Venezuelans in Tampa Bay hope Floridians show interest in homeland's plight

Elizabeth Arce, 27, and Patrick Arce, 26, left their home in Venezuela for Manatee County after attempts on Patrick Arce’s life.
Elizabeth Arce, 27, and Patrick Arce, 26, left their home in Venezuela for Manatee County after attempts on Patrick Arce’s life.
Published April 1, 2017

One year and 1,700 miles removed from Venezuela, siblings Patrick and Elizabeth Arce can't stop dreaming of the day they return to their once safe and prosperous country.

But for now, they're taking refuge in Manatee County — from people, they say, who tried to kidnap and kill Patrick Arce for advocating political change.

For the family they left behind, who face shortages of food and medicine, the Arces hope for the best.

"When you leave the house you're not sure you will come home," said Elizabeth Arce, 27. "I think about my parents there all the time."

The Arces now join a community of Tampa Bay-area Venezuelans who are in a struggle of their own — trying to raise Americans' interest in their country's spiral toward political and economic failure.

Two years ago, when anti-government protests erupted into violence and fires, Venezuela drew heightened interest in the United States. It ended when the fury devolved into chronic misery and political maneuverings, like the declaration Thursday that the supreme court is taking over congress.

"A lot of relief goes to people hit by natural disasters like it should," Tampa lawyer and Venezuela native Javier Torres said. "Venezuela needs help, too."

Floridians, have an interest in Venezuela's success, the nation's supporters say, as the state most people from the Andean country choose when they immigrate to the United States.

The Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey says nearly 6,000 Venezuelans live in the Tampa Bay area: Hills­borough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. That's the third-largest South American population group locally, behind Colombia and Peru.

Statewide, Venezuelans number 102,116 — second only to Colombians among South Americans.

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Many of them watch in anguish as Venezuela, home to the world's largest oil reserves, experiences the fallout from a plunge in financial reserves from $30 billion five years ago to just $10 billion today.

People wait hours in line for basic foods like bread only to be turned away when supplies run out. Children die in hospitals that lack basic antibiotics.

Citizens protest the government but have also turned against one another in desperation, driving the murder rate to one of the highest in the world.

"The situation has gotten out of the hands of the Venezuelan people," Patrick Arce, 26, said through a translator. "Their government will not help."

Even as they sound the alarm in Florida, local Venezuelans are working to provide help directly.

For the past seven years, Norma Camero Reno, 65, has collected medical supplies from area doctors that she or her friends deliver to hospitals in Venezuela. A Venezuelan native, Reno has lived in Tampa 36 years and is founder of the Organized Movement for Venezuelan People Abroad.

"Don't forget my Venezuela," she said.

Other local Venezuelan natives echo Reno's plea.

Two years ago, Ana Maria Tague, founded AnaVenUSA to send hygiene products and medicine there.

From 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, those who wish to support her cause can drop off supplies at the Cigar Cave in Palm Harbor.

"We cannot change what the government is doing in Venezuela," said Tague, 51, a 25-year Tampa resident. "But we can help the people."

Reno and Tague struggled to find funding for their work until a year ago when Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco, 30, a Tampa resident born and raised in Venezuela, agreed to help.

On his own, Carrasco also sends goods, including sports equipment, to children in Venezuela. Last Christmas, he shipped 1,000 presents.

"Venezuela is my beautiful country," he said. "I won't stop helping it."

Lawyer Torres, 46, fled Venezuela 11 years ago when friends were imprisoned for speaking out against the government. Now, through his nonprofit Migrants Foundation, he provides legal aid to those like the Arce siblings — people here on temporary humanitarian visas as they seek full-time asylum.

"We do our part and there are others, but we need more help," said Raiza Iciarte, 37, news director at Tampa's Telemundo. Iciarte has become de facto spokeswoman for locals supporting Venezuela, where she lived until a decade ago. "Venezuela has lots of problems."

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The economy collapsed because of poor planning, said Daniel Hellinger, a South American policy advisor with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy in the Americas.

The Venezuelan government failed to invest oil profits into a sovereign fund to sustain the economy against fluctuations in the price per barrel. Nor did it put enough money back into its own oil industry, and it now must rely on investment from foreign partners who take a slice of the earnings.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, founder of the country's modern socialist movement, and denies the severity of the problem while deflecting blame.

Maduro tells his people his political opposition is waging an economic war, hoarding supplies and cutting production to create shortages and turn citizens against him.

Patrick Arce says he has first-hand knowledge of the administration's heavy-handed dealings with the opposition.

Arce narrowly avoided kidnapping on one occasion, he said, and on another, shots were fired at him while he was driving. His neighborhood in the city of Merida was declared a nest of opposition so the gas was turned off for two months, he said.

The Arce siblings expect to gain permanent asylum in the United States. But they don't intend to use it, eager as they are to get home some day.

Meantime, they support local efforts. Elizabeth Arce helps AnaVenUSA keep inventory. Patrick Arce provides muscle in carrying packed boxes.

"We are Venezuelan," Patrick Arce said. "That is our family."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.