Venezuelan students help their homeland from afar

Ana Chacin, president of external affairs and Alvaro Parra, president of internal affairs of UNIVEN use their positions in the Venezuelan student organization as a platform to educate others about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Over the past year, UNIVEN has sent food and medical supplies to Venezuela through various fundraisers. Karen Sancen // Contributing Photographer

Venezuela. A country on the verge of collapse, full of violence and uncertainty. It’s also the country that hundreds of University of Miami students call home and have had to watch deteriorate from afar.

In mid-December of 2016, senior Katherine Fernandes returned to Venezuela after not visiting for six months. She visited over winter break, for what was supposed to be a time of celebration, but what she found was her native country in disarray.

“It’s a relatively short time between every trip but every time I go, there is so much change. It’s mind-blowing that every time I go back, I feel like I haven’t been there in 10 years,” Fernandes said.

Though Fernandes left Venezuela at the age of 17 to pursue a higher education and greater opportunities at UM, it hasn’t been easy. Fernandes said even though her life in America is calm, she lives constantly worrying about her parents, who still live in Venezuela.

“I feel very blessed to have the opportunities to be here. Being a young Venezuelan, I know that if I lived over there, my life wouldn’t have value,” she said. “But I am always so worried about my parents. I feel like I’m my parents’ mom because I’m constantly calling them making sure that they’re OK.”

For Fernandes, an unanswered phone call to her parents is a red flag. If her parents don’t answer, she said her mind goes to thinking the worst because “so many things are normal in Venezuela, including kidnapping, murder, corruption.”

Under President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has seen its consumer prices inflate by more than 100 percent this year and imports decrease by more than half, according to estimates from an independent opposition-led congress. Maduro’s government has not published official data for more than a year.

Fernandes, a native of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, has seen first-hand how the inflation rate has left countless Venezuelans in poverty while they seek any food and basic resources available.

During her trip home last year, Fernandes said she witnessed people waiting in “enormous” lines outside of supermarkets in hopes that the stores would have basic products such as rice, toilet paper, flour and tooth paste. She said the situation has gotten to a point that people will go as far as to search through trash to find food.

“People are eating out of garbage cans, and it’s normal. When I went in the car and saw people eating from the garbage, I didn’t see it as normal but everyone else did,” said Fernandes, a broadcast journalism major. “There is such hunger that people will do anything to get their hands on food.”

At UM, students born and raised in Venezuela have taken it upon themselves to help in whatever means possible.

Ana Chacin is president of external affairs for Union Venezolana, also known as UNIVEN, UM’s student organization for Venezuelan students or anyone interested in the Venezuelan crisis. Chacin has been living in Miami since she was seven. She said she feels a strong tie to Venezuela even though she hasn’t been there since 2014.

“It’s super hard. You have a connection in your heart,” said Chacin, a double major in International studies and Latin American Studies. “It’s just hard being here and not being able to help, really.”

Through UNIVEN, Chacin has been able to inform other students about the ongoing situation in her home country. This past year, UNIVEN sent food and medical supplies to Venezuela gathered during campus fundraisers.

“It’s important for them to know that it’s a humanitarian crisis what’s going on right now. Politics aside, we have to focus on helping the people and that’s what we’re gearing toward because we don’t want to politicize it,” she said.

This semester, UNIVEN will be setting up collection boxes again in the Ashe Administration building and at the University Center. Students are asked to donate medical supplies such as bandages, eye drops and ibuprofen. The collection will be ongoing throughout the year.

In March, Venezuela’s Supreme Court transferred the National Assembly’s power to itself. The ruling left all of the country’s legislative powers to the Supreme Court, full of Maduro loyalists. Opposition leaders revolted against Maduro, claiming that Venezuela was on the verge of dictatorship. The verdict, which was later reversed, marked the start of countless protests that lasted through the summer.

Fernandes said she had bought her ticket to go to Venezuela for the summer but because of the escalated tensions, her parents would not let her return to the country, where they still live.

In July, Venezuela held an election on a referendum, called by Maduro to elect delegates to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. According to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, more than 8 million people turned out to vote. The U.S. State Department called the outcome “flawed.” The election went in favor of rewriting the constitution, essentially providing government allies elected as delegates the opportunity to keep Maduro in power by eliminating term limits. Critics argued this was not just corruption, but outright dictatorship.

For Alvaro Parra, who moved to the U.S. from Caracas for college, having his parents and brother here is a relief but he still worries for those he left behind.

“The thing that impacts me the most is that my family is over there, my uncles, my cousins, my best friends are over there. It’s really hard to be away from where I grew up,” he said. “I miss my home. I miss everything. Saying goodbye to everything I know was the hardest thing.”

Parra, president of internal affairs for UNIVEN, said change starts with learning from the crisis and understanding the damage that socialism and communism can create.

“This history that we are having is very useful for the future,” he said. “There are people dying, we need to help. We need to aid.”

Read commentary from opinion editor Israel Aragon Bravo and Andrea Illan on their homeland.