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Venezuelans struggle to make better life in U.S

Gisela Salomon
Associated Press

Miami — Volunteers at South Florida social service organizations say they have seen an increasing number of Venezuelan seeking help, a reflection of the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, where the opposition has held massive protests against President Nicolas Maduro.

“I never thought I would need to receive food but the time has come and I don’t have a choice,” said 26-year-old Venezuelan lawyer Alejandra Mujica, who was among about 80 people waiting outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic church one recent afternoon.

Venezuela was once among Latin America’s most prosperous countries, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.But the Venezuelan economy is now in freefall due to a plunge in oil prices and poor economic planning under the socialist government created by the late President Hugo Chavez, who took office in 1999, and continued under Maduro.

Many of the Venezuelans seeking food and other assistance in South Florida were once middle class professionals who decide they could no longer tolerate increasing misery, crime, food shortages and lack of medical care in their homeland.

“Venezuela has become unlivable,” said Javier Corrales, a Venezuelan professor of Latin American studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Mujica said she barely survived in Valencia, waiting in two-day lines to buy whatever was available in the supermarket. After she was robbed of her phone at gunpoint, she and her husband decided to flee in September with savings of $3,500 and little else. “There was no way to go on,” she said.

Carmen Elena Rodriguez, 29, earned a master’s degree in education in Caracas and now sells drinks at a farmers market to support herself. “It’s not easy what we are going through, but this assistance makes the road a little easier,” she said as she picked up donated dishes, a lamp and other items.

Andreina Molina, 34, said she and her husband sold their electronics store and moved to the U.S. last year in part because of the economic deprivation and the crime, but also because she belonged to an opposition party and had been threatened for participating in anti-government marches.

“I came because of the insecurity, because of the political persecution, the lack of food and for my kids,” she said.

The number of Venezuelans in the U.S. has tripled to around 273,000 since the year after Chavez was elected.

In the Miami area it is common in to encounter Venezuelans who are former accountants and managers working in low-level jobs or trying to make ends meet by pulling shifts with ride-sharing companies.

“They sell their homes, they sell their cars and they come here with a little bit of capital that vanishes in a matter of months,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University.