Thousands of Guyanese living in Venezuela's border areas
- Dr Odeen Ishmael By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
March 11, 2007

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Hundreds of Guyanese live in Caracas and in the other cities but the majority - tens of thousands - live in the border areas, many of them illegally, Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela, Dr Odeen Ishmael said.

In a recent interview, Dr Ishmael told Stabroek News that the former vice-president and foreign affairs minister of Venezuela had estimated that some 80,000 Guyanese were living mainly in the border areas of Puerto Ordaz and San Felix, about four to five hours drive out of Caracas.

"We don't know the actual numbers but a large number there is illegal. The numbers fluctuate because some go to Venezuela and some come back to Guyana periodically," he said, referring to the nomadic nature of the people who lived mainly in the border areas and who had relatives living on both sides of the border.

The Guyanese who went to Venezuela were from different social and economic groupings than those who migrated to North America and other destinations. They went to Venezuela looking for jobs including mining, farming or small-scale commercial enterprises.

In the border areas, Ishmael said, the Guyanese "have established some very interesting places like Puerto Ordaz and in San Felix. If you go to those localities you would think you are in Guyana. All the businesses along the streets are owned by Guyanese and the buildings are owned by Guyanese. The market places… would be like going to a market in Guyana with all the Guyanese products on sale. You'd think you are in Guyana. Guyanese Creolese is spoken."

In spite of the fact that the older Guyanese maintained their Guyanese identity, "their children identify themselves as Venezuelans. They don't speak English. They speak the Spanish Creolese. So they grow up in that situation adopting the Venezuelan culture, food and dress. The children become more Venezuelan. As they grow older they would begin to identify with their Guyanese background."

He felt that the problem of a lack of identity and maintaining their Guyanese heritage was related to their parents' own social and economic well-being. In Venezuela many "parents are working, struggling to make a life for themselves and their children, and are hardly ever at home and this creates a problem."

With other nationalities, he said, the situation was different. For example, Indian nationals working in the oil fields sent their children to school to learn the Spanish language and the culture and way of life of the people, but in their homes they spoke Hindi and English. In that way they maintained their national identities.

Documentation problem

Another problem, he said, was that many children born to Guyanese in Venezuela did not have documentation identifying them as residents of Venezuela, so they were illegal residents. "Children born in Venezuela are supposed to be Venezuelans according to international law, because they are born there, but this is not so in the case of Guyanese children in Venezuela because they are not registered - do not have either Guyanese or Venezuelan nationalities," he said.

The problems arose when the children reached school age, he said. Asked how this issue was being resolved, he said that the Guyana mission in Caracas would ask parents to register their children as Guyanese through the mission. The problem was that they had to retrieve the documented information from the hospital where they were born. This process could be cumbersome. However, once that had been received by the Guyana mission it was then sent to the Registrar General in Guyana for approval.

"I would say many, if not most of the parents do not contact us on this matter. They only do so when they need passports, and this generally is when the children are eight to ten years old. At that age, too, many are still not in schools in the border areas," he said.

There are "a few hundreds of Guyanese living in Caracas, the majority of whom are not professionals but are connected to officialdom," and these, he said, did not experience the problem of documentation identifying their children as Guyanese.

Even in the case of those who had official documentation, sometimes the documents got "lost, so often" in the system in Venezuela, particularly during the process for securing or renewing work permits. Replacing a lost passport, he said, could take up to six months with information being sent back to Guyana. "In that case many remain without documents and therein lay the big problem," he said.

Sometimes the Guyana mission received information that a Guyanese had been arrested and had to be deported because he or she had no official documents. The mission would then issue a travel document giving that person the option to pay his or her way out of the country instead of being deported.

Other problems, he said, were associated with living conditions in the city areas. Since the migrant population came from an economic class that was not wealthy, they remained poor living in barrios - slum areas - which were associated with crime. He said, "many Guyanese are caught up in these because Venezuela has an extremely high incidence of violent crime in which Guyanese become involved. Most times when Guyanese are arrested it is for drug-related offences."

Ishmael said that the embassy obtained information about Guyanese either through the grapevine or through the police or other authorities, and the mission would often track them down. Those who were located were offered assistance, athough a number of cases slipped through the loopholes.

The Venezuelan authorities would inform the mission most times about cases far out of Caracas, and because Venezuela was very big and the mission did not have the staff and resources to reach out, assistance was not provided. He noted, however, that people living in the Guyanese communities often helped. "Very importantly," he said, "they know the situation on the ground and we ask Guyanese living in particular localities to provide information and assistance when and where they could."