Escaping Venezuela in Times of COVID-19
Venezuela's commercial airways are closed since the beginning of the pandemic. This is the story of a family's struggle to get two 80-year-olds out of the country with a black market flight
Elena, the cousin, was stuck with us in Atlanta since February. She was supposed to help for a month or two with our newborn granddaughter, but with the COVID-19 lockdown, she stayed with us for seven months.
As all Venezuelans who lived the black-market-bachaquero boom, she had developed a WhatsApp network to know where to find anything and everything, so she got a very interesting tip: “I have someone who can set you up with a ‘humanitarian flight,’ her name is Alexandra.”
She forwards the contact to (my) Wife, who needs her parents back in the U.S. soon. They’re in their early 80s, they’re U.S. residents and during their last visit in 2019, they obtained the I-131/Travel Document, allowing them absence from the U.S. for up to a year. That year would expire in mid-September.
She makes a WhatsApp call to her parents. In El Cafetal, eastern Caracas, internet service is spotty. She misses them, but leaves an urgent message. A while later, while she’s at the supermarket, los viejitos get back to her. Yes, they’re ready and willing to leave. It’s been too hard to be in Venezuela.
What’s the Deal, Alexandra?
Wife makes a second WhatsApp call from the parking lot of the supermarket, now to the aforementioned Alexandra. What’s the deal? The flight will take off in three days to Santo Domingo, only taking foreign nationals or Venezuelans with resident visas in some third country. They must show a ticket out from the Dominican Republic dated within 24 hours of their arrival to Santo Domingo.
There’s a third WhatsApp call from the parking lot.
“Old timers, grab your things, you’re leaving in three days. It’s not a time for doubt.”
Fourth WhatsApp call, still on the parking lot. To Alexandra.
“Let’s move on, I need two spots on the flight.”
“Do the passengers comply with the previously stated requirements?”
“I only have executive class left. That’s $650 via Zelle.”
“And you must pay within the hour, I cannot hold the spots any longer.”
Wife calls me:
“You have to transfer $1,300 to (target email) via Zelle.”
“Wait, wait,” I need the pause. “Are you sure this is legit?”
“I fear a scam too, but we have to get los viejitos back here. This is a loss we can afford, let’s risk it.”
She needs to make calls to my in-laws to confirm some information, and walks the road in fearful Venezuelan mode: make a mistake anywhere and the Venezuelan authorities will sink you.
I punch Alexandra’s ID to Zelle, banking at Wells Fargo and it won’t let me transfer but $500 to any new contact. I call Wife, she calls Alexandra, who’s already aware of the restriction. “Do you have another account?” she asks. We do have an account in BofA. It goes through.
Wife gets back to Alexandra. This is all going down in the parking lot.
“Did you get the money? It’s in two parts.”
“Yes. I’m going to send you a form that you must fill. They must be at the airport five hours before departure, the flight is scheduled to leave at 11:00 p.m. Are you interested in booking the flight out of Santo Domingo? I can also book a hotel for your parents if you wish. I would recommend a hotel room in La Guaira (near the Venezuelan airport), remember the COVID-19 lockdown and all.”
“You know what? Let me get back to you, Alexandra.”
Back home, Wife starts filling the form. She needs to make calls to my in-laws to confirm some information, and walks the road in fearful Venezuelan mode: make a mistake anywhere and the Venezuelan authorities will sink you. She books the ticket out of Santo Domingo to Miami and a hotel room for them to spend the night, they’ll need the break. The prices for bookings offered by Alexandra were competitive, mind you. She sends all the forms back and Alexandra replies with another that will be their safe passage for the trip to the airport.
The next WhatsApp call is to figure out that very bit.
“Papá, who’ll drive you to the airport? Do you have gas?”
“Cousin Joseíto will spend the night with us and drive us in the morning. We have gas.”
“What about PPE?”
“Your sister (a Venezuelan MD practicing in Mexico) sent us N-95 masks and a face shield a couple of weeks ago.”
“How do you feel?”
The last WhatsApp calls from Caracas were done the night before. Communication for the leg to La Guaira will have to be through text messages to Raisa, Joseíto’s wife, and then relayed through WhatsApp to the U.S.
They arrive at the airport, an eerie sight, all lonely and dim. There will be only one flight leaving that day and it’s theirs, so they’ll have to go through security and face the National Guard. They’re old and, in the soldiers’s eyes, very wealthy.
Check in goes remarkably smooth, given that the carrier is state-owned Conviasa. They proceed through security where their luggage and themselves get wet with some alcohol smelling liquid. Father-in-law’s phone gets fried in the process, but there’s no harassment.
They can now sit and have arepas from the coffee shop. They look up and down the hallway, a lonely sight, and a while later Raisa updates us: the flight is delayed by three hours. At 4:30 p.m., the final message is relayed, the plane is taxing to the runway. We now have radio silence.
Arrival to Dominicana – “Se perdieron todas las formas”
The flight is an hour and a half, but in Atlanta we have no way of knowing if it landed. Wife calls the hotel and asks if an elderly couple has arrived yet. They say no. She explains further, they’re old, from Venezuela, please be nice to them. The Latin warmth in a Dominican accent comes through, “Don’t worry, ma’am, we’ll take good care of them.”
It’s 7:00 p.m. when los viejitos show up at the hotel. It has WiFi, so the WhatsApp call goes through: They deplaned and went through immigration without any trouble, but they were horrified by how packed the place was and social distancing wasn’t well respected. Father-in-law states ironically, es que aquí se perdieron todas las formas, things really aren’t what they used to. They hope the mask, the shield and prayers did their thing, but for now there’s a nice meal and some needed rest. Our home in Atlanta erupts à la astronaut landing.
At 11:00 p.m., Alexandra sends a WhatsApp message to Wife confirming that the flight had indeed landed in Santo Domingo.
The next afternoon is their flight to Miami. There’s still some risk, they had stayed outside of the U.S. for a year and three weeks, clashing with their I-131/Travel Document. They present their papers to the Homeland Security officer, he allows them in without any trouble. They’ve made it. They go to the baggage claim area, where they’re warmly greeted by the youngest brother of Father-in-law. He calls Atlanta: ¡Tengo a los viejitos!
It’s been two weeks since los viejitos left Venezuela and they have no symptoms of COVID-19. They flew no more and were driven first to Tampa, to meet their great-grand-daughter for the first time, and then to Atlanta.
Alexandra sends regular messages about other humanitarian flights leaving Venezuela. Wife’s WhatsApp ID is now part of a distribution list that Alexandra keeps.
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