Venezuelans in the U.S. Offer Hope and a Voice for Their Scattered Nation
To prepare arepas, also called Venezuelan corn bread, you have to buy a package of corn meal. On a Monday in May 2019, the price was 7,000 bolivares soberanos (BS), on Thursday, the price was 12,000 BS. The U.S. dollar is at 9.9 BS. That's $1,212 a package. The first week in May a kilogram of meat was 22,000 BS, the second week, it's 31,000 BS, roughly $3,100.
Of all the problems facing the average Venezuelan during this time of social, economic and political upheaval — scarce medicine, power outages, climbing murder rate, government-armed gangs violently suppressing protests — hyperinflation-fueled bread lines might be the most widespread. Reports from university researchers in the country note that an estimated 9 out of 10 people in Venezuela currently live below the poverty line due to the monetary collapse.
Scattered nation and frustrated diaspora
If you meet someone from Venezuela in the United States, chances are they know two kinds of people, those who have fled their country and those struggling to survive back home. Fedora, a coworker who happens to sit right next to me, left Venezuela in 1992 while in her 20s, but she still knows many people there. They are cousins, friends, former colleagues. She keeps in contact with them on What's App, Facebook and Instagram. Fedora isn't experiencing material deprivation like they are. Instead, she is wracked with despair, inundated with a constant flood of horror stories. And though it might be hard to complain from her relative comfort, her mental health is taking a hit.
She now dreads speaking to her best friend in Caracas, who is frequently crying when they speak. After the mother of two and psychologist/student counselor at the University Central of Venezuela had her salary reduced to less than $20 a month, she gave up her job. Her husband, working in Panama, sends her money. Meanwhile, her mother, a well-known economist and university professor, has seen not only her life savings but also her retirement plan wiped out. The best friend tells stories involving people either being robbed at gunpoint or afraid to leave the house at night. “What can I do?” Fedora says, “I feel impotent.”
Fedora knows many who have fled to Canada, Chile, Spain — her sister is applying for asylum in Texas — and she is no anomaly. When I speak to actor and activist Wilmer Valderrama, who has Venezuelan roots, about his trip to the U.S. Mexico border for another story, I feel compelled to ask him too. Yes, his family has left Venezuela for Chile. Fedora's and Wilmer's families are part of the almost 4 million who have left Venezuela within the last five years, a forced migration crisis approaching war-ravaged Syria levels. In mid-June, Peru declared new restrictions on immigration from Venezuela after roughly 9,000 people entered the country in a single day.
According to a Foreign Affairs piece titled simply “Venezuela's Suicide,” what's been happening in Venezuela “is morphing into the worst humanitarian disaster in memory in the Western Hemisphere.” As significant as these types of declarations are, they can become abstractions that serve to breed apathy when they are not paired with stories of individual Venezuelans.
Fighting from the States
As émigré and activist Erick Rozo says, “Every minute that we are talking, people keep dying.” At the moment I'm interviewing him, this is true: Venezuela has been in an almost total blackout for two days, and he is checking his phone incessantly.
Rozo, a ranking member of the opposition party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), fled to Miami with other top members in August 2014, right around the time that the charismatic leader of their party, Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested. After organizing in south Florida, Rozo moved to New York City in 2017, where he got to work leading protest marches. These days he is organizing trucks “with 150 boxes of aid” for his homeland, among other things, when he's not doing his day job at the bank. The week before we spoke, Rozo testified at the UN Security Council. He is talking to politicians, media outlets and anyone else who will listen, taking his message to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut congresspeople. And yet his goal seems modest: “This is a call for those who want a normal life.”
Venezuela, a major oil producer and flourishing democracy that avoided the military juntas of its neighbors, had a future that looked bright throughout the 1970s and early '80s. But when tough times came in the 1990s, many decided to take a chance on left-wing populist Hugo Chavez. Called the Bolivarian Revolution and modeled on Cuba, policies of nationalization of industry and land redistribution followed. But what was once seen as a promising socialist model in action by leftists everywhere, transformed into a slow and steady devolution, with oil production scuttled and a state-planned economy mismanaged. Still, Chavez retained a stranglehold on the presidency by imprisoning opposition and spreading petro dollars while burnishing his cult of personality by railing against the United States. He also formed “colectivos,” gangs armed by the government's ruling party to serve as paramilitary forces that violently quash dissent, particularly in the city slums or barrios. Colectivos are back with a vengeance today. During the blackout in late March, President Nicholas Maduro instructed them to “defend the peace” of every neighborhood.
Rozo left the year Maduro officially took over after the Chavez died. As oil prices fell, Maduro continued the damaging economic policies of his predecessor and Cuban advisors. He began printing money — driving inflation to 1 million percent. The reign of Maduro, a Cuba-inspired revolutionary Communist schooled in Havana, has proven a death knell for democratic politics. In spring 2017, he attempted to dissolve parliament and rewrite the constitution with a constituent assembly. Protests in 2014 and 2017 were violently suppressed, with more than 130 demonstrators killed. In May 2018, Maduro, who “won” what many consider a sham election. On July 4, the UN released a report stating regime death squads had executed at least 6,000 in the past 18 months for reasons such as “resistance to authority.”
A new hope and his critics
During Maduro's second inauguration in January 2019, amid mass protests, an opposition leader in the National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaidó, claimed the right to assume the role of interim president. The United States, Colombia, Brazil, and European democracies rushed to recognize Guaidó, who is now a figure to rally around. Latin American celebrities including Venezuelans in the diaspora have shown their support for Guiadó and the movement against Maduro's regime, even holding a large benefit concert.
On the other side, the would-be interim president has been called a U.S. puppet by Maduro and his allies, such as Cuba and Russia. The American left, critics of Trump and U.S. imperialism in general, have spoken out. Hands Off Venezuela, a group in the States, has gone into action to protest further U.S. involvement. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others on the left have been quick to criticize American foreign policy instead of Maduro's regime.
And while mainstream media such as the New York Times are generally uncritical of Guaidó and highlight Maduro's authoritarianism, they're still primarily focused on the U.S. political context of it — Will we invade? What is Trump going to do? — not the humanitarian angle.
Rozo is frustrated at the U.S. media and Democrats for reflexively criticizing President Trump, VP Mike Pence and national security advisor John Bolton for their tough talk. But it's the White House's strong stance and rapid recognition of Guaidó that has finally pushed the Venezuelan crisis into the American consciousness.
Asked about his thoughts on a U.S.-led intervention, Rozo easily deflects by stating a truth: Venezuelans have many opinions on this. His party turned movement has been fighting in a nonviolent way for 20 years and have exhausted every legal and political tactic. “They have the guns. They have the colectivos and the cartels,” he says. When he mentions the cartels, he's referring to the links Maduro's regime has to major cocaine traffickers, together called the Cartel of the Suns.
Rozo speaks with a mix of excitement and exasperation. “We don't care if it's people from another world. The arch angels coming down to Earth to save us from this narco-traffic regime of killers.” He is glad that the Trump Administration is standing against the chaos and supporting Guaidó. For Rozo, the tragic history of U.S. involvement in Latin America is worth remembering and Trump has many faults, but these things have little to do with the people suffering and fighting right now. He admits that the problem is deep-rooted. “It's not just about elections,” he says, there needs to be an overhaul of the system and Venezuela's armed forces. And yet he holds back, stopping short of requesting direct U.S. military assistance, and well short of the idea of U.S.-led regime change. “The democratic countries support us. But this is a fight for Venezuelans by Venezuelans,” he declares. But those Venezuelans, the people protesting and resisting, are not equipped for a real fight. Though around 1,000 members of the military have defected, they are unarmed and reportedly underused. Can a U.S.-supported intervention really be off the table?
The Cuban question
“If you are concerned with interventions. The intervention by Cuba already happened,” says Niurka Melendez, an activist and asylum seeker who remembers clearly how the border official checking her papers when she left was Cuban. Communist Cuba's influence over Venezuela has never been a secret. Fedora notes when she realized how Cuban propaganda had distorted views in Venezuela after Chavez came to power. After she moved to New York, she discovered another reality from Cubans living in the U.S. “In Venezuela, people never heard the stories about repression, human rights abuses, lack of food, et cetera,” she says.
With Chavez, the Cuba relationship was more subtle. Maduro's more obvious connections to Cuba is one reason the Trump administration is shuttering President Obama's open-door policy to the island. “People ask why the military is not with the resistance. It is infiltrated by Cubans,” says Rozo.
Helping a growing community in New York
Melendez, who alongside her husband, Hector, founded Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid in New York City, left her home in March 2015. “It was because of the unbearable situation in my country.” Hector and their son left first, and she joined them six months later. As an activist in her mid 40s fighting to bring life back to normal, “I was refusing to leave my country. … I thought that something good might be coming, but it didn't happen.” She finally fled to be with her family, but even after that, she waited another year to apply for asylum. “Why I waited this long? … I knew in that moment, if I apply for asylum then I won't be able to go back to Venezuela. And that for me is a shock. A really strong decision to make.”
Roughly 70,000 Venezuelans have fled to the U.S. in the last couple years, with Florida, Texas and New York City taking in the bulk of the human tide. Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid (VIA), based in NYC based, does legal consultation and workshops to organize and train people who are willing to help the latest wave of émigrés get settled. Says Melendez, “We need to educate our community, telling them there are good people out there who can help, but bad people who will take advantage as well.” There have been hopes for temporary protected status (TPS) for Venezuelans, which President Trump seems to have tabled for now.
“We are the voices of our people back in Venezuela,” she says. “We take the risk, because if something happens to our asylum petition or they say no for the TPS, we have to find a plan B. Otherwise we are targets.”
Neither left, nor right
Whether applauding the failure of Guaidó to launch an uprising in April or cursing the Maduro propaganda machine braying that the crisis is both a lie and caused by the U.S., the world is watching. “We need to keep that international community support,” Melendez says. “We didn't have it before. They would say, ‘You are rich, that is why you don't like Chavez.' And we're like, ‘Are you kidding me? We are just hardworking families, that's it.' Or they say, ‘You are right-wing, that's why you think like that.' Are you kidding me? Let's think a little bit beyond the words. And beyond the slogans.”
Erick Rozo agrees it's time to ditch the old labels of political discourse. “Talking as a millennial or trying to be…we have to learn how to create our own concepts. You take from the left and the right and you make your own recipe.”
If there is anything we have learned about Venezuela from the crisis, it's that, the people are proud and relentless in the face of the epic disaster foisted upon them. The ones who have voted with their feet or managed to escaped help in any way they can those who have stayed. Fedora does her share from New York City. While not a political activist, she attends rallies and on at least one occasion set up interviews between activists and English-language journalists. More importantly, she manages to support old friends and acquaintances with a thousand tiny acts — like when a former colleague's daughter called her to ask for bus money to get to Chile. She also sends care packages via expensive private international services. “What I do is because everyone deserves to live a good life,” she says.
Those who remain struggle and (mostly) survive. They are now citizen journalists, citizen activists, citizen rebels. Rozo says, “We all have to adapt, we have to communicate, we have to learn how to speak, we have to learn how to organize people, we how to learn how to play every single role, we have to speak English to be here with you and communicating with passion what we have been living with and facing our entire life. This tells you the resilience of a country of millions of people that we will not give up until we make it, until we actually achieve the country we are meant to be.”
And, of course, those on the ground and those harnessing the power of a growing diasporic force have new connective methods that allow adaptive organization and resistance to flourish.
“Twitter, Instagram and Facebook…have been the tools for us. The only tools that we have left to communicate, to trust.” The young activist continues, imparting key wisdom for all those on social media: “And the Venezuelans online know how to deal with fake news. Even within the family What App group, you would have a rule that you would have to verify the information before you send it. In order to keep everybody calm.”