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Haitians in Venezuela: Ice cream, human trafficking and the shantytowns of Caracas

Now almost 3 years after the earthquake that rocked Haiti’s shores, AlterPresse takes a closer look at life in Venezuela, a country that has received an ever-increasing flux of Haitian migrants.

By Robert Shaw

Bogota, Dec. 19, 2012 [AlterPresse] --- Urdaneta Avenue, once known as the "power street" in the boom years of Caracas with its bulging banks and high-flying stockbrokers, has now become home to beggars huddled outside rundown restaurants and Haitians selling ice cream to passersby who jump to avoid stepping in excrement - human or animal – as they listen to the joyful ringing sound of the ice cream cart.

Survival on the streets of Caracas

With close to 40,000 Haitians now living in the country, over 25,000 of them are undocumented migrants trying to survive without knowing how to speak Spanish, without papers to work and without money or access to housing.

Jesus Machado, a specialist in Haitian affairs for the Jesuit-run Centro Gumilla in Caracas, told AlterPresse, “many Haitians came to Venezuela after the quake creating a snowball effect with thousands, many without documents, arriving by boat and by land across the Ecuadorian border in search of new opportunities¨.

What many locals don´t see or care to understand is where these Haitians have come from and what they have left behind. Neither do they care that when the bustle of the working day grinds to an end, thousands of them crawl back to their squalid shacks in the shantytowns of Catia in the west of the city.

Racial slurs and living in squalor

“In many cases we have found up to 10 Haitians living in cramped conditions sharing 50 square meter rooms between them at a cost of $140 USD a month,” Bessiere Janvier, the head of a local group representing Haitians in Venezuela called UNPACOH, told Alterpresse.

“Since the earthquake we have recorded 50% more cases of racism, xenophobia and discrimination against Afro-Americans, particularly Haitians, in Venezuela”. Machado told AlterPresse. “Denigrating verbal taunts of a racial nature against Haitian street vendors is now more and more commonplace in Caracas,” he adds.

Humanitarian Visas for All!

At the same time, Yldefonso Fino, the President of the Refugee Commission in Venezuela, told AlterPresse, “President Chávez personally authorized immediate humanitarian visas for all Haitians who arrived in Venezuela after the earthquake in January 2010”.

From 13 March 2010 onwards, the Venezuelan migration authorities known by the Spanish acronym, SAIME, aimed to begin legalizing the status of all Haitians who had entered the country before the earthquake, with an average of 150 ‘regularized’ daily in the central square in Caracas.

Thousands still in Limbo

“The Haitian community in Venezuela is growing year-by-year with the main groupings spread over the following 4 key cities,” details Janvier:

1. Caracas: 20,000 - 25,000

2. Miranda: 6,500

3. Carabobo: 2,500

4. Lala: 2,000

An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 live in the states of Falcón, Bolívar, Zulia and Portuguesa.

With the number of Haitians in Caracas alone having almost doubled since the earthquake, according to Wooldy Louidor, the Latin American regional expert for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), government moves to shore up with droves of illegal Haitian migrants have slowed dramatically and thousands still remain in limbo.

People Smuggling and State Corruption

“Since 2009, smugglers have been bringing more and more Haitians to both Colombia and Venezuela,” he explains. “The majority end up working local service beats selling clothes, food, ice cream and coffee on the sweltering hot streets of Caracas”.

Bessiere estimates that “there are close to 12,000 Haitians selling ice cream on the streets of Caracas and they can make up to 1200 Bolivares or $300 USD a month.”

However, Louidor says, “they are often forced to share their ‘salaries’ with the smugglers who in return help them get ID cards and other documents opening the doors to the wider job market in the Venezuelan capital”.

In a 2011 report by the JRS, Louidor details evidence of ties between smugglers entering airports in Maiquetia and Valencia and corrupt Venezuelan police and migration officials.

“Trafficking networks including members of the Venezuelan government give false visas and passports to Haitians arriving from the (Haitian) cities of Gonaives, Casale and Cabaret,” says Louidor.

A united diaspora in the Americas

Nonetheless, Bessiere welcomes the Chavez government´s work to legalize all Haitians in Venezuela. And his final analysis is that “the bigger issue for the Haitian diaspora in Venezuela is to unite with their counterparts in Latin America and the US to help rebuild Haiti from the bottom up”.

Many Haitians say they want to return home to see their families. But with little prospect of any paid work there, legal or illegal, Venezuela remains a better bet for now. [rs gp apr 19/12/2012 11:00]