By Margaret Winter
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.
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.