Social and economic insecurity in Caracas has a significant impact on Venezuelans in Massachusetts
One late March morning, corridos — the socially conscious ballads popular throughout Central and Latin America — blared throughout the blue and gold basement chapel of Tremont Temple Baptist Church. About 21 people mingled around a table of coffee and breakfast pastries, exchanging pleasantries in Spanish, name tags on their chests listing their names and occupations. It was a networking event for Venezuelans in the Boston region. And while ostensibly nonpolitical, it was organized and attended by outspoken critics of the current socialist government like local activist Cristina Aguilera and journalist and scholar Ana Julia Jatar. Many participants had taken part in local protests in solidarity with anti-government demonstrations in Caracas, and in one-on-one interviews most didn’t hesitate to call the Venezuelan government authoritarian, criminal, or corrupt.
One month later, in April, the recently formed Venezuelan Solidarity Committee screened Oliver Stone’s My Friend Hugo to commemorate the anniversary of the 2002 coup attempt that forced the late President Hugo Chávez out of office (and suspended the constitution) for three days. The documentary was controversial for its humanizing and favorable portrayal of the commandante, a much-maligned figure in mainstream English-language news media. While about 20 people went to the evening screening at encuentro 5 — a “space for progressive movement building in the heart of Boston” — most weren’t Venezuelans, and most Venezuelans in attendance were from the consulate.
The disparity isn’t too surprising. “The majority [of Venezuelans] here tend to support the opposition,” Jorge Marin said. Marin has lived in the US since 1974 and formed the Boston Bolivarian Council (named in honor of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution), which ran from 2002 to 2011. The new committee, made up of 15 people, aims to resurrect his previous campaigns of education, discussions, and gathering delegations to visit Venezuela.
Marin’s political stance is somewhat rare among Venezuelan immigrants, highlighted by the fact there are so few venezolanos in the area.
Overall, Venezuelan immigrants are usually better off than most other Latin American immigrant groups, often from middle or upper-class families, well educated, and light skinned or identifying as white. According to Pew Hispanic, Venezuelans’ median earnings were higher than the general Hispanic population’s (though still lower than the overall US median). Traditionally, Venezuelans, the 13th-largest population of Latino origin, come to America either for work or education, but a turbulent political and economic climate at home has resulted in an influx of immigrants applying for asylum.
In fact, Venezuelans are now the fifth-largest group of asylum seekers.
“In the last three years, Venezuelans filed 7,000 applications,” says Aguilera’s husband, Julio Henriquez, an immigration lawyer who also handles Venezuelan asylum cases with the Refugee Freedom Program.
Part of Henriquez’s job is to educate people on asylum. The majority of Venezuelan asylum seekers may not meet the requirements, leading some to resort to illegal means to secure that status with false claims or evidence. Most Venezuelans are coming over for either political or economic reasons, Henriquez notes.
Politically, many are upset with President Nicolas Maduro’s tenure, which critics say has been strict. “This government has shown itself to be far more authoritarian than the previous one,” Henriquez says. He describes clashes between protesters and security forces, which led to many arrests, injuries, and even deaths. Crime is rampant: Caracas is now among the most violent cities in the world.
On top of that, Venezuela’s economy is in a tailspin. This is popularly attributed to a drop in oil prices (or even government mismanagement), though the Council on Hemispheric Affairs notes other factors that US outlets often ignore. Namely, it describes the elites’ stranglehold on importation, distribution, and wholesaling of all goods, and their willingness to hoard goods to combat government policies — starving the nation in the process. At the beginning of 2016, Maduro declared an economic emergency. Other factors are making the collapse worse, like a poor exchange rate (the Venezuelan Bolivar values less than a US penny) and a lack of food production. Most recently, in response to a drought, the government declared all Fridays holidays, hoping a four-day work week will lessen the use of hydroelectric power created by its dams.
About 75 percent of Venezuelan immigrants settle in Florida, says Henriquez, especially in and around Miami. In fact, the population down south is so concentrated that Weston, FL earned the nickname “Westonzuela.” It’s a different story in Boston.
“There is no Venezuelan community in Boston, in the sense that there are no towns or neighborhoods that are predominantly Venezuelan,” says Henriquez.
Most Venezuelans in Boston are students, according to Omar Sierra of the Venezuelan consulate in Back Bay. In fact, before the current financial crisis, many Venezuelan students received financial help for studying abroad. Sierra also notes that Rhode Island is home to a more working-class Venezuelan population.
Despite the increase in tension and violence, this year the elections were much more peaceful, says Sierra. “Jimmy Carter said we have the best system in the world,” he added, referring to glowing praise from the ex-president in 2012 following the Carter Center’s survey of 92 elections worldwide. (According to Associated Press, the Carter Center closed its Caracas office last May “to concentrate its limited resources in other countries that have solicited its support.”)
Sierra and others interviewed for this story say US outlets are biased on Venezuelan affairs. For all the predictions that Maduro would rig, steal, or ignore the election after his party lost two-thirds of the National Assembly, Sierra says, “the left acknowledged its defeat.” He also claims many outlets were silent when hitmen assassinated indigenous Yukpa chief Sabino Romero in the midst of land struggle between indigenous people and ranch owners.
“They only care about white political prisoners,” he says. Additionally, the fact many policies aimed to reduce the power of Venezuela’s historically white ruling class to empower those of indigenous and African heritage complicates the usual narrative most English-speaking media provides.
Many would also point to a steady decrease in wealth as a result of government policies since 1997. But again, the story’s a bit more complicated. From 1997 to 2011, the top 20 percent’s share of Venezuelan wealth dropped from from 53.6 to 44.8 percent; over the same period, the poorest 20 percent’s share increased from 4.1 to 5.7 percent, the number of people in extreme poverty decreased, literacy rates increased, and infant mortality decreased.
“I still think the Bolivarian way is the best way,” says Marin, referring to such achievements. But “Maduro has a tough job.”
Cristina Aguilera, the organizing director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, was the main organizer behind March’s event. Sporting a turquoise blazer and bouncing a baby in one arm, she gathered everyone in front of the chapel’s stage where two rows of seats faced each other. Everyone took a chair and introduced themselves to the person they were facing, eventually shifting to their right every two minutes — “speed networking,” Aguilera called it.
It’s not just professional networking: Here people could get help with asylum; learn about good schools, neighborhoods, and restaurants; and maybe even find friends. While the Greater Boston area is home to many clusters of immigrant neighborhoods, Venezuelans are more spread out and fewer in number, which makes connecting with people from the patria (“homeland”) difficult. That Saturday morning in March was a rare opportunity for many local Venezuelans.
It’s the second time Aguilera’s organized the event, bringing people from Boston, Medford, Melrose, and other communities together.
“I think the fact this is happening within the Venezuelan community gives a level of comfort in speaking because we’re the same culture, speak the same language,” says Aguilera.
Aguilera herself benefited from last year’s event, discovering a scholarship opportunity for an MBA program that could bring her brother to the States.
“It’s a dream come true for him and me, because he’d be safe here,” she says. “There’s currently no path for him to come here. I am a US citizen. If I petition for him, it’ll take him 12 years with paper to get to this country. I always explain that to people when they say ‘get in the line.’ There’s no line — just people who cannot come here at all!”
It’s safe to say Marin and Sierra wouldn’t find too many sympathizers at the event. While group conversation revolved around employment, opportunity, and old and new homes, in interviews most people cited concerns with safety or the economy as a reason for coming to this country, and didn’t shy away from criticizing the government.
“Having a gun pointed at you is not something you want to experience twice in your life,” says Kelly Rengel, an optometry coordinator for a South End Health Center. “That happened to me. Thankfully I haven’t been kidnapped.” Rengel traveled back and forth for 13 years, eventually settling in Boston when Venezuela became too dangerous. It wasn’t easy to leave friends and family behind. “At the back of your head, in the bottom of your heart, what you look for is warmth from your city, from your country,” she says.
The crash also hurt students studying abroad. Some are lucky enough to go to schools that understand the situation. For example, Alejandro Witschi received a lot of aid from Brandeis University and recently graduated.
In 2015 and the first few months of 2016, many students resorted to the black market’s currency exchange rates, which are far from favorable — one dollar fetches 900 Bolivars. This was a lot more expensive than any official exchange rate (about 172 Bolivars per dollar). As TeleSur notes, Venezuela imposed specific restrictions on who could access official exchange rates — students studying abroad, international travelers, and those importing essential goods. For a while, the exchange rate was roughly 2.15 bolivars per dollar, and it stayed stable until 2008’s global economic crisis. When that happened, the demand for dollars increased while bolivars devalued, and as the gap between official and unofficial rates widened, people took advantage of the gap — which worsened after Chávez’s death.
This was especially true for those importing goods, who gamed the system by purchasing subsidized imports and then exporting them for a profit (about 40 percent of imported goods were estimated to have been smuggled out again in 2014). The government introduced a new exchange rate to help resolve the situation, but it also led to an overcirculation of dollars, which accelerated inflation. TeleSur sums it up as “a vicious cycle of inflation, shortages, black market devaluation, and renewed inflation” (a cycle it also credits to the opposition group’s destablization attempts).
“Corruption was not only in the governemnt, but also in the private industries,” said Marin.
Another factor, Marin notes, is DolarToday, an anti-Bolivarian website that consistently devalues the bolivar, strengthening black market rates. The site’s been criticized by both sides: One article in the rightwing paper El Universaldenounced the website for causing “irreparable damage.”
Mark Wiesbrot of the Center for Economic Policy and Research believes that Venezuela should unify exchange rates, which would combat the black market. That’s not an unrealistic goal: In March, Venezuela introduced the new DIPRO rate of ten Bolivars per dollar, which consolidated two of its exchange rates. Dollars from DIPRO are used to purchase imported vital goods like food and medicine and help students abroad pay tuition. However, black market rates still remain five times higher than the highest official rate.
“My ex-girlfriend [in the US] hired a babysitter who made more per hour than her father, who is a doctor back in Venezuela,” says Witschi, referring to the black market rate.
Venezuelans abroad often participate in solidarity protests to raise awareness of such issues. Some even start their own movements. For example, Ana Julia Jatar, chief editor of El Planeta and outspoken critic of Venezuela’s government, started the NGO Venezuelan Women in Action Against Violence. Founded two weeks before the networking event (which Jatar also attended), the NGO focuses on Venezuela’s imprisoned women and the unique abuses they suffer, including “white torture” — physical abuse that leaves no bruises, like smothering someone in a mattress and beating them.
“Some women told me it’s a generalized practice to starve them,” said Jatar. “NGOs have done a great job tracking political prisoners … [But] we believe that there has not been enough attention paid to gender issues in Venezuela. We strongly believe most of these women do not have a voice and [are] ashamed of describing out loud their treatment.” When asked whether her NGO would feature any specific focus on indigenous women, Jatar said it will and added that it will also help women from the government’s party who need it.
“Venezuelan society is a very mixed society — it’s difficult to find pure races,” she added. However, such a claim clashes with the efforts and statements of Afro-Venezuelans like congressman Modesto Ruiz, who once said “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and endo-racism are components of Venezuelan society that obey historic arguments.” However, Jatar acknowledges that “there are indigenous communities that have kept their identities that get overlooked.” Marin adds you could see the racial contrast between Chávez supporters and his opponents.
Venezuelans are also able to vote abroad. Sierra said most 2015 voting efforts were helmed by students, from registration to counting the ballots, cooperating with the embassy. Aguilera and Henriquez also founded Voto Boston, an offshoot of VotoDondeSea, to encourage people to register in the elections. It’s a non-partisan group, says Aguilera, but Marin notes they never seem to attend his events — “They know what the majority thinks,” he sighs.
Marin doesn’t dismiss the criticism of the Bolivarian government, and he understands that such frustrations come from a real place — like waiting hours in lines for food and essentials. “People are tired of shortages of food.…You can’t compare a developed country with a third world country,” he says, describing easier access to facilities and goods. “I can’t deny it’s easier.”
While every immigrant group varies, there are always familiar themes at play. Like the common expectation that one will return home at some point, their time in the US either a brief adventure or a temporary escape — an expectation that gets complicated, either as life in America improves or the situation in their home country remains unsafe or undesirable. And that’s why connections can be so valuable.
Henriquez, for example, followed Aguilera to the States when she took a job with a labor union. “I thought it would be just for a couple years — experience life in the USA and have fun.” He wound up working with labor unions for six years, attended law school here, and began practicing in Boston. Eventually, Henriquez found himself helping many Venezuelan clients with immigration issues. Soon, it clicked.
“I needed to be more connected to my community, “ Henriquez says. “Maybe I didn’t realize that,”
Marin himself came over as a kid following his parents’ separation, joining his father in America. “I never saw myself coming here. I skipped English class — I had no need for it,” he says. Marin was an undocumented immigrant for a while, but he worked, graduated from Northeastern University, and became a successful mechanical engineer with several patents.
Of course, such parallels don’t really need to be drawn for both sides to coexist. “I have friends who are in the opposition,” says Marin. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do things together. There’s a large community that’s growing — people want to stay here.”