Fabiola Santiago

If democracy is what Venezuelans want, they should stay home and fight for it

Anti-government demonstrators wave Venezuelan national flags during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.
Anti-government demonstrators wave Venezuelan national flags during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. AP

There’s no doubt Venezuelans lucky enough to make it to the United States qualify for temporary protected status at a moment of tremendous turmoil and peril in their homeland.

TPS, as it’s commonly known, allows people here on any variety of temporary visas — visitor, student, investor, special skills, etc. Those who’ve overstayed them are allowed to live in the U.S. without fear of deportation until their country is stable again and safe enough for a return.

It’s a special status given only to people from countries undergoing extraordinary strife, be it by a natural disaster such as Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake or the unrelenting violence and gang persecution that people in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have endured for years.

It’s the Venezuelans’ time of need — and they deserve the respite of what amounts to blanket short-term asylum.

But TPS is double-edged-sword protection.

Venezuelans have a real shot at stopping the consolidation of the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship — if the opposition doesn’t flee. Fearless and bold young Venezuelans have already given their lives by taking to the streets in mass demonstrations against the government, breaking the pattern of Cubans who’ve chosen flight over fight at every critical moment during the six decades of the Castro brothers-led regime.

If Venezuelans give up their valiant pushback for their place at the political table, and continue to take their money and flee for Miami or Madrid or wherever they find refuge, it’s over.

Maduro will be left without meaningful and powerful opposition, which is what this copycat student of the Castro brothers’ repressive rule is hoping for right now. Don’t hand it to him, Venezuelans, unless you’re ready to open a door through which there’s no return to the home you knew and loved.

At first, you tell yourself exile is temporary, but soon, and easily enough, it becomes permanent. You settle into the idea of irrevocable, but the yearning and the looking back never go away. Worst, now you really want to stay. Your children easily learned the language and are thriving. You endure a long and wearing legal fight for permanent U.S. residency. Why do you think Haitians and Central Americans are clamoring to have their TPS extended? Little if anything at all has changed in their countries — and South Florida has become their and their children’s home.

Cubans will tell you that the point of no return is that very act of cruzar el charco, the leaving, the crossing of a sea that for Venezuelans looms even larger.

I can assure you that fighting for the homeland from exile and winning isn’t possible. Don’t kid yourself. Settle in this absorbing country, and you can become a cast member of a cause that turns into local industry and becomes the stuff of local political campaigns and punditry — but never achieves freedom for Venezuela.

Leaving is a game-changer between those who leave and those who stay. Those who leave lose it all, including identity, no small thing. You might bring it in you in your suitcase, like Willy Chirino so touchingly put it in song, but it has an expiration date. Prepare to live in a country that, no matter how you express your gratitude, will relentlessly let you know it’s not yours. Prepare to grow old surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren who don’t speak Spanish and have no clue what permanent sadness dwells in your soul.

TPS is a useful legal aid for victims of strife. It should be available to Venezuelans in the United States as Maduro stubbornly leads the country into greater chaos. But if it sets off a stampede for exile, the protection will sever like a sharp knife something more precious.

Leaving the battlefield is a gift to the oppressor.

If democracy is what Venezuelans want, they should stay home and fight for it.

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