(Dedicated to the student protesters who were killed in Venezuela.)
Almost all immigrants know the ache of longing for home. But for those who are forced to leave their home country, whatever the circumstances – war, crime, political repression – it can be almost impossible to stop thinking about the place and the people left behind. In fact, leaving can sometimes bring you closer.
This has been on my mind a lot lately as I go about my day. I live and work in Miami, and I frequently encounter Venezuelans who are deeply worried about the unrest that has followed anti-government protests there. During the day, they share the latest bits of news with each other (anything that has eluded President Nicolas Maduro’s censors), and at night they obsessively comb Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates. They have watched the videos of National Guard troops opening fire on helpless young protesters and using their helmets to beat demonstrators. They have seen the video clip showing the six uniformed men overwhelming a single woman and arresting her. They have seen bedlam on the streets and anguish on their countrymen’s faces.
Venezuelans living here have heard the outraged mother telling the media about her son, the protester who reported that he was detained and raped with a rifle by “those in green uniforms.” They have listened to the protester Cesar Cegarra’s heartbreaking account of his trying to get help for Genesis Carmona, a former beauty queen who was shot in the head and later died (an interview with Cegarra can be seen on jorgeramos.com). They have heard the story about the student who was shot, point-blank, in the face, and the story about the mother who wept over the still-warm body of her son at a morgue. They have seen the clip of the actor Wilmer Valderrama breaking down as he asked his fans on social media to pray for the nation.
Some Venezuelans come up to me on the street and anxiously ask for the latest news. “What have you heard?” they plead. But the fact is that they know much more than I do.
Their worries are common in a city where everyone seems to be from somewhere else. For 55 years, the city has been a haven for heartbroken Cuban exiles, who have watched Latin American officials build relationships with the authoritarian Castro regime. Miami has welcomed Central Americans who have escaped war and poverty, and Mexicans and South Americans who have sought refuge from violence, kidnappings, unemployment and corrupt political systems. The latest wave of such immigrants were the Venezuelans who left Chavez’s regime behind. Those of us who came before have embraced them in solidarity.
We know what it’s like, when times are hard back home, to pore over every detail reported on CNN in Español. We know what it’s like to worry about family members and friends, wondering if someone who isn’t picking up the phone has been beaten, robbed, or worse. We know what it’s like to live here, yet remain fully fixated on the safety of those who are there.
Venezuelans in Miami have also told me that they feel guilty when they do ordinary things like going to supermarket, since the stores here are full of basic goods that are now rare in Venezuela. On their way there, they may feel another pang as they consider how freely they can come and go – nobody in their neighborhood needs to block the streets in order to keep out the repressive militias that are funded and armed by the government. Those thugs are in Maduro’s hire – a man who will do anything to maintain power.
After all, Maduro, like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, has shown that he will use violence against his own people if they disagree with him. The memory of how Chavez quelled a massive demonstration against his government in Caracas in 2002, resulting in the deaths of 18 people, is still fresh in the memories of many Venezuelans. The memory of police opening fire on a group of student demonstrators protesting against Maduro’s government last month will be just as haunting. And things are getting worse: 17 people have been killed in the violence that has followed since.
As I wrote in a previous column, a president who allows students to be killed has lost any legitimacy as a leader. But unfortunately Maduro has a powerful accomplice on the international stage: silence. Leaders from other nations do not seem to be too concerned about what’s happening in Venezuela.
Of course, this is nothing new for Latin Americans living in Miami. As an immigrant from Mexico who has been in the United States for 30 years, I have seen this situation before, and I’m sure that I’ll see it again.
So we’ll try to console our Venezuelan neighbors by letting them know they are not alone. While they wait for news from back home, that’s all we can do.
This column is provided to Fusion courtesy of The New York Times Syndicate.
Jorge Ramos is one of the most influential journalists in news today. He’s been dubbed the Walter Cronkite of Hispanic media — a title he’s earned by taking on people in power over signature concerns like immigration, gun control and equality. Now, on Fusion, he brings that unique, raw and authentic sensibility to an English-speaking audience. “America with Jorge Ramos,” airs weekly on Tuesday on Fusion at 10 p.m. EST/7 p.m. PT.