. All the LA governments do is complain about their “bad neighbor” and the negative social and economic impact Maduro is inflicting. Collectively they have done nothing to address the root problem. Talk won’t force him to pack his bags anytime soon. So what are they all waiting for?

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