Venezuelans in NYC Reject Election and Warn of Displacement

Edinson Calderón moved to NYC only three weeks ago. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“Desperate.” That is the word Venezuelans are most commonly using to describe their country’s grave situation, which has led almost 3 million people to migrate in the last 10 years and has generated the largest humanitarian crisis of displacement in the history of Latin America, according to the United Nations.

New York has not been exempt from the influx of Venezuelans who are literally “fleeing for their lives” and whose presence is increasingly noticeable in the city. Activists and community leaders say that the numbers surpass 25,000 in the tri-state area. After Sunday’s presidential election – which the international community and the expatriates themselves have described as a fiasco, saying that it only seeks to perpetuate Nicolás Maduro’s power – the situation is expected to worsen (…)

“People are suffering with a minimum wage of $2 per month and are leaving because it is now a matter of survival. You are no longer leaving because you are seeking comfort or for whatever you think is best. No, now it is about staying alive. People are desperate and they are starving to death, including a large number of children due to malnutrition, as well as adults, for lack of medication,” said Edinson Calderón, 28, who arrived in New York City just three weeks ago.

Like most Venezuelans abroad, he sees the election as a fraud foretold – “the largest in the world” – that will make the country’s situation direr. “The people who vote [in the election] are legitimizing the fraudulent Constituent Assembly created by Maduro,” stressed Calderón, adding that helping his loved ones in Venezuela is a priority to him. He fears that they will endure more need as the Chavista regime consolidates after the election. “I have to help my family with the little I have. They would starve if I didn’t.”

From the Mexican border to NYC

Calderón is an example of the thousands of Venezuelans who risked everything to leave their country after the crisis intensified under Maduro’s presidency. He was able to obtain political asylum after an epic journey to the United States through Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico.

In Venezuela, he was the victim of police abuse, mistreatment and threats after he was arrested in the 2014 protests staged across the country in reaction to the death of three students at the hands of law enforcement officers. “On June 27, 2014, at a protest in which I carried a huge Caracas flag, I was stopped by some 10 officers who beat me up and kicked my head as if it were a soccer ball. As I was on the floor, they wrapped me in the 50-meter [164-foot] flag and put a plastic bag over my head to suffocate me,” said Calderón. Although he was released after a few days, his life was in danger due to the constant persecution from the government’s intelligence services. (…)

“I had to flee the country to save my life,” said Calderón, whose journey from Caracas ended at the Tijuana border. There, he applied for asylum even before crossing into the United States by showing his documents at the San Ysidro point of entry.

“After I applied for asylum, they took me to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego [California] where I spent four months. Then, on a Thursday, my case was approved, and that is when I came to the Big Apple, where I hope to carry on with my life.”

Niurka Meléndez left Venezuela with her 8-year-old son and her husband to request asylum in the United States, and has lived in New York for the last two years. She, too, believes that the election is a farce. “It is more than clear that no one was electing anyone in this act that took place on Sunday, so it is hard for me to call it an ‘election.’ All this man who has kidnapped my homeland wants is to make it look in the eyes of the world like we do have elections, when what is really happening there is that people are being held hostage by a group of scoundrels. [People] are afraid to express themselves because their rights may be violated in the worst possible ways you can imagine, or they can even get killed.”

For that reason, said Meléndez, the diaspora has a great responsibility and duty to raise their voices for those who remain there and are unable to. “The people in the homeland who speak out are risking too much, and we cannot judge those who are silent, because they are afraid of being disappeared.”

She also criticized the Venezuelan Consulate in New York for not offering any kind of official information about the election and said that it does not function as a place where people can go to find out more about what is going on in their country, the way other consular offices in the city – such as those of Mexico and Ecuador – do. “The moment the consulate finds out you belong to the Venezuelan diaspora, they stop considering you a Venezuelan. This is a reality those of us outside the country are facing. Instead of having a consulate, over there they consider us stateless just because we condemn the situation in our country.”

Even on the occasion of the presidential election, El Diario was unable to confirm if the consulate offices, located in Manhattan, would be open for Venezuelans to exercise their right to vote.

El Diario requested comments from the diplomatic site which went unanswered. No one was answering at the number listed on their website. It always sent us to voicemail, which was full.

As part of the “World Protest against Electoral Fraud,” Venezuelans in NYC carried out a demonstration in Union Square Park on Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Helping asylum seekers in the Big Apple

Figures from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) show that, in the first trimester of this year, Venezuelans submitted the largest number of asylum petitions to the agency, with more than 7,600 cases or 27 percent of the total.

The fact that New York is one of the cities seeing a rapid increase in the number of applications drove Niurka Meléndez, Wendell Oviedo, Yónatan Mathews and Héctor Arguinzones to create the Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid – VIA group. With it, they intend to act as a source of information for Venezuelans living in New York City whose petitions are being processed.

Meléndez said that her organization represents a “migrant group that was forced to leave their homes,” and that they seek to empower the diaspora. “We are everyday citizens, regular citizens, and we simply want to guide people by sharing what worked for us as asylum seekers in this city and give our community access to that information so they can, in turn, tell other Venezuelans in the same situation.”

Through their Twitter account @vianycorg and their Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid – VIA Facebook page, the group is trying to make up for the lack of information prevalent in their community. “As we wait for our own asylum cases to be resolved, it is important to know that we have the right to a good quality of life because that is our right as human beings. What kind of quality of life? To be informed, for instance, about where we can find free legal resources, emergency health insurance or an affordable place to rent,” said Meléndez.

In addition to organizing those arriving from Venezuela, the group also aims to educate the diaspora – people who have been in New York for years – to help them understand “what we Venezuelans are now.”

(…)

While the 2010 Census records 9,600 Venezuelans living in New York City, according to activists’ estimates, the number is now closer to 25,000, after migration spiked in 2013 when Maduro took power.

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