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For Venezuelans fleeing chaos at home, Brazil offers temporary refuge — and uncertainty

Over the past five years, Venezuela’s combination of political instability, economic crisis and humanitarian disaster has driven record numbers of people out of the country to seek refuge elsewhere. The exodus is reshaping the entire continent of South America in unexpected ways. Amna Nawaz reports from the border between Venezuela and Brazil, where she met families making the desperate journey.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the past five years, more than four million Venezuelans have fled their country amid a deepening national crisis.

    This mass exodus is reshaping all of South America in unexpected ways.

    The "NewsHour"'s Amna Nawaz and producer Mike Fritz traveled to the border of Venezuela and Brazil to meet the families making this desperate journey.

    It's the first in a series of reports done in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A moment of relief, marked with a thumbs-up and a wave.

    That is how Jesus, Carolina, and their two children, 19-year-old Kevin and five-year-old Sara, first greeted us, as they crossed the border from Venezuela into Brazil. The family, who only gave their first names, said they'd been walking and hitchhiking for more than two days.

    They'd run out of water, they hadn't eaten for more than a day, and they carried everything they now owned.

    So this is all they have got. Her shoes are worn, with holes in them at the bottom. They are carrying a Bible with them as well, and just a little bit of money, documents, and just two bags, shoes and whatever clothes they could carry.

    I asked why they decided to leave Venezuela.

  • Man (through translator):

    There is no justice, and there is no food, no water. There's no gasoline. There's no employment. It's complete desolation. The streets are empty and towns have turned into ghost towns. We had to abandon our home to come here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jesus and Carolina say, back home, their twin babies died just days after birth.

  • Man (through translator):

    They were six days old. It was a girl and a boy.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Every day, kids die in childbirth because of medical negligence. They don't care for them in time. And many women die too.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Venezuela, once among South America's wealthiest nations, has descended into economic and political chaos. Hyperinflation, skyrocketing debt, and crippling U.S. sanctions on its oil industry blasted the economy.

    And the streets and halls of power have erupted, as President Nicolas Maduro grapples with opposition leader Juan Guaido, backed by the U.S. and dozens of other countries, including Brazil. But Maduro clings to power, amid severe food, medicine and fuel shortages

  • Monica de Bolle:

    Venezuela really is destabilizing the entire region. And, therefore, whatever happens to Venezuela is going to have big consequences across the region as a whole.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Monica de Bolle is a Latin American expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

    The cost of the crisis in the years ahead, she says, could amount to tens of billions in international aid. Since 2014, most Venezuelan migrants have fled to Colombia and Peru. But over the last few years, they have been fanning out across all of South America.

    Earlier this year, tensions flared along Brazil's border with Venezuela after it was shuttered for nearly three months by President Maduro, in an attempt to block aid from reaching Venezuela. Today, more than 100,000 Venezuelans are now estimated to have settled in Brazil, as part of the largest migration between the two nations in history.

    Up ahead, where you see those two flags, that's the actual international boundary between Venezuela and Brazil. And officials say they see upwards of 500 or 550 people crossing every day now, entire families, some with tiny babies, newborn babies, in fact. Some folks, they say, have even been walking as many as eight days before they get here.

    But Brazil's government, led by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, has so far kept its border open to Venezuelan migrants. The president's son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, often serves as a foreign envoy for his father, who is now considering nominating him to be Brazil's next ambassador to the United States.

    We spoke in Brazil's capital of Brasilia.

    Can you commit right now that Brazil is going to continue to welcome in Venezuelan refugees as long as they're fleeing?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    By our law in Brazil here, we have to accept all the refugees, because they don't have an option. If they keep in Venezuela, they are going to die. We know that the best solution, it is take off Maduro from the power in Venezuela.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But Maduro has shown no signs of leaving.

    So, what is Brazil prepared to do to try to get him to leave, to force that change?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    We're trying to change, to do a twist with the militaries inside of Venezuela.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is Brazil prepared to use military force if necessary, if Maduro doesn't leave?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    If Venezuela attacks Brazil, it changes, because we need to defend ourselves.

    But in this first moment, we are not thinking to use the force, the military of Brazilian forces, against the military forces of Maduro.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nearly all Venezuelans entering Brazil come through a port of entry in the Northern Brazilian state of Roraima. Once they arrive, they're processed, given identity cards, and then wait for a spot in one of two refugee camps in the small border town of Pacaraima.

    Brazil's army, a powerful institution here, is running this camp, a sprawling tent city now housing about 500 men, women, and children from Venezuela.

    The man in charge, Lieutenant Colonel Elton Rodrigues.

    So, I saw, inside, you have entire families crossing, right, not just adults? You have got little kids, babies too.

  • Elton Rodrigues (through translator):

    Many families come in a situation of vulnerability and with kids. The families normally are really numerous, four, five, sometimes up to six children. And the army looks to support these families in the best form possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Inside the camp, there's luggage storage, dedicated spaces for children, and filtered water available for all. Officials tell us none of the troops here carry weapons, to reinforce the idea that this is a humanitarian mission, not a security one.

    Families staying here come and go as they please, using their identity cards for reentry.

    Reynalda Lara just arrived with his family, and is filling out paperwork for those cards. He says he worked as a state police official in Venezuela, and was targeted because he didn't support President Maduro.

  • Reynalda Lara (through translator):

    The day that I left my homeland of Venezuela, which I love, I felt very emotional, because I'm leaving behind my land and my values. But I had to do it because I have to find a future for my family, and I didn't have a future in Venezuela.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The chance at a better future is what forced this family to leave Venezuela as well, their 5-month-old daughter already severely malnourished.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I want my daughter to feel safe with her family, and hope she is never lacking food. We spent three days without eating, and what I would do is to beg, so she wouldn't starve to death. We didn't have any other way of sustaining her.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But these soft-sided structures offer only a temporary haven. Officials say most families stay anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

    This once-sleepy border town, with an official population of just 12,000, is now dealing with some 14,000 Venezuelans crossing here every month.

    Senator Chico Rodrigues, who represents this state, says that is unsustainable.

  • Chico Rodrigues (through translator):

    We have a population of approximately 500,000 people, and today there are almost 50,000 Venezuelans living in or passing through our capital.

    So there have been impacts on our health and education systems, especially in the area of security. Roraima doesn't have the financial conditions or the structural organization to absorb so many Venezuelans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Brazilian army has already begun busing Venezuelan migrants to Boa Vista, a much larger city to the south with more economic opportunities.

    So we're now 130 miles from the border, and the army has had to put up this shelter. They have got 900 to 1,000 people arriving every day, they said. They offer tents for people to sleep in at night, some food and a shower, but that's it. This is not a full-time shelter.

    Some, like Caesar Martinez, who lives in a tent with his wife and son, arrived here months ago. With no job, and no plan, he says his life today is just as uncertain as the day he arrived.

  • Caesar Martinez (through translator):

    It's been a year since I got here in Brazil, chasing a dream. Like most Venezuelans who are here, we are trying to get a better life for our children, for our family, but we still haven't reached it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A dream millions of his fellow Venezuelans are now chasing in a new nation, a world away from the country they once called home.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Boa Vista, Brazil.

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