Thousands of Venezuelans are stuck outside of their home country. Unlike the dire situation of migrants coming back home, Venezuelan travelers are invisible to the support of governments, and have had to organize to re-enter the country.
To reach the closest thing to a notion of home, Angel* had to get married.
“Every morning that we spent stuck in Panama,” he says, “we woke up wondering how something that we had planned so, could have ended this royally ruined.”
Angel speaks with a slight Spanish accent (his second nationality), and a thick, palpable despise against the Maduro regime that he blames for the five months he spent stranded outside of Venezuela when the COVID-19 pandemic provoked the closing of borders everywhere and was particularly rough on the already isolated South American country, where flights abroad are few in regular circumstances.
While the Commissioner of the OAS General Secretary for the crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees David Smolansky has spoken of some 43,000 Venezuelans stuck out of their country and other reports give different figures in different countries, the chavista government labels returning migrants as “bioterrorists” and uses them as an excuse to take unilateral and noxious measures, like shutting down the Venezuelan border with Colombia, where dozens upon dozens of Venezuelan citizens were literally stuck on the highway, with nowhere to go, and a very contagious virus going rampant.
For Angel, this invisible barrier is indeed very tangible. For Marcel, a 74-year-old Venezuelan art salesman stuck in Miami, the prohibition to return to Venezuela exposes him in more ways than one: “I’m HIV+ and, being a tourist in another country, I didn’t have access to treatment for a month and a half,” he says before making a list of everything he’s been through during the last six months: “I spent $450 on the visa and was left with $100 on my account. I was kicked out of my sister’s house and now I stay at a friend’s house. I try to be invisible, help out as much as I can, trying not to think about my own home.”
Marcel hasn’t gotten any help from the embassy articulated by Juan Guaidó’s caretaker government, and neither did Angel:
“I wrote to (the ambassador appointed by Guaidó in Panama) Fabiola Zavarce and talked to her many times,” Angel says. “She said she was willing to help, but in reality there just wasn’t much she could do.”
Caracas-based Láser Airlines did offer Angel an option, but he decided against it: “Láser would take us to Havana, and from there we’d take another flight operated by (the Venezuelan state-owned airline) Conviasa to Caracas. Of course we declined; we were just not going to run the risk of getting stranded in Cuba.”
“I’m HIV+ and, being a tourist in another country, I didn’t have access to treatment for a month and a half.”
In the end, he had to fix everything himself. Since his fiancée couldn’t enter Spain because she’s not a citizen, and Angel couldn’t enter her country of origin (Canada) for the same reason, they just booked a flight to the U.S., which did have a humanitarian route with Panama. “It took us three days in Miami,” Angel says. “There were some complications, but once we got married everyone was very helpful and we entered Canada, through Toronto. We’ll just have to do a symbolic celebration with our families once this is all over.”
Opacity, Improvisation and Chaos
Since the Venezuelan National Institute of Civilian Aeronautics shut down all civilian flights last March, 14th (allegedly until September 12th, but prolonged for another month), humanitarian and repatriation flights have been a thing of uncertainty—even for the authorities of other nations. Flights are supposed to be coordinated between Venezuelan authorities and their counterparts abroad, but the truth is that the opacity with which the Maduro regime behaves isn’t an exclusive experience of Venezuelan citizens.
The sixth humanitarian flight from Caracas to Madrid, for instance, was programmed for July 25th and delayed for over four days by Venezuelan authorities, without justification to the Spanish General Consulate. It fell on the Spanish Consulate to contact the passengers and explain that the flight wouldn’t happen, unable to assert if this was a delay or the actual cancellation of the flight, since the Venezuelan government was giving “no explanations.”
That sixth flight (along with a seventh) finally left Venezuela on July 30th, but the same problem later occurred with the Caracas-Paris Air France flight scheduled for September 6th, a flight that had to be canceled, despite having all the sanitary requirements – again, no explanations from the Maduro regime – and although two flights were recently allowed to leave from Caracas to Panamá, the repatriation of Venezuelans abroad wasn’t authorized.
On May 5th, 250 Venezuelan citizens flew from Santiago de Chile to Caracas on a flight from the repatriation plan Vuelta a la Patria—that existed (mostly as a propaganda tool) way before the pandemic, due to the massive flow of people leaving the nation. Since then, the repatriation work has been up to private airlines authorized for the task, the latest case being the Buenos Aires-Caracas flight of August, 20th, for which the airline Estelar demanded a fee that went from $450 to $790, and additional expenditures for a 14 day quarantine at the Eurobuilding hotel, where prices reach $100 a day.
There’s yet another way to come back for those Venezuelans stranded abroad. As depicted on a recent BBC piece, there’s a particular list for those stuck at the theoretically impermeable border between Venezuela and Colombia, closed until October, 1st. For the sum of $40, you can get preferential treatment when the time comes for the borders to re-open and resume the journey back.