Latin America

The “other embassy” for Venezuelans in Madrid

Migrants escaping turmoil are gathering in a downtown restaurant to seek help

Alberto Casillas in his restaurant in Madrid.
Alberto Casillas in his restaurant in Madrid.Carlos Rosillo.

Airan Verónica Soteldo could have held out longer in Venezuela, waking up each morning to begin her daily search for a can of powdered milk or toilet paper at the supermarket.

Until recently, she was patient enough to live with the enduring question of whether the price of a bottle of water would go up from one day to the next.

But when her daughter was born, she got fed up with the seemingly unending situation in which today’s Venezuelans find themselves: forced to search for food, gasoline and household goods in a country that has been suffering from shortages and high inflation for years.

I couldn’t keep living in Venezuela, giving my baby a life that she doesn’t deserve” Migrant Airan Verónica Soteldo

“I couldn’t keep living in Venezuela, giving my baby a life that she doesn’t deserve,” says Soteldo. “I had to think about her.”

Soteldo, 30, emigrated to Madrid last February to try to “survive” – being a migrant “isn’t easy” either, she notes.

Her story is not uncommon among Madrid’s growing Venezuelan community.

Because Venezuelans do not need a tourist visa to come to Spain, many have selected the country to begin new lives, and try to get their residency papers as soon as they arrive.

Once off the plane, many of these new arrivals gather to seek information at what they call “our other embassy” in the Spanish capital – the El Rincón de Huertas 65 restaurant in downtown Madrid. Here, they can find food, clothes, medicine and even legal advice.

The establishment is run by Alberto Casillas, a Spaniard who lived in Venezuela for 25 years. On September 25, 2012, Casillas was thrust into the media spotlight when he stopped a group of police officers from trying to barge into the bar, where he was then working as a waiter, in order to arrest a group of protestors during a demonstration in front of Congress that turned violent.

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Since then, Casillas has been in the news and appeared on a number of television talk shows. He also made headlines this year when he confronted Podemos officials at a news conference about the work contracts some party members had held as advisors to the Venezuelan government.

Casillas says he has a lot of ideas about sponsoring cultural and educational events in the future and even holding collection drives for struggling Venezuelan migrants.

He is married to a Venezuelan and his children were born in the South American nation, where he still has a lot of friends. “Even though I never applied for nationality, my life has been marked by that country,” Casillas says.

It was through his initiative that the United Venezuela Association was organized two months ago. The group is geared to helping Venezuelan migrants, as well as Spaniards who have returned from the country, seek solutions to the difficulties they are facing here in Spain.

According to sociologist Tomas Páez, author of the book La voz de la diáspora Venezolana (The voice of the Venezuelan diaspora), around 170,000 Venezuelan migrants are now living in Spain. Food shortages, inflation and rampant crime are the main reasons why they have decided to leave their country, Páez argues.

Because Venezuelans do not need a tourist visa, many chose to come to Spain and sort out their papers

Since the latter part of the last decade, Venezuela has struggled with severe shortages and high prices as a result of the economic policies implemented by the Socialist governments of President Nicolás Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chávez.

Inflation has soared as the bolívar suffered its latest devaluation earlier this month. One hundred bolivars are now worth less than €0.15.

The drop in global oil prices has not helped the petroleum-producing nation, which has relied on energy as its main source of revenue since the late 1970s.

The government is also trying to deal with a high murder rate and stamp out rampant street crime that has plagued Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities. But so far its methods have proved unsuccessful.

Venezuela is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world by some human rights organizations.

Even though I never applied for nationality,  my life has been marked by that country” El Rincón de Huertas 65 owner Alberto Casillas

Maduro has blamed the shortages on private business owners, who he believes are allegedly involved with the opposition to destabilize his government.

Casillas knows first-hand what Venezuelan migrants have gone through when they approach him seeking help at the restaurant. Although he returned to Madrid in 2007, his wife and family were still living in Venezuela until last year. “They know what it’s like to want a glass of milk and not be able to get one,” he recalls.

All of his restaurant workers are Venezuelan. Even though the food he serves is typically Spanish, the menu sometimes includes a favorite delicacy, such as arepas – cornmeal flatbread stuffed with meat, chicken, avocado and other specialties.

“It’s not easy for an immigrant. We have to try to make sure they miss as few things as possible,” Casillas says.

As a result of his actions at the September 2012 protest, which made him famous as the “waiter at the Bar Prado,” he met Venezuelan immigrant Veruska Rodríguez, who now works with him in the association.

“When I found out that he was doing something for the people of my country, I was encouraged to help him out,” says Rodríguez, who came to Spain 11 years ago.

We are seeing a migratory wave that we have never seen before” Veruska Rodríguez of the United Venezuela Association

“I now work full time for the association, collecting canned goods and clothes and organizing the deliveries,” she says, choking up a bit as she talks about the many young people who have had to leave her country.

“We are seeing a migratory wave that we have never seen before, and young people are being uprooted from their country and lives,” says Rodríguez, who helps people such as migrant mom Soteldo.

Soteldo lives on a meager salary, but she doesn’t complain much. At least in Spain she can find milk and diapers for her baby.

English version by Martin Delfin.

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