Venezuela's crisis has changed the lives of its youth forever. But whether they choose to leave or stay put, the scope of their ambition remains the same – no matter how tough things get.
Gabriel Alfonzo Sanchez stands quietly at a stove in the Colombian beach hostel where he works, pushing his lunch of chopped vegetables and rice around a frying pan, the dog-tag around his neck jingling as he stirs.
To the bikini-wearing backpackers busy squashing avocados in the background, nothing about him would seem out of the ordinary: he’s just another 26-year-old in surfer shorts and flip-flops, carrying his slender frame and wide shoulders casually, flashing a playful smile now and then.
But Gabriel is Venezuelan. And like most of his friends and peers right now, he’s a long way from home and living a life that is anything but a holiday. Last year, he gathered up what he could and fled Venezuela’s devastating economic and political crisis, joining an estimated four million people – 10 per cent of the country’s population – who have left since 2014.
A collapse in oil prices combined with a strained political landscape under the Chávez and Maduro governments – causing tension with both domestic elites and the West – has made food, medical supplies and water almost non-existent in what was South America’s richest country just 17 years ago.
Hyperinflation and devaluation of the Bolivar mean savings and incomes are now almost worthless; violence and disorder plague the streets, prompting students to drop out of universities at an alarming rate. Whether emigrating on foot, bus or plane in search of new horizons, they are now driven by a determination to build the lives that their country once promised them.
At the end of the communal bamboo table, Gabriel pauses over his lunch, puts his fork down and rubs his neatly-cropped curls. He remembers leaving his home in Punto Fijo, a city on the north-west coast of Venezuela, known for having one of the world’s biggest oil refineries.
“It was the only decision I could make,” he says. “At that point there was no life in Venezuela – you had to get up and work for no money. Electricity would only come on for a few hours a day and water didn’t arrive until 11pm at night; my mother would stay up collecting it and go to sleep at 2am.”
Gabriel’s friends had already left, he adds, and his family’s liquor store faced closure. It took him two years to save enough to leave, during which time he took an English course to improve his chances of employment. Then he stuffed his law degree and language qualification in his backpack and got on a bus to the nearest country: Colombia.
“I said goodbye to my family not knowing when I would see them again,” he says sadly. Gabriel went as far as his money would take him and ended up 1,000km along the Caribbean coast in the friendly but dusty town of San Onofre. With no prospects or money, he spent more than a month making and selling empanadas on the streets – putting his dream of becoming a lawyer on hold.
“It was really hard,” he says, tugging at his t-shirt to reveal sunburnt scars along the tops of his shoulders. “Sometimes [my friend and I] were earning just 2,000 Pesos (50p) a day each. My skin was so hard from the sun. I felt defeated.
“My father and mother were sick and I was really unhappy; I cried a lot because I could not help. I kept looking at the floor and ceiling and thinking, ‘Oh my God Gabriel, what are you doing here? What are you going to do in this town?’”
His English skills, combined with the help of a local priest, eventually saved him, landing him a job as a hostel receptionist. Looking back, it was a humbling experience, but one that showed him what he was capable of.
“After you’ve sold empanadas on the street, you…” He drifts off, searching for the right words. “I’m stronger now. Doing that broke my expectations and without a doubt it has made me feel more human, more integrated into humanity, where we are all on the same level. And I think if I can get through that, I can get through anything.”
Four years ago, Cass Fédery’s fledgling vintage clothes business was doing well in Caracas – but then the country seemed to fall apart quickly. “We were about to open a store when the riots started and two students got killed,” she says grimly.
“It was a turning point – Chavez died in 2013 and a year later, I feel, was the downfall. I was never pro-Chavez, but he had ideals – Venezuela was a country with a lot of information and cultured people. But then the price of oil went down…” She stops herself. “The country stopped. People were demoralised and it felt hypocritical to organise a flea market when kids were getting shot.”
Taking her chance, she booked a one-way ticket to New York with a plan to sell vintage clothes on a market stall. Initially she crashed at friends’ places and worked all sorts of jobs just to scrape by.
Getting a visa proved difficult and Cass struggled with the harsh winters. Then things started to turn around when her American boyfriend Pat, a semi-pro skater whom she fell in love with two months after arriving, suggested they get married.
“He said, ‘What if we get married?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We had a lot of thinking to do… and now we’ve been married three years.”
“But there was a period when I felt really depressed,” adds the 29-year-old textile designer. “I was like a cat in a house – not going out, not eating much, feeling numb. At the beginning it felt so overwhelming and impossible… It’s hard not to compare [your situation] to what you had before. But as time passes, you see that you’re still standing.
“Things are always temporary and change will always come – I think the best bit about falling down is getting back up.” She pauses for a moment. “I’ve been lucky. Just the fact that I was able to leave the country – that already gives me some privilege.”
Cass is sitting in the one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment she shares with Pat – the same place where she tie-dyes fabrics in bright, mottled colours for her unisex trouser brand, Pat’s Pants, which she named after him.
The room is a kaleidoscope of colour. Skateboards, wheels and grip-tape spill out of a shelf. A clown picture from her grandmother’s house hangs on the wall alongside a mask from Mexico, where she spent a month when her visa ran out.
“We call it ‘chillactive’ wear,” Cass explains in a confident American accent, referring to the trousers’ pyjama-like feel. She came up with the idea after altering second-hand clothing for Pat and getting positive comments from friends.
“At first we did 50, then we did 50 more, then we got a retailer from Japan and all of a sudden we did 300. It’s growing slowly and it’s not enough to live off yet, but it is fulfilling and I don’t mind going back to a random job [so I can pursue it],” she says resolutely. “If I have to mop floors, I will.”
Cass has worked hard not to fall into a loop of self-pity but seeing other Venezuelans having to seek asylum just so they can stay feels heartbreaking. Two years ago she went back to Margarita, a small tropical island north-east of Caracas where she grew up.
It was the place she first started to paint and alter her clothes. But on this trip, she saw two little boys fighting in the dust over a loaf of bread that one had begged off an adult.
“My dad took me back to the car because I was upset and said, ‘You’ve got to toughen up, you have to build a stomach for this because this is the reality now,’” she recalls, trying to hold back tears. “Hunger can really fuck you up,” she adds bitterly.
Cass isn’t hopeful about the situation in Venezuela – “it’s heartbreaking, complex and the opposition is useless” – believing the only way it will change is with military invasion, which is far from ideal. Her own way of helping is to try to move some of her production to Venezuela so she can provide jobs.
“I think I have a bright future ahead – and if I make it at any level, I feel like my people will too,” she says determinedly, keenly aware that not everyone has managed to achieve a fresh start. “The idea of borders, the idea that people will come steal your jobs, is nonsense,” she adds. “All these stupid limitations and documents only make it harder for people to thrive.”
Back in Venezuela, in Caracas’ Altamira neighbourhood, Ana Cartaya dances to the pumping electro-pop beats of ‘My House’ by Hercules & Love Affair. The 21-year-old fashion student, model, dancer and tattoo artist is desperate to leave so she can pursue her career, but doesn’t see how she can raise the funds.
Until then, she’s trying to keep her creativity alive in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her mum. Everything is expensive, explains Ana, and water only comes out of the taps for a couple of hours a day. When it does, she runs to take a shower or do the dishes.
“Right now, I have to feel grateful just to see the trees and the sun in the morning,” she says with a maturity that belies her age. “Every day I try to see a door, not a wall. But I feel kind of oppressed because I’m lacking opportunities in all of my passions here. I feel like I’m wasting my time and my youth.”
For Ana, training for her career started young, having attended both modelling and dance academies aged 13. Her Instagram profile chronicles a versatile young model – with a sweep of dark auburn hair and razor-sharp cheekbones – posing in gritty urban landscapes and on studio shoots.
From her balcony, she can see the Cordillera de la Costa, a lush mountain range that separates the city from the Atlantic Ocean and, beyond that, the place she dreams of emigrating: Europe.
Since the security situation deteriorated, many of Ana’s friends have left the country – including Samantha, her closest friend, who now lives in Spain. They keep in touch via WhatsApp or Instagram and Samantha routinely tells her to make a plan, to “just go for it”. But until that starts to feel feasible, Ana doesn’t feel safe leaving the house much.
“I only dance at home now,” she says. “Dancing is a way to see things better – I don’t see it as an escape because I don’t like to escape things, but when I dance I can deal with them in a better way.
“Before, I used to go to parties; I ate in restaurants; I went to the movies, visited places in the city, walked in the park and maybe went to the beach – and we had people to do things with. I think that is the big difference: you go to a party and there are just random people, not your friends.”
She wonders whether Venezuela’s young will create their own independent cultures, made up of the best bits from the countries they pass through, since they never had the opportunity to build or continue their own.
For now, Ana copes with her own sense of entrapment through “a combination of imagination and feeling grateful for each detail,” while still holding onto hope. “It sounds stupid, but faith is there that something better could happen to me.”
Gabriel has kept on going. Standing in the bare apartment he now rents in Lima with his brother Carlos, an electrician, he gasps down the phone. “My God!,” he says, recounting his recent 6,000km bus journey through Colombia, Ecuador and half of Peru.
“We had to spend six straight days on the bus, 24 hours a day, because we were sleeping on it to save money.” Selfies he took on his phone after crossing into Ecuador show an exhausted-looking Gabriel, hood-up, but smiling into the camera. In the next, taken a few seconds later, his coffee-coloured eyes look apprehensive for the journey ahead.
But it was all worth it, he insists. “I am filled with hope and life – because now I will [have the opportunity to] travel, buy clothes, study, eat what I want, go to the shopping centre, maybe buy a house one day. I didn’t have that in Venezuela.”
Although it’s hard adjusting to a new culture, Gabriel says the recent re-election of President Maduro means there is no going back now. “Ohhhh… myyyy… Goddd,” he says with a sigh, reacting to an election fraught with charges of corruption by the opposition.
“All the people in Venezuela and Latin America knew he was going to win. I think he will be there for many years because no-one wants to help us.”
Rebuilding in Peru is the priority now: he’s busy searching for a job so he can get his parents and teenage sisters out of Venezuela and down to Lima. After that, Gabriel hopes to continue studying English and convert his law degree so that he can practice.
Still, starting all over again feels so hard that sometimes he feels like a balloon just floating around without any direction. But Gabriel knows his studies can give him back something, that they’re the best chance he has of building a better life – no matter what shape the world is in.
“Life goes around a lot. A few years ago, Venezuela was a rich country; we owned one of the most valued currencies worldwide. To be what we were and to see where we are now is an important lesson to learn – not only for us, but also for those countries currently in a good position – because life changes. Today we are here, tomorrow… who knows?”