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Venezuelans flee deteriorating nation, find new home in Utah

August 10, 2018
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In this Thursday, July 19, 2018 photo, classical composer Alfonso Tenreiro works on an orchestral composition at his piano in his home in Ogden, Utah. Tenreiro, who came to the U.S. in 1981 when he was 16 to study and stayed after marrying an American woman he met later in college, last visited Venezuela in the early 2000s. A piece written by Tenreiro, also a music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic High School, was performed last May at the Latin American Music Festival in Caracas. He didn't dare travel to see it. (Benjamin Zack/Standard-Examiner via AP)

NORTH OGDEN, Utah (AP) — There have been times, especially early on after he left Venezuela, that Daniel Hernandez felt overwhelmed, lost, out of place.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” said Hernandez, who migrated here in 2015 given the increasing political and economic unrest in Venezuela and now lives in North Ogden. “I felt depressed. I cried like a child. I missed my home, my people.”

His mother died back in Venezuela and he was unable to return for her burial. He was diagnosed with glaucoma and lost partial sight in one eye. He had to scrap for work early on, taking landscaping and other odd jobs.

Things are better now. He and wife Leanniz Chavez have steady work, their applications with U.S. immigration officials for political asylum are pending, and their daughter has left the instability of Venezuela for Argentina, tempering the cause for a lot of concern. Still, it can be heartbreaking, watching as his native country — governed by an increasingly authoritarian, socialist government and characterized by runaway inflation and scarce food supplies — seemingly slips further into chaos.

“It makes me sad to say — people look in the trash for food to eat,” said Hernandez, who ran a small company that serviced medical and exercise equipment in Venezuela. He now lives in a newly built North Ogden townhouse and, finances permitting, sends powdered milk, soap, aspirin, deodorant and other scarcities to family still living in Venezuela.

Venezuelans are stampeding from the country in increasing numbers because of rising crime, limited medical supplies and blackouts. Many, like Hernandez and his wife, are coming to Utah and the rest of the United States, seeking refuge and relief. An estimated 2,935 people with Venezuelan roots lived in Utah in 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Thomas Reams with the Venezuelan-American Association of Utah estimates the figure has increased to at least 7,000 since then, bolstered overwhelmingly by Venezuelans fleeing their country.

In a recent report, the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit immigration think tank in Washington, D.C., called the movement of Venezuelans “the fastest-escalating displacement of people across borders in Latin American history.” The group estimates that 1.6 million to 4 million Venezuelans were living outside their home country as of early 2018.

“I call them refugees, personally, because they’re fleeing from a tyrannical government,” said Reams, likening the Venezuelan exodus to the movement of Cubans to Florida to escape the socialist government of the Caribbean island nation. “They’re fleeing from a dictatorship and tyranny to survive.”

An Organization of American States report last May found “reasonable grounds” to suspect crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela. It cited 8,292 extrajudicial executions since 2015, the arbitrary detention of more than 12,000 Venezuelans since 2013 presidential elections and the continued detention of 1,300 political prisoners.

Indeed, the Migration Policy Institute said 280,000 Venezuelans around the world had formally applied for asylum, like Hernandez and Chavez.


Edgardo Tenreiro left Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, late last year at the prodding of his son Alfonso Tenreiro, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Ogden, and other family members. Edgardo’s wife, Isabel Tenreiro, moved to Ogden in 2014.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to come,” said Edgardo Tenreiro, 77, who retired as a civil engineer in Venezuela. “I didn’t want to see the reality.”

But the threat of street crime, the scarcity of food and medicine, and worries that Venezuelan leaders would shut the nation’s borders convinced him it was time to leave. He moved to his son’s home in Ogden. He pines for his country and speaks sadly of what it’s become.

“It’s really a mess. It’s worse than Zimbabwe,” he said, alluding to the volatile African nation ruled by dictator Robert Mugabe until he was ousted in a military coup last year. “Now the example is Venezuela and, really, I’m sorry for that.”

Alfonso Tenreiro, who came to the United States in 1981 when he was 16 to study and stayed after marrying an American woman he met later in college, last visited Venezuela in the early 2000s. He’s a classical composer.

An incident during the premiere of one of his works in Caracas prompted the hard decision to steer clear of the nation, at least while instability reigns.

The Caracas mayor gave a speech at the intermission of the program, touting the successes of the socialist government, sparking a tense shouting match in the audience among regime foes and supporters. “For the first time, I felt like I didn’t belong,” said Tenreiro, on hand for the performance. “Just yelling at each other.”

In light of such turmoil, he doesn’t want to visit and put himself in harm’s way given his wife and son here in Ogden, though he misses the South American country. He notes three extended family members who were kidnapped, one by leftist Colombian rebels, the others by Venezuelan criminals. Though they survived, the incidents underscore the dangers of being in Venezuela.

“Anything can happen, anytime,” said Isabel Tenreiro, his mother, seated in the Ogden home she now shares with her son, near the grand piano where he writes his music.

Another piece written by Alfonso Tenreiro, also a music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic High School, was performed last May at the Latin American Music Festival in Caracas. He didn’t dare travel to see it.


Venezuela’s decline, critics of the socialist regime say, date to the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. He instituted Marxist ideology — influenced by Cuba — and it persists under his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, who took office after Chavez died of cancer in 2013.

Chavez “was going to take from the rich and give to the poor,” Hernandez said, recalling his rise to power in the 1998 elections. “There were a lot of people who believed in him.”

Corruption resulted, Hernandez said. Chavez — an elementary school instructor in Venezuela (no relation to the former president) — remembers the pressure teachers faced to spread communist ideology to students.

“I was forced to talk about Che Guevara. I had to talk about Fidel Castro, things about communism,” she said, alluding to two heroes of Cuba’s communist revolution. As a teacher and, by extension, an employee of Venezuela’s Education Ministry, she had to attend pro-government rallies and don red clothing, the color of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Quietly, she and other teachers questioned the requirements, rebelled, and after she and Hernandez faced seeming harassment from police, they decided it was time to leave. The couple’s daughter now lives with her husband in Argentina, and Chavez says she has other family members who fled to Colombia, Peru, and Atlanta and Miami here in the United States.

Those who remain in Venezuela “are there because they have no way to leave,” Hernandez said.

These days, things are so scarce, Chavez said, that fights sometimes break out at stores for the limited supplies on the shelves. The wait for gasoline in the oil-rich nation can last five to six hours, with those in line potentially facing muggings from criminals.

Hernandez — drawn to Utah by friends here and now working at an area trailer manufacturer — doesn’t foresee political change in Venezuela anytime soon. Even if it happens, he doesn’t envision moving back, though he’d like to visit. That said, Chavez doesn’t stop feeling Venezuelan, however grateful she is for the chance to start anew in the United States.

“You carry it in your heart. You never forget,” she said.

Over at the Tenreiro household, Edgardo Tenreiro holds out hope that things will change, that he’ll be able to safely return to Venezuala. “As soon as Maduro is finished, he’s gone, and a democratic government steps in, we will be able to go,” he said.

Isabel Tenreiro, though, is less optimistic and doesn’t foresee any thaw.

“It’s suicidal to be there,” she said.


Information from: Standard-Examiner, http://www.standard.net

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