BARRANQUILLA, Colombia – Colombians who during Venezuela’s boom years poured across the border in search of a better life are now returning home, not only broke and without work but also facing a new problem: discrimination.
Maria Fernanda Sarmiento, 22, is one of them. Born in Campo de la Cruz, a small town on the Colombian Caribbean, she acquired Venezuelan nationality while in the neighboring country – but had to return to her native soil with her two children after her husband was deported and she was overcome by economic difficulties.
Sarmiento told EFE that her husband had worked in Caracas as a construction worker, but that “here he’s reinventing himself as a barber, which doesn’t pay that much. If things in Venezuela get better, I’d go back again, but if they don’t, what am I going to do there?” she said.
Barranquilla is estimated to have some 20,000 people back home from Venezuela, who to a certain degree affect the levels of insecurity and unemployment while collapsing the educational and healthcare systems.
“My two children have Venezuelan nationality, but since we are Colombians, we were able to enroll them in Sisben (system of beneficiaries of social programs). At least they can see a doctor when they get sick and I can register them for school,” Sarmiento said.
The idea that returning Colombian-Venezuelans cause all the social problems is not just a prejudice of the man in the street – a comment by Colombian Vice President German Vargas Lleras has sparked new arguments with the country next door.
“In the city of Barranquilla alone I see 20,000 people who have come back from Venezuela and are harming security and taking away the locals’ chances of getting a job,” he said several days ago.
At another event, the delivering of homes in Tibu, Norte de Santander province, he said the dwellings are for “displaced persons,” and told people, “Don’t let those ‘Venecos’ settle here, not for any reason in the world,” a remark slammed by the Venezuelan government.
For the district attorney of Barranquilla, Jaime San Juan Pugliese, the number cited by the vice president is no exaggeration, since many arriving in the city are not registered with any official agency in Colombia.
“They generally come to us to get help in obtaining medical care, register their children in public schools or just help them obtain ID documents and sign them up with Sisben,” the official told EFE, adding that last year his office attended some 7,200 returnees.
What also arouses antagonism toward those returning from Venezuela is that as workers they are seen as “bargains,” which means they’re willing to work for less money and so take jobs away from the locals.
“They’ll work for as little as 20,000 pesos (some $7) a day... they’re sinking the pay scale so there’s no longer any such thing as a fair wage,” Alfredo Flores, a waiter at a downtown cafe, told EFE, while complaining about the “unfair competition of those ‘Venecos.’”