ORLANDO, Fla. – Venezuela was once a prosperous and rich country that sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves but for the past two decades, it’s been crumbling with an ongoing political and socio-economic crisis.
The United Nations reported more than 5.6 million Venezuelans have left their country with thousands starting a new life in Central Florida, like José Gamboa.
“My mom had to get a surgery once done. If I wasn’t here to be able to send the money to be able to pay for that surgery who knows what would’ve happened to her,” Gamboa, a Venezuelan refugee said.
He left his country five years ago but his parents and siblings still live there.
“It was very difficult. The fact that I didn’t have my family with me was the hardest challenge. I’ve been able to help them as much as I can — sending them food, non-perishable supplies; things that they need to get in communication. Every day that I go out and I can go into a Publix and find the stuff that I need, I don’t have to do a line for food or I can go to a hospital and get treated, I know that’s not the same reality for my family and that saddens me,” Gamboa said.
It’s a reality of a country where the poverty level is more than 90%.
“I really saw not only that there wasn’t a future for young people like me but that the government was really cracking down on people that were actively protesting,” Gamboa who was a political science major in Venezuela said. “It came to a point where I was really becoming a target and that was endangering not only me but my family as well.”
At the time, Gamboa was part of the student movement protesting against Nicolas Maduro’s regime and worked with Venezuela’s opposition leader and now interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.
“The political crisis has made it very difficult for Venezuelans to explore potential avenues for solutions because it’s basically illegal to go against the government, right?” Samuel Vilchez, a Venezuelan political analyst said. “A lot of people are less likely to do so because of all the repression going on so then they decide to leave the country.”
Venezuela’s downfall began after Hugo Chávez became president in 1999 and created the basis of “Chavismo”, a socialist ideology influenced by Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Professor, Luis Martínez Fernández who teaches history said the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba began in the mid-1990s when Cuba was going through an economic crisis.
“We see Venezuela playing the role of benefactor of the Cuban government. This was a relationship that included shipment of oil to Cuba at very discounted prices so that the Cuban government could benefit from that,” Martínez Fernández said.
In return, Cuba sends physicians to Venezuela.
“The deal is like this: Venezuela pays Cuba, say $100 per month for one physician; Cuba gets to keep 80% of that money. So that physician is in a way virtually a slave and it is a form of flagrant exploitation,” the UCF history professor said. “It was a two-way relationship and we see that Cuba also has things to offer. On the one hand and first and foremost the Cuban intelligence system supported the Venezuelan government. Actually, this is, I think unprecedented in the history of Latin America, Hugo Chavez did not trust his own intelligence system so it was the Cuban intelligence system that was supporting Hugo Chavez.”
Venezuela’s government system has led to a historic exodus of Venezuelans fleeing repression, poverty, shortage of medicine and food.
“The pandemic has actually made everything worse and right now Venezuela is last when it comes to vaccinations across the hemisphere,” Vilchez said.
The 24-year-old moved to central Florida with his parents 11 years ago after he said they were threatened for being politically outspoken against the government.
“Here in central Florida, we have about 100,000 Venezuelans. When I came here 11 years ago that was not the case. And it’s very interesting to see the growth of the community,” Vilchez said.
And like many Venezuelans, Gamboa isn’t losing hope that he can one day return to his homeland.
“I do have faith that better times will come. I can’t promise or tell that it will be tomorrow or next year or in the next ten years; we’ve seen places like Cuba that have been in a dictatorship for over 60 years but I do have faith that my people will endure just like we’ve done in the past and that our country will be better,” Gamboa said.