William Sanchez held several jobs in his native Venezuela and still could not afford to pay his living expenses. So in October, Sanchez, 50, left his house and work behind, and came to live in New Jersey, where he now plans to file for asylum.
Lucia Torres emigrated from Venezuela nearly two decades ago. She has responded to the worsening economic and humanitarian crisis there by sending packages of food and basic supplies every few months to her extended family in Venezuela.
In the midst of mounting tensions between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, Venezuelans in New Jersey are watching closely the developments and say they are encouraged that change may come soon to a country facing economic collapse and widespread hunger. New Jersey, with its large immigrant population, is home to a growing Venezuelan community, one of the largest in the nation that is now sending food, medicine and vital supplies to family members struggling to meet basic needs.
“It’s a fight that we’ve been waiting for, for a really long time, and it’s the first step to begin to reconstruct and be the country we once were,’’ said Angelica Gallardo, of Lodi, who moved to New Jersey from Venezuela more than eight years ago. “I hope it’s the first step of many for this government to fall.”
On Saturday, 200 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly from the United States, is supposed to make its way into Venezuela, but Maduro has closed off the country’s border with Brazil and said he may do the same near Colombia. He promised this week to stop any emergency food and medicine from entering the country, which he claims is part of a U.S. led coup. On Friday, Venezuelan soldiers fired on civilians who were attempting to keep parts of the border open for the aid to come through. One person was killed, many others injured.
Maduro, the socialist successor to Hugo Chavez, won reelection to a second term last year, but the vote was called fraudulent by the opposition, the United States and several other countries. The vote led President Trump to sign off on further economic sanctions against Venezuela and its government officials.
The U.S. recognized Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s leader last month, joining several other countries including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and more than a dozen members of the European Union.
Russia, China, Turkey, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua have expressed support for Maduro, who has refused to give up power and continues to be backed by the country’s military.
Guaidó has called Venezuelans to come together Saturday and help bring food and other items across the border from Colombia.
Sanchez, who is living in Bogota, said the humanitarian aid is desperately needed and said he is grateful to Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, who visited Colombia earlier this week. Rubio delivered a speech where he declared that preventing food and medicine from entering Venezuela would be a crime against humanity. Sanchez said he is also thankful for a fundraising concert, Venezuela Aid Live, in the town of Cucuta, near the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
“What is happening in Venezuela should have happened a long time ago,” he said, referring to the help the international community is providing.
Kali Martinez, of Maplewood, agreed, saying she wants Guaidó to be the beginning of meaningful change.
“I’ve been screaming to the skies, and at last, all the democratic world is at least hearing us and realizing how it is,” said Martinez, who left Venezuela in 2005. “And how every country has recognized our new president, who is completely honest and real and who has endured these 20 years of craziness.”
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There have been 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the country since 2015 due to the economic and political crisis there, according to the United Nations, which released its latest estimates in November.
The United Nation Office for Humanitarian Coordination (OCHA) said most of the migrants are residing in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia had the highest number with over one million, followed by Peru with half a million, Ecuador with some 220,000, and Argentina with 130,000.
Immigration from Venezuela also grew in the United States by 21 percent or almost 61,000 people between 2016 and 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. There are between 7,000 to 9,000 foreign-born Venezuelans who live in New Jersey, according to 5-year estimates published in 2017 from the American Community Survey. That is more than the approximately 6,000 that were estimated in 2010.
Sanchez said more than half of his neighbors in Venezuela had already migrated by the time he left, some went to Colombia, Ecuador, others to Europe. He said of the 20 or so houses on his block, about a dozen were empty when he left in October. He said the cost of living made it impossible for him to stay. He worked as a music instructor at a school, part-time in a barbershop, at a radio station and played music at night in different venues, he said, and he still couldn’t cover all of his living expenses, especially when something unexpected occurred.
“As a Venezuelan, all I wanted to do is work, and pay for my costs, and when my car broke down, and other things came along I couldn’t do it,” he said. “There was nothing we could do, every day things became more expensive, and then to see the desperation of the people, malnourished children, people going hungry, electricity not working and at times there was lack of potable water.”
His partner, Yobetsy Fuenmayor, who arrived in January, said the lack of available health care is also a problem that she experienced first-hand last month when she took her sister-in-law to a private clinic. Her sister-in-law, she said, was bleeding internally, but was not able to be seen at the first private clinic she took her to because there was no power.
“Thank God we were able to find another clinic that was able to take her,” she said. “She almost died.”
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Rice, cornmeal, sugar
Lucia Torres, of Secaucus, remembers when she used to send boxes of clothing to her cousins and other extended family members in Valencia on occasion, small gifts to show them that she was thinking of them. But about two years ago, things changed. The boxes that she and her siblings sent were no longer filled with clothing, but basic necessities.
“In one moment, everything changed, and they stopped wanting clothes, but food,’’ she said.
Now, when Torres goes grocery shopping, she often picks up extras. One day it’s a 20-pound bag of rice, another day flour or sugar, or toilet paper. She said she finds it ironic that she also sends white cornmeal for arepas — corncakes that are a staple in Venezuela and other South American countries– an item which is imported from Colombia.
“It comes from Colombia to here, and I send it to Venezuela,’’ she said.
She said at times she and her siblings have sent money, but she said that doesn’t always help.
“Sometimes there aren’t things available for them to buy,’’ she said. “Imagine not being able to wash your hands with soap, because they can’t find it, it’s just basic things.”
Gallardo, who works at a courier service on Main Street in Hackensack, said within the last year the business has been serving a growing number of Venezuelans, who also want to help family back home and who send boxes filled with items. On average, she said, the business sends 20 boxes to Venezuela a week, an increase from a half a dozen a week they used to send last year. The boxes, she said, usually contain non-perishable food items and over-the-counter medicine.
Gallardo, whose grandparents and an uncle still live in Venezuela, said she still sends them packages. They usually contain food, diapers, and other items they can use or sell to make money. She visited Venezuela two years ago and said she saw the change immediately. In the last year, her parents and brothers moved to Spain, she said.
“The streets, the construction, all of it is not maintained,’’ she said. “There is garbage on the street…the country seems abandoned in a way.”
Torres said things have to improve in Venezuela.
“We were rich in petroleum, in gold, and it’s a country that has it all, but unfortunately, we fell in hands we should not have landed,” she said. “If they don’t take advantage of what is going on now and gain more strength, then things won’t go well..this is about saving Venezuela.”