Hope and doubt among Venezuelan refugees with the country at a fork in the road
Pastor Jesus Campo established a refuge for hungry refugees in Brazil, as Venezuela fell apart and its population began to starve. Vila Esperanca was his name. Over 7 million Venezuelans fled the country’s economic collapse in recent years. Scores of them sought refuge in his shantytown in Pacaraima. He built huts from scrap metal and recycled wood and constructed shelters out of mud.
But a decade after Vila Esperanca was born on a hilltop near the frontier, Campo sees cause for optimism once again – this time back in his decaying homeland. “Little by little, our country is rising up,” the 76-year-old preacher said one recent morning as he sat in a shack built from black plastic and branches.
Campo’s confidence stems from the shifting geopolitical circumstances – partly linked to the Ukraine war – that have prompted a rethink of how the rest of the world deals with Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.
Just a few years ago, Maduro was an international pariah and a US-led coalition of more than 50 countries was pushing to replace him with the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó. But Maduro survived Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and threats, and Joe Biden’s administration has softened its stance.
US envoys have visited Caracas, and the White House recently authorized the US energy firm Chevron to resume operations in Venezuela, which boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, in an apparent search for alternatives to Russian supplies.
The recent election victories of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil have also boosted Hugo Chávez’s heir, with Petro restoring diplomatic ties with Venezuela in August and Lula planning to do so after he takes office in January. Latin America’s top four economies – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico – all now have leftist leaders, who are more sympathetic to Maduro’s regime than the rightwingers they replaced.
Talks between Maduro’s allies and the opposition have restarted in Mexico, with plans for a $3bn (£2.5bn) UN-run fund to address Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. And Venezuela’s moribund economy has shown some hints of recovery after Maduro relaxed price controls and began dollar rising the economy in 2019.
“I see a bright future for Venezuela,” Campo enthused as he reflected on those developments during a tour of the shantytown he built for some of his country’s huddled masses.