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Venezuela’s lost generation

There was a middle-aged Venezuelan man walking through Cuenca traffic yesterday, going from car to car waving a wad of paper money.

“He’s selling Bolivars,” our taxi driver explained, “probably his life savings.”

“What’s Venezuelan money worth?” I asked.

“Nothing.” The driver then reminisced about when the Ecuadorian currency, the Sucre, collapsed. Many people have told us of the economic trauma experienced when Ecuador converted over to the dollar in January, 2000. People fortunate enough to have shifted their savings abroad made out like bandits. Others were devastated. The country has since stabilized, but life is much more expensive than it was before the shift.

I should have bought a handful of Venezuelan currency to help the poor man in the street but the light turned green. We rolled on and he continued selling his dreams for a fraction of what they were once worth.

A Venezuelan refugee sells Bolivars on a Cuenca street.

The UN High Commission on Refugees estimates that three million people have left Venezuela since 2014. Most have spilled over into the neighboring countries of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru. Costa Rica and Panama have opened up as well as island nations in the Caribbean.

Most of these neighboring countries have problems of their own. Some have only recently emerged from civil war, massive corruption or devastating poverty. Yet they help by offering free passage or quick pathways to normalized status for Latin America’s newest diaspora, a lost generation forced to start over at the bottom.

Traveling through Peru and Ecuador, our experience with this wave of refugees has been with those hustling on the outskirts of bus stations, families begging on the steps of churches, and the lucky, mostly young people who have found precarious work at the bottom rungs of the service industry.

I have heard of, but not seen the refugee camps. I don’t know the origins of those who populate the crowded favelas on the edges of the major cities I’ve passed through. But I come from a nation of refugees and I know that entry-level slums can change complexion as each new wave passes through.

I’m sure that economic exploitation of the refugees is already rampant. It’s probably just a matter of time before the political backlash starts. We have seen in Europe and the U.S. how refugee crises fuel nativism and cruelty. Will Latin America be any different?

I am saddened that my nation, once the “Mother of Exiles” who once welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has banned Venezuelans in a trumped up effort to broaden a travel ban beyond the original, exclusively targeted Muslim countries.

When I congratulated a Venezuelan colleague of mine (an engineer who went to college in Miami) that his country had joined the likes of North Korea and Yemen on the travel ban terror list, he just shrugged it off. “In Florida they think I’m a Cuban. In New York they think I’m a Puerto Rican. On the West Coast they think I’m a Mexican. I don’t even bother correcting people anymore.”

But his remaining extended family is now stuck in Venezuela, picking through the garbage, dodging bullets, praying that no child will need medicine, or sneaking across closed borders hoping to find a new promised land.