CARACAS: After fleeing Venezuela along with millions of others amid the country’s grueling humanitarian crisis, Misael Cocho made his way by bus to Peru — where he got odd jobs and sent money home monthly to support his mother and his 5-year-old son.
But just after Cocho landed his steadiest work so far in Lima, coronavirus cases skyrocketed. He lost his job, sold his TV to buy food and hasn’t been able to wire money for months to Caracas to pay for food for the boy and Cocho’s mother.
The pandemic’s economic fallout left many Venezuelans abroad and the relatives back home who rely on them in dire straits. And as work disappears in countries like Peru and Colombia, humanitarian groups say many Venezuelans who fled hunger are now going hungry.
Cocho, 24, faces a dilemma: Should he stay in Peru in case the economy improves, or go back to Caracas where life is precarious but might not get worse?
“The truth is that this pandemic has really hit me hard,” he said.
Venezuela’s population peaked at 30 million in 2015, but 5 million alarmed at the country’s economic implosion migrated elsewhere in South America and to the US and Europe, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration. Most who stayed behind get by on a minimum wage that’s the equivalent of about $2 a month.
About half of the Venezuelans who emigrated to other South American countries are so-called “informal” sector workers — laborers, vendors, street performers and waiters, estimated Provash Budden, regional Americas director for the Mercy Corps humanitarian aid group. Those jobs were hit hard by the virus’ economic impact and there are few if any social safety nets to help the people who had them.
Cocho first found work in Peru shoveling manure and sweeping streets and recently landed a better-paying job at a family-owned corner store. But he was laid off as the coronavirus spread. Peru has about 65,000 confirmed cases and, with more than 1,800 deaths, the second highest Latin American death count after Brazil, where more than 10,000 have died.
He sleeps on a mattress in a crowded home filled with Venezuelan migrants. The landlord has let him skip the rent so far, but Cocho doesn’t know how long the generosity will last.
“I’ve had no other choice but to sell the things I don’t use in order to get by,” he said.
Venezuela was once a wealthy nation sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil. But years of political confrontation, corruption and resource mismanagement by the socialist government left most Venezuelans with increasingly scarce water, electricity, gasoline and inadequate medical care.