Two years ago, violence erupted on the streets of Caracas when students protesting against Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian government were abused by police force. That same year, Venezuelan activists Giovanna Medina and Cristina Sosa realized — 1,365 miles away from each other — that they couldn’t stay silent.
Medina, an urban design professor in Caracas, was working with the local Global Shapers hub, an international organization working to improving local communities. She took to the internet to share stories of the unrest with the outside world.
“People were disappearing, being tortured and nobody knew about it,” says Medina. “There are no newspapers, radio, or TV stations reporting on the streets.”
At 1.7 megabits per second, Venezuela has one of the world’s slowest internet connections, severely limiting their forms of international communication. But because of Medina’s connections at the university, she and the Global Shapers hub were able to create “#SOSVenezuela.”
“We were looking for an international hashtag that everyone could use, even if they didn’t speak Spanish,” says Medina. “#SOSVenezuela was a way for us to say, ‘Hello, we’re here!”
Here in Miami, Venezuelan-American Cristina Sosa, who immigrated in 1996, was angry and frustrated when she heard about the uprising. She created “Peace for a Nation” to raise awareness about the crisis and realities she heard from friends and family still in Venezuela. She would grab people at her work and post photos of them holding up a sign that read, “I am your voice, Venezuela.” Then, she’d tag it with Medina’s “#SOSVenezuela.”
“Some people wouldn’t even know where Venezuela was located,” says Sosa. “Venezuela is right here, es un charco away.”
Back in Venezuela, as Sosa elevated her cause, Medina’s involvement with Global Shapers landed her on Maduro’s list of state terrorists. She heard the news delivered on live television and knew she had to leave. In a week, she was granted political asylum in Miami.
“I was shaking, I never thought it would be so bad,” she says. “I was just spreading the news, I didn’t have any bombs, I didn’t have any guns. I was a professor at a university and the next day I was a terrorist, I was like oh my gosh, I have to hide.”
Once in Miami, Medina attended a local Global Shapers event and met Sosa. They immediately connected over a shared goal to promote awareness and engage with the Venezuelan community still in their tumultuous homeland. Inspired, they began collaborating on projects.
“I would bring Gio to talk to people who didn’t necessarily know anything about Venezuela,” says Sosa. “Gio is one of our agents of change. She represents us because she lived it.”
Today, Venezuela has collapsed.
On the streets, food and medicine scarcity have driven black market prices way beyond affordability for most people living on the minimum wage (roughly $13 a month). Food products never make it to the store shelves, instead intercepted by black market vendors who jack up prices. Every day, hundreds are persecuted and abused at the hands of state-enforcement.
The people have reached a breaking point. 1.9 million citizens signed a petition for a recall referendum to oust President Maduro. Tens of thousands have fled, many landing right here in Doral, already nicknamed “Doral-zuela” for its large Venezuelan population. In just six years, the number of Venezuelan immigrants in the United States has surged from 184,039 to 216,000. Most of them are landing here in Miami, adding a new element to Medina’s work — helping those who are fleeing, just like she did.
In collaboration with Venezuela Awareness Foundation, Medina helps donate goods to incoming refugees and advises them on the arduous immigration process.
Fleeing the regime
“In all these years, I would think, ‘Venezuela is never going to get as bad as Cuba,” says, 29-year-old Jesus Hernandez, who moved to Miami eight months ago. “And now we’re worse.”
Hernandez, who was born and raised in Valencia, west of Caracas, became a vocal opponent of Maduro’s regime after witnessing firsthand during protests how the government treated dissidents.
“People died near my house, an old man had a heart attack from the shock [of seeing all the violence] and the national guard blocked the streets, so he wasn’t able to make it to the hospital,” says Hernandez.
He turned his home into an organizing hub, planning protests against the government. They would eat, drink, and discuss politics under the safety of Hernandez’s roof.
But the government paramilitary, known as colectivos, soon caught on and began following members of the group. Members began taking turns as security to make sure government colectivos were not near the home. But in October 2015 Hernandez’s cousin was murdered and Hernandez was brutally attacked.
“The government has created many violent groups to put fear into the citizens,” says Hernandez. “These people attack without fear.”
He was taken to a clinic where he underwent two surgeries. His wife, Barbara Narvaez, was pregnant with their first child.
“It was horrible, to feel like they’re going to kill him, that he’s going to die,” says Narvaez. “We couldn’t leave the house, it was intense.”
Amid all this, their son was born. Then they encountered a whole new set of problems: the economic collapse. The public hospitals, notorious for a lack of medical resources and unsanitary facilities, were simply not an option for Narvaez. But, their medical insurance was not enough to cover the stay at the clinica (a private hospital), so family members had to foot the bill. Once outside, crucial items like diapers and baby formula were impossible to find as the oil price decline decimated the economy.
“There were nights we didn’t have anything to eat. And it was very frustrating for me because my baby is so young,” says Hernandez. “Es una situación muy fuerte.”
The couple was paranoid that the colectivos would attack them again after leaving the hospital. They sold their home and moved in with Hernandez’s father while they applied for a tourist visa to America. Within two weeks, they were on a plane to Miami. They knew Venezuela was not a place where they could raise their son in peace.
Now Hernandez and Narvaez are living in Hialeah with family members. Next up is the arduous process of figuring out how to survive here. Since they are on a tourist visa, they are not legally allowed to work, forcing them to rely on family members for financial support.
“We are waiting to hear back about our application for political asylum,” says Hernandez. “I just want to start working legally. The important thing is to find something to help us sustain ourselves — any job would be good.”
Refugees are allowed to apply for tourist, educational or work visas once they arrive in America and may then apply for political asylum to remain in the country. But, residency is not always guaranteed like it is for Cubans under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
However, Venezuelan newcomers are getting an assist from the Cuban community, which remembers what it’s like to flee oppression and economic collapse.
Cuban-American US Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act in 2015. The bill would give permanent residency to Venezuelan refugees who have been in the United States since January 2013 and have not been convicted of any crimes, much like the act that put tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants on a path to legal residency and citizenship in 1996. Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also backs the bill.
That’s no surprise, says local Venezuelan activist Helene Villalonga.
“Castro’s dictatorship bases their participation on domination, suffering and death,” says Villalonga. “The difference is, in our case, it’s not necessarily Venezuela governing our country. Everything that is happening is structured from the Cuban regime.”
While he supports the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act, Hernandez does not plan to continue protesting or organizing against the Maduro regime and does not plan to return to Venezuela at all either.
“As soon as we stepped foot here, I felt physically safe. Over there, there was a fear that anything could happen at any moment,” says Hernandez. “So while I was very sad about leaving my family, my country and friends, I felt and I continue feeling safe because this government protects me.”