- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2016

Though he now lives in the District of Columbia, the economic and political crisis ravaging his native country is hitting close to home for Carlos Marquez.

The executive director of the fledgling Venezuelan American Leadership Council recalls a conversation a few weeks ago when he offered to send his father some money to help buy food.

“He told me, ‘Son, we found pasta and pasta sauce. That’s all we could buy,’” Mr. Marquez said. “So I told him, ‘Dad, do you need money? I can help you out,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s not a matter of money. There is nothing to buy.’”

The Venezuelan American Leadership Council is one of a number of groups hoping to harness the power of Venezuelan-Americans as the political standoff in Caracas between leftist President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition-dominated parliament worsens.

On Wednesday afternoon, the council organized a protest at the Venezuelan Embassy offering heaps of toilet paper — one of a number of increasingly scarce consumer staples in Venezuela. Mr. Marquez said he knew the embassy would reject the “donation.”

“It will be even more proof that the government doesn’t care about the people; they just care about [staying in] power,” he said.

After an eye-opening return to Venezuela in 2013, Mr. Marquez said, he was inspired to form the Venezuelan American Leadership Council. The grass-roots organization advocating for democracy in Venezuela opened in March.

Tensions in Venezuela appear to be peaking under Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist President Hugo Chavez. Wracked by a drought, falling oil prices and a plunging economy, the government recently declared a state of emergency in the country as food and medicine shortages sparked numerous street protests.

Tire manufacturer Bridgestone announced plans this week to leave the market after more than six decades, and Coca-Cola said its Venezuelan suppliers were shutting down temporarily because of a lack of sugar and other supplies.

The political crisis deepened when the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), scored an overwhelming victory in December’s election, securing a two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly. Opposition groups that are pushing for a recall referendum to oust Mr. Maduro from power this year accuse the government of stalling the process.

Venezuela is falling apart,” Mr. Marquez said. “There are a lot of Venezuelan groups in the U.S. and they’re all advocating for individual things, but they never work together for the country. An individual voice is much less powerful than a collective voice.”

In addition to pushing for a more cohesive Venezuelan voice in Washington, Mr. Marquez wants his organization to become a resource for activism for Venezuelans in the U.S.

The Pew Research Center estimated that 248,000 Hispanics of Venezuelan origin resided in the U.S. in 2013, but Mr. Marquez said illegal immigrants push that number to close to 1 million.

That number continues to rise as Mr. Maduro’s approval ratings fall.

A Hercon poll has found that two-thirds of Venezuelans blame the government for the country’s condition. About 30 percent of Venezuela’s 30 million residents are preparing documents for emigration, the Caracas-based polling institute Datanalisis found.

“Most of them are here because they have to be, not because they want to be,” Mr. Marquez said. “They don’t have a voice or someone to go to when they need help. We want to become that.”

After requesting political asylum last year, Fabiola Rondon Delgado is the lone member of her family living in the U.S.

“Nobody wants to leave. Nobody ever wants to request asylum,” said the 26-year-old Ms. Delgado, who marched in Wednesday’s protest. “I finally found a good company that sends containers, but it’s humiliating having to send toilet paper, milk, toothpaste and tampons back home because they have nothing.”

Long-term goals

In the longer term, Mr. Marquez said he wants to help Venezuelan immigrants integrate in terms of language, legal status and career prospects. He also wants to create scholarships and internships for Venezuelan students in the U.S.

Protester Fabiana Casanova said putting pressure on the U.S. government is an important part of being a Venezuelan-American.

“People need to support families financially over there, but also put pressure on the country where they’re at so that country would put pressure on the current government to take the necessary steps to change the situation,” Ms. Casanova said.

The Venezuelan American Leadership Council uses social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to promote its work. In just a month and a half, the organization’s Facebook page has gained almost 5,000 likes.

After earning degrees in finance and economics, Mr. Marquez spent a year in South Florida working at a boutique consulting firm before returning to Venezuela to co-found a youth leadership group. Mr. Marquez helped opposition parties with political advocacy and policy development and served as director of finance for the second-largest telecommunications company in Venezuela. Last year, Mr. Marquez moved to the U.S.

While working in Venezuela, Mr. Marquez developed connections with some politicians who helped him start the Venezuelan American Leadership Council and now serve on the four-member board.

In addition to the two employees in Washington, the council has a correspondent and a photographer in Venezuela posting news updates on the group’s website.

The council is planning a recruiting event next month in Miami, home to one of the nation’s largest Venezuelan-American communities and a grass-roots organization called Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens.

Last spring, the Miami group helped bring a convoy of nearly 2,500 Venezuelans from Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina to Washington to draw attention to what it said was the White House’s unwillingness to press the government in Caracas.

The Obama administration has expressed concern about the deteriorating situation but has tried to sidestep accusations by the Maduro government and its supporters about interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

The State Department is backing a South American-sponsored mediation effort that began this month, headed by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

“We support this dialogue as a way of guaranteeing respect for the will of the Venezuelan people, the rule of law, the separation of powers and the democratic process,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement last week.

Mr. Marquez said the expatriate community is most concerned about democracy and human rights in Venezuela as well as the state of the referendum fight, according to the daily messages his organization receives. The council has started a petition on Change.org supporting the referendum to recall Mr. Maduro. The petition already has over 1,000 signatures.

“Even if this is just symbolic, Venezuelan-Americans can feel like they’re part of the process somehow,” Mr. Marquez said. “And that petition will go to Congress and say, ‘This many people who live here in your country are advocating for this in Venezuela. You have to speak up.’”

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