When Loyola first-year Marco Useche was 10 years old, his mom picked him up from a friend’s birthday party and he was surprised to see his dad wasn’t with her. That’s when Useche said he learned his father had fled their home of Caracas, Venezuela for the United States.
A week later, Useche, his mom and little brother would also flee Venezuela for Orlando, Florida.
“May 21, 2010 is a date that will definitely stay in my memory,” Useche said on the day he found out he’d be moving to the U.S.
Useche said the move was sudden.
“Some people have their move planned, ours was just literally overnight,” Useche, 19, said. “I was very shocked … All of a sudden it’s a goodbye, a new future.”
Useche, who’s now a U.S. citizen, spent the early years of his childhood in Venezuela during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, an authoritarian, socialist leader who was elected in 1998 and succeeded by Nicolás Maduro in 2013. Chávez wasn’t always a dictator, but his rule of Venezuela became increasingly oppressive over the course of his years in power, according to political science professor Peter Sanchez.
“Little by little [Chávez] began to make changes to have more control over the state and less freedom of the press,” Sanchez, whose studies focus on Latin America, said.
In 2017, Maduro tried to form a new constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. While the attempt was shot down, according to BBC, many see it as just one of the ways Maduro has tried to exert more control over the country in recent years. Despite economic crisis in the country, Maduro has maintained power up until recently, as another leader is vying for control.
Useche’s family fled as a food scarcity set in and Chávez began going after private property, which Useche said Chávez called “an attack on the bourgeoisie” — or the middle class.
Useche said his family began to fear for their safety. He remembers seeing the censorship of the national television stations in Venezuela and how even going outside became risky.
“The national stations would be censored completely when Chávez wanted to give a speech … going around saying ‘this property’s now ours, this property’s now ours,’” Useche said. “I clearly remember that. I also remember that it was no longer safe to go outside … [Chávez’s] guerillas started to gain forces and you would go out and you would … get kidnapped or assaulted.”
The country is experiencing unprecedented malnutrition, disease and crime, according to CARE, an organization which works to combat poverty globally.
Useche said the transition to a new country and language wasn’t easy, and he remembered seeing his parents stressed out as they left their middle class jobs in Venezuela to start a new life in the U.S.
“That’s why I admire them so much, they were fighters,” Useche said.
He described how the experience made his family closer and gave him inspiration to succeed in school.
“Even in the high school years it was something that you had in your heart like ‘You have to do so good, look at the sacrifice that you have done. You have to do something, you have to stand out,’” Useche said.
Back in Venezuela, at age 10, Useche said while he didn’t fully understand what was happening in his home country, he knew the situation was bad.
“It made me grow up a little faster,” Useche said. “It made me realize that we were going to go through something that was not easy, something that neither of us have ever gone through and that a challenge was going to happen.”
Now, in 2019, Sanchez described the current situation in Venezuela as a political and humanitarian crisis. He said while the country faced poverty and violence under Chávez, it’s only worsened since the recent re-election of Maduro, which countries believe to be illegitimate.
“When Maduro took over he did not have the charisma or support like Chávez so he’s taken more actions to make the country really less democratic,” Sanchez said.
Now, two Venezuelan leaders are claiming to hold the seat. Maduro remains in office while Juan Guaidó, the president of the country’s national assembly — the legislature whose majority is of the party opposing Maduro — has claimed the role of interim president. Guaidó, who the U.S. and a slew of other countries acknowledge as interim president, legitimized his seat constitutionally based on suspicions Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate.
As a struggle for power continues in the country, Sanchez said food and resources for Venezuelan citizens are becoming scarce and Maduro’s military is attempting to block any incoming aid.
Useche said he still has family in Venezuela and it’s hard for him to hear about the state of the country he used to call home.
“They tell you that they haven’t eaten red meat for the last two, three months,” Useche said. “Stuff like that definitely gets you, you know? And it’s stuff that I never got to go through, like when I left it was bad [but] not as where it is right now. Right now it’s literally almost like a war crisis. There’s nothing, completely nothing.”
Useche, now a political science student at Loyola, said his experience growing up in and learning about the situation in Venezuela, as well as his parent’s political activism, encouraged him to pursue the major.
“When I came here to the United States and I saw what socialism under the name of democracy can do, it definitely impacted me,” Useche said. “It’s something that just stays with you all the time and it’s something that makes you politically interested.”
His first-hand experience of seeing an authoritarian socialist regime at work under Chávez has made Useche wary of socialism. It’s inspired him to consider running for political office in the U.S. down the road.
“Normally we [think of] people being passionate about social justice, helping the poor, which is good,” Useche said. “But socialism does not care for the poor, it just makes it poorer. There’s other ways to obtain social justice. … We have to understand why poverty happens, we have to understand what type of government system really take[s] people out of poverty.”
Sanchez said he believes the fight for power in Venezuela will continue unless at least some of the country’s military, which is aligned with Maduro, splits and shows support for Guaidó.
Useche echoed similar sentiments.
“It’s not going to be pretty what going to be happening next,” Useche said. “I don’t see any way that Maduro’s getting out if it’s not through violence.”