How Brazil’s Least Populated State is Handling an Influx of Immigration
Fábio Zuker Talks to Newly Arrived Venezuelan Families
“Of course I always thought about visiting Brazil, going to Carnival, the beaches, catching a soccer game . . . but as a tourist. Not like this, not destitute.”
“You can’t treat someone like this, no matter who they are!”
“We’re human beings. We’re Venezuelans. We’re coming here and people have to understand the situation back home is unbearable.”
“Did you know there’s a blockade on Venezuela? Of course things are bad, the government is inept and corrupt, but it only got to this point with the economic blockade.”
“The point of all this is to sow fear in the country, to humiliate people, to make the world see the extent of the problems in Venezuela.”
“I just want to thank you. I’ve never been short of food here.”
“I’ve been treated so well; someone even gave me a pair of boots they were wearing.”
“They didn’t manage to kill me with sticks and stones because I kept running.”
It was after ten o’clock at night when I approached a group of Venezuelans living behind the Manaus Bus Terminal. I asked if they might be willing to talk with me about their situation as migrants sleeping on the street when the temperature, even at night, was in the high eighties. After deliberating for a moment, they agreed to speak, as long as I didn’t take any pictures—a request to be repeated at every interview.
Of the roughly thirty people there, about half of them engaged vociferously in the conversation which, little by little, grew into a larger debate with the tone of a rally. One, Senhor Reynaldo Pérez, took the role of moderator, while the remaining half of the group continued to rest on sheets of cardboard on the ground or in hammocks.
Some would approach as if about to join the conversation, before backing away again, while others contented themselves with sweeping the floor or folding the few clothes that they had. I sat on the ground in order to better participate in the discussion. It was clear that this was also a moment of collective venting, as well as of reflection on the sudden change in their lives. None of them were sure how it had happened.
A security guard and a candy and snack vendor first alerted me to the existence of a group of Venezuelans camping behind the bus station. As I was buying a bottle of water and preparing for the eleven-hour journey between Manaus and Boa Vista, my ear caught a few unflattering comments about the newly arrived immigrants. The security guard and the vendor were complaining that the Venezuelans had brought diseases such as measles and meningitis to Brazil, while the Indigenous people arriving with them, especially the Warao, were “a bunch of drifters who do nothing but ask for things.”
“They’re not even Indians,” the vendor replied. “If they were, they’d be selling their crafts.” The guard, in his beret and military-style jacket, declared, “There’s only passengers here. If a vagrant shows up, I’ll throw him out!”
Far from being the unique, this kind of hateful, racist speech and attitude proved less common than the global media coverage of Brazilians expelling Venezuelans in Pacaraima, a city in the northern state of Roraima that shares a border with Venezuela, would have you believe. The public discussion centers on compassion, sadness, and frustration at the inability to help more people in such a delicate situation, which coexists with racists feelings of “disgust,” “dirtiness,” and “danger” around the newcomers.
I met one Brazilian family with limited resources who welcomed an entire family of Venezuelans into their home, and heard of many similar stories. If the talk of hatred and violence garners more attention, it’s the sense of isolation and abandonment among the citizens of Roraima that may be the key to understanding this conflict: Brazil’s least populated state was bearing the brunt of a previously unimaginable flow of immigrants.
Reynaldo, the leader of our discussion behind the Manaus bus station, is also the most thoughtful member of the group. He criticizes Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, as well as the opposition and the embargo on Venezuela, and also deplores the xenophobic attacks, and appreciates the reception the Venezuelans have found in Brazil. “In Brazil, you don’t discuss politics like we do in Venezuela,” he says, his tone at once playful and sad. “That was our downfall. . . ”
With around 576,000 inhabitants (according to the 2010 census), Roraima is Brazil’s least populated state. It is also the only state not connected to the national electrical grid, depending on neighboring Venezuela for its energy supply. Blackouts are frequent in the capital, Boa Vista, home to roughly 375,000 residents, due to the interruptions resulting from Venezuela’s transmission failures. When these blackouts happen—I’ve witnessed two myself—the state’s thermoelectric plants, which are much more expensive to run, kick in to compensate.
In preparation for connecting Roraima to the national grid, federal government projects include a junction to connect the state with its neighbor, Amazonas: high-tension power lines would have to cross territory belonging to the Indigenous Waimiri-Atroari people, who live on the border between the two states.
The Indigenous community is vehemently opposed to this proposal. It brings back memories of the developmentalism imposed by the Brazilian dictatorship which nearly led to their extermination. Discussions are at such an impasse that the president of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), General Franklimberg Ribeiro Freitas, was forced out due to the difficulties of negotiating with the Indigenous people.
Electrical isolation is a perfect image for portraying Roraima’s sense of separation from the rest of Brazil. Indigenous people have often been considered responsible, by local politicians and popular opinion alike, for the state’s lack of development and energy, for other land rights issues. Nearly half of Roraima—46 percent—is Indigenous land.
According to Marcos Braga, professor of Indigenous and intercultural studies at the Federal University of Roraima, “this is an anti-Indigenous state, and it’s become an anti-Worker’s Party state due to Raposa Serra do Sol”—which is an Indigenous territory established in 2005 despite strong opposition from the non-Indigenous population.
For Braga, the conflict is largely led by rice farmers forced out of the Indigenous territory and headed by Paulo César Quartiero, who was elected as a federal representative in 2010 and whose résumé includes accusations of orchestrating armed attacks on Indigenous Makuxi people. Denise Wapishana, an Indigenous leader and literature scholar, laments: “There’s such great hatred towards Indigenous peoples. They’re asking why the Indian wants so much land. It’s just so sad to hear things like that.”
As for the Venezuelan immigrants, the same scapegoat logic used against Indigenous people is now being reiterated and exploited by politicians running for reelection as well as by the local media, which is basically dominated by these same politicians. Former senator Romero Jucá of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MDB) is one of these. He unsuccessfully sought reelection in 2018, and his family owns the state’s largest communications group, along with television affiliates Rede Bandeirantes, Rede Record, TV Imperial, as well as a print newspaper and two radio stations.
According to Professor Elói Senhoras, of the Amazonian Center for Research in International Relations, “There was already a serious problem with violence in Roraima. Considering both the influx of immigrants and the preexisting crime rate, there has been a marginal increase in violence,” he added, pointing out that Roraima has the highest per capita murder rate of women and the LGBTQ+ population.
Professor Senhoras further comments that, “The political discourse has resorted to painting Venezuelans as scapegoats, and the massive influx of Venezuelans is taking over the space that had been dedicated to Indigenous issues during previous campaigns.”
The coexistence between the Brazilian and Venezuelan populations is not, however, defined only by conflict. Boa Vista and Pacaraima have become bilingual cities, and it’s not uncommon to find Venezuelans working in virtually every aspect of the service industry alongside native Brazilians, communicating in “Portunhol.”The people of Roraima seem to understand the situation from two fundamental aspects: religion and work.
Further, many Brazilians take pride in helping the immigrants. However, if the citizens of Roraima feel that they’ve gone above and beyond in welcoming the Venezuelan population, the same cannot be said of Brazil’s federal government, whose measures appear purely cosmetic.
In Marcos Braga’s opinion, “The Brazilian government has been rather coy”: while an estimated one hundred thousand Venezuelans have already crossed the border into Pacaraima since 2016, the government has only redistributed a few hundred elsewhere in Brazil and built a dozen shelters (ten in the capital, two in Pacaraima) which accommodate just over five thousand people.
“They’re trying to fit an entire country into a single state” is an expression commonly heard in Roraima, and it’s not an exaggeration. The arrival of one hundred thousand people represents 20 percent of the state’s entire population, which is generally poor and has little capacity to create jobs. The state budget is almost entirely dependent on paychecks from the department of public services and from small businesses. Lastly, an uncomfortable relationship with the national media, which quickly labeled the people of Roraima as xenophobic, only exacerbates their sense of isolation from the rest of the country.
It’s hard to come up with a specific profile of the Venezuelan immigrant who travels the roughly thirteen kilometers that separates Santa Elena de Uairén in Venezuela from Pacaraima in Brazil. What they share may simply be their escape from the misery and hunger that plagues their native land and their hope of a better life abroad, a temporary one, preferably, and the expectation of a swift return to their country of origin “when things get better” or “when they get rid of Maduro,” which, for many, are one and the same.
Most of the immigrants I interviewed aren’t even considering staying in Brazil permanently. They crossed the border by land, which is relatively easily done and inexpensive, with the plan of working at whatever they could find so that, later, they could get to a Spanish-speaking country. At the Boa Vista bus station, a young Venezuelan couple was asking, bewildered, about how far it is to Porto Alegre or Iguaçu Falls, both in the far South of Brazil. In truth, it makes no difference.
This feeling of being lost, and of trying in every possible way to give meaning to a life in transit, seems to define the immigrant experience. Ariadne, an 18-year-old girl from Maracay panhandling with a baby on her lap at a traffic light near Praça das Águas, a plaza in Boa Vista famous for its water fountains, says, “I went a month without eating in Venezuela; everything I got went to my grandparents.” On the bus from Boa Vista and Pacaraima, Jamehary and Adrián, a mother and son, are returning to Venezuela after a two-month stint in Brazil.
With them they’re bringing goods, money, and food, betting that Maduro’s anti-inflation policy will have an effect: “The situation in Venezuela is critical,” Jamehary says. “There’s nothing to eat, no clothes to wear, no medication.” This back-and-forth between the two countries is constant. José María, a 29-year-old man (my age too) who sat with me during the four-hour, intoxicatingly hot ride between Pacaraima and Boa Vista, is returning to Venezuela to find his girlfriend.
They were both designers in Caracas; he left the profession and came to Brazil to try his luck as a juggler, a skill he first developed as a teenage hobby. He had traveled across Brazil’s northern coast, as far as the beach village of Jericoacoara, in the state of Ceará, and then convinced his girlfriend to join him.
Stories like these recur time and again. There are Venezuelans working in bars, shops, restaurants, and markets. They are asking for money on the streets, sleeping out in the open, engaging in prostitution, staying in shelters, sharing rented homes, or being temporarily “adopted” by Brazilian families.
The people of Roraima seem to understand the situation from two fundamental aspects: religion and work. And while the two don’t exactly overlap, they certainly touch at several points. A welcoming spirit and the donation of goods and food are always accompanied by Christian treatises on self-sacrifice, trials and tribulations, and doing unto others.
And it’s the small churches that seem most active among immigrants, if not in fact at least in the view of many Roraimans and Venezuelans. The work aspect, in turn, sustains a moral filter allowing natives and immigrants alike to distinguish “decent,” “hardworking,” and “suffering” Venezuelans from “drifters,” “criminals,” and “good-for-nothing hustlers.”
But the world of work imposes its own contradictions, and there is a growing sense that immigrants are willing to receive less for the same labor. The “suffering worker” class is, in a way, claimed by every Venezuelan I spoke with, all of whom were attempting to distinguish themselves from the criminals. “We all pay for the actions of a few,” Jamehary says, summarizing recent events in Pacaraima, as we neared the city.
From The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon by Fábio Zuker (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022). Translation copyright © 2022 by Ezra E. Fitz. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org