Why Some Impoverished Venezuelans May Have A Harder Time Getting Remittances
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to turn now to an exodus that's turned into one of the largest in Latin American history. More than 2 million people have left Venezuela since 2014. That's due to shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation among many other problems. Many leave with the goal of finding work and sending money to relatives back in Venezuela. But due to tighter controls on remittances, some poor Venezuelans who rely on that money have to leave the country to get it. Reporter John Otis has more.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: A security guard opens the gates of the Western Union office here in Cucuta, a Colombian city on the Venezuelan border. It's 8 a.m., but there's already a long line of people. Most are Venezuelans.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: They include Ligia Ardila, a physical therapist from the Venezuelan city of Merida. It's a four-hour bus ride to Cucuta, but Ardila needs the $180 sent by a cousin who left Venezuela to work in Panama.
LIGIA ARDILA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "In Venezuela," she says, "inflation is out of control. The only people who can buy things are those who receive remittances. Everyone else is going hungry." Economists estimate that in the past year, Venezuelans living abroad have sent more than $1 billion to their relatives back home. Even small amounts can be a lifeline because Venezuela's minimum wage is less than a dollar a day. So says Daniel Payes, a Venezuelan who moved his advertising agency to Colombia several years ago.
DANIEL PAYES: For example, I - my case - I start just helping my mother. Then I start helping my aunt, friends, other family, cousin. And maybe just send $5, $10, but it's incredible money for the people over there.
OTIS: But getting that money back home is a major hassle. Due to financial chaos in Venezuela, some banks refuse to transfer money to the country. Recently the Venezuelan government declared that remittances can only be collected through official exchange houses. But these offer unfavorable exchange rates, causing recipients to lose large chunks of their money. Venezuelans near Colombia often come to banks and exchange houses here in Cucuta.
ANDREA RUBIO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: At Western Union, office manager Andrea Rubio says Venezuelan customers often show up malnourished and with children in tow crying of hunger.
RUBIO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "They wait in line to collect their remittances just so they can buy food," Rubio says. "They arrive here with no money."
For now Ardila, the physical therapist, is doing a little better.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In addition to food, she's using her remittances in Cucuta to buy school supplies and sinus medicine, both of which are scarce in Venezuela. After that, she'll board a bus for Venezuela.
ARDILA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But Ardila says she will be coming back to Colombia as soon as her cousin can send more money. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.