Venezuelans in the US say their country is worse than 1960s Cuba

Maria Murriel/Public Radio International

Outside a fast-casual restaurant in a gas station plaza near Miami, TV crews started to gather while two men corralled anyone who would listen: "We're having a press conference! It's about the mayor posing with a known Chavista."

One of the men was Jose Antonio Colina, a Venezuelan immigrant and president of the Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile group. He was talking about Mayor Luigi Boria of the Miami suburb of Doral, which is called "Dorazuela" because of its large, active Venezuelan immigrant community.

"Miami is the capital of Latin American exile," says Colina, "and Doral in recent years has become the capital of Venezuelan exile."

Venezuelans have been immigrating to the US, often settling in Doral, since the early 2000s after radical leftist leader Hugo Chávez came to power. Initially, mostly the wealthy fled the country, bringing with them capital and business savvy enough to build a thriving enclave of Venezuelan culture.

In more recent years, as food and everyday supplies dwindle, it hasn't been just the wealthy trying to leave.

At a church in downtown Miami, longtime US resident Eduardo accompanied his cousin, recently arrived from Venezuela, to get help applying for political asylum.

He didn't want his last name used in an interview for fear of hurting his cousin's chances of getting asylum, and because he works for a large commercial radio corporation. But he, like many other Venezuelans, feels his native country is in the same dire straits Cuba found itself in some years into the Castro revolution.

"There's no food, there's no toothpaste, there's no Pampers [in Venezuela]," Eduardo says. "It's Cuba, 100 percent."

Colina even ventures to say Venezuela is worse off.

"Cuba is a dictatorship, but even still, their revolution was egalitarian," he says. "They didn't have problems with education or medicine. In Venezuela, there is no safety."

Eduardo says Venezuelans back home live in fear of being killed.

"There's people on bikes with guns and you don't know if they're your common thugs or government officials," he says.

So the influx of immigrants continues. But the process of attaining asylum is complex and expensive. The Apostolic Mission of Christ, where Eduardo took his cousin, has been helping immigrants apply for asylum for about 30 years, for a nominal fee. Of course, the church can't guarantee approval by the US government.

When the Bay of Pigs invasion failed and Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, the US responded in 1966 with the Cuban Adjustment Act, which to this day grants Cuban immigrants legal permanent residence as long as they reach US soil and remain for a year. It was meant for refugees escaping a communist regime.

Citizens from no other country are offered such a direct path to legalization.

"It's frustrating," Eduardo says, "for an educated person to have to go through so many hoops, and then you get a [Cuban] who may have killed three people and there's no way to know."

Back in Doral, a Cuban immigrant stepped into El Arepazo, the well-known restaurant where Venezuelan opposition leaders would soon hold their conference. 

Frank Gorgora is a Cuban immigrant who feels it's "the same" to be from Cuba or Venezuela due to political and economic conditions in both countries.

Frank Gongora said he wasn't Venezuelan, but being Cuban "is the same." As he ate lunch he said it's inexplicable how a democratic society such as Venezuela fell down the path led by his home country.

"What's worse, they've taken advice from Cubans," Gongora says, "who have a country full of misery."

He arrived in the US by raft in 1994, months before 35,000 people left the island the same way during the Cuban rafter crisis. He achieved legal status through the Cuban Adjustment Act. And although he's thankful for it, he thinks it's time the law end, or change.

"I have a friend who's hard-working and has to live in fear [because he's undocumented]," Gongora says. "They should take the benefits from the Cubans and give them to the Venezuelans, the Argentines, the Nicaraguans."

Gongora's not alone. Even Cuban American lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused by newcomers, who critics claim are no longer refugees persecuted by the Castro government, just Cubans looking for economic opportunity. 

Colina, the Venezuelan opposition leader, thinks the answer isn't as simple as drafting a Venezuelan Adjustment Act to mirror the Cuban act.

"With persecuted refugees, [the US] needs to be a bit more flexible," he says. "But they have to be much more severe with people coming via work permits, and increase supervision of capital coming from Venezuela."

At El Arepazo, Colina's press conference was to blast Venezuelan American Mayor Boria for attending the opening of a spa allegedly owned by a member of the Chavista regime. Didn't Boria know who the woman was?

Cuban immigrants have been similarly upset by President Obama's going to Cuba.

Two days after Colina's conference was broadcast by Spanish-language TV, Venezuelan exiles armed with paper signs and make-believe oil tanks flocked to the PureMed Spa to protest their own elected official showing ties to their oppressive regime.