Almost two years after fleeing Venezuela, Erick Zuleta suddenly finds himself in the midst of Venezuelans. The Parroquia de Santa Elena, a magnificent church in the center of Madrid, is well filled.
Zuleta, 64 years old, wears a Casio watch on her wrist, the strap is much too big, the hands indicate the wrong time. He hesitates for a moment, then folds his hands into prayer and agrees with the murmurs of the others: "Give us our daily bread today and forgive us our guilt, as we forgive our guilty party."
Actually, Zuleta does not make much of God, for years he was no longer in the church. In the past, at home in Venezuela, Zuleta would have gone to his family on such a beautiful Sunday; home to Barquisimeto to be with his relatives, maybe on the farm he had just bought.
But now Madrid is its present – the city that is currently becoming the headquarters of the growing Venezuelan diaspora in Europe.
Those who are currently fleeing from hunger, inflation and violence from Venezuela usually go to neighboring Colombia or Brazil. But anyone who can scrape together the money for the tickets, book a flight to Madrid. Almost every day in Terminal 4, the flights arrive from Caracas, Venezuelans come here as tourists – and usually never again.
21,700 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the EU in the first half of 2019. Currently, the numbers are doubling year after year. Only from Syria and Afghanistan are more applicants coming. If the trend continues, Venezuela could soon become the number one country of origin.
Almost all Venezuelans who come to the EU ask for asylum in Spain, almost all go to Madrid. That's why Spain is currently receiving more applications than ever before. An estimated 300,000 Venezuelans live throughout the country. Ascending trend. Madrid, jokes some, is currently being transformed into Little Caracas.
Many Venezuelans have European ancestry and sometimes even a Spanish or Italian passport. If you do not have one, ask for asylum in Spain. The chances are almost never. The Spanish government has recently decided to grant rejected asylum seekers from Venezuela – on a case-by-case basis – humanitarian protection status.
This allows asylum seekers to stay and work in the country for a year – but no longer receive any money from the state. Subsequently, the residence permit can be extended. The Venezuelans are the only nation that grants Spain this status. The Spanish asylum system is on the verge of collapse because of the many applications, the new regulation should remedy.
It is quite possible that even more Venezuelans will try to get a plane ticket. But hardly anyone in Spain is afraid of it, the integration has so far been almost noiseless.
Three days before the fair Erick Zuleta squeezes himself to the dining table of his small two-room apartment in Móstoles, a suburb of Madrid. Here he lives with his wife, three daughters, a grandchild and his son-in-law.
In the past, the family resided in a Spanish-colonial villa: 86 meters long, seven rooms, and the ceilings six meters high. That is how Zuleta tells it. He does not have to think to mention the numbers. Now seven people live on 65 square meters, maybe less, so no one in the family knows that. The fridge is on the balcony.
Zuleta's wife is just coming home from the rehearsals, she has been cleaning with a Spanish family. His daughters have already found work. 21-year-old Estefania is studying law, while working at the cash register of a supermarket. The daughters now take care of the family, before fleeing it was different.
At home in Venezuela Zuleta had a job that made him the spokesman for thousands of bus and taxi drivers. As head of the transport union, he negotiated with the elite of the country. But when Zuleta supported the protests against the Maduro regime, he was targeted by the secret service Sebin. Several times, according to Zuleta, the police arrested him, repeatedly releasing him.
On the crucial day in July 2017, Zuleta had called unionists from across the country when a confidant brought him a message: "The director of Sebin is looking for you by any means." His unionists blocked the entrance to his office, he fled in a small car, hiding first in Caracas.
A shout of happiness on the phone
On the morning of August 2, 2017, he sat in the back seat of a car, in front of a young couple, Zuleta played the grandfather. The police stopped them three times, paid Zuleta three times and was allowed to continue to the bridge Simón Bolívar, which crosses the river Táchira.
Thousands of people cross the border with Colombia every day on foot. Zuleta was surrounded by dozens of bus drivers and chauffeurs, trying to hide as much as possible in the crowd. "I was told: If anyone recognizes you, run away," recalls Zuleta. He had to cover 315 meters on the bridge. "She seemed endless." Step by step the group headed towards Colombia until they reached a white line. Then the union leader was safe.
Zuleta put the chip in his cell phone, called his family, a shout from the phone, only then he bought a plane ticket to Spain and one back. Only then could he enter Spain as a tourist. A little later he arrived in Madrid, where no one expected him.
The symbol of the homeland: In a trouser pocket Zuleta carries constantly the Venezuelan flag with it around
Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America. When Francisco Franco turned Spain into a dictatorship, many fled to the former colony in search of a better life. Today the Venezuelans are starving. They can no longer pay for food and medicines. The currents have reversed.
Refugees have become a popular campaign topic in Spain. Right-wing and right-wing radicals use every refugee boat to score points. But most of them are African refugees from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Venezuelans, on the other hand, are hardly noticed, even right-wing and conservative parties even entangle them. Spanish rights like to use the Venezuelan state crisis to warn against socialism; Venezuelan refugees, especially oppositionists, are welcome.
"Of course, Venezuelans are easier than other groups to integrate with us," says Carlos Gómez Gil. The migration expert researches and teaches at the University of Alicante and advises the authorities on asylum issues. The culture, the language, all that facilitates living together. "That's why there are no problems so far."
And: Especially the Venezuelan middle and upper class makes it to Spain. In the rich center of Madrid, Venezuelans have bought thousands of apartments. Real estate agents rave about the purchasing power of customers. If you buy a property worth 500,000 euros or more in Spain, you will automatically receive a visa. Zuleta believes that it is above all the corrupt helpers of the Maduro regime who are accessing and investing their money in the most expensive neighborhood in Madrid.
"In Venezuela our baby would die"
Anyone who has to sell everything for the dream of Madrid starts at zero. Like Kennedy. The 33-year-old takes a break on the Gran Via in the city center, next to his mountain bike. He has been in Madrid for six days and already works as a "rider" for Glovo, the Spanish version of Lieferando and Deliveroo.
He has taken over the license and the corresponding profile from a friend. That's not legal. But Kennedy has to earn money, as fast as possible, 1500 Euros for rent and a flight so that his girlfriend can follow. When she finally arrives, they want to have children. "In Venezuela, our baby would die," says Kennedy. "That is why I am here."
Conspicuously many Venezuelans go to Madrid for Glovo, so they can relatively easily make a little money – even without a work permit. But Kennedy does not know Madrid yet. Until he finds out where he has to go, precious minutes pass. Finally, the next order is popping up on his mobile. On this day, he will not earn much more than four euros.
Zuleta still hopes to return to Venezuela one day. Of course he would like to work in the meantime, but he finds nothing. "Too old," he says with a mild smile.
When Zuleta wants to immerse himself in his old life, he opens WhatsApp on his cell phone. Friends and colleagues report there of incredible prices and power outages. He watches videos of people being dumped like animals in a van just to get to the next place. His life's work, public transport, has collapsed.
Shortly before Zuleta enters the cathedral to pray with the other Venezuelans, he sits in the garden of the parish on a much too small baby chair. The man named by opposition leader Juan Guaidó as his ambassador to Madrid has come. In addition, the former mayor of Caracas.
There are speeches and arepas eaten, a wheat flat filled with meat. Venezuelans should list their names and occupations in a list. For the Spanish state to understand what educated people have come here, it is said. So far, the Venezuelan diaspora has hardly organized. The day in the church should be a beginning.
Finally, a Venezuelan singer performs, sings cover songs. Zuleta's daughter Estefania sings loudly, her cell phone holding her like a microphone.
She turns to her father: "Join us!"
Steffen Lüdke / SPIEGEL ONLINE
Estefania, 21 years old, performs a song, the phone serves as a microphone
Zuleta, still in the green baby chair, smiles briefly. "It's easier for the kids," he says.
The Casio on his wrist has stopped in the meantime, the battery has given up the ghost. Even months after his escape, the clock still indicated the Venezuelan era. Zuleta had deliberately not changed them.
This article is part of the project Global Society, for which our reporters report from four continents. The project is long-term and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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