Román never thought his life would go like this. He was doing pretty well for himself: he had a university degree, a long-time girlfriend whom he planned on marrying, and a stable career with a well-known pharmaceutical company. He made enough to have his own car and rent an apartment in Caracas.

Now Román is a refugee. Or, rather, he’s trying to become one.

He fled Venezuela about two years ago, taking just a few basics with him. He was still young and healthy, but a lot of his friendliness, enthusiasm and good nature were buried when he left.

He entered the United States on a tourist visa and was lucky enough to be welcomed at a friend’s house. Six months later, when his visa expired, he remained in the U.S., working “under the table.”

Román lost everything. His girlfriend was kidnapped during a work outing and murdered when a malandro noticed she was hiding her cellphone and was trying to notify someone. Román worked at the same place his girlfriend did and he was not only heartbroken because of her murder, but because it could have easily been him.

Growing up, Roman never could have guessed the 1951 the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees would ever be of the slightest relevance to his life. The treaty, agreed at the then recently-formed United Nations (UN), is now at the center of his life plan.

Initially intended to follow up on the millions displaced after the holocaust, it was amended on December 1967 through an Additional Protocol which provided it with universal character.

He was still young and healthy, but a lot of his friendliness, enthusiasm and good nature were buried when he left.

Theoretically, anyone who has fled from the country of his/her nationality or permanent residence can apply for refugee status if:

  • The person has a well-founded fear of persecution
  • This persecution is due to reasons of: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion
  • Due to fear of persecution, this person is unable or unwilling to return to the country of his/her permanent residence or country of nationality

Refugee status is decided on a case by case basis, so the country’s general and terrible situation is important, but of limited relevance.

When Román first arrived in the U.S, he intended to test the waters, go back to Venezuela and then come back to the U.S with a more thorough plan. Things didn’t work out like that, though: as the bolívar devalued, he realized he’d never be able to afford another ticket, so he decided to stay in the U.S.

After signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which supposedly encompassed all human rights as non-hierarchical and indivisible, the UN also introduced two other Conventions in 1966: The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which deals with concepts such as freedom of expression and torture, and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which addresses notions like education and famine.

Refugee status is decided on a case by case basis, so the country’s general and terrible situation is important, but of limited relevance.

The splitting of human rights into these two covenants came with a high price for refugee law, because a long tradition of granting refugee status under civil and political rights violations was reinforced; and persecution became a very difficult concept to define and substantiate by asylum seekers. The state’s intention to harm (ex: state agents carrying out acts of torture) became more important than the state’s intention not to protect (not fulfilling the right to adequate standards of living, such as eating properly).

Working illegally in the U.S. for months, Román was underpaid, extorted and abused. But he’s a resourceful guy. He contacted a lawyer from an NGO with expertise in the field, who put forward the idea of applying for refugee status.

Chávez and Maduro have been crafty in the way they present Venezuela to the international community: explicit political persecution have been disguised as accusations of acts of terrorism; colectivos have served the dual public purpose of “being but not being” part of government; food shortages, lack of medicines, exchange control under the framework of an economic war have been classified by international authorities as a difficulty of the state to fulfill its duty. That’s different from the state intentionally failing to fulfill its duty. It’s hard to convince a judge that Chávez and Maduro had a political plan to make life for their citizens untenable: after all, weren’t they elected democratically?

Venezuelans have walked a thin line when it comes to requesting refugee status. The indicators measured by international organizations often don’t reflect the country’s crushing reality. The sole idea of foreign exchange control doesn’t quite convey the impossibility of buying a dollarized plane ticket to leave Venezuela; high crime and pervasive violence don’t tell the story of the way mafias and colectivos exercise control over our lives; even food shortages get ascribed to falling oil prices rather than executive decision to starve a country rather than soltar el coroto.

It’s hard to convince a judge that Chávez and Maduro had a political plan to make life for their citizens untenable.

Román spent months as an asylum seeker, the transitional legal state for those applying for refugee status while obtaining a formal answer. He continued to work, phoned his family every now and then, fought loneliness and depression and tried to save some money. With international legislation in mind, his lawyer built a case detailing the persecution and explaining the inherent political and mafia-like features of colectivos, while addressing the characteristics that made Román a specific target. These, however, are not that different from most venezuelans’ day to day experiences.

Román remained cautious and alert while fearing being deported. He wasn’t happy, and had stopped trying to be. As a matter of fact, he was mostly struggling to survive, while feeling his biggest losses were the hours spent remembering who he was, trying to avoid the dark pit of not knowing what was going to become of him.

Just several weeks ago, Román was in shock unexpected success knocked on his door. He was granted refugee status. He didn’t celebrate, though, or even feel at ease. He just felt lucky. Lucky and relieved. He knew the odds were stacked against him, and that the likelihood of being granted refugee status is extremely low. He was especially grateful for the lawyer who took on his case.

This is not a happy ending. Human rights and international legislation processes and implementation have been criticized and questioned for decades due to the social complexities and diffuse nature of political phenomena. Modifications do come, but at an unnervingly slow pace.

It’s the sort of problem Venezuelans used to have the luxury of being able to ignore: exotic issues people like Román never expected to play a part in their lives. Today, thousands of Venezuelans like him find that their life plans hang on the minutiae of the way tribunals interpret their international obligations to protect those seeking refuge. It’s a whole new world.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Had to look this one up..

    a. Of, relating to, or characterized by intrigue; scheming or devious: “a fine hand for Byzantine deals and cozy arrangements” (New York). b. Highly complicated; intricate and involved: a bill to simplify the byzantine tax structure.

    Now, are Cabello, Tarek and Maduro truly connected to :

    ‘Byzantine means related to or connected with the Byzantine Empire.’

    Or what do they share in common? Did they have arepa shortages during that cruel Byzantine Empire? Go figure. Methinks the Roman Empire inspired Chabestia, and the rest is history.

    • Your English assignment for extra credit is to explain the difference between the adjectives “byzantine” and “machiavellian”. 🙂

  2. “The sole idea of foreign exchange control doesn’t quite convey the impossibility of buying a dollarized plane ticket to leave Venezuela; high crime and pervasive violence don’t tell the story of the way mafias and colectivos exercise control over our lives; even food shortages get ascribed to falling oil prices rather than executive decision to starve a country…”

    Powerful. Thank you. It’s so complex to try to explain it simply to outsiders who wish to understand it these days.

  3. Wow, I feel incredibly sad for Roman. It is hard to imagine, the humiliation of requesting and being granted asylum into a country like the USA.. After all Román was “underpaid, extorted and abused”, and was in “fear of deportation” during his frightful wait.

    As Lis clearly states, “This is not a Happy Ending”

    Back to reality…… What a bias story. Roman, of course has had a difficult time and tragic time. But lets get real. He was not sold to slavery, did not go into prostitution, or needed to pan-handle in the streets. Did not trek 1,000 miles over dangerous seas, or deserts. Was not bound, tied, or physically abused.
    Extorted? Liz I am listening. Mentally abuse? Liz I am listening.

    Of course Roman story, and VZ story, is the consequences of electing Chavez and Maduro. He and millions of other Venezuelan left VZ or wish to, and though the Refugee and Human Rights statues, agreements, conventions, etc were created to deal with situations that VZ finds itself in.

    But the fact is that the world is awash with countries whose citizens are “in danger” from remaining in there country of origin.

    This is where the story should be directed. The sad unfortunate fact of so many failed states, and the over whelming pressure on other countries to accept them.

    Instead of celebrating a success story, Lis instead trashes that success. Sad

    • Well you don’t know…mainly asylum cases are if you fear persecution back in your country. No if you were bound, walk 1000miles…let’s say a person from saudi get into a plane and request asylum because he is gay….well he did not suffer anything but that would be enough…The same goes for people that are kidnapped by criminals, that is not a cause for asylum…and focus is about Venezuelans, yes there are lot of refugees, and different conditions…Or what about that you are on a list and they will not sell you the medicine (it has happened in merida , if you look to white, in Barrio adentro they tell you this place is not for you, and they are the only ones with the medicine) So yes maybe you were not tortured…but all that is tratos cures, and part of torture

        • Gd, your the Jerk….
          Next time read before you comment. I specifically said “Roman…….has had a difficult time and tragic time”

          My point, was with Lis.

          Her comments about Romans “hardships” in the USA – to me, was BS.

          ABUSED, AND EXTORTED – really?

          The wholesale trashing of the USA, done blindly (or intentionally) is rampant on these chronicles. Lis’s article continues the narrative that the USA treated Roman in a NEGATIVE way. When in fact, the results sound completely the opposite.

          • If anything, the criticisms are levied against the whole asylum-seeking process, not the US or any country in particular.

          • Being treated badly in the USA is not the same as being treated bad by the USA. The first implies he had a hard time over there, which is what she is trying to say, the second one implies there was a collective responsibility or that his mistreatment was in some way caused by the american state, this is not the case.

            funny how you are criticizing her for victimizing someone that in your opinion hasn’t suffered THAT much and at the same time you victimize your country because someone over the internet said something bad happened to ONE person.

            And no, the article shoulnd’t be directed at x or y, it is fine as it is because this is what she meant to write. You can write your own article about how those mean brown people are pressuring good ol’ USA to take in their unwashed masses.

  4. When Maduro falls and a new government is elected what happens to the people that have applied for asylum or received it?The rebuilding will be difficult and I doubt they will want to return.

    • Returning is one of the three possible durable solutions for refugees, together with local integration and resettlement, according to UNHCR. It’s complicated because it has to be possible to ensure the safety of those persecuted before returning. Take the case of Colombian refugees in Venezuela, who in spite the recent peace treaties are not able to return because the violence is rooted in fragmented paramilitary groups. But the truth is statistically most refugees do long on returning​.

  5. FYI when you receive Asylum in the US you CANNOT visit your home country if you aspire to keep your status as a refugee. I know that to be true for at least 10 years.

  6. The Chavistas must rejoice in the departure of every Roman. Castro was able to consolidate his control of Cuba by squeezing out tbe upper and middle classes. Assad smiles every time a young Sunni Syrian seek refuge in Europe. It’s a form of ethnic and in the case of Venezuela, political cleansing. When Maduro is ousted and when your.emigres seek to reenter your country, I suggest that you honor and reward those who resisted and suffered at home.

  7. I am sorry for genuine refugees such as Román, but the humanitarian impulse of nations like the U.S. is being systematically abused by criminals and hustlers.

    Australia has been the target of thousands of “asylum seekers” who are nothing more than illegal immigrants. They paid thousands of dollars to operators who carried them in broken-down boats to Australian waters, then scuttled the boats, forcing Australian coast guards to pick them up. The Labour government would then grant them refugee status and permanent residency. But in some cases the boats foundered before anyone could pick up the castaways, and hundreds drowned. The Liberal government changed the policy to internment on a remote Pacific island, and the number of “asylum seekers” immediately dropped to near zero. (Also the number of drownings.)

    Among the “asylum seekers” previously admitted were these Iranians, who claimed they fled Iran in fear, yet returned voluntarily to Iran for vacations, marriages, and family reunions.

    And everyone who can read knows what is happening in Europe, infested with thugs and hoodlums posing as “refugees”.

    When the final blow-up happens in Venezuela, there will be huge numbers of refugees, and many of them will be enchufados fleeing with their loot, narcos carrying drugs, and paramilitary killers evading justice.

    The U.S. must maintain and enforce its controls on immigration, including refugees, or be swamped. This is hard on the genuinely persecuted, but the blame lies on the abusers.

  8. ……and just like that – there’s tens of thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers with no real cases to make before a judge and dozens of lawyers earning a quick buck by advising them to exaggerate truths, downright make shit up and apply for refugee status. Listen, personal tragedies are horrible and Venezuela’s great at churning them out daily (a todos nos toca eventualmente) – but being in a broken, crime-ridden country and holding onto the same old “My country’s scary and I don’t like it” sob story as everyone else does not a prosecution case make.

    If refugee status isn’t granted, you can even appeal the decision and drag it out for more time. Y después, ¿quién te saca? But the truth is eventually many of these refugees are gonna get deported porque la viveza criolla no dura para siempre.

    • Interesting this comment. How lawyers tell clients to exaggerate the claim? can you give me an example? I’ve been hearing this quite a while

      • I know of people who’ve given themselves black eyes, fat lips and taken pictures of themselves as evidence claiming to have been hurt by the GNB. Others who’ve vandalized their own cars and homes with anti-Opposition graffiti as evidence of targeted political persecution. Hell, I personally know a guy who sought asylum claiming he was being persecuted in Venezuela for being gay (he’s actually gay) and, was actually granted refugee status! He then stole some money I lent him (so you know he’s an asshole), but was really never a target of any sort of homophobia.

        Shady lawyers are in it for the money, so they’ll take any asylum application they can and tell clients to make phony cases like these; grossly exaggerating truths about political persecution and hoping for the best in four years (four years being the estimated wait time between applying for refugee status and your final hearing before a judge, with some interviews sprinkled throughout). One lawyer I talked to even said, and this is verbatim, “Have faith in God that Trump’s never gonna win, and Hillary’s not gonna deport you.” Guess how that would’ve turned out.

        You’re given a work permit for the duration of this process, so in a sense, you’ve bought yourself four years of tenuous legality in the US – it only costs a mountain of bullshit and morals (which -many- paisanos lack).

        • I think you’re talking about the falso positivos, which are always a possibility under any legal procedure. I am sad that you seem to have stumble upon several of this cases although I wouldn’t procede as if these were the rule. To me they seem more like the exception, for instance, and according to empirical research:
          -although refugee crises have been highly publicized, the statistics for granting refugee status are usually less than one percent of all the asylum seekers. And not because they don’t have a case, most are left within a legal limbo of not being provided an answer (even if on paper this shouldn’t take more than three months).
          -nobody wants to be a refugee. While you are provided with a government answer you remain in a legal limbo that conveniently avoids most of the cityzenship rights and privileges.
          -it is a myth that the priviledge migration direction is south to north. Migrants tend to move either south to south or north to North.

  9. The definition of “refugee” in the Convention doesn’t apply to broad disasters like famines or state failure. You aren’t “persecuted” if no one in your country can find enough food. That’s why Venezuelans should be demanding a special protection program which doesn’t require strict compliance with the definition. Cuba had this for many years. So too did the Soviet bloc, back in its heyday. Czech hockey players or Mikhael Baryshnikov never had to show persecution; they only had to establish that they didn’t want to go back.

    There are enough Venezuelans abroad now that they should be making this demand.

    • I think it’s a fair point, though the way persecution is conducted in totalitarian states has evolved and so has the traditional interpretation of the term persecution in the refugee convention.. a good example is the OAS Cartagena resolution on territorial asylum. Signed on the eighties, it was especially mindful of the then situation at the time in Colombia and Central America

  10. I think it’s a fair point, though the way persecution is conducted in totalitarian states has evolved and so has the traditional interpretation of the term persecution in the refugee convention.. a good example is the OAS Cartagena resolution on territorial asylum. Signed on the eighties, it was especially mindful of the then situation at the time in Colombia and Central America

  11. As a European I very much prefer if Venezuelans deal with their own shit instead of leaping our direction.

    • Do you think it was a coincidence that the 1951 Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees was drafted after world war two, which was particularly destructive on European countries?

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