By his late teens, Juan was already a veteran of Venezuela’s protest movement. He was used to riding through the crowds on his motorbike with packs of friends, chanting for an end to Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist regime. He was used, too, to clashes with the police.
Like many who opposed the government, he was middle class, spared from the worst privations of Venezuela’s economic crisis—for example, he never went hungry. But he knew that those who were worst off were also the ones least able to speak out. They depended on subsidies controlled by the state. “People need to talk,” he says. He felt that he was “fighting for people who can’t fight.”
With his bike, he sometimes ferried people from protests to the hospital when they got hurt, and took food, water and medical supplies to marchers. But this put his own life in danger. “If the cops fire, it’s not guns to dissolve protests,” he knew. “It’s guns for killing people.”
Juan was at a demonstration in his hometown of Valencia in March 2017 when a truckload of national guardsmen descended into the crowd. Penned in by other marchers, he had no space to ride away. The guardsmen began attacking him, sending his motorcycle crashing to the ground. The engine, still running, fell onto his leg, leaving him with severe burns. The events of the following days were what finally convinced his mother—also an opponent of the regime—to try to get him out.
Over four million Venezuelans have left their country as of June 2019, fleeing widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as a violent and authoritarian state. Though news coverage of refugees tends to focus on Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans seeking asylum at the US border, Venezuelan refugees are a much bigger group, forming the largest mass exodus in recent Latin American history.
Juan made it further than most—all the way to Canada—but only thanks to a spectacular run of luck. Like before, he couldn’t forget those left behind. The family’s string of lucky breaks made it clear just how difficult it is for most Venezuelans to take the same path.
Canada gets praise for welcoming refugees, especially in contrast to the Trump administration’s anti-asylum policies. The Trudeau government has also been loud in its criticism of the Maduro regime’s abuses. But Canada has not, in fact, opened its arms to the regime’s victims. If anything, our country is actively trying to prevent Venezuelans from seeking safe haven here.
Juan’s mother, Luisa—both their names have been changed to ensure their safety—is in her fifties and comes across as formidable, outspoken. She used to enjoy a comfortable life in Venezuela’s middle class. She had a good position at a manufacturing company, owned a car, had private medical insurance and took yearly vacations to places like Europe and the United States.
But her life changed significantly during the tenures of former president Hugo Chávez and his replacement, Maduro. Especially when you compare Venezuela today with the country’s booming 1970s, “the difference from when I was a little girl, when I was a young woman, and now, is huge,” she says. Valencia had been an industrial hub, but many factories have closed. Crime worsened, and the economic policies of the ruling Socialist party, like price controls and mismanaged land redistribution, ravaged the food supply. “We don’t have food or electricity, or water,” she says. “These people broke the country.”
Other changes made her even more indignant. “The military and police go into people’s houses without any authorization,” she says.
Luisa first became involved in politics by joining an opposition party, Primero Justicia, after some friends from her neighbourhood, an anti-Socialist stronghold, also joined. In the 2006 presidential vote, she served as one of Primero Justicia’s witnesses at her local polling station. Chávez won the election handily, and for the next decade, Luisa stayed out of politics. But in December 2015, she happened to read a New York Times article about Venezuela and realized how little had changed since those elections.
She began criticizing the government on social media in early 2016. One post featured the Carnet de la Patria, a government-issued ID card that tracks citizens’ political affiliation and voting records. Because this card can give people access to subsidized food, medicine and fuel, human rights groups have called it a tool for controlling the population. Luisa chose not to apply for a card, as she felt it would be akin to aligning with the regime. “I wasn’t going to become one of them,” she says. A local committee restricted the amount of subsidized food residents could buy, forcing her to line up for hours to procure just a few items or to search for food in private stores, where the prices were much higher.
In another social media post, she pointed out news headlines that called student protesters “terrorists,” placing the blame for their deaths on the demonstrators themselves. The country’s censorship of media is widely acknowledged internationally—the group Reporters Without Borders ranks Venezuela 148th in the world for press freedom.
In addition to her online activism, Luisa began marching in peaceful protests in her neighbourhood, bringing Juan and other family along with her. Wearing white t-shirts and baseball caps in red, yellow and blue, Venezuela’s national colours, they and their neighbours formed human chains along tree-lined streets and posted signs along the highway. They wanted fair elections, an end to repression and to see their resource-rich country return to prosperity. It was a hopeful time, however brief.
The Socialist regime of Chávez and Maduro is the only government that Juan has ever known. Now in his early twenties, he began protesting during Venezuela’s civil insurrection of 2014. He says he was sick of his freedom being curtailed. “If you want to open a new company, if you want to study, if you want to go out, you can’t. You only have a chance to do whatever they want.”
Marches were becoming all-out battles: protesters threw rocks and bottles, and soldiers countered with tear gas and even bullets.
After his leg was burned, Juan managed to get home, but he was warned against going to hospital—the police were known to make the rounds of emergency rooms after each demonstration, arresting injured young people and taking them to jail.
But Luisa was shocked at the state of her son’s leg. “It was terrible,” she remembers. “It was so infected.” She insisted on going to the emergency room the next day, and Juan was rushed into surgery. Luckily, Luisa’s insurance covered his treatment at the private facility. Venezuela’s public hospitals lack basic medical supplies, and essential care may be withheld from anyone who does not support the government. If Luisa hadn’t had insurance, she believes, her son would likely have lost his leg.
She kept protesting, but her concern for Juan was growing. Shortly after, she was marching with a group from Primero Justicia when government trucks rolled in. Guardsmen threw tear gas canisters directly at them, and they only escaped because nearby residents ushered them into their houses.
Around this time, Juan and Luisa began to notice a strange car lurking near their home. Often, Luisa was followed as she drove around Valencia; she took to changing her routes and sleeping at family members’ houses. She and her son also received threatening phone calls. The callers would say, “‘We want to find you, we want to kill you, we know where you are,’” recounts Juan. “‘I know your name, I know where you work, what you do.’” He received five or six calls before throwing his phone away. Luisa was careful what she said over the phone, as she suspected their lines were being tapped.
She attributes the tails and calls to colectivos: armed supporters of the regime, some with criminal backgrounds, who serve as the government’s thugs, violently intimidating the opposition, or worse. According to Brandon Silver, a human rights lawyer who works on behalf of Venezuelan dissidents with the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, there is significant evidence showing that colectivos are directly controlled by the state. “When [the government] wants to show some distance or get access to areas where they otherwise wouldn’t, they send these colectivos to go to attack people,” he says.
Luisa resolved to get Juan out of the country. This was no small feat, but they had more advantages than most Venezuelans in their position. Juan’s father is a Canadian citizen who has lived in the country for two decades. And both mother and son had valid US tourist visas, obtained for previous vacations, which Juan could use to reach the Canadian border.
That in itself is increasingly unusual. According to news reports, a growing number of Venezuelans have had their US tourist visas revoked or had applications denied during the crisis, possibly to prevent them from claiming asylum once on US soil.
Luisa had also managed to obtain passports for herself and Juan through a friend whose family member worked for the passport authority. Without this connection, she believes, she wouldn’t have been issued one—her name is likely on the “Tascón list,” named after the official who once made this list public. It’s a government blacklist used to deny jobs and services.
For Venezuelans seeking safety, lack of access to official documents is a major barrier, says Silver. “Mass domestic repression from the military has underpinned the denial of fundamental rights, including of mobility,” he says. Many Venezuelan refugees, even ones with the means to purchase a plane ticket, can’t obtain the papers they need to leave through regular channels, so they must make dangerous journeys across land borders to reach safe areas. They risk violence and sexual abuse.
On the way, they can also fall prey to smugglers and human traffickers. “Many of these refugees and migrants are forced into sexual slavery or indentured work in order to be smuggled across, or at times they’re kidnapped,” Silver says. “The statistics and stories out there are horrifying.” According to the UN, approximately 36 percent of Venezuelan refugees and migrants travel by foot for all or part of their journeys.
Juan, however, armed with his passport and visa, flew to New York City in June 2017 and was met by his father. They then drove to the border, where he claimed asylum and submitted to an interview. Five hours later, Juan was allowed to cross into Canada, where he was granted refugee status the following year.
Juan is the exception, not the rule, in Canada’s asylum system. Unlike him, most Venezuelans travelling overland through the United States aren’t allowed to claim asylum at an official Canadian border crossing. This is because of the Safe Third Country Agreement, a treaty between the two countries that states that people must claim asylum in whichever of the two countries they arrive in first. People like Juan, who first arrived in the United States, normally must claim asylum there. A small exception is made for individuals who have a family member with legal status in the second country, like Juan’s father, who was already in Canada.
The treaty means that while Juan was allowed to drive across the border, other Venezuelans would be automatically refused entry, stuck with two choices: to claim asylum in the United States, where the Trump administration is seeking to restrict asylum rights—or enter the country at an unauthorized crossing like Quebec’s Roxham Road.
The road allows people to make use of a loophole in the agreement: people who do manage to step on Canadian soil can then make an asylum claim without being penalized for how they entered the country. But there’s been a backlash, with critics accusing this kind of border-crosser of “asylum shopping,” and the Liberal government appears to be bending to it; it has formally asked the US to renegotiate the agreement in order to close the loophole.
Venezuelans seeking to come directly to Canada, bypassing the US, encounter different obstacles. They need a visa to fly to Canada, and the refusal rate for Canadian visitor visa applications by Venezuelans has more than doubled since 2016. Brandon Silver has seen the effects of these denials firsthand. “Every Venezuelan Canadian who we’ve worked with has said that family members who have tried to visit…have actually been facing more hurdles than they used to.”
It’s unlikely this is a coincidence. The high rate of visitor visa denials suggests that Canadian authorities are reticent to let many Venezuelans into the country, lest they claim asylum, says Sharry Aiken, who teaches immigration and refugee law at Queen’s University. This has been a common tactic to reduce refugee flows from troubled countries, she says.
“Canada typically uses the visa system to restrict movement from any refugee-producing country,” she says. “We do everything possible to make sure you can’t get here… slapping down visa restrictions or restricting the numbers of visas granted to nationals of states that are experiencing human rights crises.”
The practice not only cuts down the numbers, but also, Aiken says, incentivizes the use of international smuggling rings to facilitate people’s movement.
In short, Canada makes it exceedingly difficult for Venezuelans to claim asylum here—despite the fact that the Canadian government has been a vociferous critic of the Maduro regime. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a joint statement with Latin American countries, saying, “We reiterate our grave concern for the serious political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which has caused the massive exodus of migrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela.” In March, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland called the regime illegitimate and spoke of Maduro’s “contempt for democracy and the constitutional rights of Venezuelans.”
The Trudeau government has allocated $55 million since 2017 to help respond, including $18 million in aid to “the most vulnerable people affected by this crisis,” including those who have fled to neighbouring countries.
The disconnect between rhetoric and practice is part of a Canadian refugee system “rife with hypocrisy,” says Aiken. Though millions of Venezuelans have fled their country, only 1,330 of them managed to request asylum in Canada and have their case referred to the country’s Immigration and Refugee Board in 2018. That year, 525 claims were accepted and 159 rejected. Overall, 1,666 cases were pending at the end of 2018.
Silver sees a “massive disparity” between the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that Canada has welcomed and the mere hundreds of Venezuelans the country accepts as refugees each year, despite the fact that millions have fled from both countries. While Venezuela may not be experiencing civil war, international observers say its government’s actions have reached the threshold of crimes against humanity. Last June, the UN reported that at least 570 Venezuelans had been arbitrarily detained in the preceding ten months. The report also spoke of extrajudicial killings and torture, among other problems.
Finally, years into the crisis, it appears that Canada is beginning to act. In August 2019, the government decided to begin recognizing expired Venezuelan passports, which could facilitate the visitor visa application process; it would help Venezuelans who are already in Canada overcome bureaucratic hurdles. Canada has also begun allowing failed asylum claimants from Venezuela to challenge deportation orders, acknowledging the country’s worsening situation. However, it has yet to address the high rate of visitor visa denials. Until this changes, seeking asylum in Canada will not be possible for the vast majority of Venezuelans still trying to find a way out of their country.
With little opportunity to seek safety further north, most Venezuelan refugees have gone to neighbouring Colombia and other South American countries, with smaller numbers travelling to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Although efforts have been made to assist these refugees, the UN reports that host countries are “increasingly becoming overstretched.”
After Juan left, the economic situation in Venezuela continued to deteriorate. Sales slowed at Luisa’s company and in August 2017, she lost her job. To make ends meet, she used her car as a taxi and to run errands for a family member’s company. Although this was oil-rich Venezuela, at one point gas shortages forced her to travel to another state in the country just to fill her gas tank.
In early December, she drove to her mother’s apartment, not noticing that she had been followed. She had pulled into the parking lot and was about to get out of her car when a man appeared and pointed a gun in her face. He dragged her out of the car and hit her, calling her escualida, a common anti-opposition slur meaning squalid or feeble. “He said, ‘You better stop protesting because...next time, I know where your family lives,’” says Luisa.
She fought against him and tried to get back in her car, but he kept pulling her out until she gave up from exhaustion. “He beat me up again and he just left me on the floor and he left,” she says. The security guards from the apartment building had fled.
Luisa tried to report the attack, first at a nearby police station and then at a station dedicated to investigative policing. At the first, she was told that the telephone system was down. The second location was without power.
Her mother had watched the incident from her balcony, and in the following weeks she began to experience memory problems. “She remembers when she was a little girl and when she studied,” Luisa explains, “but she doesn’t remember something that happened yesterday.” A doctor told Luisa that her mother’s memory had been affected by trauma. “She blocked herself,” says Luisa. “She even thinks that it’s her fault, what happened to me, because I went to visit her. This is another harm that the government has done to my family.”
In May 2018, a friend persuaded Luisa to join her on a vacation to New York. Like her son, she travelled on her existing tourist visa. The trip was originally meant to be temporary, but life in Venezuela got even worse while she was away. Her mother told her not to come back—to stay if she could.
Luisa applied for asylum in the United States in the summer of 2018; even though Juan was already in Canada, she decided that she would just make her refugee claim in the US, since she was “already [there] and safe.” But things quickly became complicated. In March 2019, she learned that she would have to attend an additional hearing because she had overstayed her visa—despite the fact that she had applied for asylum months before it ran out.
Besides, she couldn’t have left if she’d wanted to: her passport expired during her stay, and she is unable to renew it because Venezuela has closed its embassy and consulates in the US. Her case is still pending. If it is denied, she could have to return to Venezuela, like the 336 Venezuelan nationals deported from the US in 2018.
Since Luisa left, an attempted uprising by opposition leader Juan Guaidó failed in April, leading to further crackdown by President Maduro. It’s also become harder to leave. Peru introduced new visa and passport requirements for Venezuelans in June 2019. Earlier, for much of the beginning of the year, the Maduro regime closed border crossings with other neighbouring countries, including Colombia, in an effort to block Guaidó-led, US-funded caravans attempting to deliver humanitarian aid—medicine and food.
Luisa still has hope for Venezuela, but she felt that protesting within it could only get her so far. From New York, she can keep helping; she sends packages of food back home to her parents and has been participating in anti-Maduro demonstrations held by the American-Venezuelan community. “I’m not going to stop until this guy, and these people, are gone and they give us back the country that we used to have,” she says.
One thing that makes her angry now is the long separation from her son. The Maduro regime, she says, forced him to “run away, far from me, and break up our family.” She hopes to be reunited with him in Canada one day.
Beyond separating him from his mother, exile has put Juan’s life on hold. He is waiting for permanent residency before he resumes his university studies. In the meantime, he has been helping out in his father’s construction company. Juan says he’ll stay in Canada—unless the unexpected happens. “The only reason I would go back is if the government goes out,” he says.
Until then, for most Venezuelans, the stars aren’t aligned just so and they have no clear way out of danger. Canada’s strongly worded statements are unlikely to bring much comfort.