This article was first published in Revista Opera. You can read the original, in Portuguese, here.
October 23, 2017: The day begins at 8 o’clock. We arrive in Pacaraima, whose streets, in spite of being Brazilian, are filled with hispanic sounds on every side. As I get out of the car, a man comes up to me offering to change money: 4,500 bolivares per real. Joach, a Venezuelan who has been with us since we met him 4 hours ago in Boa Vista’s airport, declines. “It’s very little”, he says.
We go to the Federal Police, on the border, to get our passports stamped. There are two towns: Pacaraima on the Brazilian side, and Santa Elena de Uaíren in Venezuela.
Pacaraima is chaotic. It lives, or rather survives, on gold prospecting, most of it illegal, and the movement of Brazilians and Venezuelans; and so also on smuggling. The streets are lively, and in small shops that sell sugar, pasta, toothpaste shampoo and nappies, the money-counting machines exchange bolivars for reais and vice-versa for travelers who come-and-go from afar and will have some comfort at the end of their journey. Pedlars and money changers are everywhere, alert to what’s happening.
Tensions in Santa Elena
Santa Elena de Uairén, in turn, is a town where tension reigns. We travel through it in a taxi, shared with a Brazilian woman from Pacaraima whose sons, she tells us proudly, are studying to be doctors in Isla Margarita, Venezuela. It’s a subject overlooked by the press: the Venezuelan money changers and smugglers, or even the ordinary workers who go to Brazil to provide some comfort for themselves and their family in Venezuela, are the face of the ‘poverty forced on the people by the Maduro dictatorship’ – when they don’t become, obviously, ‘persecuted politicians’. On the other hand, the Brazilians who have found an opportunity to study Medicine in this Bolivarian hell simply don’t exist. It’s hard to forget Antonio, a Brazilian in Boa Vista who wore a coat in the colours of the Venezuelan flag, and worked as a gold prospector in the north of Brazil. Antonio had entered the Bolivarian Republic the next day to distribute CD copies of his songs. Covered by other singers, these became hits in towns all the way to Caracas.
Even so, Santa Elena is a tense town. We went there to get an entry stamp, in a guard post of the Bolivarian National Guard, on the way to the town’s bus station. The bus station – a small round building, is surrounded by earth streets. The atmosphere feels like the Far West; faces keep their eyes to the ground or look at other eyes, always. Dozens of cars are queueing already at the entrance to the town at a PDVSA petrol station – the drivers anxiously waiting to fill their tanks, to later sell the petrol to Brazilians at a higher price. “We have the cheapest petrol in the world, and next door to us is a country with the third most expensive petrol in the world. Of course it’s attractive for those who want an easy life”, Manuel de Jesús Valles, the mayor of Gran Sabana, said in March.
Saints, victims and sinners
Here is another striking figure: a Brazilian taxi driver who sees himself as Venezuelan and who makes his livelihood on the road to Santa Elena. He belongs to a taxi cooperative in the town, and speaks Spanish clearly and with a regional accent, although his appearance – that of a tall bearded white person – contrasts strangely with that of the Venezuelans.
Why do I insist on making these observations? Because it is clear to those who actually travel this road that it is not made up of pitiable victims on the one hand and saints on the other. Nor are we dealing with demons and scoundrels. Above all, it is clear that those who benefit from the frontier come from both countries, even though it is only those from one side of the frontier who are being exploited as ideological crutches for opportunistic journalists and newspapers who grind the truth under the heel of their editors and owners.
The Venezuelans who cross over to Pacaraima are those who, faced with an economic crisis and without many prospects, profit from their ability to cross the border – rather like the millions of Mexicans or even Brazilians, who every year enter the United States to work without documents. Are these the sad victims of capitalism in our country? Of the underdevelopment of the continent, imposed by the North? Without a doubt. But of this problem, which is ours, as Brazilians, we hear next to nothing. How can we work out what are its causes?
When considering certain aspects of Venezuela, the press is not silent. Their outrage is evident when reporting on the Venezuelans who to ‘flee from hunger’ cross the border. On the other hand, their silence is deafening when it comes to reporting on the economic war that Trump is waging against the country.
So as we enter Venezuela one thing is clear: the people we see at this small crossing are being used in an ideological campaign against the Venezuelan government – a campaign that is not waged against our government in Brazil or against any other aligned country. Even though Brazil and other similar countries produce people whose conditions are similar or – and this seems to be the case most of the time – even worse. It is a warning for the rest of our trip: look ahead firmly, think clearly, write honestly. Above all, reach our destination without forgetting Brazil or our own condition.
Pedro Marin is the editor and founder of Revista Opera. He was a writer and international correspondent for the website Global Independent Analytics, and has articles published on sites such as Truthout, Russia Insider, New Cold War and OffGuardian.