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Why one family is joining a historic wave of Venezuelans migrating to the U.S.

Ángel Marín, his wife Carolina and their 4-year-old son, Matías, left Venezuela to try to start a life in the U.S.
John Otis for NPR
Ángel Marín, his wife Carolina and their 4-year-old son, Matías, left Venezuela to try to start a life in the U.S.

MARACAIBO, Venezuela — Ángel Marín and his wife Carolina are selling virtually everything they own, from a TV to a set of bongo drums. They need the money because — like millions of Venezuelans before them — they are saying goodbye to their country.

They don't want to leave. But Ángel's job at a mobile phone company barely covers the cost of food. The last straw came when their 4-year-old son, Matías, developed asthma and they couldn't afford the $32 a month for his medicine.

"If I buy asthma medicine," Ángel explains, "then we won't be able to eat."

The Marín family is joining the 7.7 million migrants who have left Venezuela in recent years to escape authoritarian rule and the country's worst economic crisis. That's about one-quarter of the population Venezuela had when the crisis began around 2014. It tops the number of refugees who have fled either war-ravaged Ukraine or Syria and amounts to the largest displacement crisis ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.

Most have resettled in Colombia, Peru and elsewhere in Latin America, but a growing number of Venezuelans — including Ángel, Carolina and Matías — are on their way to the United States.

For the first time, Venezuelans in September became the largest nationality arrested for illegally crossing the southern U.S. border, outnumbering Mexicans, according to figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Venezuelans were arrested 54,833 times by the Border Patrol that month, more than double the figure for August.

Analysts blame Venezuela's economic collapse on government corruption, mismanagement of the vital oil industry and U.S. sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro's authoritarian regime. At the low point in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the poverty rate topped 90%, according to researchers at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

Migrants gather at a crossing into El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Dec. 20, 2022.
Christian Chavez / AP
/
AP
Migrants gather at a crossing into El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Dec. 20, 2022.

The decline of the Marín family's circumstances was gradual but relentless, and tracked with their country's economic collapse. Ángel, 29, and Carolina, 31, attended the University of Zulia, a once highly regarded public institution in the lakeside city of Maracaibo. Ángel studied philosophy and dreamed of getting his diploma, noting that South American liberator Simón Bolívar once declared: "A person without education is an incomplete person."

But professors quit over low pay, classes were often canceled due to anti-government protests and electricity blackouts, and the couple dropped out when they could no longer afford tuition. Carolina focused on raising Matías while Ángel worked at banks and a refrigeration company and sold cellphones, never earning more than $150 a month. That's above average — and Venezuela's minimum wage is just $4 a month, not enough to get by on.

Unable to afford their own place, they moved in with Carolina's parents and brother. Food was scarce and they sometimes ate just two meals per day. One trick was to sleep late to avoid the urge for breakfast. Another was to make a stew from the skins of ripe plantains. Carolina insisted they tasted like meat.

"At least it fills you up," she says.

With limited prospects in Venezuela and Matías' asthma getting worse, they decided to follow the path of Carolina's younger sister, who migrated to St. Louis five years ago, found a job cleaning offices, and has offered to take them in.

Ángel jokes that he'll have to improve his almost nonexistent English. But Carolina's mother, Elizabeth Rodríguez, is in a somber mood at the prospect of her second daughter leaving Venezuela for good.

"It makes me want to cry," she says. "Because you always imagine having your family close by and watching your grandchildren grow up."

Because they lack visas, Ángel, Carolina and Matias will travel overland through Central America and Mexico to get to the U.S. The trip will involve a tough, 60-mile hike across the Darién Gap. That's a roadless patch of jungle between Colombia and Panama, where many migrants have been robbed, raped and killed.

"We really don't want to go through the jungle," Ángel admits. "It scares us."

The trip will cost thousands of dollars, some of which they have borrowed from friends and relatives in the U.S. Every little bit helps, which is why, besides unloading their TV and AC, they're selling Matias' baby clothes.

Carolina wanted to save them for a second child. But with their future so uncertain, a larger family now seems out of the question, and Carolina tears up as she folds the tiny bodysuits and pajamas.

Ángel and Carolina Marín shop for backpacks of their son.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
Ángel and Carolina Marín shop for backpacks of their son.

"This is really hard," she says. "We have to sell the few things we own. But it's for the best."

At a downtown shopping mall, Ángel and Carolina hand over the baby clothes to a man who pays them $40 — which they promptly spend on flimsy backpacks for their journey.

On the way home, Ángel and Carolina spot a huge mural of a smiling President Maduro, who is deeply unpopular. The political opposition held a primary on Oct. 22, won by former right-wing congresswoman María Corina Machado, but the Maduro regime has banned her from running in next year's presidential election and shows no signs that it will give up power.

Eyeing the mural, a furious Carolina says: "These people have destroyed Venezuela. And they are forcing us to leave our country."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.