Families split, community divided as Venezuelan conflict felt in GTA
4 October 2019

The ongoing civil conflict in Venezuela is more than just politics for Toronto truck driver Willy Garces.

It’s personal.

Politics are what divided his family. Living in Canada since 1995, he has witnessed the sharpening of differences between supporters (chavistas) and opponents (anti-chavistas) of former president Hugo Chavez and the current authoritarian government of Nicolas Maduro.

“Venezuelans have become intolerant of political differences,” said Garces, “and this has created a bit of separation among friends and families.”

He should know. One day, not long ago, his wife of four years suddenly declared the full fury of her political beliefs. “All chavistas must be killed,” she announced.

For Garces, 45, that was it. “That was beyond the top of my tolerance,” he said, adding that “although politics was not the main issue that drove us apart, it had an impact, because her views were extremely hateful towards chavistas.”

In many ways, the rupture of Garces’s marriage serves as a microcosm of the forces now dividing Venezuelan immigrants across the GTA, pitting those who support Maduro against those who support opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The tensions now roiling the GTA’s Venezuelan community are affecting people’s lives in all sorts of ways. The downgrading of diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Caracas has led to the closing of Venezuela’s consulate in Toronto. Meanwhile, cultural events are summarily cancelled, arguments flare in public places, and families separate over political disagreements.

In 2018, one of Venezuela’s most prominent folk musicians, Luis Silva, whom some consider a chavista, was severely attacked on social media after announcing that he was coming to perform in Canada. “The outcome was the cancellation of his concerts in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary,” recalls Rebecca Sarfatti, founder of the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, an association that collects humanitarian aid for Venezuela’s people.

She adds that a similar situation occurred this year in Calgary, where the organizers of a music festival had to cancel the performance of singer Raymar Perdomo. “Her controversial chavista past came back to haunt her. So Venezuelan producers (in Canada) are being very careful about performers’ affiliation in order to avoid conflict with the community,” she said.

Other Latin American communities in the GTA come together to celebrate summer cultural festivals or to mark their national day, but for Venezuelans, unity takes a back seat to politics. “There is no sense of trust among the community,” said Sarfatti. “People are always careful whom they interact with.”

Spending a lot of time behind the wheel, on journeys that take him as far away as New Brunswick, Willy maybe doesn’t have much time for socializing, but his friend Zaida Colmenares, who lived in Toronto 20 years ago and recently came back to work as a nanny, recalls that this summer she went to Toronto Island to meet some friends at a barbecue. At one point, she heard a female voice criticizing Maduro’s regime and she couldn’t avoid loudly protesting her belief that Venezuela’s ongoing troubles are an “induced crisis,” inserted in the collective mind “to justify a foreign military intervention.”

Colmenares stressed that two decades ago Venezuelans in the GTA talked about family and food, “but now, when I meet a Venezuelan, the first thing he/she wants to know is my political preference.”

According to the 2016 census, there were 6,425 Venezuelans in Canada, of whom 2,460 were in Ontario, and of those 1,055 lived in Toronto.

For Venezuelan journalist Cristina Pulido-Vielma, the “chavismo” factor is not the only reason for the political split among Venezuelan immigrants.

“Venezuelans had no immigration experience,” she said. “We don’t have the mutual support systems that Colombians, Peruvians or Mexicans have learned to develop.”

Sociologist Maria Paez Victor said that Venezuelans who live in the GTA “are mostly those who supported the previous elitist-led governments from which they obtained lucrative positions and jobs.” Her position is seconded by Pierre LeBlanc, a Canadian who was in Caracas as an international observer of the May 2018 federal elections. “The majority of Venezuelans who have had the means to make their way to Canada are of the privileged class,” he said.

While the oil-rich South American country remains embattled in a political and humanitarian crisis, as a result of questionable elections, economic sanctions and political violence, the Venezuelan diaspora in Toronto cannot seem to escape the consequences.

“If Venezuela was rich on potatoes, the United States would not be so interested in what is happening there,” said Paez Victor. Meanwhile, for anti-chavista immigrants, Maduro — who is in the power since 2013 — is a dictator.

After helping transport the Venezuelan consulate belongings to a warehouse, Willy Garces says without hesitation: “if I had to travel to Ottawa to express my right to vote, I would definitely go.” At least, this is something in which the other Venezuelan interviewed coincide.

Pulido-Vielma, who has witnessed the vote count of the Venezuelan elections in Ottawa and Toronto since 2005, affirms that she would go to Ottawa for the next elections: “consulates never have enough personnel to open polling stations, so about 30 people from the Venezuelan diaspora came to help and we will do it again.”

Questioned about how Venezuelans in Canada will vote in the next Venezuelan election, the embassy chargé d’affaires in Canada, Luis Acuna, answered: “We cannot anticipate what Canada’s decisions will be regarding the authorization to open polling stations for Venezuelan elections.” In May 2018, Ottawa banned Venezuelan diplomats from opening voting booths.

But living without a consulate has more consequences. The newcomer Saiannah Maharaj, who meets only with opponents of Maduro´s regime, pointed out that she has found on social media postings from Venezuelans in Caracas offering to “accelerate” passport extension for $300. “This is illegal, but is the ongoing situation in my country,” she added.

Defending the same tricolour flag, Venezuelan “chavistas” and “anti-chavistas” continue to stage talks and demonstrations in Toronto. Zaida Colmenares was one of the speakers on Sept. 26 at the conference “The Battle for Venezuela,” organized by Common Frontiers and CUPE Ontario. Rebecca Sarfatti is part of the fundraising event in support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Three decades ago, in the Trinity Bellwoods Park was installed a bust of the South American liberator, Simon Bolivar, as a symbol of unity among Latin Americans. For the antagonistic Venezuelan diaspora in Toronto, this symbol has become in a very distant South American dream.

Source site: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2019/10/04/beyond-the-top-of-my-tolerance-families-split-community-divided-as-venezuelan-conflict-felt-in-gta.html?fbclid=IwAR0QWZhJNkov-NDJ8PYh7HRL0YPl-Slfb_L9BmQyj8tEPiDKYrSj38UFtYg