North America

Venezuelan Americans fight for our attention

MIAMI – Sometimes, when Emily Bello-Pardo tries to inform people in the USA about the brutal crackdowns on protesters in her native Venezuela, they admit they have no idea what she’s talking about.
Some say they’ve heard about something happening down there in Venezuela. Maybe they read about it.
“It can be frustrating,” Bello-Pardo says through a forced smile.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for the 23-year-old master’s student at Florida International University is that she’s not alone in her uphill battle.
Almost every day, Venezuelan Americans across the country hold demonstrations, rallies, candlelight vigils or anything else they can think of to get Americans to care about the month-long protests in Venezuela that have left more than 25 dead and a country in turmoil. Protesters are upset over widespread scarcity of basic goods — from toilet paper to cornmeal — and rising unemployment that has left the country’s economy flailing.
When President Obama visited a Miami high school to sell his new education budget, hundreds of Venezuelan Americans lined up outside the school, urging him to take action. Restaurants collect food and emergency medical supplies to send to protesters.
Saturday, Venezuelans staged a coordinated global vigil, from American cities, including Miami, New York, Atlanta, Houston and San Francisco, to Spain, Italy and other countries.
But while global leaders are focused on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the missing Malaysia Airlines flight dominating American news broadcasts, many Venezuelan Americans say they can’t get anyone to listen.
Ernesto Ackerman, 63, a Venezuela native who became a U.S. citizen in 2000, says he’s spent so much time organizing demonstrations around Miami that his wife is starting to wonder when he’s going to get back to his day job, running a medical devices company.
“The entire Venezuelan community is activated,” Ackerman says. “But the national media is not paying attention. Don’t they understand that what’s happening in Venezuela is genocide? When the Americans understand, we’ll get more help.”
Bello-Pardo doesn’t have as much time to spare. After graduating with a double-major from FIU last year, she’s in the middle of her master’s courses, is the captain of the university’s debate team and works for Voto Joven, a group that gets young Hispanics involved in politics. When you meet her, she presents you with a business card. “I print them myself,” she says.
She has filled every moment of her free time advocating for her native country. She helped organize a forum at FIU to educate her classmates about the Venezuelan protests. She appeared on a TV station to discuss the latest developments and speaks to anybody she comes across about the situation.
Though the lack of coverage and interest has been disheartening, Bello-Pardo channels her inner optimist and sees “an opportunity” to educate Americans.
“It makes me sad. But sometimes, opportunity is frustrating,” she says. “Protracted conflicts like these, they usually cause people to lose interest. But this is the most crucial time we’ve seen for change, the biggest opportunity we’ve had in 50 years. If we don’t get that change now, it could be a dark future for Venezuela.”
She marvels at the work done by protesters in Venezuela, who have put their lives and jobs on hold to march almost daily against the government led by Nicolás Maduro. She says that no matter how difficult it is, she and other Venezuelan Americans will continue their fight for the protesters.
“We’re the voice for all of them,” she says.
Alan Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY.

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