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Venezuelans continue to flee the country as the economy shows no signs of recovery


From Arizona to New York state, governments are struggling to handle a massive influx of migrants. Many of those migrants come from Venezuela, which has yet to emerge from the worst economic crisis in its history. Since 2015, more than 7 million Venezuelans, or nearly a quarter of the pre-crisis population, have fled their country. Reporter John Otis is in western Venezuela and joins us now. John, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: This is your first time back in Venezuela in two years. What do you see?

OTIS: Well, you know, the people who have stayed in Venezuela - they're really struggling. There may be a little more economic activity than the last time I was here, but a lot of things are just breaking down. In fact, right after crossing the border from Colombia into Venezuela, I saw an abandoned wind farm. Looters had stripped away almost everything, even those big blades off the wind turbines. So all that was left were these barren white towers.

Venezuela is also trying to get its oil industry back up and running, but that's been hard due to U.S. sanctions, as well as a lack of maintenance. One example is Lake Maracaibo, which is this huge lake in western Venezuela that's home to hundreds of oil derricks and pipelines, but many are broken and leaking oil. I saw beaches that have turned into oil slicks. Commercial fisheries have thrown out their catches because the fish come up all stained black with oil. So, you know, it can be a pretty grim picture here.

SIMON: From what you say, John, it sounds as if Venezuelans are just going to continue to leave their country.

OTIS: I'm afraid so. It seems like everyone here has several relatives already up in the U.S. And meanwhile, it's mostly older folks who are staying behind. During my time here, I came across one protest, and it was made up of retirees.



OTIS: You know, these are former state workers in their 70s and 80s who were protesting because their pensions amount to just $4 a month. Most say they're too old to start anew somewhere else. But the younger folks are leaving Venezuela in droves. Among them is Angel Marin (ph). He's 32, married and has a 4-year-old son. He works for a cellphone company, and he doesn't want to leave. But then his son developed asthma. And let's take a listen to what happened next.

ANGEL MARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: So here he's saying that his son's asthma medicine costs $32 a month, but if he buys those meds, his family is not going to have enough money for food. So it's really a tragic dilemma. And that's why they've decided to sell all their belongings and leave Venezuela.

SIMON: Yeah. And when you say leave, their destination is the United States? Do we know how they'd get here?

OTIS: Yeah, that's right. It is to the U.S., for the most part. And this brings up another dilemma. Because most Venezuelan migrants lack visas, they face two very risky options. The first is to trek overland. But that means hiking through the Darien Gap, which is a roadless jungle region connecting Colombia with Panama. The Darien Gap has seen a record amount of traffic this year. But throngs of migrants have been robbed, raped or killed. So Angel and his family - they're planning to fly to the Colombian island of San Andres and then take a clandestine migrant boat to Nicaragua and then continue overland. But, you know, those boats sometimes sink, and a lot of migrants have drowned along this route. So by land or by sea, these migrants just sort of have to pick their poison.

SIMON: John, is there any event on the horizon that could turn things around for Venezuelans who want to stay?

OTIS: Well, many Venezuelans say that the only way to really fundamentally change the country would be to get rid of the current government. President Nicolas Maduro is an autocrat who's badly mishandled the economy. Next year, there's supposed to be a presidential election. And, in fact, the opposition right now is planning a primary for next month to decide who should take on Maduro. But even if Maduro were to lose that election, it's really unclear whether he would respect the results if he loses.

SIMON: John Otis in Venezuela, thanks so much.

OTIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.