A Day in the Life of Venezuela’s Diaspora with María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez

Coordinator of Geneva Summit coalition partner Iniciativa Por Venezuela, Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Full Remarks

Hello, I’m Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta from Iniciativa por Venezuela. It’s a tiny organization based in Switzerland. For the past 15-17 years we have been fighting for Venezuelan lost democratic values and of course, for human rights. I wanted to thank, of course, everybody in the Geneva Summit, all the organizers and, of course, my partner organizations that have made this conference possible today. 

So when I was asked to introduce this panel, which is a panel about the fight for freedom and democracy, I was trying to find a way of linking my two panelists’ work with what the Venezuelan human rights work has been for the past several years. I was wondering how could I know from all the issues that we could present to you which ones would be the most important ones. 

Because of course, I could not consider myself to be a victim. Far from it. I am part of those lucky ones. I am those lucky ones that have had the chance to live outside the hellish situation in Venezuela and part of the big diaspora of Venezuelans that have decided to live abroad while the regime in Venezuela lasts. 

But then I posed myself the question: in the fight for freedom and democracy, are we not all victims as well, both those living in Venezuela and those living outside Venezuela? So then I decided that maybe I could just walk you through what a normal day is for our diaspora. I’ve got several representatives of the Venezuelan community in this room that have worked with me very hard for the last years and I just wanted to share with you some of our concerns, especially what our days look like. 

We wake up fearing every morning to open our social media and email accounts because we never know what we’re going to be waking up to. 28,000 people died last year, some of them close friends to us. New political prisoners go to jail for no reason. Increased hunger, repression, more people in need of medicines. While we live in tranquil Switzerland for instance, we live in full democracy. We go to bed fearing that the life of our loved ones that are still living in Venezuela, we are fearing for their lives and we are hoping that we have another night that will go by uneventfully because we have been woken many times with bad news, with horror stories or with the urge to organize the diaspora to take action at once in one way or another. 

Let me start by just picturing to you what the lack of medicines looks like in Venezuela. We have reached a new peak. 80% of medicines and 90% of medical equipment cannot be found in any way in Venezuela. For a Venezuelan diaspora, whenever there’s someone going traveling to Caracas, we will go to the pharmacy to buy hypertension pills, heart disease pills, diabetes medication, cancer medication, thyroid, all sorts of medicines that we will put in a new bag to send home for our loved ones. We’re not sending chocolates, we’re not sending Swiss cheese, we’re sending medicines. 

The Venezuelan diaspora has also organized itself to send back home boxes of medicines from throughout the world. This is an unsustainable effort, but nonetheless a very necessary one because our people there are just dying of diseases that are chronic diseases—diseases that can normally be cured and from ancient diseases such as Malaria or Diptheria that had been eradicated in the world, in Venezuela many many years ago. We also have outbreaks of Dengue and Zika and Chikungunya that spread around the country with no control because there’s no capacity to control them and this goes unnoticed in the international news, international media and international organizations. Our neighbor countries fear most of the time that this will spread into their countries but it also goes silenced because of political reasons. Same picture for food. Just a moment ago you saw from Antonietta’s video, long queues of people standing up for hours to get basic needs, basic commodities, food products such as flour, sugar, rice, beans and also toiletries like toilet paper, like deodorant. I mean can you imagine life without such basic elements in your everyday life? Not being able to find those elements. 

So the Venezuelan community around the world has also organized itself to do another unsustainable task: to send food and toiletries with medicines and medical equipment to Venezuela. We even have some very funny anecdotes. We have a friend who left from Geneva a couple of days ago. She got her sister in a wheelchair she banged her leg and she said she was sick and she took the wheelchair to Caracas to give it to a person in need because she could not find a wheelchair there. So we bought the wheelchair, we made it appear as if her sister was sick to take the wheelchair home, so we even get very creative about these things. 

But that’s not the only thing that happens in Venezuela or that the Venezuelan diaspora takes care of. In any normal day of our lives, we will get phone calls from people asking us if we can help them to leave the country–you can pay them for a plane ticket, or if we can help them to find someone to give them medication. Or we will get phone calls from people like a musician that called us not very long ago asking, telling us his story of having left the country after being threatened to death for making a song for the elections of 2015. He flew to a European country, he asked for rich refugee status, and he was denied this refugee status. So in his chat he is just saying “help me, help me, I’m starving, I have nothing, I have no money, I’m not allowed to work, I cannot go back to Venezuela, I don’t know what to do.” 

Or perhaps we could talk about Antonietta’s visit to a homeless shelter in Madrid last December where she found there were more Venezuelans than Syrians sleeping there. A friend who knew that I was going to be talking today asked me if I could raise the point of our retired people living abroad. 15,000 retirees who worked all their lives have no access to their retirement fund so they are living in Spain and Italy. They haven’t been paid for more than 17 months. They worked all their lives. These are their life savings and these savings are in Venezuela in somebody else’s pocket and they’re being even erased from the databases so there’s no way they will be getting those funds back. 

Yet another friend asked me while we were talking about all these different issues if we should mention the fact that Venezuelans abroad don’t have the right to have a passport. It’s not that we will be denied the passport. They will say they have no materials to issue the passport. They will say the same thing for birth certificates or identity cards so we have Venezuelan children with no nationality who cannot live in any of the countries where they are because they’re not nationals of that country and they cannot fly home to get their papers done. And if you are happened to be an illegal person living in any of these countries, Western countries, in Europe for instance, the consulate will make sure that you don’t have the right to get your papers and will deport you to the immigration authorities. We don’t have the right to register to vote. As Venezuelans abroad we have the right to vote. We are not allowed to register. You  will not be legally established in the country where we’re living. 

Those are some of the things that we listen every day that we hear every day. We also hear many people asking us for help to address the Human Rights Council, to address the Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the special rapporteurs and working groups. We have politicians that have come to work with them to denounce their situation. Just a couple of weeks ago we had a legislative parliamentarian from a regional parliament in the biggest state in Venezuela who was lucky enough to be able to fly away from Venezuela to travel. He had been persecuted. He was in his apartment when the police came. He was able to jump from his 18th-floor balcony to another balcony and so on and so on until he could run away. He made it to Europe and luckily we could take him to the Human Rights Office to denounce his case. But the next day we get a call from another lawyer who’s got four cases of tortured people in any jail in any part of Venezuela who don’t have the leverage, enough leverage, or enough money to bring their case to Geneva and they ask me: “What can we do about it? Can you help us? Can you help us get to the Committee on Torture? Can you help me to denounce our case at the UN?” 

But that’s not all. Last December, a close friend of ours, an activist just like us here in Geneva who stands with us many times at the Palais des Nations in front of the UN–she went home for Christmas. She, as an activist, not only spent some time with her family, she decided to travel the country to check on the state of the situation to be able to bring back information to the UN Commission on Human Rights. While she was at it she decided to cross the border to Colombia to buy some food for her family–her starving family–as most of our families in Venezuela and on her way back she was detained together with a parliamentarian and she is now under arbitrary detention accused of terrorism and holding military arms. The police say that she was carrying a bomb, a C2 bomb. She was actually, according to the police statement, she was sitting on top of her explosives. I cannot imagine anybody traveling with explosives in their bum, I’m sorry. We can all see that it has been planted and that she was arbitrarily detained just for the mere fact of opposing the government and for being with a parliamentarian doing her work around the world, around the country. 

Let me just go a bit more personal and I’m sorry to touch on personal things. I’m myself, I don’t feel I’m a victim, I just feel that I need to report these things to you. My brother who’s got a little child who’s sick with a rare disease had to fly to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago because there’s no medication, no way of establishing treatment for his kid. Of course, he didn’t have enough money so we had to, not just the family but with all families and friends, decided that we needed to help him to create a fund because his salary would just account for about one day in a hotel. Two nieces that are around here today just said to me two nights ago, we want to have a normal life. I think we all want to have a normal life. All we want is to have a normal life and to stop feeling ourselves as victims or fighters for freedom and democracy. This is perhaps for us the most important part. We know that we are fighters, we know that we have a long way to go but at the same time, people do get tired of not living a normal life. 

So let me turn now to my two speakers: Nyima Lhamo who’s a 26-year-old woman who raised her voice to demand the truth about the death of her uncle, a Buddhist leader who died in prison. She was herself put in prison for raising her voice for asking just to find out the truth of what had happened and she was luckily able to escape leaving her daughter and her mother behind. I will give the floor to Nyima now and the similarities of her case are so striking to what happens in Venezuela that I think that we have seen it here that the pattern that goes on all over the world needs your voice to be raised, needs your efforts to be redoubled for this to stop. Nyima, please. 

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