Even in Miami, Venezuelans can’t escape the hardships of their homeland

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The Nicolás Maduro regime, already accused of destroying one of Latin America’s most prosperous economies, is now ruining the finances of Venezuelans abroad who feel obligated to send much-needed assistance to relatives in the oil-producing country.

Many Venezuelans living in Miami spend $200 to $300 per month to buy food and ship it to relatives back home using freight companies. They also spend money on medicines, which are in short supply in Venezuela.

Josefina, who has only one income, says she works “miracles” to maintain both her home in South Florida and relatives in Caracas, sending them monthly packages of basic food staples such as rice, beans, pasta, powdered milk, flour and proteins. She also sends medicines for three relatives, as well as personal hygiene products.

“Every time I go to the grocery store, I feel an overwhelming sense of hatred for Maduro and all the Chavistas [followers of deceased leader Hugo Chávez]. How could they have ruined the country? They stole everything, and those of us who emigrated so we would not die from hunger now feel like we’re still in that country,” she said.

“I can’t take a vacation, or even enroll for post-graduate studies, because my family needs that money,” added Josefina, who asked that her last name not be made public for fear of reprisals against her relatives in Venezuela.

She spends $100 to $200 per month to buy food for five people, then another $100 to ship it. And when she has to include medicines, that’s another $250.

Many Venezuelans living abroad started to feel the pinch on their own finances in 2017, as the Venezuelan economy deteriorated more rapidly and food shortages deepened. The situation turned critical in December, when Maduro imposed new price controls that forces shops to sell goods at prices far less than cost. That led to a wave of looting and worse shortages.

“When they issued the price controls and the looting started … it wiped out the (food) stocks. From that moment on, the shipments of food soared, doubling,” said Elisaúl Herrera, president of Vikom Export, a shipment company in Doral. “In November, we sent about 2,400 cubic feet, and in January we jumped to 3,235.”

His clients send an average of one big box per month and smaller packages every 15 days, Herrera added.

His company offers “combos” — pre-set baskets of basic food items that cost from $105 to $155. And every day, five or six people use his business to send medicine to Venezuela, he said.

“I try to put together one shipment, especially for my grandmother, who suffers from medical problems and I have to send her three different medicines,” said client Héctor Ascanio. “I’ve been sending her medicines for three years. I come here about once a month to send the packages. And aside from that, I try to help her with food, like rice, beans, pasta and non-perishable goods.”

Ascanio said he spends about $100 on the food, a heavy burden for him on top of his rent, car payments and health insurance.

“It’s a sacrifice, but thank God the entire family came together and they help me,” he added. “There are now Venezuelans all over the world. My relatives live in other parts of the United States and in Italy, so they help me provide for family members in Venezuela.”

Even so, when emergencies crop up, Ascanio and his relatives abroad find it difficult to help.

They recently pulled together $2,000 to buy the items needed for an uncle’s surgery. But now they need another $3,000 to $4,000 for the procedure itself.

“It’s not easy for us. It will be more or less from $800 to $1,000 per person,” he said.

The Maduro regime “is ruining the lives of Venezuelans abroad, but the ones in Venezuela even more so,” Ascanio said. “That’s why we’re sacrificing everything to be able to help the people there. We know they’re facing a very difficult situation. It’s not just the crime, but the lack of food, of medicines.”

Exchanging TVs for food and toilet paper

Marcos Benchetrit, head of the delivery firm finisimo.com, said he’s seen an increase in the shipment of basic necessities and a drop in luxury items such as televisions, stereos and cell phones.

About 50 percent of his clients live in Miami and send food and medicines to their families once a month on average, Benchetrit said, because of the food shortages and shrinking wages in Venezuela. A whole chicken weighing two kilograms (4.4 pounds) costs about $4.20, one kilo of ground beef costs $4.10 and one kilo of cheese costs $1.88.

These prices are way above the minimum monthly salary of about $3, which has been in effect since May 1.

“People spend a lot of money to send goods from here to their family,” said Benchetrit, who has been in business for nearly 10 years. “It’s dramatic, the change is impressive. Almost everything we send now is food.”

Venezuelans living in the South American nation don’t expect improvements in the near future.

The International Monetary Fund has predicted inflation will soar to 13,864 percent this year, the Gross Domestic Product will drop 15 percent and the unemployment rate will rise to 33.3 percent. But other economists, like Johns Hopkins University professor Steve Hanke, predict that inflation will hit well over 100,000 percent.

‘I can’t complain. We’re lucky we can help’

Mika Belgrave, a Venezuelan woman who is battling cancer but still helps her grandmother in Caracas by sending food and medicines once a month.

She pays about $200 a month for the shipments, but loses half a day of work every time she has to travel from her home in the Brickell area of Miami to Doral, west of the airport, where most of the freight forwarding companies are based.

“It’s not just the money. It’s the time you have to spend going to the supermarket for groceries, and then finding the medicines that are only sold with prescriptions,” she said. “I have cancer, so my doctor takes pity on me and helps me with the prescriptions.”

Sometimes the shipments cost a lot more. In March, she spent $1,000 to send a $500 generator because blackouts in Venezuela can leave people without electricity or water for up to 15 days. She also had to send tires, brake pads and even the footpads for her 90-year-old grandmother’s walker.

“That puts a lot of pressure on my budget, but if I have to cut back I don’t cut back on that. I can’t complain. We’re lucky that we can help,” Belgrave said between sobs. “Many people are dying because they have no food or medicine, because they have no one abroad to help them. That breaks my heart.”

Juan Goncalvez, Miami manager of Telotraigogs.com, said 95 percent of the merchandise he sends to Venezuela is food, medicine and personal hygiene items. Most of it is sent by ship because a $100 package can cost $400 to send by plane but only $60 by ship.

The shipments for Venezuela handled by his company in December also shot up, Goncalvez said.

“That’s an expense for a Venezuelan here. It’s difficult to pay the rent or mortgage here in Miami, the telephone bill, the electricity, the cable, and then help your family in Venezuela,” he added. “That’s been a little rough.”

Goncalvez said he knows the problems well because he had to support his parents in Venezuela until they could no longer stand to live there and returned to their native Portugal.

“When our parents were there it was difficult, because food for an adult or a child is not the same as food for an elderly person, especially when they have health problems,” he added. “It costs more to send them a special type of food. It’s all the fault of the system in Venezuela, which is communism.”

The diaspora and its remittances

Nearly four million Venezuelans have emigrated to other countries, including thousands to the United States, to escape the hyperinflation, grave shortages of food and medicines and high crime. The situation is so desperate there have even been reports and footage of people resorting to killing street dogs for meals.

“I send only money, $200 per month, and that does hurt my budget. But no matter. That’s what I have to do because my father is sick,” said Virginia Gamboa, who lives in Washington D.C. “That money is not enough, but I have a sister in Guatemala who also helps with remittances.”

Venezuelans received $293 million in remittances from abroad in 2017, according to World Bank reports. Most of the money is sent through informal channels to sidestep tight government controls on currency exchanges.

A survey by the Meganalisis company showed that 23.2 percent of Venezuelans polled in April reported that they received money from relatives abroad and 66.4 percent said they did not.

“That 23.2 percent … is an important beneficiary figure in that country,” the company reported.

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