Balseros By Air? Venezuelan Immigrants Increasingly Poorer, More Desperate

Jun 27, 2017

Greilys arrived in South Florida two months ago from Los Teques, Venezuela, south of Caracas, with “a few dollars and four suitcases” – hounded out of her job and her country, she says, by an increasingly brutal socialist regime.

And her story is increasingly typical of recent immigrants from Venezuela.

There was a time when Venezuela sent more tourists to the U.S. than refugees. But the once oil-rich country is now suffering the world’s worst economic collapse; and more and more it’s poorer Venezuelans – those whom Hugo Chávez’s leftist revolution was supposed to cradle – escaping it.

Greilys cries as she recalls her children watching neighbors eating food out of a dumpster. “I was afraid that was going to happen to us soon,” she says, because she had just lost her own job.

She worked for a publicity firm printing flyers. But its customers included protesters staging anti-government demonstrations. So the revolution shut the company down – and Greilys says pro-government thugs came and began roughing up her and other employees, a common occurrence in Venezuela today.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Crisis Leads to Witch Hunts in South Florida

Greilys, her husband, mother-in-law and two boys left for the U.S., using tourist visas they’d gotten a few years ago. (She asked that her last name not be used because her asylum case is pending.) They’re all living in a one-bedroom apartment in Doral, where so many Venezuelans settle. And every Thursday they come to Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church for food and other help.

That is, they and scores of other Venezuelan families. It’s not unusual for South Florida churches to help migrant laborers from places like Central America. But Guadalupe has never seen a wave of struggling Venezuelan immigrants like these.

“Usually between 200 and 250 come,” says Fernando Bolaños, who heads Guadalupe’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, which aids the new Venezuelan arrivals.

They don't come in rafts like the Cubans. But you can say they are balseros by air. –Fernando Bolanos

Bolaños is Venezuelan – and as a lawyer who came here a decade ago, he’s typical of the earlier cohort of immigrants who bolted the revolution. Educated, affluent, self-sufficient.

But many if not most newcomers are working-class Venezuelans with few resources at all.

“They’re really living in poverty; they cannot pay for anything,” Bolaño says. “So they risk everything to come over here.”

Bolaños calls them an airborne version of the post-exile wave of Cuban balseros, who came here on rafts.

“They don’t do it in boats, you know, like the Cubans. But you can say they are the balseros by air, OK?”

They’re a big reason political asylum requests by Venezuelans are at record highs. Last year more than 18,000 Venezuelans sought U.S. asylum, the most from any nation in the world. The first few months of this year saw an almost 140 percent increase over the same period last year.

“The revolution is in bankruptcy; it doesn’t create anything,” says Jose Hernandez, a former Venezuelan diplomat who lives in Miami and publishes El Venezolano, one of the city’s largest Spanish-language newspapers.

FREEDOM FLIGHTS?

Hernandez says the influx of working-class Venezuelans is vivid evidence the revolution has failed the population that was once its massive base. That was driven home to him, he adds, when he recently encountered a group of Venezuelan immigrants living out of a cheap car in a Walmart parking lot in Doral.

“Four guys in the car who had contracted a gym very close to them to shower and go to work,” says Hernandez. (He says they’ve since found a small apartment.)

But Hernandez cites other factors besides economics. Venezuela’s regime now hits the working class with political persecution, not just the middle and upper classes. (More than 70 Venezuelans have been killed in the anti-government protests, which are entering their fourth month.) As that gets worse, so may the wave of poorer immigrants.

Patricia Andrade (second from left) and Venezuela Awareness volunteers help a newly arrived pregnant woman from Venezuela find clothes and other needs in Doral.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

“I believe we could soon have los vuelos de la libertad, the flights of liberty that came from Cuba in the 1960s,” says Hernandez, referring to the “freedom flights” that ferried Cubans to the U.S. as the Cuban Revolution tightened its grip.

But last year the U.S. stopped issuing new visas for Venezuelans because of the overwhelming demand. Even so, many working-class Venezuelans already have U.S. visas they got for tourist travel before Venezuela’s economy imploded. And they’re often valid for a decade.

As a result, ““They arrive to the U.S. legally,” says Patricia Andrade, director of Venezuela Awareness, another organization that aids Venezuelan immigrants in Doral.

“Before it was like a dream of the Venezuelan to come to the U.S. as a tourist, not for staying in the U.S.,” says Andrade. “And now – for living in the U.S.”

Ask Angel López. He and his family arrived in Doral just last week from Valencia, Venezuela, where he was a restaurant worker. A few years ago they came to Florida “to vacation at Disney World,” he says.

Now, they’re applying for asylum.