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Desperate Women: Venezuela's Newest Export

Belinda Soncini | Anguilla

This project documents the lives of women from my country, Venezuela, who were forced to migrate to the Caribbean to sell their bodies to feed and buy medicines for their families. These women were professionals with good jobs, but the economic crisis in Venezuela left them no other choice.  They live isolated, fearing being judged, exposed to countless perils, sacrificing their lives to provide for their families.  They say they will keep doing this until their bodies can’t take it anymore.

Throughout this project, I got to know these women, their stories, their hardships and broken hearts.  With an incredible will to survive, they will do anything for their families, a dedication that sometimes costs them their own health. Yet they never think about themselves, hoping one day they can return home. Sadly the situation in Venezuela keeps getting worse and everyday their dream gets farther away.

email: belindasoncini@yahoo.com

phone: 617-584-4805

url: www.belindasoncini.com

“Desperate Women: Venezuela's Newest Export”

Belinda Soncini

Down a narrow dirt road, past a rundowntrailer and a scrawny cow tied to a tree, you arrive at a small island bar. Out front a woman paces anxiously. Carla, 37, is the oldest of the three women outside the bar. She is eager to hear about her son, who is 600 miles away and sick. This morning she wired money to her mother to buy medicine for him, but her mother isn’t sure they’ll be able to find the medicine there.

“It hurts more to see your loved ones suffer than it does to feel your own pain,” she says. She speaks Spanish like someone who’s had much education, which doesn’t fit why she and the others are here.

Her mother finally calls. She did find the medicine Carla’s son needs, from the bachaqueros of the black market. It cost several times what it should have cost but at least they were able to get it. If Carla hadn’t been here, earning dollars, there would have been no chance of helping her son.

“That’s the reason we’re here,” she explains. “There comes a time when things get so bad, when you have no food on the table, no money, no way to take care of your kids that you just say, enough. We have to go to another country because we can’t stand by and do nothing any longer.”

Carla, who worked for many years as a licensed nurse, left Venezuela and came to the Northern Caribbean of Anguilla to become a sex worker, with the sole purpose of making money to send home to her kids. The other two women with her, a business administrator and a former municipal worker, are here for the same reason. The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has caused an increasing number of women, unable to earn enough money to feed their families doing the jobs they’re trained to do, to leave Venezuela and make a living as sex workers in the Caribbean. What makes this unusual is that these are women,who were not involved in prostitution in Venezuela, who had mainstream professional jobs until the downward spiral in Venezuela left them with no alternative but to sell their bodies.

This bar has three Venezuelan and two Dominicans sex workers. The owner, Liliana, and her husband are also Dominican. Part of a network that recruits women in Venezuela, initiates them as sex workers in Colombia, and then moves them to the islands to work, Liliana is responsible for bringing the Venezuelans here. She arranges their tourist visas and purchases their airline tickets. On arrival they share a small room in the back of the bar, the same one where they sleep and see customers. They have to repay Liliana first from their earnings, and then they are able to send money back home to their families.

“If I could, I would work day and night,” Carla says, “until my body can’t take it anymore. That’s the only reason we’re here. Not to sightsee or go to the beach.”

The exact number is unclear, but it is believed that over the last three years thousands of Venezuelan women have given up their jobs to become prostitutes abroad. Many have gone to Colombia, because it was easy to get to and people spoke Spanish there. But as it became harder to earn money there because conflicts with Colombian prostitutes and harassment by Colombian immigration officials, Venezuelan women have begun traveling farther. Now they can be found in neighboring countries such as Surinam and Guiana, and throughout much of the Caribbean.

On the British island of Anguilla, with a population of just over 15,000 and home to some of the most beautiful, pristine beaches in the world, Venezuelan women arrive regularly, desperate to do what they can’t do back home, earn enough case to feed their families. Some come to Liliana’s bar. Some to the few other bars on the island that house sex workers.

Liliana, who feels sorry for them, believes she is doing them a service, helping them feed their families. That she is profiting from their desperation doesn’t seem to bother her. She is outgoing and quick to laugh. She seems very comfortable in her role as madam.

“I prefer girls from Venezuela,” Liliana confides. “They’re so much sweeter than Dominicans. The customers seem to like them better too. Probably because they’re so desperate for money they’ll do anything to make the customers happy. Dominicans draw the line…”

Her husband who runs the bar with her isn’t as sympathetic. He complains that the Venezuelan people lack temper. “If the government tried to take the food away from Dominicans,” he says, “We’d do something about it. Food is our flag. But the Venezuelans are dying of hunger and they don’t do anything.”

Sitting with Carla are Maria and Juana. They asked that their names and the cities they came from be withheld out of concern about repercussions, and because they don’t want their children to find out what they were really doing.

“We’d rather die than have our children know what we’re doing here,” says Maria, who at 25, is the youngest of the group. “I worked as a manicurist to pay my way through college and get my degree in Business Administration,” she explains. “But the jobs now don’t pay enough. My education was useless. This is not what I want to do. But it’s the only way I can support my family.”

Carla agrees and blames it on the Maduro administration and its currency policies that choked off the supply of materials that companies need in order to do business. “The government we have is fatal,” she says.

Juana, 31, used to work for the government. But when she began to speak out against the things they were doing, she soon lost her job and was unable to find work. A friend had just returned from Colombia and told her how much money she made as a prostitute there. Juana had no intention of doing that herself, but eventually her desperation became too much. “My children couldn’t eat air,” she says.

Carla has much the same story. “Sooner or later, we all knew at least one person who had gone to get money for bills. I never would have thought of doing this myself, but the moment comes when we don’t have anything, not even food to eat, and you’re offered a job as a prostitute and you think that you won’t have to steal or rob or kill anyone.”

They all made the choice to use their bodies to make money, not for their own benefit but for their families.

“I don’t fear being hungry for myself,” Juana says. “But I can’t bear to see my children starve.”

She describes the beginning as difficult. She, like Carla and Maria and most Venezuelan women, were initiated in Colombia. That’s where the three of them met. Juana and Carla stayed for three months, but they refer to it as pure hell. Maria could only last three days. “It was horrible,” she says.

After Colombia, they were all brought here to Anguilla. They all agree that it is better here because they can earn in dollars and because Liliana treats them well. Still, all of them want to go back to Venezuela, “…where we can resume our professions and live normal lives again,” Carla says. “But there is nothing there now. Nothing.”

The work never gets easier, Maria says. “Being with these men isn’t easy. We have to close ourselves to the experience, create a block. Like flipping a switch in the brain.”

“We have to do things that are disgusting,” Carla adds. “But I have two teenagers and a mother back home, and this is all I can do to sustain them.”

“It’s horrible to be lying in bed with a strange man,” Juana says. “So we call our families to remind us why we have to keep going. But there are days when I wake up crying. Missing my family. Missing Venezuela.” She points to Carl and Maria. “I tell them I can’t take it anymore, I’m going back, it’s too much.”

Being united has helped them. When one of them gets depressed, the others step in to provide a shoulder to cry on and to remind each other why they came here.

Carla explains that working as a prostitute “has become a vicious circle that never seems to end. First you tell yourself you are doing this because you need to sustain the home. Then your children need medicines. Then your mother needs something. Then something else. And the days become weeks. The weeks become months. And you see that life passed you by doing this job.”

According to Chicago psychologist Antonio Diaz, PhD, who worked with sex workers for many years in his role as a Disease Intervention Specialist for the Department of Public Health in Puerto Rico, “The incidence of depression and anxiety among these women is very high. It’s partly due to the moral optics, where they think other people will see failure in their character because they do this kind of work, without understanding the circumstances. This creates a mental “deafness” that puts them in an environment that is dark, sad, deplorable. They develop a double identity. One is the responsible person providing for the family. The other is the person doing what they feel inside is morally wrong.”

There is also the issue of their physical health, dangers imposed by poor hygiene and STDs, among other things. Many of the Venezuelan woman have also become pregnant. Desperate for money, the Venezuelan sex workers will often do anything to please the customers, including agreeing to sex without a condom.

Carolina, a Dominican sex worker in the same bar, tells of a Venezuelan woman who got pregnant and wanted to get an abortion. “But abortions are illegal on Anguilla so she took a bunch of pills and ended up getting real sick and going to the hospital. She almost died.”

Some borrow money from the other women and fly to Curacao, where abortions are legal. But in order to repay the loan, they have to go back to work right away which can cause infection or other health problems.

Dr. Martha Richardson, an OB/GYN in Boston who often treats sex workers, explains that they “should not have sex for a couple of weeks after an abortion.” But two weeks without making any money is not possible for them when they owe people money and need to feed their families back home.

A few have resorted to the practice ofSanteria Oshunfor protection. They use despojos with blown cigar smoke before seeing clients and they pray to Oshun, who is the goddess for forbidden love. They feel she will protect them from the many dangers they face in this line of work. The dangers aren’t only health related. They all have head of women “disappearing.” They even talk of a sex worker who they heard was beheaded on St. Marteen, the island a few miles away.

Most of the women only know the people who work in the bar, and the customers. Not only is there a language barrier on the island, because they only speak Spanish on an English speaking island, but also because many of the islanders, particularly the women, don’t like them. For the most part their customers are not tourists, but the men who live on the island, many of them married.

“Their wives resent us,” Carla says. “When we walk to the market, they stare at us with disdain. They don’t even say hello.” That makes her and the others feel lonelier, feel farther from home. “It’s hard to feel unwanted.”

With the population on the island so small, it is difficult to hide what they’re doing.

Less than a mile from the bar is Tasty’s Restaurant, an island favorite among tourists and residents alike. The owner and chef, Dale Carty, says, “This is a Christian island. We know that things are bad in Venezuela, and these women need money, but we never had this problem with prostitution before and people don’t want it here.”

However enough people want them there to keep them busy and able to send money home. One customer, a bartender at an island hotel who has a girlfriend, says he feels sorry for the Venezuelan women. He sees one once in a while, takes her to dinner. “I always make sure she eats,” he says. “She fell in love with me but I’m not going to marry her. I still have my girlfriend.”

“The worst thing you can do,” Maria says, “is fall in love with a customer. You may not think about it but we need caring too. We don’t get any love or caring in our reality. It’s hard when a man says something affectionate or nice. It really scares you. But the minute we feel anything we have to cut it off. That is part of the survival in this life.”

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