It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are increasing numbers of Venezuelans taking refuge in this country. And where our government is concerned, it cannot be claimed that they did not have plenty of warning about what to expect. There was the example of our nearest neighbours to guide them – Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad – although Venezuelans who could raise a little money have strayed even further afield landing in some countries in Central America like Panama, as well as on the main continent, especially Peru. There have been reports of Venezuelan incursions of one sort or another in the Cuyuni (Region Seven) and the North-West (Region One); there have been exchanges with other governments on the matter of refugees, such as that between our Foreign Minister and his counterpart from Brazil; and there have been local convocations, the most recent being a multi-agency meeting chaired by Minister of Citizenship Winston Felix on July 16.
All of this notwithstanding, there is little evidence on the ground that the administration has actually taken sufficient measures to prepare for the current situation. It is the usual case that nothing is done until there is a crisis, or the situation becomes overwhelming or the reality can no longer be avoided. Until then, there is plenty talk and no action.
One suspects – although one hopes that this is not the case – that officialdom is treating the Venezuelans as all one category of person. That would be unfortunate because it is not so. There are some things, however, which they all have in common, and one of them is that they are largely undocumented. This has been apparent for a few years, with ordinary Venezuelans appearing in our magistrates’ courts in Georgetown and elsewhere with no papers of any kind, and then being charged with illegal entry.
Our authorities did not take the opportunity to make special arrangements for them, even though the reality is that most of them will find it almost impossible to get a passport from the Caracas authorities for a whole variety of reasons. Other countries on the continent, such as Colombia and Peru, which have accommodated millions of Venezuelan refugees in toto, have created special temporary visas for them. Why Guyana did not follow suit at an earlier stage, especially since most of them have ID cards, rather than fine them or imprison them if they could not pay, is one of this planet’s mysteries.
The other common factor is the matter of disease. Whether the refugees are entering Region One or Seven, they mostly derive from border communities, where malaria in particular is endemic. But other health issues are also prevalent among them, because in addition to the lack of food, there is a desperate shortage of drugs and medical equipment in Venezuelan hospitals and health centres. If they are close enough, therefore, they will come here for treatment. Viruses and bacteria are no respecters of borders or age or nationality or status, and it is as much in the interest of the local authorities and Guyanese in general to treat infected Venezuelans landing here, as it is the recipients of that treatment.
Those things apart, there are characteristics which set one group of Venezuelans apart from another. Most Guyanese have heard of the sindicatos by now, namely, criminal Venezuelan gangs which terrorise both banks of the Cuyuni River, and which have targeted our mining operations as well as our Indigenous communities. As we reported recently, the border village of Kaikan in Region Seven, is now confronting various crime issues as a consequence of the presence of Venezuelans.
Toshao Williams of Kaikan told this newspaper that while most Guyanese see the Venezuelans as refugees, in his community things were different. Some came to trade fuel, but there were also those involved in illegal businesses, like marijuana, cocaine or smuggling firearms. Some women came across for the purposes of prostitution, he said, some of whom doubled as drug mules.
While the village depended on the police and the army to keep them safe, the inhabitants have complained that these bodies have not been discharging their duties in the way that they should have. It was left to the community itself, therefore, to devise means to control the Venezuelans. It has identified a central spot in the village where they can trade, and when they are finished they are sent back across the river. However, it is the drugs which are being brought in which are really affecting the community, the Toshao was reported as saying, and while the village has a Community Policing Group, it is not really equipped to deal with the guns they encounter.
If the Cuyuni border has become a conduit for guns and drug trafficking, and our Indigenous communities are under pressure from criminal Venezuelan elements, then the police and the army must take responsibility for what is happening. The Indigenous people cannot be left to confront this situation alone; there needs to be a proper police plan backed by the military to rein in Venezuelan crime (and other crime too) all along that border. After all – and this should be very much at the forefront of GDF thinking – this is also a sovereignty issue.
The meeting of July 16 referred to above, related specifically to a recent influx of Venezuelans of a different character. These were mostly Venezuelan Warraus, who were in a very poor state indeed. They seem to have ended up in White Water and Kamwatta in Region One, and Toshao Samuels of the first-named village, told Stabroek News they had no money, no food and no place to rest, while 50 of them had no clothes – “nothing”. In addition, some of them were very sick, he said. For his part, Minister Felix was reported by the Ministry of the Presidency as saying that there were approximately 150 at the village, and that the Civil Defence Commission had flown in supplies.
Prior to that, it was the Village Councils – apart from the region – which tried to assist them, something which is putting a financial strain on both communities. Transporting some of them to the Mabaruma Hospital in particular has proved a considerable challenge. The council has had to hire transport to take them out using village funds, and on one occasion when the village had no money, six of them were taken out by the village tractor, following which they were diagnosed at the hospital with tuberculosis and malaria. The village health post also sometimes runs out of drugs, particularly those for malaria, and the Warraus and any others have to be referred to Mabaruma.
The story as was told to this newspaper was very similar in the case of Kamwatta, which has also found it necessary to use its own resources to help the refugees. The difference between here and Kaikan in Region Seven is that to date there is no increase in crime whatsoever. As an Indigenous people, the Warraus are a special case, and should not be lumped in the same category as whatever criminal elements may have penetrated Region Seven. According to Regional Chairman Brentnol Ashley, they too have had relatives killed by sindicatos.
The regional authorities have also indicated that their resources are being placed under strain in Region One, with Mr Ashley using his Facebook page to solicit donations.
Certainly neither the villages affected nor the regions should be left on their own to deal with these kinds of situations. And it has to be remembered that as circumstances in Venezuela continue to deteriorate, so will the number of ‘refugees’ of all kinds increase. The Ministry of Public Health in particular, does not have too good a reputation when it comes to distributing drugs for Guyanese around the country, with either dispatch or efficiency; let’s hope they make a special effort for once in the case of our frontier villages. In addition, one expects central government to support the regions in this instance, and not have them take the financial strain.
We wait to see whether Minister Felix’s inter-agency meeting was nothing more than a talk shop.