Credit: Flag: Beatrice Murch via Wikimedia Commons; Skyline: Mónica Marie Zorrilla

Jose Benavides came to the United States the way many Venezuelans have: clandestinely. Five years ago, he fled the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, risking severe punishment.

He became involved with Philadelphia’s Casa de Venezuela shortly thereafter.

When Casa de Venezuela was founded in 2004, it was considered the first bilingual nonprofit in the Delaware Valley with the express goal of advancing the cultural heritage of Venezuela.

At first, the group focused heavily creating events intended to make of the more than 2,500 Venezuelans residing in Philly feel “more at home,” and to make los gringos of the city more knowledgeable about aspects of Venezuelan culture.

But for Benavides and many others, feeding people arepas and tequeños was not enough.

Advocating for change

Over the past year or so, the organization’s mission has expanded. Members now work to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis that has decimated the country since 1999, and to find ways in which they — and the greater Philadelphia community — can provide aid efficaciously.

This has begun to be accomplished through forums in City Hall, marches, plebiscites and medicine drives. Advocacy work, philanthropy and lobbying have become the cornerstone of Casa de Venezuela’s new direction.

“We’re a relatively small group in Philadelphia,” Benavides noted, “but we make a lot of noise.”

In July of 2017, the Venezuelan flag was raised at Philadelphia City Hall Credit: Manuel Yepez via Casa de Venezuela

The group has received support from the Kenney Administration and gotten good feedback from the public at large, which has at least bolstered their faith in the value of their efforts — because all the while, the situation in Venezuela continues to worsen.

Per the International Organization for Migration, nearly four million Venezuelans have been in exile for the past two decades, from what was once an exuberantly wealthy country due to its vast oil reserves.

Combined with sporadic news footage that makes it outside the borders, the harrowing testimonies of the “Phillyzuelans” Billy Penn spoke with convey a narrative of economic collapse, nonexistent government oversight and military corruption.

Famine, massive inflation, kidnappings, shortages of medicine, power outages, political persecution and imprisonment, state violence, legal limbo and “disappearances” are the norm of Venezuelan life, a common thread in posts that have leaked from the country and from the personal accounts of Venezuelan refugees in the U.S.

How did this happen?

Decades of decline

Unlike the longstanding U.S. Constitution, the Venezuelan constitution was altered in 1999 by former President Hugo Chávez, establishing a socialist government with dictatorial goals. Following Chávez’s death in March, 2013, Maduro assumed the presidency.

Just last month, on May 20, 2018, Maduro was “elected” for a second six-year term.

Roberto Torres Luzardo, a Technically Philly reporter since 2016, has noted a common misconception among Philadelphians: that the crisis in his home country is recent.

“My country’s downfall truly began with Chávez’s power,” Torres Luzardo explained. “There was a lot of praise for the ‘socially democratic’ policies enacted early in his government, but this was nothing other than a culmination of the underlying plan Chávez had. The idea was to control every single source of food, every single job, to co-opt the economic structures of my country and to have total dominance over its petroleum empire.”

Torres Luzardo posits that the realities of his country today don’t stem from some acute crisis that has reached a boiling point.

Rather, he suggests, Venezuelan society has suffered a systemic problem, a complete downfall of every institution that has had a democratic role within the country.

“It is much broader than what people can imagine,” he said.

YouTube video

A lament for socialist ideals

Benavides echoes Torres Luzardo’s concerns over ignorance about Venezuela, particularly that of the results of socialism.

In a city like Philadelphia, where there are so many academics and so many liberal intellectuals, socialism is hailed, he said. For example, at Temple, Benavides noted, there is a group called “Defensores del Proceso Chávez” (Defenders of the Chávez Process).

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that the things that Bernie Sanders mentioned during his campaign didn’t sway or entice me,” Benavides admitted sadly. “The ideas of universal education, universal healthcare, all of these benefits for the whole population, the promise of equality and justice, those are all beautiful.

“But, I know the results of socialism. Venezuelans know the result of socialism. Cubans know the result of socialism. All it does is generate poverty and generate a diaspora.”

An ‘indescribable’ humanitarian crisis

Isabel Fernández is only 22 years old, but as a recent Venezuelan émigré, she has already endured hardship most will never experience.

“I think the whole world needs to know: the humanitarian crisis is indescribable,” Fernández said. “People are dying of malnutrition. People will murder for your car. People will murder for your shoes. It is estimated that there are millions of dollars in our government’s reserve, but none of us reap those benefits. Our government is literally killing us.”

In the most famous hospital in Venezuela, Fernández recalled, a young girl died from allergic asphyxiation because they didn’t have EpiPens readily available.

Fernández does not remember a time in her life back in Venezuela when she wasn’t constantly paranoid:

“You have to always watch your back, always look around. Stepping outside of your house is a risk of attacks or threats. One time, I was held at gunpoint because these delinquents wanted my phone,” she recounted.

“They tailed my car and caught me at the traffic light. I could have died, all for a cell phone. The weird thing is, I felt accustomed to it. That’s the sad part. So many people my age don’t know anything else but fear.”

Phillyzuelan and proud

Thanks to a student visa and relatives in Upper Darby, Fernández has been able to live in peace and study at Delaware Community College in a subject she would have never had a chance to in Venezuela: communications.

“It terrifies me how the Venezuelan government has censured everything almost completely,” Fernández said. “What I love most about the United States is that here, you have the right to speak, even if you say something wrong or offensive, because no one can send you to jail for it. You have the right to say it, you have the right to speak.”

She is hoping to transfer to Temple University to further her studies there.

Fernández loves that Philly is “super diverse,” she said, that Philadelphians have been “so agreeable and so accepting” of her nationality, and how impressive the Latin community is here.

“My cousin didn’t luck out the same way that I did,” she observed. “Not only is this city historic and constantly has stuff going on that keeps me entertained, it also is tolerant. She’s in the South and, well, because she is light-skinned and blonde, people don’t immediately say anything rude to her but when she opens her mouth… The prejudice is instant. I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about that here.”

‘No one can take me out of here’

For Benavides, he wouldn’t trade Philadelphia for anywhere else in the United States.

He considers the city to be his second home, even though Philly was never in his initial plans (then again, Benavides joked, running for his life from Venezuela wasn’t either).

Benavides first immigrated to New York because he became enchanted with the idea that city is where “the American dream” flourishes. However, when he got to NYC, he soon realized it’s “ridiculously expensive and people there are cold.”

“Now that I’m in Philadelphia,” Benavides proclaimed, “no one can take me out of here.”

Though Benavides admitted he and his wife were stressed and heartbroken over the results of the 2016 election, they have found Philly has stayed true to its stance on being a welcoming city for all.

He has been pleasantly stunned by the number of organizations in Philadelphia — both governmental and NGO — that are specifically dedicated to supporting Hispanic immigrants. With the help of the Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Welcoming Center, Benavides (who has a legal degree and was a practicing attorney in Venezuela) was able to get a retail job at Ross. Since then, he has worked his way up to becoming a stock room manager.

“Philadelphia has opened its doors for me and for my family, and I am eternally grateful. I mean, wow, it really is the City of Brotherly Love,” he said.

“Is it a tough love? Absolutely, but after you understand the values of this city, after you understand what this city represents, then you realize that there’s no better city than this one to start anew.”