Nobody Cares About Stranded Venezuelans

While other countries in the region have arranged the return of thousands of citizens that were traveling when borders were closed down, our citizens have unanswered questions regarding their return to Venezuela or their homes in exile.

Photo: EFE, retrieved.

Venezuelan citizen Mariana Luego Scotto spent over 30 hours stranded at Chile’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. She was coming from Paris and had to change her return flight to see if she could travel on Tuesday 17th, but she had no luck. One of her connecting flights was delayed and she arrived, along with her mother, on Wednesday 18th, the day when Sebastián Piñera’s administration closed the border for non-nationals.

Her mother, a Chilean citizen, could enter, but she couldn’t. Her flight from Estelar, the only airline flying Santiago-Caracas, had been cancelled. Maduro closed down the airspace for almost all airlines and the Policía de Investigaciones, the Chilean agency controlling the borders, told her that if she couldn’t continue her journey to Caracas, she had to go back to Europe.

Mother and daughter, the former with a special permit that allowed her to stay at the airport while the latter was in transit, jumped through hoops to find a solution. Mariana’s stepdad, a Chilean national, tried contacting the president for help, while her mother went to the Venezuelan consulate, led by a representative Guaidó’s government, Guarequena Gutiérrez. They finally found a loophole among the rules laid out by Maduro: flights to and from Havana and Managua weren’t cancelled. Mariana took a flight on Thursday noon with plans to arrive in Caracas on Sunday evening; she’d have to stop in Panama, then Havana and from there to Venezuela’s Maiquetía Airport.

The flight from Havana, according to passengers, wasn’t humanitarian at all.

The flight from Havana, according to passengers, wasn’t humanitarian at all: each ticket went from $600 to $1000. Add to that the mess at the José Martí International Airport, filled with people desperately looking for an exit, and the one in Maiquetía upon arrival, which kept them for over two hours locked inside the plane, since there were no shuttles to take them to the gate, where they took passengers’ temperature (a measure that’s not nearly enough to tell if they carry the virus).

Mariana prevailed, but she’s an exception to the rule. In the United States, there are 200 stranded Venezuelans; in Bogotá, there are 205. It also happens the other way around: I’m one of over 150 Venezuelans residing in Chile but stranded in Venezuela. I came for the first time in three years and now I can’t leave.

Back (in My Other) Home

I’m better off than most. I’m at my parent’s house, playing with my dog, with somewhere to stay indefinitely for as many days as I want, until I go back. I can work online, even with all the limitations of poor internet service and the constant power outages.

However, for Melvin González, who’s visiting Colombia with his wife and two children, the lease for the apartment where they’re staying ends on March 24th. Flights in Colombia are suspended until April 23rd; a longer stay would mean a non-budgeted expense (that they can’t afford) for them and their family in Bogotá. Like Mariana, Melvin changed his plans so he could return on time. His original return date to Valencia, Venezuela, was on Tuesday 17th. On Thursday 12th, they heard about cancelled flights and bought new tickets for Saturday 14th, since Maduro’s measures weren’t clear. When they arrived at the airport, they were told that the flight was grounded and tickets back to Havana were sold out.

No one has explained what will happen to Venezuelans whose tourist visas expire while they’re abroad. In Bogotá, for example, the Venezuelan Embassy is little more than a deserted shell. The consulate is closed. Melvin tried to get in and they wouldn’t let him through to the gate. The migration officer didn’t answer his questions and now, with the country in quarantine, he can’t go back and find out. In the U.S., where the embassy is in the hands of the Guaidó administration, stranded Venezuelans can extend their visa through a website, but it costs $455.

Defenseless

A government on the outs with the rest of the region makes any arrangement difficult. Conviasa, the state-run airline, usually offers flights to ten destinations, with regular stops in Panama or Dominican Republic, the first suspended destinations.

No one has explained what will happen to Venezuelans whose tourist visas expire while they’re abroad.

Last Wednesday, March 18th, a Laser airline flight came to Maiquetía from the Dominican Republic. Journal El Pitazo reported that an Estelar flight would come in from Buenos Aires and a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul, yet the one from Buenos Aires never arrived, the airplane had to make an emergency landing at Cacique Aramare National Airport, in the Venezuelan Amazonas.

Another flight came from Mexico on March 23rd. A report by website Runrunes says that tickets went from $580 to $866, depending on the departure site. The flight left with a five hour delay.

Maduro spoke about a fourth flight at a national address: “I ask the Foreign Relations Minister to organize a Conviasa plane to go and pick up 200 stranded Venezuelans in the United States. The United States government can’t prevent that flight for humanitarian reasons.” The regime’s prosecutor general Tarek William Saab later tweeted about that flight, as if it were already a done deal, he even said that “there are dozens of these flights”. He didn’t say when they would happen or how many passengers they’d carry.

Maduro also took the chance to threaten Trump: “I’m telling the U.S. government that they can’t prevent us from going for humanitarian reasons. They have to lift the sanctions with a special license that would last, I don’t know, 48 hours.”

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted on Monday 23rd that they had set up a website so that those stranded in the U.S. can leave their personal information. They’re calling it Plan Vuelta a la Patria Contingencia COVID-19.

The contrast with neighboring countries is hard and depressing: Argentina arranged 35 special flights for 12,000 citizens, also setting up a 24-hour online attention center for passengers. Brazil has their form for the same purpose, through the Agência Nacional de Aviação Civil and their Ministério das Relações Exteriores also created an emergency hotline. There isn’t a lot of information on the Foreign Relations Ministry’s social media or websites, or those of Conviasa: just a retweet about Mexicans stranded in Venezuela and one about Venezuelans stranded in Mexico. The rest is about Cuban doctors and medicines entering the country.

Nicolás Maduro even asked hotels to host arriving Venezuelans, while no one knows what’s happened with those who indeed came back. Colombia has arranged the return of 3,017 Colombians and more flights will depart, while Venezuelans in Colombia can’t even get through the land border. 

Venezuelans who happened to be abroad while the COVID-19 crisis began aren’t only stranded: we’re alone.