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On refugees

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Twenty years ago, on the morning of Monday December 7th, the streets of Caracas and almost all major cities in Venezuela were celebrating with joy. The savior we had so long been waiting for had been elected president the day before, under the electoral system that did not have a second round and did not take into account that the majority of the people had voted against him. Those of us that did so looked out the streets and knew, with no little uncertainty, that this would end badly.
At that time I had a prime view of one of the major streets of the city. Caravans of people in cars waved to each other, with posters of Hugo Chavez being waved too. The losers were so easy to recognize it was a joke. The winners were easy to spot too. My girlfriend at the time looked out the window with me and asked me what would happen now. Too much time has gone by and my memory cannot recall if she said so crying or just simply in sadness. But joy it was not.
She now lives in Portugal, and migrated from Venezuela to the USA around 2003 (she left the USA after the election of 2016, the similarities too much to bear). Out of a group of 9 friends that I had, 8 have left the country. We are spread around the world, in an impressive Diaspora: Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Australia. One of those friends, who returned to the country to attend to some issues, reported that in the building where he grew up (his mother is still there) there is NOT one single floor where at least an apartment has been left abandoned and every single family has a son or daughter living in exile.
Because that is what it is. Exile. Venezuela has lost 3 million people that have left the country. Migrations like this one, fueled by economic ruination, go by stages. First, the rich leave, because of the inconveniences of leftist revolutions. They fly to South Florida, Madrid, NYC and other affluent places where life is better. Or simply normal. The second wave of migrants (to which I belong) are the professional elites, people that can find jobs in other places and therefore keep their standard of living. The third involves skilled labor.
And now the fourth wave has arrived. This migration of 3 million people has reached the final stage: refugees pouring over the border not looking for a better life but looking for survival. It has not been covered extensively by CNN or BBC or any important news outlet because it lacks the sexy part that news outlets demand: a war. A visual pornography of suffering to provide a background for the “battle tested” War Correspondent to stand in the middle and report the suffering. Refugee camps are impressive sights which grasp the visual attention of the viewer, before the news cut to something else (“and now, FASHION”). The lack of an actual war does not give CNN the chance to plug in the military expert to explain the fine details of the differences between the American made bombs and the Russian made ones. There are no plumes of smoke lifting from the center of a town being raised to the ground by some savage forces. There is nothing sexy and marketable for the news outlets to show.

The Venezuelan drama has been played in slow motion, in slow stages. And the stories are mundane, unless you are one of us. I live in Bogota as I escaped all that tragedy in 2009. I simply could not face the sickening story on a daily basis. But the story has followed me, with a vengeance. Bogota being so close to Venezuela has become a magnet for those that have been displaced. As I walk around my neighborhood there are poor people on the streets begging for alms, a coin, anything. It sickens me to the core. They have some peculiar habits: for some reason, some of them wave Venezuelan currency in what I believe is an identifier to what they are. Other make cardboard signs with an explanation: “I am Venezuelan. I am desperate. I have a daughter to feed. Help!” Stories abound: Venezuelan women have become easy prey to human traffickers, young men easy fodder to criminal activities. On my last trip back home, on the way back, the young woman sitting next to me burst into tears as the plane took off. Her story was common and perhaps shared by half the plane. Unlike me, she was not going back to a place called home. She was leaving home to a place called uncertainty. Unknown. Unwelcomed.
The displacement of Venezuelans is also tragic in the sense that it is widely ignored by the majority of the planet. Our numbers are comparable to the Syrian crisis, yet few people know about us. It is not a competition, mind you. It is that a crisis being unknown is even more of a crisis simply because the suffering goes unnoticed. The hungry have less of a chance to get something to eat, the abused to be noticed, the desperate to get solace.
It has been twenty years. When I call home, many in my family and my friends tell me “you can’t imagine what it is like”. And I refrain from answering because of my love for them and because I do not like to put down people. But the reality is that I can perfectly well imagine it. I did, twenty years ago, looking out that window, as the masses celebrated. I wonder how many of those cheering for Chavez in 1998 now have been split from sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends. I wonder if their children walk Bogota (or Buenos Aires, Santiago, Madrid, anywhere) with a sign expressing desperation. And I wonder if, because we are so many now, that makes us all equal. When I left the country I was migrating. It was my choice. I did so because I wanted to and it was the best for me. But when three million people do the same and we all share a passport and a remnant of soil in our feet, I wonder if we all become the same. Regardless of wealth or condition, we all fell from grace.
We all became refugees.

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Updated 01-12-2019 at 07:38 AM by ponchi101



  1. GlennHarman's Avatar
    Ponchi, Many thanks for this, also. What a mess this has all become, and you are so right that the world is taking far too little notice.

    I could have mentioned this to you in a private message, but I don't think so: In one of my Spanish classes, we read a very short essay by Claudia Larraguibel entitled, "Al amigo que se quedó". (Not for you, but for English speakers, a good translation would be "To the friend who stayed behind") Though short, this essay was incredibly powerful. It was written by a woman who was one of a close group of 6 friends, all but one of whom had become part of the far-flung Diaspora of Venezuelans. She had met this friend in Lima, and their discussion had been heartbreaking, for her, and for us the readers. I would recommend this short essay to anyone with interest in this subject. It really says so many of the same things you said above. I found her and your essays to be very informative and touching.