Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
On a Friday evening when many Connecticut residents were heading home to begin their weekends, Marla Velez drove though the rush hour traffic and gathering thunder storm clouds to a friend’s home in Simsbury to pick up household items and other essentials destined for shipment to her native Venezuela, a nation in the grips of a profound humanitarian crisis.
Velez, who works as a system administrator for a human resources company in Darien, makes the ride from Fairfield County to the Hartford suburb in order to gather up toothpaste, along with personal care products, toothbrushes, children’s clothing and other items desperately needed In the impoverished South American country.
The supplies Velez and others donate in Connecticut go to a regional collection site in New York City, from where they will be shipped via Miami to Venezuela.
“We also send money and medicine,” said the Shelton resident, who noted that the upcoming campaign will focus on children’s shoes.
Velez, like many of Connecticut’s approximately 2,300 Venezuela-born residents, an increase of 700 since 2010, view with despair and great concern the plight of their homeland where people must wait on long lines for scare food and medicine while the streets around them are rife with violence.
Sending aid is not enough for many Venezuelan-Americans. They also are speaking out through demonstrations and social media about what they see as a corrupt and, some say, failing narco-dictatorship that ignores human rights and brutally suppresses any dissent.
The Venezuelan immigrants are also staging protests and using social media to draw attention to Venezuelans being mistreated by their government and a population under constant stress due to runaway inflation, severe shortages of food, medicine and other necessities, and uncontrolled drug trafficking and deadly street violence.
Velez is a volunteer with the international human rights and humanitarian aid group Venezuela Somos Todos (We Are All Venezuela). Others contribute through the Venezuelan Alliance of Connecticut, which is connected with similar groups in the northeast and the southeast.
Clodomiro Falcon is president of the Venezuelan Association of Connecticut. “Anywhere there are Venezuelans, including Europe, Australia and Canada, we are in solidarity with what is happening (the protests) in Venezuela,” said the Trumbull resident.
Members of the Venezuelan Association also participate in demonstrations at Venezuela’s consulate in New York City and the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
“We are very peaceful, but we want to make the world know what is going on in Venezuela,” said Falcon, a former business owner who now works for the Spanish American Merchants Association in New Haven.
The long lines outside food stores and high crime rate were not part of the Venezuela that Velez left in 2000 to take a job in Connecticut. Her homeland was entering a period of prosperity, albeit with the beginnings of economic turmoil for the middle class, as President Hugo Chavez used booming government-controlled oil export revenues to pursue his socialist and anti-U.S. agenda.
In recent years, however, the price of oil has plummeted, leaving the government with less money to import necessities and Chavez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, and his Cuban cohorts have increasingly relied on force to deal with protests.
“The government is buying guns instead of food,” Velez said. Moreover, the Shelton resident added, the Maduro government does not accept humanitarian aid and even insulin sent for diabetics has been stopped at the border.
Among the items shipped to Venezuela are toothbrushes and dental floss for hospitals, which must make buying medicine at inflated prices a priority for their limited resources. “Patients and their families have to bring other supplies themselves,” Velez said.
More than 320,000 Venezuelans live in the U.S., according to 2015 Census survey. Most are clustered in Florida, Texas and New York City. The arrival of immigrants greatly accelerated last year with 18,000 Venezuelans applying for political asylum compared to 7,300 in 2015.
In Connecticut, much of the activism by Venezuelans takes place in Fairfield County, especially Norwalk, and the New Haven area where most of the immigrants live and work. Hartford also has a growing Venezuelan community.
In recent weeks, VST members have set up tables outside markets in New Haven, Norwalk, Trumbull and in other towns to provide information and to gather signatures on a petition to be sent to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands calling for an investigation of human rights violations in Venezuela under Maduro.
Maria Alejandra (seated), gathering signatures for the petition in New Haven, shows Mayor Toni Harp where she can add her name.
Velez said people have been very supportive of the VST petition, which cites more than 800 documented cases of human rights violations in Venezuela, but also are surprised at what is happening in a country known of its natural beauty and petroleum resources.
Part of the problem, the former Caracas resident said, is that the horrific conditions in her homeland are not covered by most mainstream news sources here and the government controls the media in Venezuela.
“So many things are happening that are not in the news,” said Velez, who relies on information from friends and relatives and what appears in social media. Her Facebook page regularly includes video of protests and even the recent fatal shooting of a young demonstrator by a soldier.
Venezuela Somos Todos also has a Facebook page under “vstmondo,” which includes videos and photos of the group’s activities in several U.S. and European cities as well as reports on what is happening in Venezuela.
Much of what Velez shares about the humanitarian crisis and government repression is through personal contacts who live in Venezuela or who have been there recently.
For example, Velez said a journalist friend told her about an incident in which the military took away her camera while she was photographing a protest where people were beaten. The woman was then hauled off to jail where soldiers performed obscene acts on her person.
Another example of human rights violations that Velez cites involves people who live near the border with Colombia. These Venezuelans have reported that they are stripped and totally searched to ensure they are not taking money with them to buy supplies in the neighboring country.
Both Velez and Falcon work with aid coordinators in New York City and have learned that shipments of medical supplies have been seized by the government. Consequently, the aid organizations are exploring alternative delivery channels.
Another area of concern is the presence among the Venezuelan communities in Florida and Texas of gated mansions owned by what are called the “boligarch,” named after the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar. Some of these people are the corrupt businessmen who stole billions of dollars from the Venezuelan government under Chavez.
Falcon said the Venezuelan Alliance groups identify and protest in front of the homes of people who have profited from their connections with the Venezuelan government and spend their money here.
Through the years, some of organizations have dealt with the issue of differing views about politics in Venezuela, including some members who were pro-Chavez.
Falcon said that while people can take partisan positions individually, the nonprofit association is a “civic organization and is not used for political purposes.” He added, “What we do here has no political impact there (Venezuela).”
Velez came to this country before Chavez had instituted his economic policies. She was trained in information technology, but knew no English. However, she was given a work visa and soon met other Venezuelans, including Falcon.
During the years, Velez, who is now U.S. citizens, saw a government bloated with oil revenue under Chavez nationalize many businesses, embrace Fidel Castro’s Cuba and pump up anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
Many immigrants were members of what has been described by CNN as a “thriving middle class,” business owners and professionals, who fled the economic and political turmoil that started under Chavez and has severely worsened under Maduro as the lifeblood of the Venezuelan economy, oil, has plummeted in price.
No longer able to subsist in an environment of worsening inflation, chronic food shortages and urban violence, more impoverished Venezuelans also are leaving. Many are relocating to nearby islands, such as Curacao, and to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, where they are becoming a burden to local authorities.
Velez said most of the Venezuelans she knows in Connecticut have been here since she arrived and mainly are business and professional people. She suggested that some of the newer arrivals may be joining relatives already here.
Supporting and guiding newcomers is part of of the Venezuelan Alliance’s mission. The organization also serves as source of social and cultural activities, which include sponsoring sports like volleyball and a men’s softball team, which Falcon said is “unbeatable.”
Last Christmas, the Alliance threw a party replete with Venezuelan music and food. This was the first Christmas away from their country and some even cried to see a bit of their culture shared in their new land, Falcon said.