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As protests back home continue, Venezuelan immigrants react

A demonstrator hits a pot in protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in San Antonio, in the border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on February 25, 2014.
A demonstrator hits a pot in protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in San Antonio, in the border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on February 25, 2014.

One year ago this week, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died after battling cancer. His successor, former vice-president Nicolas Maduro, was democratically elected in April by a narrow margin. The new president inherited a long list of problems: an unraveling economy, rampant crime, inflation, and decreasing living standards.

In recent weeks, protesters have been voicing their grievances in the streets. The protests have grown violent as authorities have cracked down. So far, a reported 18 people have died in confrontations.

In the U.S., many of the Venezuelan immigrants who have long opposed their native country's government are reacting and speaking out.

"We were fed up with this government because of all the things, the situation piling up," said Flor Trocones, a Brentwood visual artist who came here from Venezuela 28 years ago. "The violent crimes, the scarcity, the lack of justice with all the things that are happening, the violation of human rights every day. We just got to a point that, no more."

Expats who share Troconis' views represent the bulk of Venezuelans immigrants in the United States, a population that more than doubled in size after Chavez took office in 1999. After he was elected, middle- and upper-class Venezuelans opposed to their country's leftward shift began moving to the U.S. and elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, anti-Maduro protesters demonstrated recently outside the federal building in Westwood and outside Walt Disney Concert Hall, where they criticized Venezuelan-born Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel for not speaking out. Protesters have focused mostly on the deaths lately.

“What is going on in Venezuela right now is not a political problem, it is one of human rights," said Alicia Monsalve, who lived in the U.S. several years ago and returned to Venezuela, but decided to return here to live in 2010.

But political discord between the left-leaning government and middle- and upper-class opposition can't be overlooked, says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College who authored a book on Venezuela and its oil industry.
“From day one, the protest demand was that Maduro resign," said Tinker Salas, himself a Venezuelan American, by phone from Caracas where he's been traveling. "Whether you like it or not, he is a democratically elected president. There were elections in 2013 for municipal position that the opposition made into a referendum on Maduro, and the government won that election.”
Two weekends ago, a pan-Latino coalition that included pro-government Venezuelans rallied in support of Maduro in McArthur Park, condemning the anti-Maduro expats' protest tactics and urging the U.S. not to intervene.

But given the diaspora's political dynamics, they're outnumbered by those who want Maduro ousted. These expats have closely followed the protests via social media.

"They are very connected to what is happening in Venezuela," Tinker Salas said. "In fact, I have had some relatives tell me that their children abroad, or their relatives abroad, are more connected to what is happening here than some people in Venezuela. They are constantly on social media trying to find out what is going on."

Those backing the protesters want for the Obama administration to take a stand on the current crisis. Flor Troconis is among those organizing another protest two weekends from now.

“I’m hoping to get to a transitional government, and to go again with the elections," Troconic said. "We need to eliminate the old electoral system in Venezuela, because it is really corrupt.”
Democratic Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said this week that the Obama administration was looking into possible sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

But the White House isn’t going there just yet - a spokesman said via email that the administration's goal right now is “encouraging the start of a meaningful dialogue between the Venezuelan government and its people.”