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Despite Maduro's Backdown, Venezuela Remains In Crisis

Apr 2, 2017
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now to Venezuela - there were dramatic developments this past week. The supreme court stripped Congress there of its power then, after an international outcry and protests, the government of President Nicolas Maduro backed down, and the Supreme Court rescinded the order. But it's not the end of the crisis in that country. There is runaway inflation, food shortages and violence. And many Venezuelans are fleeing to neighboring countries. Some are women who are taking extreme measures to ensure they can support their families. NPR's Philip Reeves sent this report from Boa Vista in northern Brazil.

ALESSANDRA: (Foreign language spoken). I no speak in English. OK? (Foreign language spoken).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This woman calls herself Alessandra. That's not her real name. She doesn't want her identity revealed because she doesn't want her family to know what she has to do these days to support them.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) I hope and I'm trusting God that never, ever, ever will my daughter get to know the things that I'm doing in Brazil to pay for her education.

REEVES: These days, Alessandra works here in the red light district of the Brazilian city of Boa Vista. We meet at night on the streets, where she's trying to snag a client along with dozens of other sparsely clad young women drinking beer in nearby bars or wandering the sidewalk. Many of these women are Venezuelan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: Alessandra's been working here as a prostitute for four months. She says, in Venezuela, she had a job she loved as assistant to an attorney who helps abused children and families in crisis.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) My job was to visit homes with social workers to study the children's situation and then compile a report and send it to the prosecutor in charge who would decide what to do.

REEVES: Now Alessandra is the person at risk of abuse.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) When you work on the streets, it can be very dangerous. I don't take drugs, and I don't hang out with people who take drugs. That way, I avoid a lot of trouble.

REEVES: Alessandra says that the main threat to her is...

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) Men who want to be violent with women, men who maybe want to rob women.

REEVES: These days, Alessandra must forget that she has a diploma in information technology and that she is articulate and intelligent.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) Nine out of 10 men don't look for intelligence in me. This is a part of me that I keep to myself. It allows me to use my psychological skills to get from them what I want rather than the other way round.

REEVES: Alessandra is a single mom with two kids. Her son's a toddler. Her daughter is 18 and at college with ambitions to qualify as an orthodontist. Alessandra says it's impossible to support her kids on the wages from her old job. The crash in Venezuela's currency means those are now worth less than $100 a month. She says just to pay for one semester of her daughter's college...

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) I would have to work for three months continuously without buying food, without paying rent, without buying medicines or clothes.

REEVES: Alessandra says she also has to support her parents in Venezuela. Her father is a retired university professor.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) The pension my dad gets is an obscenity. It really is obscene. He gets $20 a month.

REEVES: As a prostitute, she earns 100 times her father's pension. Officials say the meltdown in Venezuela is now driving educated professionals, including teachers and lawyers, into the sex industry. Every month or so, Alessandra goes home to see her kids.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) At home, I never dress like this. I never talk about my clients, and I never take phone calls from my clients where I might end up saying things that my daughter should never hear.

REEVES: When the family asks where the money is coming from, Alessandra has her story ready.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) I tell them that in Brazil, I'm working in promotions and in sales.

REEVES: Alessandra wishes she could stay home.

ALESSANDRA: (Through interpreter) But doing what I want to do doesn't allow my children to live in the way they deserve.

REEVES: She believes that if her sacrifice on the streets of Brazil saves her kids from the crisis now destroying so many Venezuelan lives, it will be worth it. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Boa Vista. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.