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Venezuelans living abroad begin to think about how they can help rebuild their country

Venezuelans celebrate the presidency of Juan Guaidó in Miami

Activists gather in celebration during a protest in Downtown Doral Park on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Thousands gathered in support of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared himself the country’s interim president.
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Activists gather in celebration during a protest in Downtown Doral Park on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Thousands gathered in support of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared himself the country’s interim president.

They are doctors, business owners and street peddlers. They live in Miami, Perú, Colombia and the capitals of Europe. They’re all part of Latin America’s largest migrant crisis, and this week they’ve been more hopeful than ever that they might return to their beloved and battered Venezuela.

Martha Fernández, 47, fled to Perú 12 years ago as she said she felt the grip of a dictatorship start crushing her life. Over the years, she’s come to believe that nothing would change in her home country. But no more.

“I’ve always been the cynic in my family and people give me a hard time for it,” said Fernández, the director of the Venezuelan Union in Perú, an advocacy group for the estimated 235,000 Venezuelans living there. “But this time it truly feels different.”

The meteoric rise of interim President Juan Guaidó, the international pressure against Nicolás Maduro and a sea of exiles and migrants lobbying for change have given her optimism for the first time in years. And it has her thinking about a future back home.

“Those of us who are abroad are the ones who are going to have to rebuild the country, not because we’re any different or better, but because we’re living under different conditions and some of us have economic stability,” she said. “And we’ll be coming back to the country with new ideas.”

As the eyes of the world have been glued on Venezuela — where Guaidó and Maduro both claim to be the legitimate president of the country — no one is following the news as closely as the more than 3.3 million Venezuelans who have fled in recent years.

Some, like Fernández, left due to their political convictions, others fled due to the crashing economy and grinding hunger. But experts say the diaspora is going to play a key role in rebuilding Venezuela if and when political change comes.

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Rafael Gottenger, 55, is the vice president of the Venezuelan American Medical Association, VAMA, a South Florida organization formed by Venezuelan doctors.

“Venezuela’s healthcare system has completely collapsed and it’s going to take at least 20 years for it to recover,” he said. “There are still very many good doctors in Venezuela but they’re going to need our help.”

Gottenger, a plastic surgeon, has worked on the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, which was off the coast of Colombia last year. He said he dreams of the day when the Comfort might anchor off Venezuela and provide desperately needed aid.

“Something very important and beautiful is happening in Venezuela,” he said. “But all of us across the world need to help…particularly those of us who are here [in the United States] and have been successful.”

It’s still too soon to know how things will evolve in Venezuela. While Guaidó has popular and international support, Maduro still seems to have the reins of the military and other institutions.

And many remember the massive protests in 2014 and 2017 that seemed to be on the verge of ousting Maduro only to fail and bring another round of misery and economic pain.

For some, however, political change alone won’t be enough to go home.

Jose Antonio Avedaño, 22, fled Venezuela four weeks ago, walking and hitchhiking to get to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Once a baker in Caracas, he said the shop where he worked closed because they couldn’t find any flour.

Now he sells candy on the street, making about $7 dollars a day — a pittance, particularly since the room he rents costs $5 dollar a night.

Working 10 to 12 hours a day, Avedaño said he hadn’t been able to keep up with the news back home, but he was aware that Guaidó was making a serious run at the presidency.

But just because the president changes doesn’t mean there will be food on the shelves or viable jobs that will allow him to keep his son fed, Avedaño said.

“What if Guaidó takes over and things stay the same or get worse?” he said. “I need to know that things will be OK before I go home.”

A growing number of Venezuelan migrants are dying in Colombia, and their families are too poor to afford a funeral. Sonia Bermudez, in Colombia's La Guajira, is offering them free funerals and a crypt in her cemetery.

Since assuming the presidency on Jan. 23, Guaidó has made getting aid into the country one of his priorities. He’s hoping to create a “humanitarian corridor” along the border with Colombia or Brazil to bring in food and medicine, and the United States has already pledged $20 million to the effort.

But it’s unclear how that aid can be brought in without the consent of Venezuela’s military. And Maduro has suggested those plans are tantamount to a military invasion and part of a broader coup plot to topple him.

José Antonio Colina is the president of Veppex, an advocacy group in South Florida that represents some 20,000 politically persecuted Venezuelans living abroad. A former military official, Colina fled the country 16 years ago after he was accused of trying to topple then-President Hugo Chávez.

He said Venezuela’s military, which has grown rich and powerful under the current administration, is the only force still propping up Maduro.

But he said Donald Trump’s hard stance against Caracas has a real chance of tilting the balance. On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Elliott Abrams as his special envoy for Venezuela. Abrams, who is associated with the Iran-Contra affair in Nicaragua and the ouster of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989, is seen as a hawk. And that’s just fine with Colina.

“Abrams is a hardliner,” he said. “And I think that creates a real possibility that we’re going to shake off this regime.”

On Saturday, at the United Nations, Abrams accused Venezuela of being a “satellite of Cuba and Russia” — two of Maduro’s staunchest backers.

Colina said he’s grateful that the United States has provided him asylum for so many years, but he says he’ll be on the first plane back to Venezuela after a regime change. A new administration, after 20 years of Chavista rule, will likely be weak and need all the help it can get, he said.

And he hasn’t been able to see his family in 16 years.

“I used to have faith that things would change,” he said. “Now I feel like I have real reasons to believe in change…I might be home before December.”

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