LIMA, Peru — Some 300 Venezuelans gathered outside of their country's embassy in Peru on Tuesday shouting "We want to leave!" after President Nicolas Maduro offered to airlift migrants who wanted to return back to their homeland.
The Venezuelans, some of whom said they had been sleeping on the streets and were taken advantage of by Peruvian employers, arrived hours after Maduro on national TV unveiled the "Return to the Homeland Plan" to welcome back those who marched abroad amid the spiraling economic and social crisis.
It also comes as regional governments are rushing to address the exodus straining tight budgets in almost every South American nation, with a special session Wednesday at the Organization of American States in Washington.
According to the United Nations, more than 2.3 million people, 7 percent of Venezuela's total population, have fled the country over the last three years during a period of widespread shortages, deadly anti-government protests and now hyperinflation the International Monetary Fund estimates will hit 1 million percent.
But Venezuela's government disputes those figures, and is accusing opponents led by the U.S. of sounding an alarm about a humanitarian crisis to justify a foreign military intervention to remove Maduro.
"I sometimes feel pain for the Venezuelans who left," he said on state TV Monday, saying that fewer than 600,000 Venezuelans left the country over the past two years and that 90 percent regret the decision. "We will hug you again, come to Venezuela, come back to the homeland. We Venezuelans are here, with our big, big Bolivian hearts."
Last week, Maduro's government chartered a plane to bring almost 100 Venezuelans from Lima that he said had their dreams of a fresh start crushed by the crude realities of living in a high-priced capitalist country. Another airlift is schedule to leave Ecuador on Wednesday, while a second planeload of Venezuelans from Peru is being organized for Saturday.
Some government opponents have called the airlifts a PR stunt intended to deflect attention away from the economic mismanagement that has driven so many people from their homes in the first place.
Those lining up outside Venezuelan embassy in Peru's capital were careful not to criticize Maduro — many acknowledged voting for him in the past — and spoke of enduring hardships and discrimination while trying to adjust to life in a new country.
Armando Salazar, 50, said that he was earning around $90 a week cleaning floors at a fish processing plant since arriving to Peru in January from his home in central Carabobo state. But last month he was let go and had to resort to peddling bottles of water on Lima's streets while sharing a tenement bedroom with five of his countrymen who were in similar straights.
"Things are difficult here too," said Salazar, who said that once back in Venezuela he hopes to recoup a business he abandoned selling fruit.
He said the future he faces in Venezuela remains uncertain but at least back home he'll be surrounded by family, including his wife, who didn't make the journey with him across South America.
Inflation that the International Monetary Fund estimates will soon hit 1 million percent is expected to accelerate after Maduro last month began dismantling currency controls in place for more than a decade.
On Tuesday, the government began rolling out a new payment system to raise gas prices in eight border states. The goal is to raise prices nationwide to international levels by October so they government can boost badly-needed revenue to pay its mounting debts. Right now filling up a tank is virtually free.
It's the first major increase in gas prices since Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution began two decades ago and authorities in the OPEC nation are taking a slow approach amid fears it could ignite unrest like past price hikes. To soften the impact, drivers holding a government-issued Fatherland Card will be returned part of the payment in the form of a cash subsidy.
But despite long lines, many gas stations in Tachira state with neighboring Colombia were closed Tuesday, or had yet to raise prices. The new biometric machines to collect payments that the head of the state oil company displayed on state television a day earlier were either nowhere to be found or not working.
On Tuesday, officials from 11 countries in the region issued a statement expressing concern for the "the grave deterioration in the internal situation that has provoked the mass migration of Venezuelans."