Crisis has Venezuela's Portuguese returning to roots

Estarreja (Portugal) (AFP) –


Dihara Ramirez worked as a doctor in Venezuela, but now she makes her living at a Portuguese supermarket after leaving her crippled homeland.

The 27-year-old is one of thousands of Venezuelans with ties to Portugal to have crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life since trouble flared in the beleaguered South American nation in 2016.

In recent weeks Dihara's country has been plunged into further crisis as President Nicolas Maduro's authority was challenged by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself acting head of state -- a claim now recognised by many governments, including Lisbon.

Describing the impact Venezuela's economic problems had on the medical supplies crucial to her former job, Dihara told AFP: "It was very painful to find myself unable to get hold of medicine to bring relief to people."

Around a third of the 10,000 Venezuelan emigrants to have arrived in Portugal have settled in the northern municipality of Estarreja -- 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Porto -- including Dihara, whose husband's family hail from the area.

Since leaving her home in Maracaibo, the main city in western Venezuela, Dihara has been living with her parents-in-law in their flat, where she has their "unconditional support".

"The idea was for my husband to come to Estarreja as well but he doesn't want to lose the bakery we have over there," said Dihara, who made the 7,000-kilometre (4,400-mile) voyage with her five-year-old son.

"With the arrival of Guaido he wants to hang on all the more to see how the situation evolves."

- Help at hand -

Since 2015, some 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their oil-rich homeland, where food and medicine shortages have become the norm.

As many as 400,000 ethnic Portuguese live in the South American country, but the political crisis is increasingly persuading them to return to their roots.

After Madeira island, Estarreja is the second-largest area in Portugal originally home to Venezuela's Lusophone community.

For those who make the journey to Estarreja, local business association SEMA, which helps new arrivals from an imposing oval table at its headquarters, is the first port of call.

A bakery named Venezuela and a shop named Caracas testify to the close link between the two countries, yet taking in the influx of arrivals has been a considerable test for a town of just 27,000.

"Our main difficulty concerns getting identity papers. That is a stage which takes time but is strictly necessary to integrate these people into our companies," says SEMA chairman Jose Valente.

Nevertheless Valente praised the Portuguese government for setting up in recent days an aid committee to speed up the process of getting the immigrants through border formalities.

Last year, SEMA found work for 513 of the arrivals. January saw another 100 or so join the local payroll in a region which is experiencing labour shortages, notably in industry, as well as restaurants, hotels and retail.

- Long road to recovery -

Crispim Rodrigues, who himself came back to Portugal around 20 years ago, is on hand at SEMA to lend support to the incoming diaspora.

"The people we extend a hand to are in a bad way. They can no longer live (in Venezuela) and have no option other than exile," says Rodrigues, a moustachioed 67-year-old who helps with administrative formalities on how to make a fresh start.

"Currently, the minimum wage in Venezuela (around $50 a month) is no longer sufficient to buy a chicken and a few vegetables for the whole month," he told AFP.

Joachim Tavares, a second generation Portuguese emigre, is one of the few to have managed to bring over his entire family.

"I asked for help in finding work. Not necessarily in my field but a job that can meet my needs," said the 55-year-old engineer.

He says he is pleased to see Guaido's emergence but does not intend to return to Venezuela for the time being as "the scale of the task to get the country back on its feet will be huge".