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Venezuelan migrant boat sinks, a new horror for a collapsing nation

A Trinidadian coast guard boat in the Gulf of Paria. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Authorities launched a desperate search for survivors Thursday after a vessel carrying migrants from Venezuela to Trinidad capsized and sank in the deep waters between the two nations, a disaster that called new attention to the plight of those trying to escape hunger and repression in the collapsing socialist state.

An estimated 3.7 million people have fled Venezuela, the vast majority since 2015, and nearly 5,000 more are leaving every day. Since President Nicolás Maduro closed key border crossings with Colombia and Brazil in February, more migrants are trying riskier, illegal routes.

The boat that capsized early Wednesday — a pirogue  named the Jhonnaly Jose — was on an irregular voyage to Trinidad and Tobago, relatives of passengers said, and sailing in rough seas under the cover of darkness to avoid detection.

Conflicting official reports put the number of passengers between 23 and 35, most of them unaccounted for. The vessel set off late Tuesday and overturned in the early hours of Wednesday morning, officials said. At least one of four known survivors was rescued Thursday after spending hours adrift in the straits between Venezuela and Trinidad.

“My daughter has been saved,” Luisa Garcia told The Washington Post in a text message. She said her daughter, Yubreilys Merchan Garcia, 23, was badly dehydrated and receiving treatment in the Venezuelan port city of Guiria, from which the vessel sailed.

“The salt water really affected her,” Garcia said. “But there’s nothing she can’t overcome after what she’s been through.”

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Trinidadian officials said they were alerted to the emergency at 11:40 p.m. Wednesday — more than 16 hours into a journey meant to take five.

The vessel’s last know position, Trinidadian officials said, was in Venezuelan waters near the Isla de los Patos in the Gulf of Paria.

Guiria Mayor Ander Charles said the Venezuelan coast guard, civil protection agencies, firefighters, the army, fishermen and local medics had joined the rescue effort, using five “high-powered” vessels.

In Facebook and Twitter posts, Charles put the number of passengers at 23. But another Venezuelan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the news media, said at least 35 were on board when the boat overturned in high waves.

In a WhatsApp group with almost 300 people, residents of Guiria and relatives in Trinidad and Tobago were begging for information on their children, siblings and friends. They sent pictures of their loved ones and urged the others to let them know if they learned anything.

“Dear god, please, can someone inform us on what happened,” one group member wrote. “We don’t know anything about my brother.”

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Carolina Aguilera, a Venezuelan national who has lived in Trinidad for three years, said her 22-year-old sister was on the vessel and expected to arrive early Wednesday. She said her sister, Anabelle Aguilera, planned to join her on the island, build a new life and send money back to her 5-year-old daughter, Naomi, who was left with the child’s grandmother.

“I went to the coast to wait for her,” said Carolina Aguilera, 29. “I was told she was supposed to arrive at 1 a.m. But I waited and waited, and the boat never arrived.”

She said she returned home at 6 a.m. Wednesday and was desperately awaiting news.

“My sister was trying to do something good for the family,” she said. “In Guiria, they don’t have electricity, and they can’t afford food.

“I feel pain and anger. If it wasn’t because of the president of Venezuela, no one would have to leave our country like this.”

Aid groups say other boats carrying Venezuelans have capsized in the waters en route to Trinidad, a sea passage rife with pirates and smugglers. There are no official counts from those incidents.

Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands do not have anywhere near the number of Venezuelans as are in Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. But the Caribbean countries have emerged as growing draws for those fleeing Venezuela. Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island nation of 1.4 million, is now home to nearly 40,000 Venezuelans, the United Nations estimates, although the country has no asylum laws and has criminalized irregular migration. Venezuelans arriving there illegally face arrest, official harassment and gangs of human traffickers.

Trinidadian authorities, who maintain close ties to the Maduro government, have reluctantly offered Venezuelans living there without authorization a measure of amnesty in recent weeks, launching a registration process that offers the chance of temporary employment.

But aid groups have said the gesture falls short of international standards, and they say the increasing number of Venezuelans heading to the islands despite the high risks underscores the extent of the plight they face at home.

Counting the outflow of Venezuelans this year has become more difficult, aid groups say, since Maduro closed major legal border crossings, forcing more migrants to risk illegal routes to escape a nation where the United Nations estimates that more than one-fifth of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Venezuelans have been besieged by hyperinflation, unemployment, power outages and shortages of medicine, food and water while Maduro and U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó are locked in a political stalemate with no end in sight.

“How desperate do you need to be in order to board an unsafe boat with 30-plus people, and go into the sea without any protection?” said Carolina Jimenez, a senior official with Amnesty International. “We are afraid that these types of tragedies will continue as long as the human rights crisis [in Venezuela] continues to exist and deepen.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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