A Venezuelan migrant carrying a baby walks along a trail into Brazil, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil. -Reuters
Venezuela reopened its border crossing to Brazil on Friday, after its closure for nearly three months forced desperate Venezuelans to use indigenous trails to smuggle food and basic goods or to flee their crisis-stricken homeland.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed the only formal crossing between the countries in February to block an opposition attempt to bring U.S. aid in from Brazil and Colombia. Opposition leader Juan Guaido has urged the military to oust Maduro, branding him a dictator, while the government in turn calls Guaido a puppet of Washington and a coup-monger.
Venezuelan Economy Vice President Tareck El Aissami said on Friday the border was being reopened to restore development of the border economy for the benefit of both nations. Witnesses on both sides of the border said traffic started flowing again through customs posts mid-afternoon.
The border's closure had driven hundreds of Venezuelans to bribe National Guard officials every day to make their way into Brazil along indigenous trails that cross the sun-baked savannah, according to interviews with two dozen migrants and two former National Guard officers.
With roughly a quarter of Venezuela's 30 million people in need of humanitarian assistance due to an economic meltdown, according to the United Nations, the illicit border crossings provided a lifeline for many in the border region. The migrants interviewed by Reuters said that Venezuelan National Guard soldiers had taken advantage of the border closure to collect 50 reais ($12.50) per car on the parallel crossings.
The tariff was higher for vehicles coming back loaded with rice, flour and sugar, they said. Those without cash to pay the informal toll must take even longer paths, hauling their luggage on foot for up to six hours, in a desperate trek witnessed by Reuters. "Wearing Venezuelan uniforms, they brazenly demand money even to pass on foot.
They're raking it in," said Yeral Garate, as he waited with five other hungry migrants for rice to cook in a pot over a wooden fire on a trail inside Brazil. Neither the Venezuelan government nor the National Guard, which runs border controls, replied to requests for comment. Maduro has in the past said that criticism of the military is linked to opposition efforts to tarnish the armed forces.
More than 3.4 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015 due to a political and economic crisis, according to the United Nations. Garate said that a lack of food and medicine, miserable wages and Maduro's "catastrophic" policies drove him to flee.
He said he took a bus to the border from his hometown of Maturin in eastern Venezuela, and then walked 11 miles (18 km) over rolling scrubland to Brazil, with only the few possessions he could carry. The trip can be easier for those with the means.
Hired drivers offer packages from Puerto Ordaz in southern Venezuela to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen, 400 miles (640 km) to the south, and then across trails to Pacaraima - with border bribes included. A reservation for the Pemon indigenous tribe that straddles the border is crisscrossed with dirt tracks along which cars, jeeps, vans, pickups and motor bikes ferry migrants to Brazil and return with goods.
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