JENSEN LA VENDE
Venezuelans forced to come to TT as a means of survival are being exploited for sex, cheap labour and for the exchange of guns and contraband goods.
Most seek work and not to engage in criminal activity, stated Edghill De Castro, head of the Latin Association of Trinidad and Tobago.
They are, however typecast as notorious, De Castro said in an interview at his home/office at Freeman Road, St Augustine.
“When a Venezuelan woman walks the road all people see is prostitute and when a man walks all they see is drug dealer,” De Castro said adding the stigma has fuelled a fear of the immigrants as criminals.
Last Friday, a parliamentary committee learned that 2,000 Venezuelans have sought asylum from their homeland whose economy has been crippled by hyperinflation and political instability. An estimated 200 arrive by boat weekly.
De Castro said most of the asylum seekers want to return home but can’t right now due to a lack of basic necessities.
“The criminals in Trinidad are Trinidadians. The Venezuelans don’t come here to rob and steal you know. They come here to work for half of what the Trinidadians are making. There is a witch-hunt against the Venezuelans, we can’t fool ourselves. It is the same Trinis who want an easy life that are doing all the crime,” De Castro said.
His view is supported by a Venezuelan who is married to a Trinidadian and works with asylum seekers. The activist did not want to be named. She said there are Venezuelans working in TT for as little as $5 an hour. The minimum wage is $15. Some are given food, shelter and clothing with $300 a week as remuneration for their employment, she said. De Castro included some worked for free.
De Castro and the activist acknowledge the upheaval in Venezuela has led to a trade in guns.
Guns are “given away” in Venezuela and hungry citizens have been trading them for food with Trinidadians, they said. Before 2014, the guns were trafficked by a mafia who controlled the supply and demand, but today if a Venezuelan has a gun he sells it for food for his family. According to police statistics, there is no single country named as where guns are coming from, only that because of poor border control they are smuggled in. Venezuela, being desperate now, has emerged as the main supplier recently.
There is also trade in animals, and sex. However, Trinidadians are profiting from desperate Venezuelans, they said.
“They trade animals and guns for food, yes that is so and yes some come here to do prostitution. Some do not mind and some are aware they are coming to do that. There is a huge mafia in Trinidad that is profiting from the struggles of the Venezuelans,” the activist said.
Last Friday, police arrested eight Venezuelans at a bar and hotel in central Trinidad. Many women have been arrested there for offences such as being in the country illegally to lewd and suggestive dancing. Although the business has been raided several times over the past five years, it remains operational and continues to house illegal immigrants, predominantly women from Latin American countries.
De Castro, a Trinidadian whose great grandmother was Brazilian, said locals are responsible for the thriving sex trade of Venezuelan women.
“It (prostitution) was not allowed in Trinidad but it is happening. At least they coming to do a job. They not coming to spoil anybody, they coming to do this to get the money and this is the easiest way. We have to blame our own citizens for prostitution in Trinidad. A Trini man loves a Spanish woman to make love with, so if a woman comes here (they want) to do prostitution. If we don’t want that (prostitution) then what will happen? You cannot blame anyone else but our own citizens. We are guilty of all that is happening in Trinidad and we need to stop blaming other people,” he said.
on chicken farms
The hiring of Venezuelans as cheap labour was another aspect of their exploitation, De Castro said, and gave examples of two chicken farms where they worked in unsanitary conditions for little pay.
He said he was forced to call immigration officers for one farm after he saw the living conditions of men hired as labourers. There is another side to the evils faced by Venezuelans and that is the promise of help.
The activist said some “kind-hearted people” are charging up to US$3,000 per person for an invitation letter so a Venezuelan will be allowed to enter the country and when they arrive they are sent to shelters and told to seek asylum but abandoned thereafter.
She added Venezuelans will return home in droves, the second the economy rebounds adding that she and many professionals here, are willing to work for free in their home country to rebuild it. De Castro said less than 40 per cent of Venezuelans are legal immigrants but felt that one way to address the problem was an amnesty to allow illegal immigrants to come forward to be assessed, even possibly, keeping those who were professionals and technocrats.
He claimed, however, Venezuelans are also treated unfairly by the Immigration Division and those arriving legitimately are treated in a demeaning manner when coming through the airports. He described the attitude as “vindictive and discriminatory”.
Psychic and activist Yesenia Gonzales, who has lived in Trinidad for decades, said she planned to hire an attorney to represent Venezuelans whose rights have been infringed by local authorities.
Gonzales said when immigrants are arrested and taken to court they are punished harshly and then deported. She said some have already served time in jail and are waiting deportation but remain at the detention centre in what she considered inhumane conditions. Venezuelans, she said, are trying to survive but are being treated like criminals.
De Castro said the ill-treatment Venezuelans face is not in keeping with how Trinidadians were treated when they journeyed to the South American country in the 1800s and 1900s. Historian Prof Bridget Bereton confirmed that twice in local history, Trinidadians sought a better life in Venezuela. In the 1800s they went in search of gold and a century later went over to the mainland when Venezuela discovered oil.
Those who fled in the 1800s settled in a place El Callao, Brereton said. De Castro said Venezuelans, at the time, treated Trinidadians with respect and dignity and now he wants to see Venezuelans treated the same way here.
“Don’t turn your back on people who need you. Love each other like Jesus taught us. Give those who coming here a chance, don’t target them. The only way Trinidad can be better is if we come together with the immigrants to do so. No great nation was built without immigrants,” De Castro said. He said the ill treatment may cause a vicious ripple effect when citizens visit neighbouring Margarita.
“I am worried, we love to go to Margarita, the refusal by immigration officers to allow Venezuelans to come here is creating a problem where we are exposed. We are in the eyes of the Venezuelans now because of what we are doing to their women. Any opportunity a criminal there get to target a Trini who is wearing expensive jewellery, they will take it. They will take your gold tooth out your mouth using a pliers and cut off your finger to get your gold ring without thinking twice,” he said.