Spanish – “Mom, before I go to sleep, I pray to God that you come back and that the coronavirus goes away,” Andrea’s daughter tells her almost every night.
When I started this job, my intention was not to delve into any drama. I wanted to limit myself to the numbers, the facts, the official information, and all those little numbers that we journalists don’t care about but that we still have to report because the readers supposedly do care. But the drama is there. It is impossible to avoid it. And every contact with any of those affected was a clash with a heartbreaking tragedy that is not unheard of.
On March 12 this year, in response to a pandemic that no one saw coming, Nicolás Maduro announced the suspension of flights to and from Venezuela and the closure of all land borders. That day, hundreds of people entered a predicament.
Andrea, 25, told me that she traveled to the United States, as she does annually, to visit her sister-in-law. She was going to stay for fewer than three months. She arrived on January 17 and was supposed to return to Venezuela on April 11.
“I never imagined my trip would extend. Things have gotten worse every day. I have three little kids. The oldest is five years old, a boy of two, and a baby who, when I left, was three months old,” she says.
It has been over six months since she has seen her three children. Of course, it’s painful, she says. It hurts a lot, mainly because, given the peculiarity of the situation, what do you say to a five-year-old girl? “Calm down, my love. I am working out some things, and soon, I will be there,” Andrea answers her daughter, who is still praying that she will be able to hug her mother.
“At one point, I bought a plane ticket to Brazil to see if it was feasible to enter Venezuela through Brazil. But then they closed the (land) border as well. It’s hopeless,” she says.
Andrea’s three-month trip has been doubled. But for other Venezuelans, their stay has ended up surpassing any original calculation or plan. Ana, for example, was supposed to travel only for twenty days. She has been out for nearly five months now.
“I came with my four-year-old daughter to visit my brother, whom I had not seen for five years. I arrived on March 6, and six days later, Maduro’s regime closed the airport with only ten cases of coronavirus in Venezuela. I repeat, only ten cases,” she says.
For Ana, it is absurd that she was not allowed to return to her country when the pandemic was just beginning. An exaggeratedly draconian measure has pushed her into a family problem.
“I came here with money to stay twenty days maximum, and obviously, I didn’t account for this. I have my four-year-old girl. I can’t go out to work and leave her locked up in a room. My husband is the one who has supported me, but of course, the resources are gone. Now, I’m still at my brother’s house, but the situation is very complex. Also, my brother is in a turbulent process of separation. Living together has become an uphill battle.”
It is the economic shock, a constant undercapitalization in the hope that at some point, everything will be solved. But it is the money, the uncertainty, the cohabitation, the pressure, the fear, and of course, the unbearable sense of injustice.
“This is a violation of our rights in every way. It’s unacceptable,” says Ana.
Anna also has a one-year-old baby.
“When I left him for a couple of weeks, my son was an infant. At that time, I made a 20-day milk bank. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that something like this would happen to me.
Venezuelans who are stranded in the United States have managed to coordinate. They have Whatsapp groups where they support each other and share information. As a result of this cooperation, they have put together a database. Today, according to the last count, there are exactly 1,050 Venezuelans stranded. Of those, 803 are in Florida. Then there are 58 in Texas; 27 in New York; 15 in Georgia; 13 in Colorado; 11 in California and the rest, one, two, or three, scattered around the country. Some 395 are between 18 and 39 years old; 391 between 36 and 60; 125 between 60 and 81; 101 are minors; and eight are between 81 and 102 years old. Of the entire group, most are healthy. However, 100 Venezuelans have diseases such as diabetes or cancer. There are five pregnant women in the group.
I abhor statistics because they turn individuals into numbers. However, in this case, they serve to gauge the size of the tragedy. Children who cannot see their parents, grandparents who cannot rest, mothers who are not with their babies, or about to give birth alone, without their husbands or money.
“Sorry, I didn’t get you sooner. I was talking to my kids on a video call. It’s my birthday today,” Maurina tells me. She is 56 years old and completely alone. No longer in the United States, where she spent more than three months, but in the Dominican Republic. She traveled to the island, hoping it would be much easier to return to Venezuela from another country less hostile to the Nicolás Maduro regime.
Maurina traveled to Miami on March 9. At the time, she had no idea that a pandemic was developing in the world. She found out when she was at the airport in Panama.
“I was only going for a week. I was to return to Maracaibo on the 16th. I only went to solve a problem with my bank, and the trip, which was to be short, turned into a real nightmare.”
Maurina had a hotel booked, but only for 15 days. She didn’t have enough money, so she explored her options and ended up at the home of distant friends. The experience was unpleasant. Today, she flees from the innate lack of solidarity with that frivolous world of Venezuelans in the Doral; instead, she acknowledges the support of the Dominicans.
“These friends offered me their home on the condition that I help with the housework. I was practically working as a maid without being paid; moreover, I had to help cover half of the food.”
“I won’t go through Doral again,” she insists. “The next time I go back to the United States, I will do it with my children. I didn’t need this. I was at peace in Venezuela with my children and grandchildren.”
The hostile and unbearable environment hounded her. Maurina suffered from illnesses, and due to so much stress, she developed facial paralysis. But on her birthday, her spirits remained intact. Her voice did not seem fragile. She was happy, though alone because she had just spoken to her children. Three cheers for technology!
There have been efforts to demand the guarantee of a clear and indisputable right from the Nicolás Maduro regime. Article 50 of the Venezuelan Constitution, for example, clearly states: “All persons may freely travel through the national territory by any means.” The International Declaration of Human Rights also states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Hundreds of Venezuelans are appealing to both maxims to draft a request that they hope to raise to the Spanish government to mediate their cases before the Maduro regime. The petition on Change.org has over 4,500 signatures as of July 23.
One of the endorsers of the petition is David Smolansky, a Venezuelan, now the Organization of American States’ commissioner for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. I spoke with him about the issue, and he told me that he is aware of each of the cases of those stranded.
“Your numbers match those we handle in the office of the OAS General Secretariat for the Migrant and Refugee Crisis. We recorded just over a thousand who are stranded. Additionally, approximately 700 are stranded in Spain, approximately 600 in Chile, 500 between Costa Rica and Panama, and at least 50 in Mexico. They can’t go back due to restrictions on air travel. There are 30,000 more in Norte de Santander, Colombia, who are stranded because the regime has blocked land routes. Another twenty thousand in Bogotá.”
We are talking about over 42,000 Venezuelans who want to return to their country but cannot do so. The regime simply decided that they will not return. Maduro labeled these Venezuelans who have spent their lives in Venezuela as “biological weapons.”
“Many of these Venezuelans have contacted us,” says David, “one of the most moving testimonies is that of a girl who is here with her father. They traveled from Venezuela. The gentleman is Italian. He arrived in Venezuela at the age of twenty. They have not been able to return since the coronavirus began. The gentleman has had health complications, specifically concerning the prostate. They are very worried. They are eating into their savings. The man’s doctor is in Venezuela.”
The stranded Venezuelans, as I mentioned, have made an effort to contact the regime of Nicolás Maduro, along with their unquestionable right to the above-mentioned maxims. But they have not kneeled before the regime, pleading an indigent attitude in front of an ignoble monster. Not at all. All they are asking for is permission to open up airspace for a humanitarian or repatriation flight. Everyone in the United States, at least, is willing to pay the cost of a private airline flight.
Carlos, 17, who was in New York studying English, had planned to return to Venezuela on March 14, and today, has been in the United States for more than six months. He has had to pay 450 USD to extend his legal stay. He told me that they have requested the regime’s Foreign Ministry to authorize charter flights financed by the stranded people. But there is no answer. Chavismo just ignores them.
“I have been emphatic,” David Smolansky said. “The regime has closed the airspace for Venezuelans who have to return for humanitarian reasons in times of pandemic, but it leaves the airspace open for at least 17 Iranian flights that have arrived in Venezuela since the start of the coronavirus.”
“The airspace remains open for illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking, mining, among others. I was just counting: with 15 flights, the situation of all the Venezuelans stranded would be resolved, and they would be able to return to their land. That is fewer flights than the 17 Iranian ones that have landed in our country. This is part of the criminal nature of the dictatorship: they clearly don’t want to take care of these people.”
Cristina Mujica, also stranded, has tried to coordinate the rest. “We have a group of lawyers,” she says. They have appealed to authorities sympathetic to the regime, hostile to the regime, independent, from here or there, anodyne, insipid, or symbolic. Nobody says anything. In any case, pats on the back. There are “jurisdictional bodies.” They have been considered carefully. But there are no expectations, of course. Meanwhile, most people continue to bleed financially because they have to repeatedly pay 450 USD for an extension of their stay. And for large families, this is an enormous blow.
“The extension costs us 1,800 USD. And we will likely get it for just one month,” says Pedro, 47, who traveled to Las Vegas with his family for work and intended to spend no more than 20 days there. He has been in the United States for almost five months now.
“I had a conference, a work event. I brought my family with me, and the idea was to go sightseeing at the end of the five-day conference.”
Pedro’s airline canceled his flight back to Venezuela immediately after Nicolás Maduro’s announcement. Then it all went down south.
“Everything closed down on us. We wanted to stay at the hotel where we were in Las Vegas, but when we tried to book other days, they told us they were going to close down because of the coronavirus. We started to elbow our way through Vegas. Then we went to Atlanta and from there to Miami. We spent five months from hotel to hotel. We are four people.”
Pedro is accompanied by his wife, a 47-year-old lawyer, his oldest son, who is 21, and his youngest son, who is 9. He has to be the family’s anchor. He has to say that everything is fine even if nothing is, that it will be all right soon, that at any moment everything will be solved, and that in no time they will return to their home, to their people. But in the meantime, Pedro has lost 20 kilos, has had to sell his car to keep himself in the United States and pay for the 20 daily pills that his wife has to take for her heart condition.
It’s Andrea, it’s Ana, it’s Maurina, it’s Carlos, and it’s Pedro. It’s Erika, who has a sick husband and children in Venezuela; it’s Yosdari, who just had her baby in the United States; it’s Raquel, whose daughter, who traveled on a ballet scholarship, and has extended her stay four times; it’s Carmen, who can’t afford her medicines anymore; it’s Paola, whose mother recently died in Venezuela; it’s Nerio, who is about to beg to be deported; it’s Aimar, who now lives in a church, with her two children, while her 92-year-old mother is alone in Venezuela. It is Yuleima, Gerardo, Elsa, and Fahed. They are, in total, 1,050. None of them intend to stay in the United States. All with the stubborn will to return home. All, in the end, exiled.