Migration to U.S. empties Venezuela’s once-booming oil capital

By Mariela Nava

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – It took accountant Anibal Pirela six days of travel and $7,000 to reach Austin, Texas from Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s once-flourishing western oil state of Zulia.

Pirela traveled with his four-year-old son Daniel, joining a flood of emigrants emptying neighborhoods in Zulia, the top departure point for Venezuelans leaving their crisis-stricken homeland.

“The people I know who have left the country are almost too many to count,” Pirela, 48, said from his new home in Austin.

The number of Venezuelans detained by U.S. authorities on the southern border soared to 47,762 in the year to September, versus just 1,262 in the year-earlier period, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Hundreds of Zulians are leaving each month, advocacy groups say, though there are no official migration figures for any of Venezuela’s 23 states.

The state has historically been more insulated from economic hardship because of the oil industry, but that has been walloped by U.S. sanctions targeting the OPEC member, cutting off much-needed income.

Reuters spoke with eight families who fled Zulia in the past two months because of lack of public services, medicines and jobs.

Abandoned houses and buildings are increasingly common in Maracaibo, home to 1.7 million inhabitants, according to current and former residents.

In 2018, half of households in Zulia already had at least one relative living abroad but since 2019 that number has risen to 70%, according to the Zulia Human Rights Commission (CODHEZ), a non-governmental organization.

“There are neighborhood areas with few people left,” said CODHEZ general coordinator Juan Berrios.


Zulia, at the end of national transmission lines for water and electricity, suffers more frequent outages than other parts of Venezuela, residents say.

The collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry – due in part to a series of recent U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration and what critics say is state mismanagement – has led to high unemployment. Some analysts say the sanctions have exacerbated the country’s worsening economic crisis.

Even those with jobs are so poorly paid that living costs are prohibitive – especially for imported or smuggled food.

Carmen Ortega, 74, cares for her eight grandchildren with what she earns as a street cleaner.

“We’re in extreme poverty,” Ortega said at her dirt-floored home, constructed out of cans. “We have two of the girls begging on the street. They bring a bit of bread; people give them flour.”

The children’s mother is unemployed and their father has left for Colombia. Ortega said the family have to start the day without food or coffee.

“I cry at night,” she said.

Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is equivalent to just $3. Inflation reached 631% from January through November, according to the central bank.

Approximately 850 people per week crossed to Colombia from Zulia before the coronavirus pandemic, with about half returning after making purchases of medical supplies or other goods, according to Juan Restrepo, president of the region’s largest transportation union.

Now some 2,000 people leave every week, Restrepo said: just 30% return.

The United States is the ultimate destination for many.

Under pressure from Washington to stem the rise in Venezuelans entering the United States illegally across the southern border, Mexico announced last week it will impose visa requirements for them to enter the country, though it is unclear when the measure will take effect.


Residents of Maracaibo’s poor Altos de Milagro Norte neighborhood say food shortages are ever-present and their city’s collapse is even affecting burials.

Jose Amaya’s family made a hole in their outdoor patio to bury his brother.

“The funeral home will do it all for $170 but we don’t have the resources,” he said.

The community had 2,200 residents pre-pandemic but just 1,500 remain, social worker Maria Carolina Leal said.

To get his family to Austin, Pirela sold his car and withdrew pension benefits. That was enough to send his wife Daniela Mendoza, 31, and 12-year-old daughter Paula by airplane from Colombia.

Next, he sold his appliances and took out all his savings to get himself and Daniel on a series of flights north to Monterrey, Mexico.

A people smuggler, charging him $4,400, took them to a small building housing some 30 other Venezuelan migrants, about a third of them from Maracaibo, Pirela said.

The next morning, the group was driven seven hours north to the border, hiking some fifteen minutes to cross the Rio Bravo on foot and enter the United States.

He was met by migration officials and the next day was enrolled in a Department of Homeland Security program that allows migrants’ release with an ankle monitor, handing over his passport and giving his fingerprints.

Pirela has so far had one check-in appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the first in what he says may be a long process to legalize his status. His next appointment is in February.

“Now I’m with my family, the reunion was beautiful,” said Pirela, adding he what he wants most is a work permit.

“I have to wait because I want to do things right.”

(Reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Vivian Sequera and Aurora Ellis)

Health costs pushed or worsened poverty for over 500 million

By Manas Mishra

(Reuters) – More than half a billion people globally were pushed or sent further into extreme poverty last year as they paid for health costs out of their own pockets, with the COVID-19 pandemic expected to make things worse, the World Health Organization and the World Bank said on Sunday.

The pandemic disrupted health services globally and triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it even more difficult for people to pay for healthcare, according to a joint statement from both the organizations.

“All governments must immediately resume and accelerate efforts to ensure every one of their citizens can access health services without fear of the financial consequences,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Tedros urged governments to increase their focus on health care systems and stay on course towards universal health coverage, which the WHO defines as everyone getting access to health services they need without financial hardship.

Healthcare is a major political issue in the United States, one of the few industrialized countries that does not have universal cover for its citizens.

Globally, the pandemic made things worse and immunization coverage dropped for the first time in ten years, with deaths from tuberculosis and malaria increasing.

“Within a constrained fiscal space, governments will have to make tough choices to protect and increase health budgets,” Juan Pablo Uribe, global director for health, nutrition and population at World Bank, said.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)

New UN study shows 72 nations and $598 billion in debt payments at risk through 2025

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has worsened debt problems facing 72 low- and middle-income countries and jeopardized $598 billion in debt service payments from 2021 to 2025, including $87 billion this year, the United Nations Development Program reported on Thursday.

Only 49 of the 72 countries are eligible for debt relief measures adopted by the Group of 20 major economies, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner told reporters, urging G20 members to quickly expand a moratorium on debt service payments and a common framework for debt treatments beyond the poorest nations.

“It is becoming more and more evident … that in the absence of acting in a more ambitious way, the crisis will increase exponentially,” Steiner told reporters.

Failing to boldly act now would extend the health crisis and elevate the risk of further vaccine-resistant mutations of the coronavirus, he said.

Steiner said research showed a potential worst-case scenario would put 1 billion people in extreme poverty by 2030, including some 250 million directly as a consequence of policy decisions made managing the COVID-19 crisis.

He said the depth of the human tragedy caused by the pandemic was “not inevitable and not unavoidable,” adding that a “slow-burning debt crisis” would set back development goals for years.

Nineteen countries were “severely vulnerable,” accounting for $220 billion of debt payments at risk, UNDP chief economist George Molina said.

Steiner called for developing a mechanism allowing richer countries pitch in for a $650 billion expansion of the International Monetary Fund’s emergency reserves to help vulnerable middle income countries.

Molina noted that dozens of middle-income countries and small island states had neither access to the $16 trillion in fiscal measures spent by the richest economies nor the debt relief measures available to the poorest.

Steiner said credit rating downgrade have heightened problems, jacking up costs for borrowing on capital markets in countries such as Kenya, where the interest rate on a 10-year bond was 12.6%, versus 1.6% for a comparable U.S. bond.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

Coronavirus may push 150 million people into extreme poverty: World Bank

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The World Bank said on Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic could push as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2021, wiping out more than three years of progress in poverty reduction.

Releasing its flagship biennial report on poverty and shared prosperity, the multilateral development lender said that an additional 88 million to 115 million people will fall into extreme poverty – defined as living on less than $1.90 a day -in 2020. The report said this could grow to 111 million to 150 million by the end of 2021.

That would mean that 9.1-9.4% of the world’s population would be living under extreme poverty this year, about the same as 2017’s 9.2% and representing the first rise in the extreme poverty percentage in about 20 years.

The 2019 extreme poverty rate was estimated at about 8.4% and had been expected to drop to 7.5% by 2021 before the coronavirus pandemic. The report said that without swift, substantial policy actions, a longstanding goal of cutting the rate to 3% by 2030 looked out of reach.

“The pandemic and global recession may cause over 1.4% of the world’s population to fall into extreme poverty,” World Bank President David Malpass said in a statement, calling it a “serious setback to development progress and poverty reduction.”

The report found that many of the new extreme poor are in countries that have high poverty rates already, but around 82% of these are in middle-income countries, where the poverty line is defined as income of $3.20 a day for low-middle-income countries and $5.50 a day for upper-middle-income countries.

While extreme poverty has been concentrated in rural areas in the past, the World Bank report found that increasing numbers of urban dwellers have been thrown into extreme poverty as jobs dry up from coronavirus lockdowns and reduced demand.

Sub Saharan Africa has the highest concentration of those living on less than $1.90 a day, and could see an increase of over 50 million people by 2021 compared to pre-coronavirus estimates. About 42% of the region’s population could be living under extreme poverty by 2021 versus a pre-COVID estimate of 37.8%, the study showed.

The coronavirus also has stagnated “shared prosperity,” defined as growing income for the poorest 40% of a country’s population. The World Bank said that from 2012 to 2017, income rose for this group by an average of 2.3% in 74 of 91 economies for which data was available.

The COVID-19 crisis could now reduce income for the poorest 40%, increasing income inequality and reducing social mobility, the bank said.

To get back on a track of poverty reduction, countries will need collective action to control the virus, provide support for households and build more resilient economies once the pandemic subsides, the World Bank said.

“Countries will need to prepare for a different economy post-COVID, by allowing capital, labor, skills and innovation to move into new businesses and sectors,” Malpass said.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

At least 300,000 Africans expected to die in pandemic: U.N. agency

By Joe Bavier

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic will likely kill at least 300,000 Africans and risks pushing 29 million into extreme poverty, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) said on Friday, calling for a $100 billion safety net for the continent.

Africa’s 54 countries have so far reported fewer than 20,000 confirmed cases of the disease, just a fraction of the more than two million cases reported globally. But the World Health Organization warned on Thursday that Africa could see as many as 10 million cases in three to six months.

“To protect and build towards our shared prosperity at least $100 billion is needed to immediately resource a health and social safety net response,” the UNECA report stated.

UNECA is also backing a call by African finance ministers for an additional $100 billion in stimulus, which would include a halt to all external debt service.

The agency modelled four scenarios based on the level of preventive measures introduced by African governments.

In the total absence of such interventions, the study calculated over 1.2 billion Africans would be infected and 3.3 million would die this year. Africa has a total population of around 1.3 billion.

Most of Africa, however, has already mandated social distancing measures, ranging from curfews and travel guidelines in some countries to full lockdowns in others.

Yet even its best-case scenario, where governments introduce intense social distancing once a threshold of 0.2 deaths per 100,000 people per week is reached, Africa would see 122.8 million infections, 2.3 million hospitalisations and 300,000 deaths.

Combating the disease will be complicated by the fact that 36% of Africans have no access to household washing facilities, and the continent counts just 1.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people. France, in comparison, has 5.98 beds per 1,000 people.

Africa’s young demographic – nearly 60% of the population is below the age of 25 – should help stave off the disease. On the other hand, 56 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in overcrowded slums and many people are also vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malnutrition.

Africa imports 94% of its pharmaceuticals, the report said, noting that at least 71 countries have banned or limited exports of certain supplies deemed essential to fight the disease.

“In a best-case scenario … $44 billion would be required for testing, personal protective equipment, and to treat all those requiring hospitalisation,” it stated.

However, that is money Africa does not have as the crisis could also shrink the continent’s economy by up to 2.6%.

“We estimate that between 5 million and 29 million people will be pushed below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 per day owing to the impact of COVID-19,” the report said.

Nigeria alone will lose between $14 billion and $19.2 billion in revenues from oil exports this year. And the prices of other African commodities exports have plummeted as well.

Lockdowns in Europe and the United States also imperil Africa’s $15 billion in annual textile and apparel exports as well as tourism, which accounts for 8.5% of Africa’s GDP.

(Reporting by Joe Bavier; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

In Argentina’s north, indigenous children sicken and die from malnutrition

By Miguel Lo Bianco

TARTAGAL, Argentina (Reuters) – In Argentina, once one of the world’s richest countries and long a major supplier of beef, children are dying of hunger.

In Argentina’s far northern province of Salta, in a small indigenous community plagued by extreme poverty, eight children died in January alone from malnutrition and a lack of access to clean drinking water, health authorities say.

Women from the indigenous Wichi community carry their children who are undergoing treatment for malnourishment at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 27, 2020. Picture taken February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The issue affects other places, too, and has prompted the national government to announce a plan to tackle hunger. The governor of Salta has declared a public health emergency, vowing to work with the national government to provide clean water in the province.

In the province last week, children from the Wichi community, with a population of just 1,200, played barefoot in the mud, outside homes constructed by hand from wood and cloth.

In Tartagal, the small town nearest to where the Wichi live, hospital beds are filled with Wichi children battling malnutrition and a host of other health issues linked to a lack of clean water, health officials said. Sometimes, the children arrive too late to make a recovery, according to Juan Lopez, manager of the hospital in Tartagal.

Complications related to the issues led to the deaths of the eight Wichi children in January, he said. The community also has one of the country’s highest rates of infant mortality.

A spokesman for Argentina’s ministry of health said, “We are constantly liaising with the province of Salta. We are doing food assistance and health assistance.” He added that there were teams from the federal government working in the province.

Liliana Ciriaco, a 45-year-old Wichi woman, said in an interview that there had been “many sicknesses.”

“There are some pregnant women who die, there are children who die, the elderly, too, and we don’t know what is going on,” she said.

A century ago, Argentina was one of the world’s most affluent countries, but it has weathered a series of economic crises in recent decades. The latest one began in 2018. Inflation hovers above 50% and the poverty rate is at 35%. Argentina’s indigenous communities, historically poor, have been especially hard hit.

A child from the indigenous Wichi community holds onto a feeding tube at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

For the Wichi community, the lack of access to safe water is a critical problem.

“The place where they access their water source has high salinization or even chemicals that have been used for agriculture, which cause many gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, malnutrition and, above all, dehydration,” said Diego Tipping, president of the Red Cross in Argentina.

Argentina’s new center-left President Alberto Fernandez campaigned on promises to address hunger, poverty and unemployment. In December, he announced a plan to combat the issue in the most affected areas of the country called “Argentina Against Hunger.”

Alejandro Deane, president of the Siwok Foundation, which is dedicated to improving water access for indigenous communities in northern Argentina, called the situation for the Wichi community “disastrous.”

“There is no good news. What needs to be done? What can be done? Here we need a long-term plan, not a short-term plan,” Deane said.

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Additional reporting by Marina Lammertyn and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Richard Chang)