Besieged Venezuelan journalist Rafael Osio Cabrices tells the tale of his and his family’s escape from Cuba’s Venezuela.
I escaped Venezuela for North America. Here’s how.
At the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Caracas, my wife, 8-month-old daughter and I stopped to take photos of our feet. We were standing over a colorful, geometric mosaic made by the famous artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, a symbol of the modern and cosmopolitan Venezuela we loved and the Venezuela that Hugo Chávez and his followers have tried to destroy.
This has become a ritual among those leaving Venezuela. That day, my family walked onto an American Airlines flight with four bags of luggage and three things that were exceedingly precious in our home country: airplane tickets, an invitation to stay with my sister in Florida, and hope.
Until the moment the plane took off, we feared we might be in clear and present danger. We spent the last month seeking refuge in a makeshift panic room we created in our Caracas apartment. And even as we navigated the airport’s departure rituals, we didn’t know if we were leaving Venezuela forever or if we’d ever be able to leave the turmoil behind.
During the previous years, we said goodbye to a lot of friends who moved to Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Colombia and the United States. We wanted to stay, however. We were proud of the job we were doing as journalists, writing about the problems our country was facing and possible ways to solve them. We wanted to help our society to go back to the path to democracy, interrupted in 1998 by the return of army men to power, with the election of Chávez, a career military officer, who had failed to take over the government in a bloody putsch just six years before.
But the majority of our fellow Venezuelans had other plans. In 2009, when Chávez obtained the popular support to reform the constitution in order to rule forever, my wife and I accepted that we wouldn’t be able to live under an elected dictatorship, a government that also would be unable to stop the inflation and crime rates that now are among the highest in the world. As newspapers were being whittled down and journalists feared speaking against the regime, it became virtually impossible to do the work my wife and I were trained to do.
We made a list of places we could go. We put Canada first: We wanted stability and a legal way to immigrate, and that country offered to professionals like us a path that was easier and faster than the United States. We chose Montreal (because Quebec’s list of desired professions included journalists at that time), submitted our application in 2010, and studied French. The arrival of our daughter in July 2013 delayed the process. Months passed with no word from Citizenship and Migration Canada.
In December 2013, we made extra cash from a freelance job and decided to invest it in tickets to Miami. We needed to pick up some savings we had socked away in a U.S. bank and buy some essentials we’d need when we finally moved to Canada. But the meaning of that planned Florida trip changed as a result of a conflict between the government and international airlines – a conflict that turned our purchased tickets into precious gold.
This was the latest step in the Cuban-inspired Chavista effort to extinguish all private economic activity by asphyxiating the value of all money belonging to anyone but the state. After a decade of currency controls that forbid anyone other than the Central Bank from acquiring U.S. dollars, many foreign companies have stopped doing business in Venezuela. Hence, this year we have in Venezuela, among our long list of wants, no shampoo, no elevator parts, no cancer medicines. We’re in an undeclared state of default that’s cutting ties with the rest of the world. Now, foreign airlines are reducing or canceling their operations to and from Venezuela. They were tired of waiting for the almost $4 billion the government has to give them in exchange for the bolivars (essentially play money for a multinational company unable to exchange them on a free liquid market) they earned. With no dollars, the companies cannot pay services abroad or buy replacement parts.
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