Venezuelans in Chicago watch news of upheaval with anxiety, hope

CHICAGO — Members of Chicago's growing Venezuelan community have been watching escalating political upheaval in the country closely, while trying to communicate with family members still in the middle of the chaos.

Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood is nicknamed “Buenazela” because of the large number of Venezuelan immigrants who live there.

As news began coming in Tuesday morning of opposition leader Juan Guaidó's call for a military uprising, and protesters clashing with troops loyal to President Nicolas Maduro, dozens gathered  in Klein's Bakery to watch CNN and try to communicate with family members still living there.

Northeastern Illinois professor Ana Gil-Garcia is watching the clashes and unrest with a sense of both anxiety and aspiration.

“By five o’clock in the morning, I think most Venezuelans in Chicago, we were all surprised. People were calling from Venezuela, alerting us, ‘something is going on, something is going on!’” Gil-Garcia said.

Gil-Garcia came to Chicago 20 years ago, when only 60 other Venezuelan immigrants were in the city. Now there are about 3,000 in Chicago and nearly 15,000 across Illinois.

“We are keeping a lot of hope because that’s the only thing that we can do today,’” Gil-Garcia said.

While he has been in Chicago for three years, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, 31-year-old Carlos Salazar says much of his family is still in Venezuela.

“My parents are there, two of my siblings, cousins, aunts, friends, many people we keep communicating to try to see how they’re doing, if they’re safe," Carlos Salazar said.

As they watch news of the upheaval in the country, Salazar said he and others are, "asking the national army forces to comply with the constitution’s mandate of defending Juan Guaido, who is the legitimate president of Venezuela.”

Guaidó declared himself the country’s interim president in January, rejecting the results of a presidential last year as illegitimate. He has since been backed by the U.S. and other nations.

Nearly everyone in the bakery Tuesday evening said they have family members in Venezuela, and they are all furiously trying to communicate what’s happening to those back home via e-mail, social media and text messages.

With many media outlets block by the government, 39-year-old John Alfonzo, who has been in Chicago for 17 years, says they try to share as much information as possible.

“One thing we can do is share as much communication as we can to make sure that the communication we’re sending out is reliable and trustworthy," John Alfonzo said.

Alfonzo says his home country's economic crisis has reached a boiling point.

“You don’t have food, you don’t have medication, they don’t have hope , so they can no longer support what they’re used to,” Alfonzo said.

As things have worsened, a group called the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance has organized efforts to collect necessities and funds to send to Venezuela struggling in poverty.

For Gil-Garcia, the uprising makes her hopeful change could come to a country that was once the economic envy of South America.

“We were the icon of democracy in Latin America, and we went from a having a lot of money to having nothing right now," Gil-Garcia said.

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