A baby boomer sees a new world of refugees

BoomerCafé has published several stories by Seattle-based author Ron Gompertz as he has traveled through Latin America. They have been picturesque travelogues. But today Ron goes in a different direction. Today, in a Boomer Opinion piece, Ron writes from Ecuador about a new lost generation that breaks his heart.

In Cuenca, a provincial capital in the highlands of Ecuador, I saw a middle-aged man walking through traffic, moving from car to car, waving a wad of paper money.

“Venezuelan. He’s selling Bolivars, the Venezuelan currency,” our taxi driver explained. “Probably his life savings.”

“What’s Venezuelan money worth?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

Our driver then reminisced about when the Ecuadorian currency, the Sucre, collapsed. People have told us of the economic trauma experienced when Ecuador converted over to the dollar in January, 2000. People fortunate enough to have shifted their savings abroad made out like bandits. Others were devastated. The country has since stabilized, but life is much more expensive than it was before the shift.

It brought to mind my grandfather’s memories of the hardships of hyper-inflation in Germany during the 1920s.

I should have bought a handful of Bolivars from the poor man to help him but the light turned green and we rolled on. He continued selling his dreams in the rear view mirror for a fraction of what they were once worth.

The UN High Commission on Refugees estimates that three million people have left Venezuela since 2014. Most have spilled over into the Latin American countries of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as island nations in the Caribbean.

Many of these neighboring countries have problems of their own. Some have only recently emerged from civil war, massive corruption, or devastating poverty. Yet they help by offering free passage or quick pathways to normalized status for Latin America’s newest diaspora, a lost generation forced to start over from the bottom.

Traveling through Peru and Ecuador, our experience with this wave of refugees has been of young men selling snack food on the outskirts of bus stations, families begging on the steps of churches, people we helped while volunteering in a soup kitchen, and the lucky, mostly young people who have found precarious work at the bottom rungs of the service industry.

I have heard of, but not seen, the refugee camps. I don’t know the origins of those who populate the crowded favelas— one of their words for slums— on the edges of the major cities I’ve passed through, but I come from a nation of refugees and know that entry-level slums can change complexion as each new migrant wave passes through.

I’m sure that economic exploitation of the refugees is already rampant. It’s probably just a matter of time before the political backlash starts. We have seen in Europe and the U.S. how refugee crises fuel nativism and cruelty. Will Latin America be any different?

I am saddened that my nation, once the “Mother of Exiles” which once welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has banned Venezuelans in a trumped up effort to broaden a travel ban beyond the original, controversially targeted Muslim countries.

When I cynically congratulated a Venezuelan colleague of mine (an engineer who went to college in Miami) that his country had joined the likes of North Korea and Yemen on the travel ban terror list, he just shrugged it off. “In Florida they think I’m a Cuban. In New York they think I’m a Puerto Rican. On the West Coast they think I’m a Mexican. I don’t even bother correcting people anymore.”

But his remaining extended family is now stuck in Venezuela, picking through the garbage, dodging bullets, praying that no child will need medicine, or sneaking across closed borders hoping to find a new promised land.

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Ron’s book is, “Life’s Big Zoo.”

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