“El pueblo ya está perdido, en pocas palabras. Ya esto es monte y culebras,” says Natalie, a local teacher from Congo Mirador featured in Once Upon a Time in Venezuela. This phrase translates to “in short, the village is lost. It’s just bushes and snakes.” Natalie is speaking about her dying hometown, but, just like the film itself, her words can also describe the country’s situation at large.
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a 2020 documentary film directed by Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, which reflects the root causes of Venezuela’s migration crisis through the story of a small village called Congo Mirador.
The narrative of a vanishing water town may seem one taken out of a fairy tale for a naive audience. Even the film title suggests the beginning of a fantasy novel that took place long, long ago. However, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a nonfiction film that goes beyond one truth — it serves as an allegory of the realities of most Venezuelans right now.
Through the perspective of two women, Natalie and Tamara, the film explores Venezuela’s socio-political chaos. What better picture of a deeply polarized country than the conflict between a local teacher who opposes the Maduro regime and a local businesswoman who idolizes Chavez and his legacy?
With every shot, Rodríguez Ríos also captures the everyday lives of the people of Congo Mirador. From children’s morning routines to elders’ nostalgic memories, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela slowly introduces the communal care, traditions, and history of Congo Mirador. Viewers get a closer look at their annual beauty pageant, their parties and festivities, community meetings, school lessons, and more.
All of this in the midst of their fight for survival, as sedimentation and oil pollution are drowning the only home they’ve ever known.
Although this story is specific to Congo Mirador, the national government’s corruption, incompetence, and false promises are relatable circumstances for most Venezuelans. They have all experienced the political division, environmental degradation, the lack of food and resources, and the education decline shown on screen.
For over 5.5 million Venezuelan refugees who have seen the deterioration of their neighborhoods and left their homes for a better life, the last scene of Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is as familiar as it gets. The film’s ending shows the beginning of an uncertain future and one that may result in deportation, starvation, abuse, or death.
As people of Congo Mirador are forced to migrate, one might question their next stop. While some might be moving to nearby towns, others might embark on long, dangerous journeys across international borders. The latter has been the case for hundreds of Venezuelans who flee the country by foot every day.
In search of safety and fundamental human rights, the most impoverished Venezuelans have had to walk and hike for days to find a new home anywhere else in the region, including countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. They not only expose themselves to numerous risks along the way, but those who make it to their final destination also deal with challenging conditions.
There is no “right way” to migrate, especially in the face of desperation. As basic necessities are not met, and governmental agencies do not function properly, poor Venezuelans have limited options to apply for any type of documentation.
In order to travel with a visa, work permit, or even something as simple as a Venezuelan passport, the average Venezuelan needs to have the right contacts and spend lots of money and time on a corrupted process. To be a documented immigrant is a privilege in and of itself.
Now, becoming an undocumented immigrant has its own set of problems. Some groups — including LGBTQ+, disabled, Black, and Indigenous people — are particularly vulnerable. Migrants who have walked thousands of miles for a plate of food and a work opportunity are met with xenophobic policies and xenophobic societies. They must understand a new system, assimilate to a new culture, and all while living in the shadows.
The governments of Ecuador and Chile, for instance, have made it clear that Venezuelan refugees are not welcome in their territories. To the high influx of Venezuelans over the last few years, both countries have reacted with higher restrictions at their borders, increasing deportation numbers and establishing new required visas for entry.
Other countries have gone even further with their discriminatory responses to Venezuelan refugees. Just a few months ago, Trinidad and Tobago’s authorities sent “at least 16 children and an estimated 12 adults back out into the high seas, after they’d arrived in Trinidad and Tobago seeking safety.”
The government of Trinidad and Tobago should be focusing its efforts on condemning human rights violations in Venezuela and creating paths to regularization of Venezuelan refugees who risk their lives crossing by sea. However, they have chosen to “protect their borders and national security” instead.
Fortunately, not all countries in the region have closed their doors to Venezuelan refugees. Colombia’s government has recently announced that they will be giving a temporary protection status to nearly one million undocumented Venezuelan immigrants. This would grant them access to social services, healthcare, and work opportunities.
Colombia’s action is a move in the right direction. It is an important example to the region and the world. Escaping food and medicine shortages is not a crime, so governments need to stop treating Venezuelan refugees as criminals and extend a helping hand.
Human rights activists are demanding the United States to follow in Colombia’s footsteps and pass Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of undocumented Venezuelans. This would allow roughly 200,000 undocumented Venezuelans to live and work in the U.S without the fear of deportation.
Governments have a moral obligation to provide help to asylum seekers and refugees. According to international law, they also have a legal obligation to do so. So, many activists hope that films like Once Upon a Time in Venezuela can spark a fire in informed and concerned audiences to push their elected officials to act now.