Venezuelans LGBTs Find Refuge in Colombia (1644 words)
Venezuela’s side of the border with Colombia near Paraguachón, Colombia, on March 7, 2018. LGBT Venezuelans who have fled their country’s economic and political crisis have found refuge in neighboring Colombia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
MAICAO, Colombia — José Ferrer, 39, is a gay man who grew up in Mara, a rural municipality outside of the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo that is close to the country’s border with Colombia.
Ferrer on March 7 said during an interview in Maicao, a city in Colombia’s La Guajira Department that is less than 10 miles from the border, that he was able to “make my life independently” by working at a hair salon in spite of the homophobia and machismo he faced. Ferrer told the Washington Blade his life improved when he moved to Maracaibo, even though his parents had accepted his sexual orientation.
“Gay life in the city is more open,” he said. “There are nightclubs where gay people can be free. They can live their lives openly.”
Ferrer arrived in Maicao 20 days before he spoke with the Blade.
He said he left Venezuela because his employment status was “very precarious” and he wanted to continue to support his elderly mother. Ferrer told the Blade he is working at a hair salon in Maicao and living with his boss in her house.
“My intention was to come here to stabilize myself and help her,” said Ferrer, referring to his mother.
Ferrer is among the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have entered Colombia over the last year as their country’s economic and political crisis continues to worsen.
This reporter on March 7 saw hundreds of people walking from Venezuela into Colombia with suitcases and backpacks at a border crossing in the Colombian town of Paraguachón, which is eight miles east of Maicao. People with suitcases and backpacks were also walking from Colombia into Venezuela.
One man who was walking into Venezuela shouted “people are hungry” when he saw this reporter recording a video on his iPhone.
Several buses and trucks that were overloaded with people and their belongings were waiting to pass through a Colombian military checkpoint outside of Paraguachón. Men who were selling gasoline — likely smuggled into Colombia from Venezuela — in liter bottles were a common sight along the highway between the border and Maicao.
Madonna Badillo is a transgender woman of indigenous descent who lives in Maicao. She is also a well-known performer who local residents have dubbed “la Madonna de Maicao” in honor of the famous singer who she emulates.
Badillo on March 7 told the Blade during an interview at her home that some Venezuelan women who have entered Colombia sell their hair to wigmakers for 20,000 Colombian pesos ($7.20) “out of necessity.”
Jenifer, a trans woman from Maracaibo who left Venezuela seven years ago after her partner was murdered and now works as a hairdresser in Maicao, confirmed these accounts when she spoke with the Blade earlier in the day. Badillo, who lives with Jenifer, also said there are “cases of famine in Venezuela that have never been seen.”
“There has been an exodus in La Guajira Department that was not expected,” she added, noting Venezuelans routinely return to their country with food and other items they bought in Maicao. “Venezuelans come with their goods each day and leave, but the situation that is happening right now in Venezuela is very critical. They complain, give their testaments about what is really happening in Venezuela.”
Madonna Badillo sits in her home in Maicao, Colombia, on March 7, 2018. She is a transgender woman and well-known performer in the Colombian city that is a few miles from the country’s border with Venezuela. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The Colombian government last summer announced Venezuelans who enter the country at legal border crossings with passports can obtain permits that allow them to work and receive social security benefits for up to two years. The majority of Venezuelans who have arrived in Colombia over the last year have entered the country without documents and/or through informal border crossings that are known as “trochas.”
Urbe Jiménez, an LGBT rights activist from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas who is a vocal critic of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, is among the Venezuelans who have received Colombian work permits.
Jiménez has lived in the Colombian capital of Bogotá for more than a year and is currently working as a hairdresser. He told the Blade on March 12 during an interview at a Bogotá shopping mall that Colombians have “totally” welcomed him into the country.
Jenifer, like Jiménez, told the Blade she has “not had any problems” in Colombia.
Badillo said she once invited into her home a group of trans sex workers from Venezuela who had been “mistreated.” Badillo told the Blade they go to Maicao’s main square each night to get clients, but they also face harassment from police officers and “bullies” who she said force them to pay them money.
“The street belongs to everyone,” said Badillo.
Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS ‘are dying’
Jenifer said the economic crisis has impacted her relatives who still live in Venezuela, but “not to the point of other people.”
“The crisis has left other people very devastated in the sense that they are very thin, they don’t have any money,” she told the Blade. “It is not possible for them to acquire anything.”
Jiménez said he sends diabetes medication to his mother in Caracas because it is unavailable. Jiménez also told the Blade that Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS are dying because they don’t have access to medications.
“The government has refused to receive international humanitarian assistance, but people with HIV in Venezuela are dying,” he said, noting some people with HIV/AIDS have access to medications from relatives or friends who receive them while they are abroad. “It’s desperate because these are people who want to keep living, they are people who have a different life condition, but are in need. They need this help.”
“The government says that there is no economic crisis, that there is no health crisis, that there is no type of crisis,” added Jiménez. “It’s desperate. There is contempt towards people who are living with HIV.”
Urbe Jiménez, gay news, Washington Blade
Urbe Jiménez is a Venezuelan LGBT activist who has lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for a year. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
‘I don’t treat Venezuelans bad’
Venezuela, which has the world’s largest known oil reserves, was once Latin America’s most prosperous country.
Millions of Colombians who were fleeing the decades-long war between their government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that formally ended with a 2016 peace agreement sought refuge in Venezuela. Edmundo Deluque, an activist who lives in Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira Department, told the Blade during a March 6 interview at a local restaurant that his father in 2008 went to Venezuela after FARC rebels killed his uncle because they thought he was a member of a paramilitary group.
The Wayuu people and other residents of Colombia’s La Guajira Department and Venezuela’s Zulia State, which border each other on the Guajira Peninsula that is the northernmost point in South America, regularly cross the border for economic reasons. Deluque earlier this week pointed out to the Blade that many of the region’s residents have dual Colombian-Venezuelan citizenship.
He said his mother and father both worked in Caracas until they returned to Colombia. Deluque told the Blade they were able to pay for his and his four siblings’ education with the money they earned in Venezuela.
“I don’t treat Venezuelans bad,” he said on March 6.
Colombian advocacy group works with LGBT Venezuelans
Deluque is among those who work with Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group.
Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda is one of three Colombian LGBT rights advocates who participated in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC that took place in Havana.
Caribe Afirmativo has opened four “Casas de Paz” in Maicao and in the cities of Soledad, Carmen de Bolívar and Ciénega as a way to support the implementation of the peace agreement. Caribe Afirmativo has also begun to work with LGBT Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Colombia.
Jenifer, Ferrer and Deluque were among the more than 30 people from Venezuela and Colombia who attended an event at Caribe Afirmativo’s “Casa de Paz” in Maicao on March 7 that ended with them making a banner with handprints in the colors of the two countries’ flags. Caribe Afirmativo on March 8 held a similar event at a community center in Riohacha.
José Ferrer attends an event at Caribe Afirmativo’s “Casa de Paz” in Maicao, Colombia, on March 7, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Deluque told the Blade earlier this week from Riohacha that his work with LGBT Venezuelans “comes from my heart because my parents worked there (in Venezuela) to pay for our studies here.” He added the economic and political crisis in Venezuela has profoundly affected them.
“They stand in solidarity with the country that helped us in our time of need,” said Deluque.
Edwin Nemes of Caribe Afirmativo told the Blade in Riohacha on March 8 that it is “very important” for his organization “to work on bolstering relations between (the) citizens” of Colombia and Venezuela. Nemes also said Caribe Afirmativo’s “Casas de Paz” also provide a space where women, Colombians of African descent, indigenous people and victims of the war between the FARC and the Colombian government can come together.
“They work together to build peace,” he told the Blade.
Edwin Nemes of Caribe Afirmativo prepares to speak at one of his organization’s “Casas de Paz” in Maicao, Colombia, on March 7, 2018. Caribe Afirmativo hosted an event with LGBT Colombians and Venezuelans. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
May 10, 2017
By Kevin Truong (1225 words)
When Armstrong Santana still lived in Venezuela, he attended many protests against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. As a student at one of the most prestigious public universities in the country, Santana felt the need to fight against what he believed to be a broken government.
Now living in France, Santana watches the current protests in Venezuela from afar, and feels a sense of sadness as civil unrest continues across his country.
“I left the country because living in the most dangerous city in the world (Caracas) is not propaganda, but a cruel reality,” Santana said. “I also realized [leaving] was the only way I was going to be able to be who I really was.”
People take part in the 35th Gay Pride Parade on Francisco de Miranda Avenue, in Caracas on June 30, 2013.Leo Ramirez / AFP/Getty Images
For Santana and many other LGBTQ Venezuelans living abroad, leaving the country was a necessary step toward living more openly as a gender or sexual minority.
“The basic issue is that we are not an issue,” said Isaac Perez, who left Venezuela in 2015 and now lives in Argentina.
“When basic needs [are not being met], when people are more concerned with finding a meal to eat, you don’t have time to focus on [LGBTQ rights],” he explained.
Activists Wendell Oviedo and Yonatan MatheusWendell Oviedo
Many times those who do fight for progress for the country’s LGBTQ community find their own lives and livelihoods put at risk. Activists Wendell Oviedo and Yonatan Matheus fled Venezuela in 2016 after receiving threats of violence to their personal safety.
The two activists believe the threats they received were in response to the work they did as directors of Venezuela Diversa — an LGBTQ civil society organization fighting for LGBTQ and human rights in the country, with a focus on hate crimes, police abuse and the violation of rights of transgender women engaged in sex work.
“Cases of violations of LGBTI rights [in Venezuela] continue to rise and are not reflected in official statistics,” Matheus told NBC Out. “Victims prefer anonymity rather than being doubly victimized by law enforcement.”
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The challenges present when reporting hate crimes to local law enforcement as an LGBTQ individual in Venezuela is something that Venezuelan artist Daniel Arzola knows from firsthand experience.
Born in a poor community in Maracay, a city in northern Venezuela, Arzola suffered a violent hate crime for being gay while only 15.
“Some neighbors tried to burn me alive, and they destroyed all my drawings,” Arzola told NBC Out. When he reported the crime to the local law enforcement, he says he was told that he needed to act more like a man.
After the attack, Arzola said he didn’t draw again for six years. It wasn’t until he learned of a similar hate crime years later that he began to create art again.
Today, the artist is known internationally for his art campaign titled “No Soy Tu Chiste” (“I Am Not a Joke”), a series of illustrations depicting the diversity of the LGBTQ community. Along with each image is a set of captions stating why sexuality and gender should not be used as a basis for discrimination or ridicule.
“All the time in Venezuela the media is used to ridicule the LGBT [community],” Arzola explained. As evidence, he points to the lack of positive LGBTQ characters on Venezuelan television and to comments made by President Maduro, who in the past has been accused of using a homophobic slur to ridicule his political opponent.
“So in that moment, I created ‘I Am Not a Joke,’” Arzola said. “The campaign went viral in the first six months.”
Soon Arzola was working with activists from across the world, and the campaign eventually caught the attention of pop icon Madonna, who included five pieces of Arzola’s work in her campaign “Art for Freedom.
“I became more recognized because of my work, which gave me opportunities to talk about what is happening in Venezuela,” Arzola said. “I exposed the government in Venezuela, because they are really homophobic.”
It was then that Arzola began to receive threats of violence against his own personal safety, and the artist was forced to flee the country in 2014. Currently living in Chile, Arzola said the threats stopped after he left Venezuela but that his work is still being obstructed in other ways.
Related: Argentine Filmmaker Brings Personal Touch to Gay Characters
Since November, Arzola has been trying to renew his passport with the Venezuelan embassy in Chile so that he can travel to upcoming art exhibitions of his work, but he said his efforts have been ignored.
Arzola said that planned exhibitions in San Francisco and Paris in June will have to be canceled if he is unable to get his passport renewed in time.
“Even when you’re out of your country, your nationality can be a jail,” Arzola said. “I’m trapped here. I can’t go anywhere, just because they don’t give me a passport.”
But Arzola is hopeful that the current protests in Venezuela are a sign that change can finally come to the people of his country — including positive change for the LGBTQ community.
As a sign of progress, Arzola points to the election of Tamara Adrian to Venezuela’s National Assembly in 2015. With her election, Adrian became the first transgender lawmaker elected to public office in Venezuela, and one of the first transgender legislators in all of South America.
Tamara Adrian (R) in Caracas, Venezuela, on January 5, 2015.Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images
“It was a great responsibility,” Adrian told NBC Out of her election to the National Assembly. “Many people always tell me they have the intention of entering politics [because of my election].”
Since being elected to office, Adrian has found a cause in fighting for LGBTQ rights in Venezuela, recently introducing an amendment to the country’s Civil Registry Law. If passed, the amendment would bring marriage equality to Venezuela and recognize the preferred name and gender of transgender and intersex people. The amendment would also recognize same-sex marriages and gender changes done abroad and allow for gay people to adopt.
But Adrian said the current social and political situation in the country makes it difficult for her and other legislators to fulfill their roles as elected officials.
“During the past year, the government tried to impede the National Assembly to legislate or fulfill any of its functions,” Adrian said, referring to a move made in March by the Venezuelan Supreme Court that stripped the National Assembly of its powers. Though the decision was ultimately reversed, protests resulting from what many perceived as a power grab by the Maduro government have continued throughout the country.
“We cannot stop, we cannot get tired, we have to recover democracy and freedom for Venezuela,” Adrian said. “Everybody has a job to do in order to promote equal rights. That’s in particular to the LGBTI issues, but at the same time to fight for democracy.”