Why peo­ple are flee­ing Venezuela

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cate Ta­mara Taraciuk Broner finds pol­i­tics and poverty in­ter­twine

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Ta­ma­raTaraciuk

Anacelis Al­faro’s trou­bles started late last year in the main plaza of Bar­quisimeto, the quiet cap­i­tal of Venezuela’s Lara state, on the banks of the Tur­bio River. Al­faro, 51, was an event plan­ner for a pri­vate univer­sity there — and an ac­tivist for the op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal party Pop­u­lar Will, in charge of or­ga­niz­ing work­ing-class neigh­bor­hoods through­out Lara.

One day in De­cem­ber, the party was cel­e­brat­ing its an­niver­sary fi­esta in the town square; Al­faro’s key­note speech ex­tolled the role of women in pol­i­tics, men­tioned the ar­bi­trary jail­ing of party leader Leopoldo López and urged hope in grim times. She basked in the De­cem­ber sun­shine, catch­ing up with ac­tivists from var­i­ous states, and went home with­out a clue that life as she knew it was over.

The next day, a crim­i­nal judge is­sued a war­rant to search the homes of two party ac­tivists for “posters and signs” and “other ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal in­ter­est.” Al­faro, un­aware that her apart­ment was on the list, was vis­it­ing friends for the week­end in nearby Carabobo state. So when the

po­lice ar­rived in her small unit, only her 79year-old mother, who lived with her, was there to see them ran­sack the place and to an­swer ques­tions about Al­faro’s where­abouts.

The war­rant did not spec­ify a crime, but a friend with links to the gov­ern­ment warned Al­faro to stay away from home. Of­fi­cers who in­ter­ro­gated the other ac­tivist for two days asked re­peat­edly where Al­faro was. So she spent a week hid­ing out with friends be­fore tak­ing their ad­vice to flee the coun­try. A friend fetched her pass­port, and Al­faro flew to Buenos Aires, where, af­ter months of get­ting her papers in or­der and seek­ing work, she found a job mak­ing sand­wiches in a fast-food restau­rant — ex­iled for the crime of dis­sent­ing. “I felt like a cow­ard,” Al­faro said when I met her in a Buenos Aires cafe. But, she added, “in jail, I am use­less.”

As Venezuela trans­forms into a po­lice state, hun­dreds of thou­sands are flee­ing hard­ship and per­se­cu­tion. His­tor­i­cally this coun­try wel­comed im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing many who es­caped the Latin Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ships of the 1960s and 1970s. (Ar­rivals from Ar­gentina, Chile and Uruguay in­creased by 800 per­cent dur­ing that pe­riod — a wave that in­cluded my par­ents, who fled Buenos Aires days be­fore the 1976 mil­i­tary coup.) But now the pipe­line moves in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, and coun­tries around the re­gion are scram­bling to re­turn the fa­vor.

I’ve in­ter­viewed dozens of peo­ple from the new Venezue­lan di­as­pora in re­cent months, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sion­als, stu­dents and mem­bers of in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties who left the coun­try by plane, as Al­faro did, or on days-long bus rides, or even on foot. They fled in search of food, med­i­cal treat­ment or shel­ter from per­se­cu­tion. Ar­gentina has more than dou­bled the num­ber of tem­po­rary-res­i­dent per­mits is­sued to Venezue­lans ev­ery year since 2014, reach­ing 35,600 in May, ac­cord­ing to Ar­gen­tine im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties. Chile has more than quadru­pled its visas to Venezue­lans in re­cent years, from 1,463 in 2013 to 8,381 in 2015. Peru has re­ceived more than 10,000 Venezue­lan re­quests to stay so far in 2017, im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties told Hu­man Rights Watch.

Venezuela was sixth on the 2014 list of coun­tries whose na­tion­als re­quested le­gal-res­i­dency per­mits in Uruguay, but it jumped to first place this year, au­thor­i­ties told Hu­man Rights Watch. Brazil has a back­log of thou­sands of Venezue­lan asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions, and Venezuela last year sent more asy­lum seek­ers to the United States than any other coun­try (some 18,000, ac­cord­ing to re­ports).

Each of my in­ter­vie­wees gave new mean­ing to the depth of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic col­lapse.

Hunger forced Pablo López, a 23-year-old mem­ber of the Venezue­lan Warao in­dige­nous com­mu­nity, to cross to Brazil. When I in­ter­viewed him in Fe­bru­ary, he was sleep­ing on the street in a Brazil­ian bor­der city with 100 of his fel­low Warao. Men, women and chil­dren lived, cooked and ate in ex­tremely un­hy­gienic con­di­tions there. López earned $1.40 an hour load­ing trucks. Other mem­bers of his com­mu­nity sold hand­i­crafts or begged. Every­one I spoke with told me they were bet­ter off in Brazil than in Venezuela.

Can­cer forced out Lud­iskel Mass, a 32-yearold school­teacher and ac­tivist with the op­po­si­tion party A New Time. Doc­tors in her home town, Mara­caibo, a city of 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple, told her in 2015 that her vagi­nal bleed­ing was prob­a­bly caused by a cyst, but they lacked the med­i­cal sup­plies to pro­vide a proper di­ag­no­sis. Two friends paid for her bus ticket to Lima, where she ar­rived af­ter a six-day road trip, she told me. In Peru, doc­tors di­ag­nosed her and op­er­ated suc­cess­fully to re­move uter­ine can­cer. A year later, she moved with her 11- and 12-year-old chil­dren to Lima.

Al­faro is quite sure she would be in prison if she hadn’t run. Many ac­tivists — the pow­er­ful and well-known, as well as the low-pro­file — have been ha­rassed, de­tained or threat­ened with ar­rest since she fled. The non­profit Venezue­lan Pe­nal Fo­rum counts ap­prox­i­mately 400 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and says that, since April, mil­i­tary courts have pros­e­cuted more than 460 civil­ians, over whom such courts are sup­posed to have no ju­ris­dic­tion.

On July 16, more than 7 mil­lion Venezue­lans par­tic­i­pated in an un­of­fi­cial plebiscite or­ga­nized by the op­po­si­tion with the sup­port of civil so­ci­ety groups, uni­ver­si­ties and hun­dreds of vol­un­teers. With their par­tic­i­pa­tion, they ex­pressed their op­po­si­tion to Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro’s pro­posal for a Con­stituent Assem­bly made up of gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers. About 10 per­cent did so from abroad. Two weeks later, Maduro went ahead with his plan any­way, erect­ing a Con­stituent Assem­bly with fright­en­ingly wide and vaguely de­fined pow­ers for an in­de­ter­mi­nate amount of time.

Whether they were flee­ing pri­va­tion or im­pris­on­ment, all the peo­ple I in­ter­viewed felt they’d had no choice but to leave. In Venezuela to­day, there are no in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions left to check ex­ec­u­tive power. The supreme court, which be­came an ap­pen­dix of the Mi­raflo­res Palace af­ter for­mer pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez stacked it in 2004, has re­peat­edly up­held mea­sures that erode Venezuela’s democ­racy and vi­o­late fun­da­men­tal rights. Re­cently, the court stripped the National Assem­bly of leg­isla­tive pow­ers — and in­stead of in­sist­ing on Maduro’s ad­her­ence to the con­sti­tu­tion, the court sup­ported his call to re­write it. It also re­jected ev­ery le­gal chal­lenge brought by At­tor­ney Gen­eral Luisa Ortega Díaz, a for­mer loy­al­ist who has be­gun to speak out against the gov­ern­ment. The National Elec­toral Coun­cil, like­wise, failed to carry out re­gional elec­tions that the con­sti­tu­tion man­dated for 2016 and de­layed a ref­er­en­dum to re­call Maduro — un­til the courts shut down the re­call ef­fort en­tirely.

The Maduro ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken ad­van­tage of its mo­nop­oly on power to ar­rest and pros­e­cute crit­ics, to dis­qual­ify op­po­nents from run­ning for of­fice — and jail them for good mea­sure — to de­tain or ex­pel jour­nal­ists, and to take TV chan­nels off the air. Venezue­lan se­cu­rity forces, to­gether with armed pro-gov­ern­ment groups, have bru­tally re­pressed mas­sive anti-gov­ern­ment protests, killing dozens, in­jur­ing hun­dreds and de­tain­ing thou­sands.

Since thou­sands of Venezue­lans took to the streets in early April to protest its grow­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, the gov­ern­ment has re­sponded with a bru­tal crack­down. Se­cu­rity forces have shot demon­stra­tors at point-blank range with riot-con­trol mu­ni­tions, run over demon­stra­tors with an ar­mored ve­hi­cle, beaten peo­ple who of­fered no re­sis­tance and bro­ken into the homes of sus­pected op­po­nents. The se­cu­rity forces have also ar­bi­trar­ily ar­rested hun­dreds of demon­stra­tors, by­standers and crit­ics.

Hernán González, 40, told me re­cently in Uruguay that he fled Venezuela af­ter the national guard killed his brother, Pablo. For years, he and his fam­ily had been hard-core chav­is­tas, but they had soured on the regime be­cause of food lines and mal­nu­tri­tion; they voted for the op­po­si­tion in the 2015 leg­isla­tive elec­tions. One evening in Novem­ber 2016, wit­nesses told González (which is not his real name), Pablo was play­ing domi­noes with friends on the side­walk near his home when guards­men de­tained him. Later that evening, Pablo’s body turned up at a lo­cal hos­pi­tal; mem­bers of the national guard told González that his brother had died in a “con­fronta­tion.” The body was cov­ered in bruises and had a bul­let hole in the chest.

The gov­ern­ment has also de­nied a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis re­sult­ing from the mis­han­dling of the econ­omy and has re­fused to reach out for read­ily avail­able international aid. So se­vere short­ages of medicine, med­i­cal sup­plies and food drive out more and more peo­ple like López and Mass, who can­not feed their fam­i­lies or get the most ba­sic health care. And the cy­cle of gov­ern­ment re­pres­sion and de­nial con­tin­ues. Days af­ter the health min­is­ter re­ported 2016 fig­ures show­ing sky­rock­et­ing ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity, in­fant mor­tal­ity and malaria cases, she was fired.

The South Amer­i­can na­tions giv­ing refuge to Venezue­lans have opened a pres­sure valve — al­beit a small one — on the cri­sis. But ex­ile is no per­ma­nent so­lu­tion. The prob­lem is the Maduro ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abu­sive poli­cies and prac­tices.

The re­gion’s lead­ers need to re­dou­ble pres­sure on Maduro to set a date for free and fair elec­tions with rig­or­ous international over­sight. They need to keep urg­ing him to end the re­pres­sion, re­lease all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, pros­e­cute hu­man rights crimes, re­store ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence, re­in­state the pow­ers of the National Assem­bly and al­low an am­ple flow of international aid. They need to im­pose sanctions against key of­fi­cials and sig­nal that hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors will even­tu­ally be brought to jus­tice, once ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence is re­stored in Venezuela.

The peo­ple in prison for dis­sent­ing, the peo­ple go­ing home empty-handed from bread lines and the peo­ple de­clin­ing with pre­ventable dis­eases de­serve as much. So do the ex­iles who are long­ing to re­turn to their coun­try.

Al­faro is get­ting used to Buenos Aires. She likes strolling the city, which she couldn’t do in her crime-rid­den coun­try. She has friends among the mi­grant Venezue­lans, and al­though she was grate­ful to learn restau­rant work late in life, she is hap­pier now that she has found a job us­ing her Caribbean charm to sell jew­elry. She col­lab­o­rates with Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion mem­bers who travel to Ar­gentina, and she ran one of the cen­ters in Buenos Aires for the July 16 plebiscite, so she knows she is con­tribut­ing to restor­ing democ­racy in Venezuela. But at the deep­est level, she feels homesick and dis­en­fran­chised. “I will even­tu­ally go back to my coun­try to help re­build it,” Al­faro said as we gath­ered our things to leave the cafe.

Ta­mara Taraciuk Broner is a se­nior Amer­i­cas re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: In­dige­nous Warao fam­i­lies from Venezuela camp near a viaduct next to a bus ter­mi­nal in Manaus, Brazil, in May. The grave of Fer­nanda Rat­tia, an 11-month-old Warao child, who died of pneu­mo­nia in Manaus. Warao chil­dren play at a house in the city. Even though con­di­tions in Brazil are bad, many Warao mi­grants say they are bet­ter than at home.

PHO­TOS BY BRUNO KELLY/REUTERS

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