Eleazar Saldivia is still bitter at the turn of events that led him from a career as a federal criminal judge in Venezuela to driving for Uber in Los Angeles.
But he doesn’t regret the decision to leave his life and home behind.
In 2013, Saldivia began a trial in which he sentenced four policemen to jail for assaulting imprisoned anti-government protesters and allowing criminals to escape from prison. Despite orders from the government, he refused to reverse his decision, and the harassment that followed forced him to flee.
“I could have had a brilliant career in my country,” said Saldivia, 42, who arrived in Los Angeles in September 2014 and now shares a small apartment in Hollywood. “I could have stuck to what they told me to do and have simply done everything they said. But I couldn’t. My conscience and my education didn’t let me.”
A record number of Venezuelans have fled a spiraling humanitarian crisis in their home country to seek refuge in the United States.
Like Saldivia, some asylum seekers have landed in Los Angeles, where they join a small but active Venezuelan community that has created social media videos, held rallies and organized electoral campaigns to support anti-government protests.
The U.S. imposed financial sanctions on the country in early August, following an election in Venezuela to create a national assembly that would rewrite the constitution — an action opposition leaders have called an illegal power grab by President Nicolas Maduro. Millions of Venezuelans protested the move, resulting in clashes with government forces that have left more than 120 dead.
Venezuelans top the list of asylum seekers in the United States, with more than 21,000 asylum applications filed in 2017 — a third more than the previous year — according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Many are fleeing government repression, food scarcities and a staggering rate of violent deaths — many involving security forces — that has led to its ranking as one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
“It’s only going to increase from now,” said Moises Rendon, the associate director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “People can handle tear gas, and people can handle lack of food and medicine. They always find a way.
“But people can’t handle going out onto the street and getting killed by criminals,” he said.
Alma Rosa Nieto, Saldivia’s attorney, said many of her Venezuelan clients are upper- and middle-class professionals, and for some, “their financial situation is not the driving force, but the political situation and social unrest.”
The Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.
More than 4,000 Venezuelans in California voted during an opposition-led referendum in July against the creation of Venezuela’s pro-government constituent assembly. Dozens staged protests a week later in Hollywood when Venezuelans went to the polls to elect the assembly’s members.
“We’re trying to give people energy, so that they don’t lose hope,” said Cristina Carolina Castillo, 39, an actress and asylum seeker who once helped direct the opposition party Voluntad Popular. “Even though we’re far away, we’re not absent from what is happening.”
Soon after Saldivia sent the group of policemen to jail, he said he received a call from Venezuela’s vice president at the time ordering their release.
“The Venezuelan constitution says that judges aren’t dependent on anyone, they’re autonomous, but that is not what happens in Venezuela,” Saldivia said.
In the following months, Saldivia began receiving threatening phone calls from colectivos — armed militias that support Maduro — who he said also posted pamphlets in his courthouse in the state of Anzoátegui naming him a traitor. Finally, he lost his government-provided bodyguard.
“I was on my own,” said Saldivia, whose application for asylum is pending. “In a country like Venezuela, being alone when you’re a judge who has sent a lot of people to jail is almost like a death sentence.”
Other Venezuelan asylum seekers in Los Angeles were political activists at home. As a chemical engineering student at Universidad de Los Andes, a public university in the city of Mérida, Maria Virginia Arismendi found plenty to protest. She spent hours waiting in lines to buy a kilo of flour, and found the insecurity of her neighborhood unnerving after being robbed while waiting to take the bus to school.
“I felt on the inside that I had to do something,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to see that my country, the country where I grew up, was falling to pieces… I couldn’t watch my friends protest for a better country and just wait and not do anything towards that goal.”
In January of 2015, Arismendi headed to the university with first aid equipment after receiving a text from a friend asking for help treating injured student protesters. Hours later, Arismendi and four other students were arrested as they left campus.
At the police station, she said, she saw students tortured with electric shocks. Later, police forced the students into a truck, closed the windows and tossed a tear gas bomb into the vehicle.
After being imprisoned four days, the students were charged with public instigation. They were cleared, but a court subsequently approved an appeal by the government. Between hearings, Arismendi noticed members of the colectivos following her.
“I was scared because they knew where I was,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t have a private life. I knew that if I was alone somewhere they could grab me and take me.”
She arrived in Los Angeles before the next hearing and now works as a customer service representative at a clothing factory in Vernon. Her wrists are tattooed with the words “freedom” and “faith,” in reference to her struggle in Venezuela. Her goal, she said, is to raise awareness about what is happening back home, where her grandmother died after not having access to medicine to treat her cancer.
Some asylum seekers say that watching the conflict unfold from abroad has given them a valuable perspective. Sitting outside their apartment in Hollywood, Luis Alejandro Mendez, 42, and Claudia Romero, 34, recalled hearing an opposition leader on television tell Venezuelans to take to the streets in protest of the new national assembly, an action the pair thought was too dangerous.
“It makes you realize how innocent you have been,” said Mendez.
The couple organized anti-government protests and assisted in national elections in Venezuela, where they experienced their own close calls. While transporting election material in the city of Valencia during the 2013 presidential elections, they were stopped by a member of a colectivo on a motorcycle. The man put a gun to Romero’s head and robbed them of the documents.
But the strongest blow occurred when they were abroad. Mendez and Romero were in Mexico on a two-week honeymoon in February 2014 when they received a call from Romero’s mother, who told them that members of colectivos were watching their house and warned them not to return.
“We might have been imprisoned, we might have been dead,” said Mendez, who now works as a nutrition coach as well as a Lyft driver. “It’s impossible to know for sure. Venezuela is simply a ‘what if.’”
Some asylum seekers have appeared in videos that aim to encourage Venezuelans abroad not to give up fighting the government.
“I want to return when things change, when I feel safe,” said Saldivia, who plans on taking the California bar exam.
Creating awareness of Venezuela’s conflict allows them to show solidarity, many said.
“Thanks to the people who are in the diaspora in different countries, the ordinary person on the street can understand a bit more about what has happened,” Romero said. “We have the responsibility to tell the world and that Venezuela not become a topic that goes to sleep… The country has given us too many things for us to abandon it because we aren’t there.”