Thousands fled Venezuela labelled as “traitors”
Produced by EVA COLMENERO
It’s February 2003.
My dad receives a call from his boss late at night, who indicates there’s a search and seizure warrant with my dad’s name and our address written on it.
My father is a suspect in hacking the state’s oil company during Venezuela’s nation-wide strike. The reason — he has a company laptop in his possession.
We’ve all heard the horror stories — If the military finds you at home, the women will get raped and killed, the men will get arrested and most likely sent to prison without trial.
Though only 14-years-old at the time, I understand that the law isn’t enforced in Venezuela. Law-enforcement officials — most of who are connected to the Chavez government — write the law as they see fit.
Forming an action plan
My mom is the first to react. She runs to the next-door neighbour. Within half an hour, my mother and I join a few women from other apartments. We’re all in our pyjamas. We are making contingency plans.
The whole meeting is a blur. I remember snippets of conversations. One of the neighbours offers to make homemade bombs to slow down the military if they try to break into the building. Another neighbour offers her home as a hiding place. Yet another one offers tea to calm everyone down.
We return home after midnight, put some clothes in small bags which we leave by the door. That night, and for the next few weeks, my parents and I sleep in the room with the smallest window. We are told that the smaller the target, the harder it is to aim.
A few days earlier, the Hugo Chavez regime went on a rampage.
All oil workers who protested against the government by striking were fired. Many who stayed were not competent enough to run the huge state-owned company, especially the technology. In his haste to cover up the workers’ ineptitude, Chavez started blaming the CIA, the United States and the Venezuelan “oligarchy” for conspiring to bring down the oil industry.
My family was thrown into this pile of so-called conspirators.
We were in a state of high-alert for a month. We tried to get on with our lives, but we expected we could be taken at any moment.
Fortunately for us, the military police never came.
Ten years later, with the death of Hugo Chavez, the world has seen many scenes of grief-stricken women crying because their comandante is gone.
The articles outlining the great achievements of his government seem to clog the web. People from all over the world leave comments in news sites proclaiming, “Viva the revolution! Viva Chavez!”
Yet none of these people know what it was like to have a target painted on their backs.
My parents, along with many of their friends, were traitors to the motherland, according to Chavez. Traitors because they were part of the “have” as opposed to “have-not” class.
They had university degrees, well-paying professional jobs, two cars, a penthouse apartment, and enough money to send their only child to private school. All of this while Venezuela’s poor were starving and living in shantytowns.
The poor saw Chavez as a charismatic idol — someone who was on their side.
My parents represented Chavez’s biggest threat: the educated middle class.
The years after Chavez became president, a great number of the middle class left the country.
In 2006, Statistics Canada placed the number of Venezuelan immigrants in Canada at 10,278 — more than 4,000 of those arrived between 2001 and 2006, including my family.
“Chavez is dead”
On Mar. 5 of this year, the day Chavez died, I was sitting in my university journalism class. I had just posted a new status on Facebook, when my mom sent me a private message that read:
“They announced Chavez died a few minutes ago.”
I went to Twitter to find out if it was true. I read a couple of news articles, then went back to see the tweets.
Twenty minutes later, my professor asked me to go talk to her about a class project but I could not move. I looked at her and shook my head.
The reason why I had to leave my homeland, the reason why Venezuela was falling apart, the reason I had occasionally had nightmares of people getting shot, was gone.
Knowing that he was dead overwhelmed me. I had to keep taking deep breaths to stop the breakdown I could feel coming. I knew that the moment I opened my mouth, I would start crying.
It was no use. “Chavez is dead,” I quietly offered. And the tears, of relief, started falling.
The tears have stopped. Now it is fear that I feel once again.
Even now, a month after Chavez’s death, the future of Venezuela is uncertain. With elections looming in Venezuela’s horizon, there is still a bitter rivalry between Chavez’s people and his opponents.
Regardless of the electoral outcome in April, the solution to all the problems Chavez left behind won’t be clear-cut. And whichever candidate wins will have to make some unpopular choices to make Venezuela run somewhat smoothly again.