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What are your ties to Venezuela? When did you come to the United States and why?
I was born and raised in Venezuela and permanently moved to the United States in 2000. Venezuela is a diverse South American country. We are happy people who love to share everything. We are loud; we are friendly; and we are family driven.
My first introduction to American culture was when I was 16. I lived in California with an American family after coming to the States as an exchange student. I was able to immerse myself in this culture and understand how the “iceberg” looks below the surface. I fell in love with the American way of living, how free I was to be who I wanted to be. I went back home after my exchange year, but fought really hard for eight years to come back to the United States. In 2000, I had an opportunity to continue my education in electrical engineering at the University of Delaware that I later finished at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The main reason I really love the United States, though, is that it is truly the land of opportunity; it really makes you understand how hard work pays off, how you can strive to be better every day, and find success in everything you do.
What is happening in Venezuela?
This is a complex question to answer because the perspective of each Venezuelan is different based on their experience.
To say that Venezuelans living in the country are struggling is an understatement; Venezuelan citizens are dying in a very cruel war, but not a war with weapons. This is a psychological war in which citizens have been put in inhumane conditions, like not having access to the basic services necessary to live, such as water, food, medicine, electricity, decent salaries, or job opportunities.
The media does not show how bad things are. What you see on the news is 15 percent of what is truly happening. Big news networks have been pushed out of the country and it is really hard to report what is taking place. Venezuelans living outside the country have taken it upon themselves to push the truth out in as many ways as possible. Whatsapp and social media have been the best way to do this.
Hugo Chavez took power in 1998 and his policies drove the country into a deep economic and educational decline. Before I left in 2000, I remember how after just two years of Chavez’s rule, poverty did not improve. In fact, it got worse while corruption increased. Our currency’s value went down; inflation increased to levels never seen in Venezuela’s history.
Nicolas Maduro came to power in 2013 and made a system that was not working worse. Elections were not fair and there was no chance for anyone else in the government to challenge him. This happened because his government controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. People who opposed them became political prisoners, were forced to leave the country, or were killed.
The last presidential election took place in 2018. In early 2019, Juan Guaido, who is the president of the national assembly and the opposition leader, declared himself the interim president on the basis that Maduro’s rule was illegitimate. However, Maduro refuses to relinquish power, so there is no end in sight for this crisis without international intervention.
So, what is happening in Venezuela? In the simplest way, men, women, and children are dying of hunger and a lack of basic medicine. They are killed by government-backed militias. People are doing anything they can to survive, like eating spoiled food, drinking water from sewers, and dying of infections in hospitals that cannot provide basic health care. In addition to all of this, the country’s electrical system has failed almost completely; the entire country has experienced blackouts for days, creating chaos and desperation everywhere.
How is your family impacted? Do they have access to food and resources?
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Once a year, I am able to bring at least one member of my immediate family to the United States for a visit. What is really sad is how we went from buying a bag of chocolate for them to take home to buying basic food items. I remember about five years ago when my mom came to visit and she said, “Rosa, we need to go buy toilet paper and toothpaste to take back home, we also need protein, it is very expensive and we cannot afford it.”
We were never rich, but we were middle class, affording basic food was not hard. We had jobs and salaries. Unfortunately, finding food got harder and harder; finding medicine became impossible. In 2018, my family’s living situation reached a point where some of our extended family were eating leftovers from my family house. We also could not find medicine for my dad who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
All of my family have issues with electricity, with food, with medicine, with life. My heart shrinks when I hear their desperation because they are standing all day in a line to get a gallon of gasoline for a generator to power their fridge; without that power, the little meat they have would spoil. How can this be the country I grew up in and that had so many resources?
In Maracaibo, the country’s second largest city and where I am from, the average daily temperature is 95 degrees. Electricity outages have had unspeakable consequences for my aunts, my cousins, and my friends. They have no cold water to drink, no ability to make food, to buy food, to move around because there is no transportation. They can’t check on each other because cell phone service is down. Simple things like watching TV are considered something of the past, something that you cannot do or even think about. Our people do not live, they survive.
Do you think Venezuela is a true democracy? Why or why not?
No, Venezuela is not a democracy. These dictators (Chavez and Maduro) and all the people that support their system have managed to make a mockery of a democratic system. They use populism as a strategy to control the country. They have committed crimes against humanity and they have destroyed the Venezuelan economy.
How would you compare life in the United States to life in Venezuela?
It is not comparable. Here in the United States, there are laws and education and there are rights. These things are nonexistent in my country.
Venezuela is not a country any more, the fact that we have had the largest exodus of our population in our history makes the comparison of living almost in any other country in the world better than being at home.
Christopher Walsh serves as Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.Full Bio
Ioanna Papas is a Senior Manager, Editorial for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Before joining the Bush Institute Ioanna worked at Golin and strategically supported her client, Texas Instruments, in making a move from traditional public relations to content marketing with a focus on social media influencers. Prior to joining Golin, she provided support and expertise for a number of clients including Dish Network, UT Southwestern, Sabre Technologies, HOLT CAT, Hillwood and Benefitfocus. In these roles, she assisted in media relations, external campaign development and execution, and provided writing, editing and strategic implementation support.
Ioanna graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in online journalism. After completing multiple internships, one resulting in an article published in the New York Times and winning the Investigative Reporters and Editors student award for investigative reporting, she pursued a journalism career in Beaumont, Texas.Full Bio
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