Ice cream sales a lifeline for Haitians in Caracas

CARACAS Mon Mar 22, 2010 5:06pm EDT

CARACAS (Reuters) - Emilton Amboise pounds the Caracas streets in the middle of a tropical heatwave, hoping to sell enough ice cream to send money home to family in Haiti.

Like so many, Amboise lost relatives in the January 12 earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation and killed more than 200,000 people. "One of my sisters died and many cousins and friends too," he said.

Pushing a refrigerated cart full of Popsicles around the sweltering Venezuelan capital, Amboise estimates he can make around $300 a month, of which he sends $50 to his family -- the equivalent of about two weeks wages in Haiti.

"With the money I send to my family at least they can eat," he said.

The roughly 30,000-strong Haitian community in Venezuela have a near-monopoly on selling ice cream in the streets.

Martin Rangel, who manages a depot for ice cream brand Efe, said almost 70 percent of the vendors working for him are Haitian. The rest are immigrants too. "They can earn good money without having to invest in equipment," he said.

Rangel hands out carts full of ice cream to vendors who take a 26 percent commission on whatever they sell. Ice cream sellers can earn up to double the Venezuelan minimum wage, and as much as three times what they could earn back in Haiti.

That has attracted even educated Haitians like Kernizan Chrisnot, a 27-year-old from Port-au-Prince who spent four years studying law.

"Even with my qualifications, I could not find any work in Haiti so I decided to come here," he told Reuters at Rangel's warehouse in Catia, in western Caracas, while he tallied up how many ice creams he had sold that day.

OVERSTAY VISAS

The Haitian Embassy in Venezuela has some 15,000 registered Haitians in the country, although many more have entered illegally or overstay their tourist visas.

That makes many of them vulnerable to harassment and extortion by the police. Since the quake, however, Haitians have noticed a change in attitude.

"The police used to ask for our papers and if we didn't have any they took our money," said another ice cream vendor, 29-year-old Jonas Fleurglus. "But since the earthquake they have left us alone."

The Venezuelan government began a campaign last week to register the estimated 15,000 more Haitians thought to be living illegally in the country. All Haitians who have been in Venezuela since before the earthquake will now be granted visas, the government's immigration office said.

More than a tenth of Haiti's population lives abroad, including around one million in the United States, according to Leslie David, Consular Minister at the Haitian Embassy in Venezuela. Many more have sought asylum abroad since the quake.

David welcomed the Venezuelan government's move to legalize the status of Haitians in Venezuela, but said he worried about how a Haitian 'brain drain' could affect his country in the future. "People need to stay in Haiti to rebuild it," he said.

Many Haitians say they want to return home to see their families. But with little prospect of work there, Venezuela remains a better bet for now.

"If there was work in Haiti I'd be there, but at the moment here is better," said Amboise.

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