Many of us are currently glued to the news whether it be TV, social media or news sources to find out what is happening in Caracas, Venezuela where the people have long been suffering through a true economic and social crisis with between 2-3 million people fleeing the country in the past several years.
I have lived in Peru the last three months and every day I come across many Venezuelan refugees who are taking on any job they possibly can in the service industry and selling items on the streets or performing what they can for money. There is a clean-cut Venezuelan man wearing his national flag baseball hat that I often see walking up and down the boardwalk. You can’t miss him because he only has one leg and he walks on his crutches selling cookies out of a bucket for .30 USD. Another sweet young man, Anthony, who delivers water in my neighborhood felt lucky, gracias a dios, to travel home to Venezuela to see his family over the holidays. When he returned, I asked him how it was and he responded “horrible, completely horrible, but at least I saw my family”. Another young delivery boy fell completely in love with my dog, getting down on the ground to play with her saying she reminded him of his dog at home in Venezuela. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of families with no food, no money, hyperinflation, separated and current living conditions that I could never imagine.
I have been to Venezuela just one time, in Caracas, for a United Nations (UN) meeting in the first year of my career in telecommunications. I was representing a United States technology company based in Southern California but officially was a formal member of the United States government delegation which the US State Department leads. I was so excited to take part in something as esteemed as a UN meeting.
The date was September 11, 2001. I was 24 years old. I had just arrived in Caracas on American Airlines the previous night and one of my first observations was Hugo Chavez lecturing in one of his infamous long speeches on TV in Spanish; honestly, he did yell a lot but it helped me fall asleep. I remember that morning well. I was in the last stages of getting ready for the meeting, curling my hair in the hotel while watching CNN International on television. I watched in shock as the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit by a plane. They kept showing it over and over. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and thought it was an accident. I kept watching. Then the second tower was hit and the news started to become terrifying.
I remember thinking, the conference is starting now… am I just supposed to go downstairs to work or what do I do? I wasn’t sure how to call my family internationally and since I didn’t know what else to do, I went downstairs. I entered the huge hotel conference room set up United Nations style with all the countries represented and listed alphabetically according to their French spelling. I quickly found the United States delegation and the US State Department head of delegation. She was immediately welcoming and comforting to me especially because I was about her daughter’s age. Soon there were a plethora of other nations/ delegates surrounding us, crying themselves, crying with us, trying to understand what was going on but above all trying to console us.
The presiding head of the conference was from Syria and he started off the event somberly with some very nice words and a two-minute prayer and quiet time for the victims in the United States and for the US delegation here in Caracas. I remember thinking aren’t a lot of these countries supposedly enemies of the US? Not in person they weren’t. The US State Department said that the US Embassy was coming to the hotel and setting up a special room in the hotel for all the US delegates so they could brief us on the situation in the US and we would have a place to go if we needed support.
During the lunch hour of the conference all the US representatives went to the special room which was staffed with many Venezuelans who worked at the US Embassy as well as medical staff from Venezuela. I remember how amazingly nice the Venezuelan people working there were to me that day,; they would come up to hug me, to talk to me, to literally offer me a beer (or Xanax) if I needed it to feel better and genuinely showing all the U.S. citizens a lot of love. I remember thinking if there is any place to get stuck now it might as well be here. The people are beautiful, so nice, caring and fun to top it off.
The political and socioeconomic situation had started to deteriorate by that time in Caracas. People warned me not to stray far from the hotel because it could be dangerous and that inflation had already started to hurt the country. Obviously it was not anything like it is today where families had to split up and leave the country to survive. I remember walking by the Presidential office, el Palacio de Miraflores, and hearing that Hugo Chavez acted like a dictator but I really had no idea. I recall nights of being at the hotel bar in a nice garden environment with all the other US delegates and conference colleagues and feeling comradely and support. The music was great, people were amazing dancers and they were just so friendly, nice and welcoming to us. It is not lost on me how privileged I was and am.
I was lucky as I had emailed my boss Gabriela soon after the towers collapsed and she, a Mexican national, schemed to find the best way to get me back home to the US as soon as possible with many of the borders being shut down or flights cancelled. A few days later I flew from Caracas to Panama City, then to Mexico City and finally to Tijuana. When a company representative picked me up at the Tijuana airport and we crossed the border on foot to the US, I was so happy to be back to my family and grieve together for the tragedy that had affected our country. Today, I think about all the Venezuelan (and Central American and Syrian and on and on and on) families who are split up and just trying to find a way to survive with not a lot of love and support like I received in Caracas. I’m rooting for Guaido and but most of all I’m rooting for the people of Venezuela. I’m glad that they are center stage right now and pray the international community comes out to help the people and work with Guaido and the legislature to come out to help the people and support a plan that will kickstart the economy so that the people can begin again to find the quality of life that is humane.