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Venezuela–a neighbour in distress

Sunday, August 12, 2018
Icacos Fisherman, Selwyn Joseph Photo by:Wesley Gibbings

Wesley Gibbings

Under a galvanise shed to avoid a blistering afternoon sun, two fishermen lash a new net to a slim rope while a third, and most elderly of the crew, looks on from his seat starboard of a white wooden pirogue that has seen the worst of south coast waves but now rests on pink sand.

Nearby, under a shed where a four o’ clock catch is due to be sorted and sold, Selwyn Joseph smiles accommodatingly when we approach. Where the busy three offered painful monosyllabic responses, the Fullarton fisherman speaks freely.

In the horizon where Venezuela’s mangrove coastline renders a perpetual silhouette there are small craft bobbing on the surf. One slowly approaches our shore–fishermen with what looks like a modest catch. One of the men on the nets onshore bemoans low prices.

A laden police jeep appears and drives slowly along the narrow, sand-coated trace near the beach and disappears in an adjacent property. Then, a regular car arrives. Two couples emerge. They are here “to see the Venezuelans.”

The Venezuelan journalist who has accompanied her Trini counterpart comes into view along the beach just then. “Is that one?” There is no straight-forward answer. Then: “Is he one too?” Laughter. Not from this reporter.

For here we are on Icacos Beach. Some folks in Cedros near the Security Complex insist this is where the real action takes place. “Not any more,” the locals, however, declare. Yet, Joseph notes an unofficial night-time curfew on the treacherous surf off this most south-westerly tip of the island. “Too much things does happen out there,” he says.

Smugglers, pirates roam the ocean

Smugglers and pirates roam the ocean, we are told. Venezuelans and occasionally “the Guyanese” are adjudged culprits.

But, so current village wisdom goes, human and other illicit cargo is now more efficiently deposited further east at Erin, Los Iros, and Moruga because of an increased police and Coast Guard presence in Icacos, and generally secure conditions in Cedros. Last July, three men were, however, shot in separate incidents in Icacos and there is talk of organised gangs that trade in illicit cargoes of drugs, weapons, wild animals, and people.

Local government councillor for Cedros, Shankar Teelucksingh, has also been leading an effort to have authorities install better facilities to address the threat of diseases contracted through human contact with unlawfully imported fruits, vegetables and animals. Earlier this year, a substantial shipment of dasheen was confiscated by the police and there have been several animal-related alerts.

In one instance, crab catchers and vendors were hit hard by unsubstantiated consumer fears about the possibility of crab meat contamination from the Orinoco River whose outflow colours the water along the coast.

And Teelucksingh has consistently railed against the fact that with between 20 and 30 illegal points of entry along the coastline, more equipment and manpower was needed to monitor not only the trafficking in people, but also the entry of possibly diseased animals.

Meanwhile, on this trip, there is a “wild meat for sale” sign en route to Cedros from Granville, but nobody is around. The hunting season is closed till September 30. Last October, an 820-kilogram cargo of deer, agouti, and other slaughtered wild animals was seized by authorities on board a pirogue suspected to have sailed from Venezuela.

There is speculation and anecdotal support for the view that Venezuela’s continuing humanitarian crisis has dramatically increased the movement of people through the porous borders of both countries.

Following the repatriation of 82 Venezuelan nationals in May, which earned the public disdain of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the country’s ambassador to T&T Coromoto Godoy Calderón described reports of a crisis leading to the current exodus as “part of a political agenda” reliant on “fake” accounts of what is happening in her country.

Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) leader, David Abdulah, has said the difficulties being faced by Venezuelans in their country are the result of “economic sabotage” by political foes of the Maduro regime.

Distressed immigrants left to administrative whim

Accurate figures are hard to come by, but there are probably close to 3,000 asylum-seekers currently in the system and thousands more who have either exceeded their permitted stay or have simply not entered through authorised channels and remained.

Some seeking legal entry meanwhile brave the immigration and customs officials at the Security Complex where long-time Cedros resident Rosalind Lutchmansingh says, “they are treated like animals.”

At issue is the slow pace with addressing law reform to bring T&T in line with its international commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol which expanded its reach. T&T acceded to the Convention on November 10, 2000. There are guidelines no one really knows much about, according to immigration officer-turned-attorney Devon Williams. At a UWI-organised World Refugee panel discussion on June 18, he waved his personal copy in indignation.

The consequence of this, according to activists following these developments, is that in the absence of a legal framework to streamline asylum-seeking status, distressed immigrants interested in pursuing such a path are left to administrative whim, while those awaiting a lengthy processing period, together with their families including children, are denied basic social services.

The tightening of entry requirements and shortening of time allowed in the country have provided an impetus to seek refugee status and helped grow the numbers. Venezuelan journalist, Roxana Peralta, when faced with possible deportation in July, rejected such an option. “I am not a refugee!” she insisted.

28,000 Venezuelans arrived in T&T in 2017

Meanwhile, through all legal borders, including the Cedros Port and Piarco International Airport, around 28,000 Venezuelan nationals arrived in the country last year, according to immigration department figures. T&T Guardian was unable to reach Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews on an estimate of the number who have returned. The net figures appear to be the product of a guessing game.

At the Security Complex in Cedros, a coast guard officer emerges to greet impromptu media guests who have made their way through an unguarded entrance by car. “The press needs permission to come here,” we are politely told. “No pictures. Turn around and please leave the compound.”

It is a modest, bare, concrete structure equipped for only the most basic operations as a port of entry. The long, narrow, unsheltered jetty belies what can sometimes be heavy human traffic.

One of the locals who does crossings to the mainland has his small craft anchored about 50 metres from the shore.

Three days before, the complex had been abuzz with activity. One of several charters from “the main” (Venezuela) had arrived. Friends, family, and others waited near and under a big tree along the bridge, dubbed by retired teacher Edward Marcelle and others as “the office” where there are plans to add chairs.

Today, Marcelle holds court with two journalists and talks about the years of friendly connections with the troubled republic next door. He along with others who had for years straddled the two territories, had planned festivities to mark the long years of friendship. But they are plans that are yet to materialise.

A bustling trade amid growing tragedy

Around the bend, Angel de Orinoco is one of a handful of boat companies that ferry passengers back and forth between Cedros and the mainland. Two doors down, you can find Manuel, through whom cargo is booked. There is another boat company across the bridge. It is not easy to find. There is no sign up front and the people next door don’t know the name of the business except that “they does go Venezuela.”

It’s all legit, though—a bustling trade amid growing tragedy. When passengers are turned down by immigration officials, the boating companies take the financial bounce and a nearby guest house serves, according to one villager, as an “unofficial Immigration Detention Centre.”

The “real” IDC in Aripo has close to 120 inmates–many of them Venezuelan. Only four years ago, official statistics put Jamaicans as the largest cohort alongside undocumented Guyanese and Africans. The profile has since changed dramatically.

Sometimes, a 40-something year old female teacher with a Master’s degree who entered through Cedros two months ago, would venture down to the complex to meet an arriving friend or acquaintance and return in tears.

A friend of a friend had offered her a job taking care of his house in another village, but first he wanted her to show him her naked body as part of the deal. She has found other work and swears she will return home soon to what she describes as the hell of hunger and deprivation. She hates it here. “Planeo volver. Planeo volver.” She plans to return. When? Sooner rather than later.

Marcelle, also a poet and writer, laments the state of desperation of the arriving Venezuelans and acknowledges the mistreatment. He, however, has high hopes for his village. “Cedros is evolving slowly but surely,” he says. “It is owing to people pulling themselves up at the boot-straps.”

Years ago, at a creative writers’ session at the home of the late Anson Gonzalez, he likened Chekov’s Three Sisters with the three rocks that stand out at sea at Columbus Bay–known also as The Three Sisters—saying only they could “testify whether it was day or night traffic” they were more used to witnessing.

“They (villagers) work hard here,” he says, “whether it is legal work or illegal.”

Venezuelan labour helping to turn tide on coconut estates

Back in Fullarton, through which you pass to get to Icacos Beach, Magda Estava moves easily between Spanish and Trini. She has been in Trinidad for 45 years now and has witnessed the changes. She is not going to deny that some scamps have leaked through the immigration cracks but insists that a clear majority of Venezuelans fleeing the Nicolás Maduro regime simply want to be productive residents in a more welcoming adopted home. But this has not generally been the case.

Prime minister Dr Keith Rowley’s commitment not to have anyone “convert us into a refugee camp” is quoted more than once when referencing some of the hostility experienced.

But work in some near-abandoned Icacos coconut estates has begun to pick up, notwithstanding the ongoing red palm mite infestation. The second most important challenge facing the industry had been the unavailability of affordable labour on the estates. Unauthorised Venezuelan labour is now apparently helping to turn the tide.

Estava also knows of the horror stories. Abductions and rapes and other acts of violence. Venezuelan women, in particular, are being targeted while the men are stereotyped as potential gun runners and drug traffickers.

The itinerant groups that arrive to procure scarce goods for sale back on the mainland do a decent trade and some of the larger southern establishments have benefited from the growing demand. The smaller shops are “surviving”, to quote one shop owner.

As Marcelle puts it, the small shops are “the first stop for refreshments and the last stop, if they still have money to spend.”

Local pharmacies and in some instances abuse of the chronic disease assistance plan (CDAP) are picking up critical slack from medicinal shortages in the South American republic.

There are also real fears that diseases such as measles and diphtheria, once under control, can make a dramatic return to Venezuela because of a lack of vaccines. Unlike the near 100 per cent coverage in T&T, there are many children who now go without such protection on the mainland.

Things have for some time now looked increasingly desperate.

By the time we get back North from the three-hour drive, there is news that an attempt had been made on the life of the Venezuelan president. The story does not end there.


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