By Andreina Aponte and Anggy Polanco
CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - Early last year, Leandro Colmenares sold his car and his apartment and fled Venezuela's profound economic crisis, joining a wave of emigration to other Latin American countries.
Colmenares, a medical equipment repairman, first set up in Panama with $7,000 in hand. When he could not get a visa and struggled to find work, he ended up with odd jobs like painting houses and doing electrical wiring for $25 a day.
"In Venezuela, I was rubbing shoulders with doctors. Months later I was mopping the floor in a Panama furniture shop," said Colmenares, who has two sons, including one who is disabled.
He then tried his luck in Colombia, where he again took odd jobs, mostly cooking. He opened a small cafe with other Venezuelans but it failed.
"It was bad, I was going hungry. On weekends I ate once," he said. And once again, he could not get a visa.
Crushed and having run out of money, Colmenares decided in February he had no choice but return to Venezuela empty-handed and by bus - one of an apparently growing number of Venezuelan emigrants forced to go home after failing to start a new life elsewhere in Latin America.
These recent migrants are often poor, hopping on buses to Latin American capitals with as little as a few hundred dollars and scant prospect of finding a decent job.
"The country I left was bad. When I came back it was worse," said Colmenares, noting steep prices and ever less food on store shelves. He spends his days in his home in poor central Caracas, scraping out a living making dough for corn patties.
For decades after World War II, Venezuela's flourishing oil economy made it a destination for mass immigration from southern Europe, with Portuguese bakeries and Spanish bars a common sight across Caracas.
But during 18 years of Socialist rule, an increase in crime, economic decay and political protests have prompted emigration to Miami, Madrid, and the rest of Latin America.
Sociologist Tomas Paez estimates over 2 million Venezuelans have left the country of 30 million, accelerating in the last two years as the OPEC member's recession has worsened, leading to shortages of vital medicines and food, runaway inflation and lack of formal jobs.
While the early diaspora was mostly a middle-class phenomenon, recent migrants are more likely to be poor, heightening the chances that they will struggle.
There is no data on returnees but Reuters interviewed 10 Venezuelans who had emigrated after President Nicolas Maduro took office in 2013 only to return.
"ALL YOU DO IS SURVIVE"
For Miguel Blanco, a Caracas-based sociologist, the degree of poverty among people now leaving the country has led to more of them returning.
"When migration is triggered by push factors, it can lead the migrant to fail because of lack of money," said Blanco.
Pockets of Venezuelan economic migrants, once a relatively rare sight in South America, have sprung up in cities from Bogota to Santiago de Chile. They are often seen hawking traditional corn patties on the streets or offering door-to-door beauty treatments.
Panama's head of migration said in August that some 2,000 Venezuelans were setting up there every week, compared with about 500 to 600 before August, when Maduro's government created a legislative superbody that was widely condemned by the opposition and other countries as a power grab.
With about 60,000 Venezuelans already in Panama, the government has implemented visas as an entry requirement.
Peru has estimated that in the first half of 2017 some 40,000 Venezuelans entered the country.
Venezuelan government supporters have said the extent of emigration has been exaggerated. Maduro's administration scoffs at those who leave as selfish and unpatriotic. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for data.
Colombia, which shares a porous border of some 2,219 kilometers with Venezuela, has estimated that about 36,000 Venezuelans enter daily, and that some 2,000 do not immediately return to their country.
Gerson Lopez, a 30-year-old graphic designer, said he was paid less by a Colombian beauty product company because he did not have legal documents.
"Informal work there is very exploitative," said Lopez. "Venezuelans are doing the work Colombians don't want to do."
Lopez was broke when he returned to Venezuela in late January after being unable to find good work in Bogota.
"You have to think very hard if you're going to leave," he said, adding bitterly, "(But) here you don't have any opportunities. All you do is survive."
(Additional reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima, Fabian Cambero in Santiago and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Dan Flynn)