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Charlotte Venezuelans: In Their Own Words

 By Patrick O’Boyle

April 15, 2019

Most of us have never been to Venezuela, but there’s an indispensable source of perspective much closer than we realize. Venezuelans have played a role in the Charlotte community for decades and, with the diaspora of migrants from the Bolivarian Republic in recent years, their expat community has grown significantly. We got in touch with a few Venezuelan friends and acquaintances in the community to ask how the economic and political crisis has affected them and their families, and to get their take of recent developments.

Claudio and Liza Ortiz are best known in Charlotte as the musical sibling duo behind the groups Lxs Ortiz, Chocala, and Patabamba. They emigrated to Charlotte with their parents in 2000.

Tony Arreaza is the Cultural Events Director at the Latin American Coalition and has been integral in establishing the largest Latin-themed festivals and concerts in the Queen City. In 1993, he emigrated to Charlotte from Venezuela at the age of 18 to pursue a career in music.

Astrid Chirinos is the Executive Director of the Siemens YMCA. Her family emigrated from Venezuela to North Carolina’s research triangle in 1980s, and Astrid’s career in public relations brought her to Charlotte in the late ‘90s.

Astrid Chirinos, Executive Director of the Siemens YMCA

When, if ever, was the last time you were able to visit Venezuela, and what was that like?

Claudio Ortiz: The last time we were in Venezuela was before my father decided to move our family to Charlotte from Los Teques in January of 2000. He was uncomfortable with the relationship Hugo Chavez had with the Castro regime in Cuba and thought it was best to leave while that was still an option.

Tony Arreaza: My wife and I used to go every few years. Every time we’d return, things were more and more expensive, the streets were dirtier, and you’d see more kids begging. The last time we went was in 2012. We saw the country suffering. There were so many situations where we felt like we were in danger, that my wife decided we weren’t returning until all of this was resolved.

Astrid Chirinos: In 2011 I had to go to be with my mom to look after her, because she had a stroke. It wasn’t as bad as it is now.

Claudio Ortiz of musical group, Chocala

What relatives are you in contact with in Venezuela? Can you share any specifics on how the crisis has affected their lives?

Tony Arreaza: I have one sister with two kids who are still in Venezuela. She is the assistant director of a high school, but she’s barely making it. A whole chicken is 75% of her salary. It’s really hard to find food. The supermarket is not going to have anything. We send them boxes of toothpaste, rice, aspirin, tylenol, because they can’t get those things there. Most of the time when the box arrives, people in customs have stolen what’s in it.

Astrid Chirinos: I have one brother there, his wife, and my niece. [His wife] is a cancer survivor, and her cancer has recently come back. We have to get her medicine all the way from places like Canada. My aunt had a triple bypass and all her medicine is in shortage. I have to send her blood thinners through friends in Colombia or Miami.

Claudio Ortiz: Most of my father’s family lives in Venezuela… Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages are a constant in the reality my family lives through. Somehow, people find a way to make things work to survive. If you’re lucky enough to have relatives in the US with the means to help out of difficult situations, it’s just that, luck. If not, you die of starvation or lack of proper medical care.

Liza Ortiz: Within Venezuela, the collective weight loss is evident. I have seen pictures of family gatherings that put me to tears because of how small everyone appears. We have had family members kidnapped, criminals who have broken into their homes looking for valuables. We have lost family members or family friends because of lack of medication.

Tony Arreaza, Cultural Events Director at the Latin American Coalition.

How do you respond to those on the left who claim that this crisis has been manufactured or exaggerated by the American media?

Tony Arreaza: My response is, Why are there so many millions of Venezuelans everywhere in the world? Are they escaping Venezuela because the crisis is a lie?

Astrid Chirinos: They have not lived in Venezuela. If you have lived there, and you have seen the shift, this is not fabricated. This is something that has been coming for a long time. I’ve been watching my country like a shipwreck, adrift at sea.

Liza Ortiz: I challenge those with that opinion to do their research, and then see if they still feel the same.

Claudio Ortiz: This moment in history is particularly frustrating—to see people make up their minds and draw hard lines about complicated and nuanced topics based on a couple of articles they’ve read online. I keep an eye on the news but mostly to be aware of what information is being disseminated but get most of my information about Venezuela from my family who are actually experiencing the very real crisis that’s happening. It’s insulting and heartbreaking to hear friends and acquaintances make a casual comment or a social media post minimizing or downright denying the validity of experiences I’m hearing from actual Venezuelans.

Liz Ortiz of musical groups Lxs Ortiz and Chocala.

Do you worry about the possibility of American-led regime change on the horizon for Venezuela?

Claudio Ortiz: Yes. Any regime change should be led by the citizenry. Regime changes led by the United States tend to result in political and economic instability that only ends up benefiting the US. Also the idea of Donald Trump presiding over an operation of that magnitude makes me incredibly nervous.

Tony Arreaza: You will never hear me say, “Thank you, Trump.”…We need to do this ourselves. If the US gets involved, I don’t think it will be to help the Venezuelan people. It will be for oil.

Astrid Chirinos: I don’t worry about the US; I love this country. But there are so many hidden agendas and Venezuela has so many natural resources. As vulnerable as it is, it would be very easy for a controlling authoritarian regime, that wants to provide law & order, to take advantage and go to the other extreme. The extremes are always abusive.

Above all, what would you like your fellow Americans to understand about what is happening right now in Venezuela?

Astrid Chirinos: It was a very shrewd move from Guaidó and his supporters to take charge of the future of the country when they did. They saw a window open up—when Maduro decided that he was going to stay in power no matter what—and they took advantage of the timing. If it doesn’t happen now, it’s never going to happen.

Claudio Ortiz: The International Organization for Migration reported that nearly 1 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela over the last 2 years. People are dying. The solution to the crisis is not a simple one. As solutions start to take form, they will most likely be extremely flawed, but they are born out of a very real necessity. The crisis is real.

Liza Ortiz: The crisis occurring in Venezuela is not buzz news. I feel like it’s just getting its 15 minutes of fame, but the suffering taking place has been going on for too long.

Tony Arreaza: I’m not sure how [Americans] can help. Just know that if you meet a Venezuelan, that person has been through hard times. Be nice to them. They’re not here to ask for money; they’re here to work.

If you would like to contribute or donate to causes helping the growing crisis in Venezuela, here are a list of nonprofits.

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