Venezuelans fleeing to Palm Beach County: ‘It’s like starting from zero’

May 10, 2018
Arnaldo Martinez, left, and Yenisse Martinez Gonzalez pose for a picture holding a flag of their home country, Venezuela, at their West Palm Beach, Fla., home on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

Four years ago, Arnaldo Martinez was an electrical engineer living with his family in a nice high-rise apartment in his hometown of Maracay, Venezuela.

Today, he delivers pizzas for Papa John’s and lives with his wife in a modest apartment behind the Palm Beach Outlets center.

“It’s a big change,” Martinez, 62, says with a subtle smile, “but I try to consider it as seeing life in a different way.”

Most important for Martinez and his family, they no longer worry about the daily anxieties that came with life in Venezuela in the years before they fled in 2015 — whether they would have access to food and medicine, if they would get robbed, or if the police, cracking down on political dissenters, would raid their home.

“This place isn’t the nicest, but we are grateful here,” said Yenisse Gonzalez, Martinez’s wife, who wrote a self-published book about their final years in Venezuela called Resistance Times. “It is safe, and we can afford all of our needs.”

Arnaldo Martinez and his wife, Yenisse Gonzalez, left Venezuela in 2015 because of the humanitarian crisis and moved to West Palm Beach. Here they are in their apartment with a table full of goods, bought in West Palm Beach stores, that they plan to ship to relatives in Venezuela. (Joe Capozzi / The Palm Beach Post)

Martinez, Gonzalez and her two daughters are among thousands of Venezuelans who have poured into Palm Beach County and other parts of South Florida since 2013 to escape the deepening political and humanitarian crisis in their country. For most, the transition upends their lives.

Many of them are doctors, lawyers and engineers who are working here as waiters, Uber drivers and housekeepers, often among neighbors and customers with no clue about the professional lives they gave up.

“It’s like starting from zero,” said Gonzalez, 53, a teacher in Venezuela who now works as a behavioral tech at a sober-living home. “We have to learn a new language. We have to find a new job. When you are not young, it is not easy.”

As they adjust to their new lives here, many also are active in a loose network of local Venezuelans who spend what extra money they have on two missions: Helping other newly arrived countrymen in Palm Beach County and, perhaps most important, sending food, medicine and supplies to relatives back home in cities like Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo who would otherwise have to wait in long lines outside grocery stores with nearly bare shelves.

RELATED: Venezuelans seek asylum in U.S. for a better life

Martinez and Gonzalez were fortunate to have relatives in West Palm Beach that helped them, but many Venezuelans arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing.

Some use whatever money they have to buy a used car, a cheap phone and a membership to a gym. That way, they can sleep in their cars, often in parking lots like the Walmart on Belvedere Road near Military Trail, and then go to the gym to take a shower before looking for a job, said Victor Verduccia, a Greenacres man who runs a volunteer support network for newly arrived countrymen.

Victor Verduccia runs a volunteer support group for newly arrived Venezuelans in Palm Beach County.

“All of the Venezuelans are running here because of the crisis,” said Verduccia, who worked as a lawyer in Caracas before he left in 2002, a few years after the late President Hugo Chavez took power. “It’s like an exodus. They’re running like there’s something behind them that is chasing them.”

What’s chasing them are the demons from a society in collapse because of economic and political mismanagement under Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, who took over after Chavez died in 2013.

Once the most prosperous country in South America, Venezuela today is suffering from extreme shortages of food, rampant crime and rioting, and runaway inflation. Children are dying of malnutrition. There are constant electrical blackouts.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration for the first time called for regime change in Venezuela, charging that the “systematic oppression” by Maduro has become an “active threat” to the entire Latin American region.

“I’m astonished at the degree to which this regime has managed to trigger failure in virtually every single aspect of national life in Venezuela,” said Patrick D. Duddy, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010.

More than Mariel

While trying to downplay the crisis, Maduro’s government also has jailed and allegedly tortured political opponents, sparking a wave of asylum seekers like Martinez and Gonzalez; they are among nearly 60,000 Venezuelans who have filed asylum applications in the United States since 2014.

Hundreds of thousands left Venezuela between 1999 and 2015, but nearly a million people have fled over the last two years, according to the International Organization for Migration.

According to the United Nations, an average of 5,000 Venezuelans were leaving their country every day during the early months of this year, a rate higher, as The New York Times reported, than the more than 125,000 Cuban exiles who fled during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis and transformed South Florida.

The majority have surged into neighboring South American countries, but more than 300,000 have poured into North America, with Florida the top destination because of cities with thriving Venezuelan populations like Doral and Weston.

The exact number of Venezuelans in Florida is not clear, but a University of Miami study released in February estimates that more than 200,000 have settled in South Florida since 2014, with the majority in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“What we found is people who came here tended to be highly educated, with college degrees, and the ones who don’t go to neighboring South American countries,” said Dr. Seth Schwartz, who led the UM study.

Verduccia estimates that his volunteer group, Venezuelans Latin Americans United Anywhere Palm Beach, has helped about 3,700 Venezuelans relocate in Palm Beach County since 2015.

Many arrive by plane on temporary tourist or work visas, which the U.S. embassy started issuing again in January after suspending the services in May 2016 because it didn’t have the staff to process the deluge of requests.

Immigration lawyer Aileen Josephs. Palm Beach Post file photo 

“Most of the ones who come here have tourist visas, good for six months. They have to demonstrate to the customs agents at the airport that they are coming here for vacation. Many even book a hotel at Disney World to demonstrate their tourist intent. Yet once in the United States, many overstay their visas and apply for asylum,” said Aileen Josephs, a West Palm Beach immigration attorney.

Since asylum applications can take years to process, many Venezuelans in South Florida “live in a state of limbo,” said Schwartz.

Like other South Florida support groups, such as the Venezuela Awareness Foundation and Hands of Hope for Immigrants Foundation, Verduccia’s group collects and donates money, clothes and other essentials for newly arrived refugees.

Through the group’s Facebook page and WhatsApp bulletin board, refugees can find leads for jobs, cars, housing, and phones along with advice on how to apply for asylum and where to get health care and free food.

“Sometimes I give money out of my own pocket to people I don’t even know. I say ‘welcome,’ and some people start crying,” Verduccia said.

“Some people tell me they sold everything and came here with $50. How can you start a new life in the United States with $50? The most interesting part is they don’t want to be here, but they can’t go back to a place where there’s no food and no medicine.”

From Publix to Venezuela

And many of them arrive only to learn that their neighbors in South Florida include suspected members of the Chavez regime who also fled Venezuela and are living in expensive homes with money their former countrymen say was stolen from government accounts.

Protesters against corruption in Venezuela protest in Wellington near the home of former Venezuelan finance minister Alejandro Andrade in March 2014. (CONTRIBUTED)

In 2014, local Venezuelans protested near the Wellington home of former Chavez body guard Alejandro Andrade, who has been identified in published reports as the target of a U.S. money-laundering probe.

RELATED: How a Venezuelan crisis plays out in Wellington horse country

As part of their daily routines in South Florida, many local Venezuelans — including people who moved here before the crisis — shop in supermarkets like Publix and Presidente for goods that they pack into boxes once a month and send to relatives in Venezuela. It can cost hundreds of dollars each month.

“I have gone to Presidente to buy things like coffee, pasta, beans, rice, milk to send to a cousin and an aunt. It starts adding up for those here to help their families but that is what we do,” Josephs said.

In a neighborhood near Bear Lakes Middle School, the floor-to-ceiling window in Diego Torres’ apartment is almost completely blocked most days by stacks of boxes. Local Venezuelans fill those boxes with food, medicine and supplies, which Torres’ company ships to their relatives.

Diego Torres and his wife, Johana, load boxes of goods bound for Venezuela. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Every Thursday, a truck retrieves the 40 to 50 boxes and delivers them to Port Everglades, where they are sent on a ship for the 18-day journey to Venezuela.

Business is booming, says Torres, who charges $45 to $65 a box. “But I can’t feel good about that,” he said, “because that means people need help in Venezuela.”

Diego Torres (foreground) and Rubin Garcia load a pallet of items to be shipped to Venezuela from West Palm Beach. Torres runs a freight shipping business out of his home. Every week, customers from Venezuela drop off boxes of goods to be sent home. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Living behind chains

Even after the boxes arrive, there can be resentment and jealousy from neighbors in Venezuela who aren’t getting help from relatives abroad. Sometimes it leads to crime.

The first time Patricia Gottenger of Delray Beach sent medicine and food to her parents in Maracay, she said, the boxes were dropped off in front of their apartment. Burglars took notice and broke into the elderly couple’s apartment.

She switched delivery services, so the boxes are brought into her parent’s apartment. Her brother in Maracay installed a thick chain across the apartment door to prevent break-ins.

“Every time I send a box, I pray to God that they receive it,” said Gottenger, whose 73-year-old father relies on the medication she sends to treat his cancer and spine tumor.

“They get inside the house and they chain themselves in, and when they leave they chain the apartment. It’s ridiculous.”

Lilian Gordon Attias and her husband, Stuart Feldman, of Delray Beach fled Venezuela in 2015. Feldman, who grew up in New York, met his wife while working in Venezuela. (Joe Capozzi / The Palm Beach Post)

Lilian Gordon Attias resettled in Delray Beach eight months ago with her American husband, Stuart Feldman, who said he was grazed by a stray bullet and tied up by robbers who broke into his office in Caracas in separate incidents over the years.

“I sold everything I had and left,” Feldman said. “It’s a sad situation.”

‘No police raids here’

Yenisse Gonzalez of West Palm Beach, who is active in the Hands of Hope for Immigrants Foundation, said she and her family fled because they were targeted by police cracking down on political dissenters, a story she recounts in her book. 

She said their problems started when she and Martinez wound up on the Tascon List, a blacklist of millions of Venezuelans who asked for the recall of Chavez in 2003 and 2004. Published online by National Assembly member Luis Tascón, opponents have said the list is used by the Venezuelan government to discriminate against those who have signed against Chávez.

In 2014, after student protesters were shot and killed by government agents in Venezuela, Gonzalez’s daughter, Yelian Torres, participated in public demonstrations in Maracay and Caracas. Soon after, Gonzalez said, the family’s apartment was raided by police twice. They were trying to arrest Torres, who hid in different homes before her mother eventually shuttled her in cars and taxis to the Colombian border to safety.

But Gonzalez said police returned to the apartment again, threatening to arrest her other daughter, prompting the family to leave for good. “I told my husband, ‘We cannot live this way,”’ she said.

Three years later, Torres — an aspiring singer who can be heard in a YouTube photo album of the protests posted by her mother — is living in Palm Beach Gardens and Gonzalez’s other daughter lives in West Palm Beach.

In the one-bedroom apartment Gonzalez shares with her husband, the living room wall is decorated with a large photograph of mountains rising behind Choroni Beach, one of their favorite places in Venezuela.

“I feel rich,” she said, gazing out a window with a view of a trash bin in a parking lot. “I know I’m not really rich but I am comfortable. I have my needs. I can pay for food and medicine. And there are no police raids here.”