The International Monetary Fund warned inflation in Venezuela could reach 1 million percent by December, a crisis that would be on par with the economic chaos in Germany after World War I. Even in the capital city of Caracas, residents often barter for basic services—perhaps an egg or two for a cab ride. As hospitals started running out of basic medicines—and sometimes running water and soap—food supplies also dwindled, and Venezuelans now stand in hourslong lines at grocery stores, often to find bare shelves. Items are available on the black market, but the prices are out of reach for many.
The average Venezuelan has lost more than 20 pounds in the last two years.
As Venezuela tottered, many Colombians welcomed those who had welcomed them for years. But as an estimated 1 million people have fled from Venezuela into Colombia to stay in the last two years (including Colombians returning back to their home country), resources and patience are wearing thin, and the government is placing more restrictions on who may come and how long they may stay.
“Not long ago, no one would want to be a Colombian,” says Barbosa. “Now a lot of Venezuelan people are trying to find a Colombian friend.”
Near the border, Barbosa navigates through a maze of street merchants, taxis, and people dragging piles of luggage across the broken pavement, as he pulls over to pick up a Venezuelan friend.
Ricardo Gomez is a pastor living just across the border in the Venezuelan town of San Antonio. Gomez is able to cross the border with a migratory card that allows Venezuelans to enter the country on short trips, but it doesn’t allow them to travel far into the country. (He’d need a passport for a longer journey—a process that takes lots of time or lots of money.)
The Colombian government stopped issuing the migratory cards in February, as a response to the swelling numbers entering the country, but those who already had the passes are still able to enter.
Up a steep side street in a nearby neighborhood, we tuck into an outdoor table at a small coffee shop, and Gomez describes life on the other side of the border. It’s easier in San Antonio than farther into the interior of Venezuela, he says, since crossing into Colombia for supplies is at least a possibility for those in need.
Still, it’s difficult to buy food in the crowded town, and many people take buses or walk for days across the Andes Mountains to reach the city in hopes of crossing into Colombia or finding local resources.
Barbosa’s church helps with efforts to send food packages back with Gomez to distribute to church members and the surrounding communities, though they have to be careful about quantities. Locals say border guards sometimes confiscate donated supplies or other substantial quantities of goods, since the Venezuelan government frowns on outside aid. Others say guards sometimes demand bribes or keep items for themselves.
Gomez has been willing to risk taking larger packages in order to help more people, and so far, he says, “God has given us grace for that.”
Gomez has about 100 people in the church he’s pastored for nearly three decades, but the congregation helps hundreds more in the community, as they’re able. He’s most concerned about children. Many don’t attend school because teachers have quit, or because they’re simply hungry: He says parents let their children sleep as long as possible so they might get by with eating fewer meals.
He’s also concerned for fellow pastors: Farther into the country, churches are emptying out as people leave. Pastors also face daily dilemmas on how to visit members of their congregation when local transportation is expensive and automobile parts aren’t available to keep their own cars running.
Some local churches in Colombia offer training so Venezuelan pastors can gain additional skills that could help them make money to sustain themselves and their families. For example, some have learned to make cleaning supplies or soap to sell near the border. But it’s still a challenge.
“Some pastors have to preach in front of people who haven’t eaten, including their own families,” says Gomez. “But they still have to give hope through the message of the gospel.”
He says that message is still going forward, even as people are suffering. Churches are banding together for prayer groups and to help one another with practical needs, he says: “We need strength. But the Lord’s work keeps going.”
BACK NEAR THE BORDER, the streets are packed with workers by midmorning.
The area just over the bridge is known as “La Parada”—or the stopping place. It’s the primary destination for many crossing from Venezuela and the spot where migrants try to find supplies they otherwise can’t buy.
Driving through the crowded streets, the items for sale give a glimpse of the shortages just a couple of miles away: Tables are piled high with cans of motor oil, while other vendors sell used, balding tires.
Some Venezuelans do grow small amounts of food in some areas, and some sell extra bananas or potatoes to buy items like toilet paper or cheap car parts. Others bring products they’re still able to get in Venezuela to sell for a profit in Colombia. Barbosa turns another corner and notes it’s a particularly dangerous section, where merchants sell medicines and gangs sometimes control what comes in and what goes out.
Nearby, throngs of Venezuelans are flowing across the international bridge into Colombia, stopping at checkpoints to show their papers to border guards. Some push elderly family members in wheelchairs. Others carry toddlers on their shoulders.
Midway across the bridge, pedestrian traffic is so thick in narrow passages, we stand for a moment with our backs to the wall. When I glance over the side to look at the rocky riverbed below, a face stares back at me. A boy—perhaps 12 or 13 years old—is crawling along the side of the bridge, balancing only on a beam running across the span.
For those without papers, treacherous and illegal crossings are commonplace here and elsewhere.
Within walking distance of the bridge, a Catholic church in Cúcuta serves more than 1,000 meals a day to those who show up early enough for a breakfast ticket. In an outdoor area behind a rented house, scores of men, women, and children line up around the block. Many are visibly thin.