As the clock struck midnight on January 1, between rounds of aguardiente and New Year’s kisses, thousands of tourists and locals alike reveled in the streets of Cartagena, Colombia.
Among them was Jaiver Zambrano, a slender 21-year old with brown, almond-shaped eyes from Barquisimeto, Venezuela. His curly hair snuck out from his baseball cap brandishing the colors of the Venezuelan national flag. But unlike the other foreigners, he is not in Cartagena for the celebration.
Instead, he came to Cartagena four months ago to support his family in strife-ridden Venezuela. He works a grueling 13 to 16 hours a day at a corner bakery alongside his cousin, José Miguel Zambrano, each receiving a payment of $27,000 pesos (US$9.50), daily.
Jaiver and José Miguel arrive at work by 6 a.m. A stream of customers stroll up to the counter after hopping-off motor bikes to order bread under the bakery’s fluorescent lights. A lizard scurries from a crevice to lick up bugs from the wall. Behind the glass cases is an array of bread baked throughout the morning: pan de sal, pan bocadillo, pan de yuca.
Jaiver glances quickly around the shop, acknowledging there’s “lots of work,” before another customer comes to the counter. I raise my camera for a quick shot, but he shakes his head. It’s not the time for photos, as his boss had returned.
“Of course, the jefe doesn’t want photos!” exclaims roommate Brisel Fernández. “These working conditions […] are exploitation. Take a photo so the world can see what us Venezuelans are experiencing, here.” Colombian law prohibits employees from working over 8 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Javier and his cousin work at least 91 hours a week and barely make more than the monthly minimum wage.
Like tens of thousands of Venezuelans before them, Jaiver, age 21; his cousin, José Miguel, age 18; and roommates Brisel Fernández and Marianny Escalona, left behind families in Barquisimeto to cross the border as hyperinflation reached astronomical levels in Venezuela, rendering wages, and much of their life savings, worthless.
According to a report by Reuters, the number of Venezuelans in Colombia has jumped 62% in the last half of 2017. More than half a million are thought to be in the country – mainly in Bogotá and border city Cucuta – while many more are heading for Panama, Peru, and Ecuador.
Brisel worked for an international transport courier in Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth largest city, where she made a modest living before the economy took a nosedive in early 2015. By the time she resigned in August 2017, her monthly wage was 70,000 bolivares – or US$5. Inflation has accelerated so much, that today this wage is equivalent to a mere 26 cents, according to DolarToday, a website that tracks bolivar exchange rates.
Venezuela’s currency is all but worthless. “One day you go down to the market and a bag of flour is US$7. The next day you go back and it’s US$8. Days later you go back and it’s US$10. Prices of basic goods that were once affordable have became out of reach for the middle and lower classes.”
Unlike Jaiver and José Miguel, Brisel and Marianny arrived in Colombia with university degrees. Without work visas, however, their degrees have no value. Both women now work in a beauty salon.”We brought half a suitcase of bolivares in cash ,” she says discouraged. “But when we received the pesos at the currency exchange, there were maybe five bills.”
“When we first arrived here, we put up with the heat selling tizana on the streets for a week to pay rent. The rejection was horrible,” she said, shaking her head. For the first month, she tells me, they slept on nothing more than cardboard.
The four compatriots share a cramped house close to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport and several miles from the glass skyscrapers of Bocagrande. Wages are nearly unlivable for immigrants coming into Colombia, but the desperation they left behind in Venezuela is far worse. “My family was going hungry. As hard as it is here for us Venezuelans, it’s an opportunity to get money doing honest work,” says Jaiver. “If I’d known how bad it is here, I’d still have come.”
The future remains uncertain for these migrant workers. Jaiver and Brisel’s family members back home in Venezuela abandoned their jobs once wages no longer could buy basic products. They now rely only on the remissions sent from Cartagena to stave off hunger.
“I’d like to go to the United States,” says Jaiver. “I want to be an actor. When I’m alone in my room, I sit in front of the mirror and practice. It’s my dream.”
Brisel, however, has different dreams. “Americans have treated me indifferently,” she says.”If I were given the opportunity, I’d go. But I’d prefer Canada.”