December 20, 2017 / 10:03 AM / 6 months ago

Desperate Venezuelans peddle wares door-to-door in Colombia to survive

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Thousands of impoverished Venezuelans are crossing the border to Colombia every day to sell cheap basics, from oranges to candles, in a desperate attempt to earn hard currency amid their country’s worsening economic collapse.

Marlon Carrillo (R) and his wife Yorgelis Materan sell fruits bought in Venezuela to a customer in Cucuta, Colombia December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

The porous roughly 2,220-kilometer (1,380-mile) frontier for years has been rife with smuggling due to the massive differences in prices on either side due to controls imposed by Venezuela’s socialist government.

But in the past three months there has been a spike in Venezuelans migrating to the border area and spending their days going door-to-door trying to sell low-cost goods in Colombia.

Hundreds of vendors are sleeping in the streets of the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio, while the surge in hawkers on the Colombian side is stoking anger among local shopkeepers.

Albert Rodriguez, 22, spends his nights on a plastic sheet in the streets of San Antonio since moving from Venezuela’s inland agricultural state of Lara a month ago. He sells coffee in Colombia, but still has not been able to send money home to help his newborn daughter.

“It’s tough because there are so many Venezuelans. I feel like crying because I am so impotent,” said Rodriguez, who said he hopes to eventually migrate to central Colombia where he thinks job prospects will be better.

People carrying goods try to find a spot on a bus to travel to the city of San Antonio near the Colombian border at the bus station in San Cristobal, Venezuela December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

The flood of vendors is evidence of how a fourth year of recession - which has fomented malnutrition, disease and violent crime - is tearing Venezuela’s social fabric apart.

It also highlights that Colombia, already home to the most Venezuelan migrants in South America, remains particularly vulnerable to the crisis.

The Colombian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Slideshow (5 Images)

TENSIONS IN COLOMBIA

Come daybreak, Venezuelan hawkers jostle for hours to get a spot on a bus travelling to the Colombian border. They then cross the teeming frontier on foot, many silently praying that the National Guard will not demand payment to let them through with their goods.

Once safely in Cucuta, the vendors disperse on different buses that take them across the Colombian border city. In the low-income hillside neighbourhood of La Libertad, around a hundred Venezuelans rang doorbells offering mayonnaise, insecticide, cereal boxes and more.

Sales are often brisk. Prices are roughly half those in Colombian stores due to Venezuela’s depreciated bolivar currency.

Some worried Colombian shopkeepers are demanding the border be closed to protect their businesses. Colombians also at times fret that the influx of Venezuelan vendors could lead to crime.

Marlon Carrillo, a 21-year-old Venezuelan who abandoned university studies to start selling fruit in Colombia three months ago, said some locals slammed doors in his face out of fear.

“It’s hard to pay for the sins of others,” said Carrillo, who crisscrosses Cucuta for eight hours a day selling the lemons, strawberries, bananas and pineapples he crams into his backpack.

“I want to progress and study but I have to work. I’m not going to let my family die of hunger,” said Carrillo, who is supporting his three nephews after his sister died of bone marrow failure.

Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Will Dunham

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