PACARAIMA, Brazil (AP) — As the sun rose, Miguel Gonzalez, partner Maryelis Rodriguez and their four young children got off a passenger bus after an 18-hour ride south from the eastern Venezuelan community they desperately wanted to leave.
The parents, with minds still muzzy from sleep, retrieved two duffel bags and assessed needs before entering the station: Diaper change for the 1-year-old. Restrooms for the 2-, 4- and 6-year-old. Directions to Brazil.
“Taxi? Taxi?” hawkish cab drivers asked everyone walking through the Santa Elena de Uairen station, where thousands of people every month walk through Venezuelan territory one last time. Roughly a half hour later, the Gonzalez family, like dozens of others every day, became migrants for the first time when they exited a taxi in Pacaraima, Brazil.
More than 7.2 million people have left Venezuela since the country’s political, economic and social crisis began last decade. Most have gone to Spanish-speaking countries of South America — with 2.4 million in Colombia alone — and many to the U.S. and Spain.
Further down the list of destinations has been Venezuela’s Portuguese-speaking, next-door neighbor: Brazil.
But Brazil has become a popular choice for many Venezuelans partly because of a five-year-old program that offers eligible applicants work permits and even free flights to faraway parts of the huge country. Approvals into the program have surged in the post-pandemic period.
“I want to give well-being to my children,” said Gonzalez, who began planning to migrate in October after witnessing violent clashes around the gold mine where he worked.
“There is no life” in Venezuela, he said, because if the family stays there the children “are not going to study, they are not going to have a future.”
The Gonzalez family is applying for Brazil’s “interiorization” program, launched in 2018 to ease pressure on the country’s far northern state of Roraima as it dealt with Venezuelans flowing across the border after food and medicine shortages at home became acute.
The program moves the migrants to other cities with better economic opportunities, especially in the country’s rich southern states. It has taken in about 100,000 of the 426,000 Venezuelans who have migrated to Brazil during the crisis — with the highest monthly rate so far in March of this year with 3,377.
The Gonzalez family sold their fridge, fan, kitchen, bed and other furniture, stuffed clothes and diapers in duffel bags and backpacks, and began their migration journey from their community of San Felix with $500. They spent $90 to get to Santa Elena de Uairen and $20 to get to Pacaraima, where they applied for the program.
They decided to migrate even though Gonzalez had one of the most lucrative jobs in Venezuela, earning about $600 in two weeks, and occasionally, up to $1,200 — far more than the country’s $5 monthly minimum wage. But mining communities are dangerous, thanks to armed groups who are believed to collude with authorities.
“There is a lot of crime. You’re alive one moment and dead the next. You get me?” Gonzalez said.
Those accepted into the interiorization program receive documentation, temporary shelter, vaccines and relocation flights. It also offers classes on Brazil’s labor market, laws and rights.
Brazil’s monthly minimum wage currently is $265. A survey of 800 households encompassing 3,529 Venezuelans living in Brazil in June and July of last year showed that 76% of them earned up to two minimum wages.
Applicants must submit paperwork, and undergo a physical and interviews.
On an early April morning, Maria Rodriguez, her father, husband, daughter, two sons, twin grandsons and four more relatives were among hundreds of people at the Pacaraima border crossing, navigating steps of the program. She laughed with an energetic grandson, but her eyes betrayed fatigue.
At the crack of dawn, migrants form lines where they wait to get or provide information. They cheer when they or their new migrant friends are told they can hop on waiting passenger buses headed roughly 125 miles (200 kilometers) south to Boa Vista, where they will catch flights to their new communities.
Rodriguez’s group already had waited six weeks in Pacaraima. They had sheltered from the scorching sun under a makeshift tent and spent nights in a shelter.
The family closed its unprofitable cheese-making business in Venezuela earlier this year and decided to join other relatives in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, where the men plan to work in construction. Rodriguez said another of her sons already living there has done well in just a short time.
“His children are studying in a good school, and meanwhile, I could see my other sons ... struggling,” Rodriguez, 45, said while she waited for portable toilets to be cleaned for the day. “As adults, we can last all day even with just an arepa, but with those kids, how do you tell a child there’s no food?”
Venezuela was once one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America thanks to billions in oil dollars, but mismanagement by its self-described socialist government and a decline in crude prices plunged it into crisis over the past decade. International economic sanctions meant to topple President Nicolás Maduro have worsened conditions.
Elsewhere in the hemisphere, Venezuelans are making their second or even third migrations as economic opportunities in initial host countries dry up. Most of those coming across the border into Brazil are migrating for the first time, said the Rev. Agnaldo Pereira de Oliveira, director of Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees in Brazil.
“They are people who held on until now and no longer could,” Pereira de Oliveira said. “Now come the last ones who had resisted in Venezuela out of attachment to their business, to their home. They say ’I had a job, but the living conditions no longer exist.'”
Brazil’s interiorization program took shape after a period of tensions in the mid- to late-2010s when arriving Venezuelans strained public services in Roraima, which includes both Pacaraima and Boa Vista. At one point, a man set fire to two residences where Venezuelans lived, injuring five people.
Brazil's southern states like Paraná are not without challenges for Venezuelans. There they must brave much colder weather than they’re accustomed to, and lack of fluency in Portuguese can sometimes be a barrier to formal jobs, meaning some of them become street vendors and Uber drivers.
In Boa Vista, shelters have long been available, but many adults and children sleep on sidewalks or outside a bus station. Some find the shelters overcrowded and overheated. Others do not feel safe or dislike the mandatory early wake-up.
On the western bank of the Branco River next to Boa Vista, members of the Figuera family cook, wash clothes, splash in the water or rest under shade trees. Their hair is peppered with sand.
Eleven-year-old Kisberlin Figuera, her father, stepmother and baby sister are on their second attempt to legally relocate to Paraná. They gave up on their first try so that the baby could be born near extended family in Carupano, Venezuela.
Kisberlin has learned some Portuguese and become friends with other migrant girls. They joke and play tag or cards near where they sleep outside the bus station. She said she misses family but the access to water in Boa Vista — in public restrooms near a beach — is better than what she had at home.
Sitting by the river, she imagined Paraná “full of parks, loads of food, lots of money and a lot of water to take showers and drink.”
AP writers Carla Bridi in Brasilia and Eléonore Hughes in Rio de Janeiro contributed.