Despite Putin’s swagger, Russia struggles to modernize its navy

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia September 18, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin calls improving the Russian navy’s combat capabilities a priority.

The unfinished husks of three guided-missile frigates that have languished for three years at a Baltic shipyard show that is easier said than done.

Earmarked for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the frigates fell victim to sanctions imposed by Ukraine in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, prompting Kiev to ban the sale of the Ukrainian-made engines needed to propel them.

With Moscow unable to quickly build replacement engines for the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, construction stopped. Russia is now cutting its losses and selling the three ships to India without engines.

The navy’s problems stem largely, but not exclusively, from the Ukrainian sanctions. There are also problems, for different reasons, with new equipment for the army and air force.

The picture that emerges is that Russia’s armed forces are not as capable or modern as its annual Red Square military parades suggest and that its ability to project conventional force is more limited too.

“You need to always distinguish between reality and the shop window,” said Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Russian magazine Arms Exports.

“Red Square is a shop window. It’s like in restaurants in Japan where there are models of the food. What we see on Red Square are models of food, not the food itself.”

Western diplomats and military experts say Putin has long projected an image of military might to strengthen his and Moscow’s image at home and abroad, but that Russia is overhauling its military far more slowly than China.

“Moscow’s problems mean its ability to project conventional military force — something it is doing in Syria and has done in Ukraine — is not as great as the Kremlin would have the world believe,” said one Western official with knowledge of Russia’s military.

In a speech on Wednesday, Putin did not mention the navy’s engine problems, focusing instead on how it is due to receive seven new multi-purpose submarines ahead of time and 16 new surface ships by 2027.

Defense spending has risen sharply under Putin. But Russian officials and military experts say Moscow has a shortage of modern factories and skilled labor and does not have the available financial resources needed to reverse decades of post-Soviet decline as quickly as it wants.

Frolov said Russia had successfully produced prototypes of new weapons systems, but struggled to move to serial production.

That does not mean Russia’s military is not a force with which to be reckoned. Some of its hardware, such as its S-400 air defense systems, is world-class. Putin has also spent heavily on missile technology, unveiling new hypersonic systems.

But Russia’s air force and army, like its navy, are experiencing re-armament problems. Its new stealth fighter first took to the air more than nine years ago and a super tank made its Red Square debut almost four years ago. Neither is due to be deployed in large numbers soon, government officials say.

NAVAL DISARRAY

The program to build Russia’s most advanced stealth frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov-class, has been paralyzed by sanctions — even before the sanctions hit it took 12 years to build the lead ship, which entered service last summer.

Russia hopes to add 14 more such ships to its navy but has no engines for 12 of those vessels.

Moscow is trying to develop its own gas turbine engines and its own full-cycle manufacturing base.

That task has been handed to aircraft manufacturer NPO Saturn, which is part of Rostec, an industrial conglomerate run by Sergei Chemezov, who served as a KGB spy with Putin.

Ilya Fedorov, Saturn’s then director, said in 2014 he had concerns about costs, and the company failed to deliver the first engines to the navy in 2017.

Fedorov told the Russian news agency Interfax at the time that “all our ships run on these turbines, and if we don’t make our own everything will grind to a halt.”

Fedorov is no longer with the company. Viktor Polyakov, Saturn’s current director, said early last year that prototypes of its three new engine types had passed tests and that serial production had begun.

Chemezov told Reuters at a military exhibition in Abu Dhabi this month that an undisclosed number of engines had been handed to the navy. But none has yet been fitted to the frigates.

Saturn says it has received initial orders from the Ministry of Defense. But one source close to the matter said the ministry had not yet guaranteed how many engines it would buy.

“We shouldn’t expect Russia to start fully fledged serial production for at least another five years,” said Serhiy Zgurets, director of Defense Express, a Ukrainian consultancy.

Alexei Rakhmanov, head of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, said in December that the first Russian-made engine should be fitted to the fourth of 14 more planned frigates in the “very nearest future.”

Even if that happens, Igor Ponomarev, the head of the St Petersburg shipyard making the new stealth frigates, says that vessel is not due to be ready before the end of 2022. The rest of the program is likely to stretch into the 2030s.

TROUBLED STEALTH FIGHTER AND TANK

Russia’s planned new Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jet is also experiencing problems.

Moscow had initially been expected to procure about 150 of the fifth-generation Su-57s, but defense industry and government officials say they now expect just one plane, the first serially-produced aircraft, this year. A further 14 may follow.

Experts say the costs of mass-producing the new plane are simply beyond Russia.

Plans for Russia’s super tank have also foundered.

Oleg Sienko, the then director of the factory which produces the new T-14 Armata battle tank, said in 2016 Putin had approved the purchase of 2,300 Armatas. Since then, various prototypes have been tested, but the tank had to be reworked.

The army will receive the first 12 serially-produced tanks of around 100 only by the end of this year, Defense Ministry sources told daily newspaper Izvestia this month.

Dr. Richard Connolly, a Russia specialist at the University of Birmingham, said Moscow’s military might should not be underestimated but Russia was still suffering from the legacy of an economic crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, hitting state arms orders and the military-industrial complex.

“It’s not as easy as simply saying, ‘Right, we’ve got the money, so go and make it happen because a lot of the shipyards have rusted,” Connolly said.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, by Gleb Stolyarov and Anton Zverev in Moscow and by Stanley Carvalho in Abu Dhabim, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Venezuelan troops to remain on border ahead of aid entry, minister says

Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan troops will remain stationed along the country’s borders to prevent territorial violations, the defense minister said on Tuesday, ahead of the opposition’s plan to bring in humanitarian aid to alleviate an economic crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro has rejected offers of foreign food and medicine, denying there are widespread shortages and accusing opposition leader Juan Guaido of using aid to undermine his government in a U.S.-orchestrated bid to oust him.

Guaido has said that aid will enter Venezuela from neighboring countries by land and sea on Saturday. The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, but Maduro has refused to let it in.

In comments broadcast on state TV, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the opposition would have to pass over “our dead bodies” to impose a new government. Guaido, who has invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, denounces Maduro as illegitimate and has received backing from some 50 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned members of Venezuela’s military who remain loyal to Maduro that they would “find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out.”

“You’ll lose everything,” Trump told a crowd of Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants in Miami.

Guaido has beseeched the armed forces to disavow Maduro, promising them future amnesty, though only a few high-ranking military officials have so far done so.

Padrino said it was unacceptable for the military to receive threats from Trump, and said officers and soldiers remained “obedient and subordinate” to Maduro.

“They will never accept orders from any foreign government … they will remain deployed and alert along the borders, as our commander in chief has ordered, to avoid any violations of our territory’s integrity,” Padrino said.

“Those that attempt to be president here in Venezuela … will have to pass over our dead bodies,” he said, referring to Guaido.

Maduro, who won a second term last year in an election that critics denounced as a sham, retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. diplomats leave Caracas embassy as Washington backs Maduro rival

A U.S. flag waves at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Adriana Loureiro

By Marcos Ascanio

CARACAS (Reuters) – Some U.S. diplomats left the embassy in Caracas for the airport on Friday in a convoy escorted by police, according to a Reuters witness, after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke off relations with Washington and ordered American personnel out.

The United States has rejected Maduro, a socialist in power since 2013, as the oil-rich nation’s legitimate head of state and has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

Guaido, who has galvanized the country’s opposition, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday. But he still has no control over the state’s functions, which remain loyal to Maduro despite a deep economic and political crisis.

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The State Department has ordered some U.S. government workers to leave Venezuela and said U.S. citizens should consider leaving the South American country.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the movement of embassy personnel on Friday.

A Reuters witness at around 8:30 a.m. local time (1230 GMT) saw a convoy of sport utility vehicles accompanied by police motorcycles and vehicles with flashing lights drive onto a Caracas highway in the direction of the airport. Other police blocked regular traffic.

Another video circulating on social media showed the same caravan leaving the embassy, a fortified compound overlooking the city center.

Maduro, in a fiery speech on Wednesday, said he was cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States for instigating a “coup” against him, though U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration then said its relations would be with Guaido.

To ratchet up pressure on Maduro, who began a second term on Jan. 10 following an election last year widely considered to be a fraud, the United States is seeking to cut off funds for his government, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Both Guaido, who has not appeared in public since mass anti-government protests on Wednesday, and Maduro are scheduled to hold press conferences on Friday.

In an interview with broadcaster Univision on Thursday, Guaido described the recent events as “the beginning of the end” for Maduro, who has presided over Venezuela’s worst ever economic crisis. Guaido said he would work to guarantee humanitarian aid and take new measures to pressure Maduro.

“Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship,” he said, from an undisclosed location.

(Additional reporting; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

President Maduro to start new term as Venezuela isolation grows

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures while he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro begins a second term in office on Thursday, shrugging off international criticism that his reelection last year was illegitimate but facing further isolation as an economic crisis fuels a humanitarian emergency.

Leaders from the ruling Socialist Party have disavowed criticism of Maduro’s inauguration, which will keep him at the helm of the OPEC member until 2025, and called for rallies in his support.

Opposition leaders, however, have portrayed the inauguration as the moment at which Maduro will be internationally branded a dictator following a widely boycotted 2018 election that many foreign governments described as a farce.

But continued support from the military, a fractured opposition and a relentless crackdown on opposition critics means that Maduro appears to face few serious challenges at home, despite the international outcry.

“They’ve tried to turn a constitutional swearing-in ceremony into a world war,” Maduro said during a news conference on Wednesday. “But whether there’s rain, thunder or lightning, we’re going to triumph.”

He will be sworn in by the Supreme Court rather than the opposition-run congress, which has been stripped of its powers since the Socialist Party lost control of it in 2016 – a move that underpins opposition criticism that Maduro has consolidated a dictatorship.

Maduro will then head to a ceremony at Venezuela’s military academy, signaling the importance of the armed forces in his governing coalition.

His triumphalist discourse echoes that of his predecessor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who used abundant oil revenues to flood Venezuela with consumer goods while providing heavily subsidized food and medicine.

That contrasts sharply with the Venezuela of today.

Inflation is fast approaching 2 million percent. Some three million people have emigrated since 2015 – many on foot – to escape malnutrition and disease, according to the United Nations.

Bank notes that once paid for months’ worth of groceries are now tossed in trash cans or even woven into multi-colored women’s handbags sold by street merchants.

Maduro last year won reelection despite the economic chaos in large part because the opposition boycotted the vote. He blames an “economic war” led by the United States and the domestic opposition to try to undermine socialism as the cause for the country’s woes.

“I agree with the measures that Venezuela is taking,” said Francisco Rivas, 53, a state employee wearing a red shirt who joined a crowd outside the Miraflores presidential palace in support of Maduro. “[Maduro] is looking out for the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people, but many have betrayed him.”

LOSING PATIENCE

The United States and many Latin American and European countries condemned the vote, leaving Maduro backed by just a handful of stalwart allies from leftist governments.

There are few signs that countries will shutter embassies or sever ties with Venezuela, according to diplomatic sources, but most will not send diplomats to the inauguration.

Opposition activists have called for protests on Thursday. Authorities have responded by filling streets with police checkpoints and rifle-toting troops.

“They’re trying to scare us so that we don’t protest,” said Henry Ramirez, 39, a computer engineer in the western city of San Cristobal, attempting to cut into a line for gasoline, the type of queue that has become increasingly frequent during the crisis. “Tomorrow the dictatorship continues.”

While politically motivated demonstrations have faded, protests take place nearly every day to demand salary improvements, access to food and medicine, or improvements to erratic power and water services. Even supporters of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” were losing patience with the economy.

“I ask that the president focus on increasing wages,” said Daveli Valecillos, a 29-year-old homemaker who traveled to Caracas from the eastern state of Monagas to witness the inauguration. “Every time prices go up it’s a blow to this country, and we don’t know how much longer we can last.”

But many had lost hope that Maduro’s inauguration could change anything.

“I’m just trying to get a few more documents together so I can leave the country,” said Angela Perez, 26, who works the cash register at a fast-food restaurant in the city of Valencia. “There’s no future here. It’s sad but true.”

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mariela Navas in Maracaibo; editing by Angus MacSwan and Susan Thomas)

Two million more Venezuelans could flee next year: U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated two million Venezuelans could join the ranks of migrants and refugees next year, swelling the total to 5.3 million as the country’s meltdown continues, the United Nations said on Friday.

About 5,000 Venezuelans flee their homeland daily, down from a peak of 13,000 in August, said Eduardo Stein, a joint special representative for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Stein described the two million figure as a planning estimate for migrants and refugees leaving for neighboring countries in the next 14 months who will need aid.

“The region had to respond to an emergency that in some areas of concern was almost similar to a massive earthquake. We are indeed facing a humanitarian earthquake,” he told a news briefing.

The U.N. appealed last week for $738 million in 2019 to help Venezuela’s neighbors cope with the inflow of millions of refugees and migrants who have “no prospect for return in the short- to medium-term”.

About 3.3 million Venezuelans have fled the political and economic crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the UNHCR said.

About 365,000 of them have sought asylum, U.N. refugee boss Filippo Grandi said.

“The reasons these people left are ranging from pure hunger to violence and lack of security … We at UNHCR believe many have valid reasons to seek international protection,” he said.

Colombia has taken in one million Venezuelan nationals, with most others going to Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed on Thursday giving temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants to the United States.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames its economic problems on U.S. financial sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.

The U.N. aid plan, presented to donors on Friday, aims to help Venezuelans to become productive contributors in host countries, said Antonio Vitorio, director-general of the IOM.

“This means focusing on access to the labor market, recognition of qualifications and also guaranteeing that the provision of social services in those countries – especially housing, health, and education – are up to the stress that derives from the newcomers,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by David Stamp)

Hospitals scrap surgeries, Venezuelans forgo showers as taps run dry

A woman carries a container filled with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – At one of Caracas’ biggest public hospitals, most bathrooms are closed. Patients fill jugs from a tiny tap on the ground floor that sometimes has a trickle of water. Operations are postponed or canceled.

The Central Venezuelan University hospital, once a Latin American leader, is reeling as taps run dry.

“I have gone to the operation block and opened the tap to wash my hands, as you must do before a surgery, and nothing comes out,” said gynecologist Lina Figueria.

Containers filled with water are seen next to the bed of a patient at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Containers filled with water are seen next to the bed of a patient at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Water cuts are the latest addition to a long list of woes for Venezuelans hurting from a fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation, and emigration.

Malfunctions in the capital’s water network due to lack of maintenance have taken a turn for the worst in recent months, depriving many in this city of 3 million people of regular running water.

Caracas is nestled in a verdant valley perched at around 900 meters (2,953 feet) and its water is pumped from much lower sources. But the pumps have not been maintained, spare parts are scarce and President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is short of cash.

“For many years this deterioration process was not noticeable. But now the water transport systems are very damaged,” said Jose De Viana, former president of Hidrocapital, the state-run utility in charge of Caracas’ water supply.

Venezuela’s socialist government typically says water cuts are due to sabotage by right-wing “terrorists.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in July announced a “special plan” to fix the issues but did not provide details. The Information Ministry and Hidrocapital did not respond to a request for information.

People fill containers with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bell

People fill containers with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Lack of water – and taps that sometimes spurt out brown liquid – have triggered health concerns in a country lacking basic antibiotics and vaccines.

About 75 percent of Caracas residents said they do not receive water regularly, according to a survey published by two Venezuelan non-governmental organizations this month. Around 11 percent said they thought dirty water had caused skin and stomach problems. The survey does not have comparative figures.

Medical consequences are hard to gauge as the Health Ministry no longer releases once-weekly data, but doctors say scabies and diarrhea are on the rise.

Water shortages have also made some basic daily activities untenable. Poor residents say they take fewer showers.

In the low-income neighborhood of Catia, university professor Mariangela Gonzalez, 64, has 127 bottles, gas containers and pots clogging the entrance to her house.

“When the water comes on, we have to run,” said Gonzalez.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Venezuela’s Maduro defies foreign censure, offers ‘prize’ to voters

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in La Guaira, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro scoffed at international criticism of Venezuela’s upcoming May 20 vote in which he is seeking re-election and offered a prize for those who vote with a state-issued card.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition is boycotting the election on the grounds it is rigged in favor of the 55-year-old socialist incumbent. The United States, European Union and various Latin American neighbors have also slammed it as unfair.

“So they’re not going to recognize Maduro around the world. What the hell do I care?” Maduro said at an election rally in La Guaira, on the coast outside Caracas, late on Wednesday. “What the hell do I care what Europe and Washington say?”

Maduro, who is casting his re-election campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth, has only one serious rival: Henri Falcon, 56, a former state governor. Falcon has broken with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, believing anger at a economic crisis will win him votes.

OPEC member Venezuela is in a fifth year of punishing recession, inflation is the highest in the world, oil production is at a three-decade low, shortages of food and medicines are widespread, and millions are skipping meals.

Some polls show Falcon more popular than Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.

But the opposition abstention campaign, presence of Maduro loyalists in key institutions including the election board, and vote-winning power of state welfare programs like housing and food giveaways makes a Falcon victory look a tall order.

In his speech, Maduro told supporters that all those who vote showing a government-issued “Fatherland Card,” which is needed to access certain welfare programs, probably would receive “a really good prize.”

He did not give details but critics say that, and other pre-election cash and other bonuses via the card, is akin to vote bribery. Voting in Venezuela is secret but state workers say they are constantly pressured to support the government.

FALCON SEEKS ALLIES

Falcon, a former soldier, has been largely shunned by Venezuela’s best-known opposition leaders but this week received the support of at least one high-profile leader, Enrique Marquez, who is vice president of A New Time party.

He also has been wooing twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to join his campaign but without success so far. Capriles, and another popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, are both barred from standing in the election.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is the cleanest in the world but even the official operator of the voting platform, UK-based Smartmatic, denounced fraud in an election last August. Little is known about the Argentine company that has replaced it for this month’s election.

If Maduro does win re-election, attention will turn immediately to whether he plans to use the political breathing space to deepen an internal purge of rivals, and if the United States will carry out a threat to impose oil sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s administration already has imposed some financial and individual sanctions on Maduro’s government, accusing senior officials of rights abuses and corruption.

Pro-boycott opposition activists have been stepping up their campaign in recent days with scattered protests around the country. Numbers, however, have been thin – a far cry from the mass anti-Maduro protests of 2017.

“Those who participate with Maduro in the May 20 farce, including Henri Falcon and (evangelical pastor) Javier Bertucci, have split with Venezuelan patriots and democrats,” an opposition grouping called the Wide Front said in a statement.

“By recognizing false results, they will become a collaborationist opposition recognized by the regime so it can outlaw and persecute democratic society.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott)

Venezuela annual inflation at more than 4,000 percent: National Assembly

A woman and a child look at prices in a grocery store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Inflation in January alone was 84.2 percent, opposition lawmakers said, amid an economic crisis in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering food and medicine shortages.

The monthly figure implies annualized inflation of more than 150,000 per cent and that prices will double at least every 35 days.

With cash in short supply and banking and communications infrastructures struggling, day-to-day transactions are becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuelans.

The government blames the problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with a helping hand from Washington.

Critics in turn blame strict currency controls, which were enacted by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago this week. The bolivar is down some 40 percent against the dollar in the last month alone.

A million dollars of Venezuelan bolivars bought when the currency controls were introduced would now be worth just $7 on the black market.

The government has not published inflation data for more than two years though has increased the minimum wage repeatedly in a nod to rising prices.

The government raised the minimum wage 40 percent on Jan. 1, making it roughly equivalent now to just over $1 per month.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

By Anthony Boadle

BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) – Last August, Victor Rivera, a 36-year-old unemployed baker, left his hometown in northern Venezuela and made the two-day journey by road to the remote Amazonian city of Boa Vista, Brazil.

Although work is scarce in the city of 300,000 people, slim prospects in Boa Vista appeal more to Rivera than life back home, where his six children often go hungry and the shelves of grocery stores and hospitals are increasingly bare.

“I see no future in Venezuela,” said Rivera, who seeks odd jobs at traffic lights in the small state capital just over 200 km (124 miles) from Brazil’s border with the Andean country.

Countries across Latin America and beyond have received a growing number of Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship, crime and what critics call an increasingly authoritarian government.

The once-prosperous country, home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is struggling with a profound recession, widespread unemployment, chronic shortages and inflation that the opposition-led Congress said could soon top 2,000 percent.

At least 125 people died this year amid clashes among government opponents, supporters and police.

As conditions there worsen, nearby cities like Boa Vista are struggling with one of the biggest migrations in recent Latin American history. With limited infrastructure, social services and jobs to offer migrants, Brazilian authorities fear a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

In Roraima, the rural state of which Boa Vista is the capital, the governor last week decreed a “social emergency,” putting local services on alert for mounting health and security demands.

“Shelters are already crowded to their limit,” said George Okoth-Obbo, operations chief for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, after a visit there. “It is a very tough situation.”

He noted the crush of migrants also hitting Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean country to Venezuela’s north, and Colombia, the Andean neighbor to the west, where hundreds of thousands have fled.

Not even Venezuela’s government knows for certain how many of its 30 million people have fled in recent years. Some sociologists have estimated the number to be as high as 2 million, although President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government disputes that figure.

BRAZIL “NOT READY”

Unlike earlier migration, when many Venezuelan professionals left for markets where their services found strong demand, many of those leaving now have few skills or resources. By migrating, then, they export some of the social ills that Venezuela has struggled to cope with.

“They’re leaving because of economic, health and public safety problems, but putting a lot of pressure on countries that have their own difficulties,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

International authorities are likening Venezuela’s exodus to other mass departures in Latin America’s past, like that of refugees who fled Haiti after a 2010 earthquake or, worse, the 1980 flight of 125,000 Cubans by boat for the United States.

In Brazil, Okoth-Obbo said, as many as 40,000 Venezuelans have arrived. Just over half of them have applied for asylum, a bureaucratic process that can take two years.

The request grants them the right to stay in Brazil while their application is reviewed. It also gives them access to health, education and other social services.

Some migrants in Boa Vista are finding ways to get by, finding cheap accommodation or lodging in the few shelters, like a local gym, that authorities have provided. Others wander homeless, some turning to crime, like prostitution, adding law enforcement woes to the social challenges.

“We have a very serious problem that will only get worse.” said Boa Vista Mayor Teresa Surita, adding that the city’s once quiet streets are increasingly filled with poor Venezuelans.

Most migrants in Boa Vista arrive by land, traveling the southward route that is the only road crossing along more than 2,100 kms of border with Brazil.

Arriving by public transport in the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena, they enter Brazil on foot and then take buses or hitch rides further south to Boa Vista.

Staffed only during the day, the border post in essence is open, allowing as many as 400 migrants to enter daily, according to authorities. For a state with the lowest population and smallest economy of any in Brazil, that is no small influx.

“Brazil’s government is not ready for what is coming,” said Jesús López de Bobadilla, a Catholic priest who runs a refugee center on the border. He serves breakfast of fruit, coffee and bread to hundreds of Venezuelans.

Despite a long history of immigration, Latin America’s biggest country has struggled this decade to accommodate asylum seekers from countries including Haiti and Syria. Although Brazil has granted asylum for more than 2,700 Syrians, the refugees have received scant government support even in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest state.

A senior official in Brazil’s foreign ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said the country will not close its borders. Okoth-Obbo said his U.N. agency and Brazil’s government are discussing ways to move refugees to larger cities.

“NOW I CAN SLEEP”

Boa Vista schools have admitted about 1,000 Venezuelan children. The local hospital has no beds because of increased demand for care, including many Venezuelan pregnancies.

In July, a 10-year-old Venezuelan boy died of diphtheria, a disease absent from Roraima for years. Giuliana Castro, the state secretary for public security, said treating ill migrants is difficult because they lack stability, like a fixed address.

“There is a risk of humanitarian crisis here,” she said.

Most migrants in Boa Vista said they do not intend to return to Venezuela unless conditions there improve.

Carolina Coronada, who worked as an accountant in the northern Venezuelan city of Maracay, arrived in Brazil a year ago with her 7-year-old daughter. She has applied for residency and works at a fast-food restaurant.

While she earns less than before, and said she makes lower wages than Brazilians at the restaurant, she is happier.

“There was no milk or vaccines,” she said. “Now I can sleep at night, not worried about getting mugged.”

Others are faring worse, struggling to find work as Brazil recovers from a two-year recession, its worst in over a century.

One recent evening, dozens of young Venezuelan women walked the streets of Caimbé, a neighborhood on Boa Vista’s west side.

Camila, a 23-year-old transsexual, left Venezuela nine months ago. She said she turns tricks for about $100 a night – enough to send food, medicine and even car parts to her family.

“Things are so bad in Venezuela I could barely feed myself,” said Camila, who declined to give her last name.

Rivera, the unemployed baker, one afternoon sheltered from the equatorial sun under a mango tree. He has applied for asylum and said he is willing to miss his family as long as he can wire his earnings from gardening, painting and bricklaying home.

“It’s not enough to live on, but the little money I can send home feeds my family,” he said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle. Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Venezuela’s chronic shortages give rise to ‘medical flea markets’

Venezuela's chronic shortages give rise to 'medical flea markets'

By Anggy Polanco and Isaac Urrutia

SAN CRISTOBAL/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s critical medicine shortage has spurred “medical flea markets,” where peddlers offer everything from antibiotics to contraceptives laid out among the traditional fruits and vegetables.

The crisis-wrought Latin American nation is heaving under worsening scarcity of drugs, as well as basic foods, due to tanking national production and strict currency controls that crimp imports.

The local pharmaceutical association estimates at any given time, there is a shortage of around 85 percent of drugs.

Sick Venezuelans often scour pharmacies and send pleas on social media to find treatment. Increasingly, however, they are turning to a flourishing black market offering medicines surreptitiously bought from Venezuelan hospitals or smuggled in from neighboring Colombia.

“Here I can find the vitamins I need for my memory,” said 56-year-old Marisol Salas, who suffered a stroke, as she bought the pills at a small stand at the main bus terminal in the Andean city of San Cristobal.

Around her, Venezuelans asked sellers for medicine to control blood pressure as well as birth control pills.

“People are looking for anticonvulsants a lot recently,” said Antuam Lopez, 30, who sells medicine alongside vegetables, and said hospital employees usually provide him with the drugs.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro says resellers are in league with a U.S.-led conspiracy to sabotage socialism and are to blame for medicine shortages.

RISKS

In the middle of a market in the humid and sweltering city of Maracaibo, dozens of boxes full of medicines including antibiotics and pain killers are stacked on top of each other. The packaging is visibly deteriorated: The cases are discolored and some are even dirty.

Doctors warn these drugs — usually smuggled in from Colombia, a few hours’ drive from Maracaibo — pose risks.

“We’ve found that a lot of them have not been maintained at proper temperatures,” warned oncologist Jose Oberto, who leads the Zulia state’s doctors association.

Still, some Venezuelans feel they have no choice but to rely on contraband medicine.

“I had to buy medicine from Colombia, and it worried me because the label said ‘hospital use,'” said retiree Esledy Paez, 62.

But they are often prohibitively expensive for Venezuelans, many of whom earn just a handful of dollars a month at the black market rate due to soaring inflation.

Norkis Pabon struggled to find antibiotics for her hospitalized husband to prevent his foot injury from worsening due to diabetes.

“But the treatment costs 900,000 bolivars ($9.43; twice the minimum wage) and I do not know what to do,” said Pabon, who is unemployed.

(Writing by Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)