[i] Hello [name], how are you? I have now asked you to bring something personal and you have brought the Venezuelan flag, what does that mean for you?

[r] The flag of Venezuela means a lot … for us, the flag means our love for the country, our memories, something we carry in our hearts.

[i] Were you born in Venezuela?

[r] No, I was born in Nicaragua because my father worked all over Latin America, he was Belgian. The country he loved most was Venezuela and he decided to live there, He was someone who taught us to love Venezuela, he taught us that it was paradise on earth, for him it was the best country in the world and he taught us to love it.

[i] How old were you when you arrived?

[r] I would live to be 7 years old, I have few memories of my childhood in Nicaragua, some friends, the school……the first, second year… but my real memories and friends and loves are in Venezuela, my country…what I consider to be my country. That’s when my life started….

[i] What were your parents doing there?

[r] My father is an agronomist, he studied at the University of Leuven, he first devoted himself to the cultivation of maize to obtain classified seeds, he sowed peanuts for Venezuelan chocolate makers, and he also devoted himself to research. He loved to “discover” new fruit varieties that were different, not so well known – such as the maracuya, for example. He sent them to the universities so that they could be spread all over the country, that work was really his passion.

[i] How was your childhood?

[r] Conflicted because I was born in Nicaragua and in Nicaragua I always saw war, the Cuban regime that was trying to invade Nicaragua.  From my youth I saw war, first the revolution in Nicaragua and as an adult again the same revolution but then in Venezuela.  Arriving in Venezuela was arriving in an oasis of peace, we arrived in 1979…beginning of 1980, it was a prosperous country, all the world wanted to emigrate to Venezuela, like us…a Belgian-Nicaraguan family. There were emigrants from all over the planet, many Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians who had arrived since the 1950s and continued to arrive until the 1980s. Venezuela welcomed immigrants with affection, there was practically no xenophobia or discrimination because 70% of the population were immigrants or descendants of immigrants.   This created a beautiful and stimulating environment for all cultures to develop and appreciate each other without turning anyone away.

[i] What was the main economic wealth of the country?

[r] Since the beginning of the 20th century, oil.  As many analysts think, oil is the most important wealth and greatest curse.  Oil brought in the 50’s the great development to the country, under Perez Jimenez, there was investment in infrastructure, roads, hospitals, and later with the beginning of democracy, there was still investment in universities, large hospitals, free education for all. It was not only oil, there is also great wealth, gold, iron, diamonds.  Freshwater, we have one of the largest water reserves on the planet.

[i] Where does it come from?

[r] From our rivers, Orinoco and Canoni.  In the city where we lived two rivers came together that go to the Atlantic Sea, which is an important wealth of the country. The Orinoco river is also navigable, our city is close to the iron and bauxite mines, the Canoni river was used as a source of hydroelectric energy to exploit the mines and the Orinoco to export them (the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean). Venezuela’s wealth is a source of corruption, so many foreign forces want to appropriate it.

[i] How was your life when you were a student? What did you study?

[r] As a child I lived in Caracas, then I emigrated with my wife to Puerto Ordaz, a city smaller and quieter than Caracas, at that time with 7 million inhabitants, with all the problems of a big city, crime.  My father-in-law lived in Puerto Ordaz, we visited it, we liked it, without crime, little traffic and a lot of work and we moved.  I worked hard there and finally fulfilled my dream to study law, I am a lawyer.  At that time, we were already under the Chavez regime.

[i] In what year did it start?

[r] Chavez came to power in the year 99 and that meant a big change for us and for the whole population. He came to power with a huge propaganda machine. “

[i] Through elections?

[r] He won the elections, but was supported by many media who at the time didn’t know what was going to happen. He was always communist, and was also a man of the coup, before he won the election….in 1999…no…in 1998…he staged two bloody coups d’état in which many people were killed. He was imprisoned but President Rafael Calderas gave him a presidential pardon, released him and restored his rights.   That was a big mistake, with the help of foreign funding from the media he rose in the polls and won the elections of ’98. He never left power, even though he promised and wouldn’t change the constitution.  It was one of the first things he did, to change the constitution to allow indefinite re-election. He did and was re-elected indefinitely. At the beginning it was not for an indefinite period, it was only a re-election and well, since then we have been living in this ungrateful situation. As a lawyer, I know that one of the basic principles of democracy is the change of power. People should not hold on to power because power makes them sick. A person who knows that he will always be in power and will never be punished for the crimes he commits, that person will continue to commit those crimes.

[i] Have you seen that from the beginning? Was it something gradual?

[r] It was gradual, my father told me from the beginning: “This man is a charlatan, a communist”. He saw that it was someone who was looking for total power and who wanted the population to be under his control. He compared it to what was happening in Eastern Europe. It was nothing new and my father already knew that Chavez would never give up power. He knew that as a Communist he would install a dictatorship.  Not everyone saw it, I, with my father’s vision and my experience in Nicaragua, never voted for him and that gives me peace of mind because I never helped to install it.

Little by little, he took over all the public institutions, the judiciary, the Ombudsman’s office. That was an institution that he founded, which did not previously exist, appropriating it in order to have full control over the state, without division of power, in order to be able to act with impunity.

[i] How were these first years of Chavez reflected in your life and that of your family? Was the population aware of what was happening?

[r] The population was aware of what was happening, but this differed depending on the social layer.  The poorest sectors worshipped him because he used state resources, which were immense, Venezuela managed to get 100 dollars for a barrel of oil, with a production of almost 4 million barrels a day, and received more than 1000 billion dollars in income. That’s a figure that’s hard to comprehend,$1000 billion in revenue. He used some of these funds to give them to the poorest sectors, on the advice of Fidel Castro in 2002 and after an attempted coup d’état, which apparently originated from civil society. Under pressure from society, he decided to resign from the government in 2002, but for inexplicable reasons, but three days later he inexplicably returned to power.  At that moment he realized that with even more social and economic benefits he had to buy the poorest layers and the armed forces.  He invented the “missions”, medical care and medicines were always free, but he increased these benefits. For example the mission “Miracle” which worked with people with vision problems. You have to admit that very good things were done with that money; it was to reach the poorest people and to operate, both in Venezuela and in Cuba, on cataracts and other diseases so that they could see again. Because of this he got a lot of support, he did the same with housing, he gave away houses, he gave away electrical appliances, in short ………… he wasted the money in a very irresponsible way because he didn’t invest anything in the development of the country, they were gifts for the people who supported him. On the other hand, the lower and upper middle classes realized what was happening in Venezuela with this communist process…because it is not socialism, it is a newly invented communism. Thus began the protests, the population began to see what was happening. Until the period of 2014, when the population, began to protest against the rise in prices and excessive inflation … 100 or 150% per year … not comparable with the current annual inflation rates of 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000% per year. This started a chain of protests. The protests were made not only because of inflation, but also because of insecurity, because of the paramilitary groups, the famous Chavista collectives, which were financed and armed by the government in order to obtain support and protection from these armed groups. People became aware of this situation and protests were organised. Protests also against the situation of the political prisoners. The political opponents who were aggravated by the regime remained imprisoned without trial, without legal process, excuses were given to detain them without their trial coming to an end. In February 2014 there was a big march written by the opposition, by Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the “voluntad popular” party.   There were several deaths due to the violence of the government.

[i] Was it the opposition party?

[r] It was a coalition of opposition parties. It was “la mesa de unidad – the table of unity”, if I remember correctly. The most important figure at that time was Leopoldo Lopez.

[i] Where were you working at the time?

[r] I worked in many places, first in a North American bank, Stanford Bank, a financial group that eventually went bankrupt because of pyramidal fraud, then I worked independently with the same customers of the bank, more or less until the year 2013.

[i] And the position you held……

[r] That was not paid work…

[i] It was…

[r] ..I never got a nickel, I didn’t belong to a political party,

[i] Were you like a watchdog to make sure the election went properly?

[r] The political parties called on civil society, those who are willing to cooperate and to take risks, to grab a gun.  I worked together with my daughter and my lawyers, I was always the one who fought against the soldiers and confronted them.

[i] As part of a political party, or….

[r] No, they called, I volunteered as a chief observer at a polling station. They gave us a card, an accreditation card of our position, we threw away all those cards in Ecuador. Our role was to enforce the rules of electoral law. If a polling station had to be closed because there was no more line of voters at 18:00, it had to be closed.  The task of the soldiers of Chavez of Plan Republica and the National Electoral Council was not to close the center and to wait for the buses of Chavistas that came with false ID’s with the names of people who had not gone to the polls, so they increased the votes.

[i] Do you remember what the Republica Plan was?

[r] Since the 1950s, the armed forces have had the task of protecting election material and public order. They began to usurp themselves and became the leaders of the electoral process to threaten the real actors of the process, namely civil society. The National Electoral Council had to guarantee the process. The soldiers of the Republica Plan entered the polling stations, violated the election material, threatened the polling station chairmen when they wanted to abide by the rules. For example, closing the buildings when there were no more voters, the people gave in because they were threatened with machine guns and war rifles, the people cried and did what they were asked to do.  It was the way that Chavez could win the elections when he couldn’t, in a fair way, win it anymore. He realized it when he lost the referendum in 2008. He knew he couldn’t depend on and abide by the people’s vote, he had to cheat, but without it being obvious.  The way he had found was … He let people vote who were abroad, who had died or who hadn’t gone to the ballot box to vote and thus to get a much higher number of votes, almost one and a half million more. In those days it was like that, now Maduro does it in a brutal way, he just gives the result he wants.  He doesn’t have to hide the “shame” that Chavez had to change the figures a bit.

[i] What situations did you have to deal with when you had that function?

[r] As the main observer of my polling center, I think it was during the last presidential election, our polling center was already closed, the polling center in that center was almost full, more or less at 75, 80%.  The voters of that centre were in the majority in favour of the opposition to the regime, they had to fill 20 or 25% of the empty votes with their votes and they waited for the buses that arrived with chavistas with false identifiers to vote. It was 6.15 or 6.30 p.m., I can’t remember the name of the person in charge, he was very young, I told him we were done.  They ordered what the president of what was not their role. The polling station close and seal the manual, and electronic voices. He threatened the chairmen of the polling stations so that they did not close the stations. I, as a lawyer and observer at the polling station, said that, according to the rules of the electoral manual, they have no right to tell the presidents that they, the manual and the electronic voting cards had to be closed. According to the law, if there are no voters in line and it is 6 p.m., then the polling station must be closed.

He threatened to put the presidents in jail, he threatened to kill them. At one point we gathered all the presidents in the courtyard.  Outside the centre, there were more than 2,000 or 3,000 people in a state of turmoil waiting for the results because it was after 7 p.m. The majority supported the opposition and the people were very angry.

[i] In what year was this?

[r] That was in 2013.  We voted under all the chairmen of the election centres and the observers what we had to do. I read out the rules of the electoral law and told the presidents that they had a duty to close, we won and the lieutenant put the gun on my head and told me that he was going to kill me for disturbing his electoral center. I told him that if he wanted him to kill me, but then he would go straight to jail because there were more than 2,000 witnesses, I also told him that if he didn’t let them close the polling stations, I would open the door and tell everyone what he was doing as head of the “Plan Republica” in this polling centre. You decide, either you kill me for all the witnesses, or you allow them to close it, or I open the door and let all those people come in to close the polling stations. He agreed to this and had the Presidents close the tables.    And later, it was 7 p.m., they lost that vote. That vote was the one in which Nicolas Maduro “allegedly” won…….it was a total fraud, later….around 19h30 the same lieutenant and the head of the National Electoral Council were crying on the stairs because they had received the reports, and had lost the elections.  And that the opposition candidate had won. We were already celebrating the victory of the opposition candidate. We got telephones from everywhere, from friends, from political parties ….

[i] Who was the opposition candidate?

[r] Henrique Capriles….yes…There were so many candidates who…. It was a national party, a party! Venezuela celebrated the end of the chavista nightmare. We still had to count, we had to count manually, we had to check everything, counting manually as required by the electoral law. Around 20:30 we received phone calls and reports informing us that the results had been reversed.   That in many areas where the population was very poor and very chavista, they would not have been able to go against the pressure of the regional leaders of the Republica Plan or of the armed collectives and that they would have allowed a lot of ballot boxes if the polling stations had had to be closed by now.  With these fraudulent votes, around 800 000, Nicolas Maduro, the dictator we have today, won the elections.

It was then that we realised what was coming and that it was no longer possible to win an election and get out of that dictatorship by voting; it had become technically and humanly impossible for the people of Venezuela. In a democracy, you cannot get out of it, we had tried so many times, we fought for it but, unfortunately, you cannot get rid of these people without international help.

[i] The big protests you told me about were after these elections?

[r] of Chavez, during his illness they calmed down a bit. The poor people sympathized with him, because of his illness and his death, Chavez went up in the polls after his death. There is always empathy with people who are dying or suffering.

[i] What did he have?

[r] He died of cancer in Cuba, he had no faith in the Venezuelan doctors.  According to analysts he was eliminated because he was a burden for the Castro plan to take over power in Venezuela completely.

[i] Why did he become a burden?

[r] For even though he was self-centered, he kept the power. The army obeyed Chavez, he had the power.  That was an obstacle for the Cubans, they could not freely take all the wealth and invade the country.  He had already placed them in all institutions, infiltrated to spy on those who spied on the army, in the military intelligence services – DIM – and to spy on the army itself.

[i] Has that been confirmed?

[r] Yes, that is public and notorious. There are many reports, many people who used to work in the military intelligence services and now live abroad have confirmed this.  Anyway ….. That was the beginning of the protests but there have always been protests.

In 2014 – due to the insecurity in the country, the armed collectives, inflation, a great march was called for the unity of these political parties, the “table of democratic unity”. There were thousands of people, in Caracas a meeting of more than a million people was counted and this was copied in almost every city in Venezuela.  As always, this march was attacked by the National Guard and the army, killing many people. Leopoldo Lopez, the main opponent of the government, was accused of these deaths. A few weeks later he surrendered because he trusted in a fair trial and trusted that they would not be able to prove anything. This has led to much stronger protests throughout the country, resulting in barricades throughout the country.  There were inaccessible cities, people protesting against the whole situation.  The protests lasted several months, approximately from February to June 2014.

In the end, the dictatorship violently crushed these protests, murdered the population and killed all those who stood in their way.  In that year, after several events that endangered her life and freedom, our eldest daughter, defending her friends from the university, decided to leave the country. Her life was threatened and they threatened to take away her passport so that she would not be able to leave the country. She had already obtained her university degree, but decided to leave without getting her diploma.   She travelled to Belgium in June 2014.

We took part in all the marches, often we also went to Caracas to support the protests.

[i] Your eldest daughter, was the first in the family to leave….

Yes, she was not willing to risk her future, that they would take away her passport and take away her freedom. She decided to come to Belgium to look for a better future.

[i] She had supported her colleagues.

[r] Like most students in Venezuela and in the world, she and her peers were part of the protest groups, in our city and also in Caracas. They slept in turn in the camps, in Altavista, A sons with important buildings, the main protest area of the city, the same area where the barricades were located.  A few days before, the police and army authorities visited the city, wanted to negotiate with the student leaders, they promised not to close the streets or stop the traffic and the authorities promised not to attack them again. They would not be attacked again because they had already been attacked several times. But well ……… Like good lying soldiers, chavistas, communists, murderers … A few days after the negotiations and promises of the generals and the police leaders, in the early morning of a day the attacks on the students started, about 3 or 4 in the morning … as it is customary with the chavistas , it is the perfect hour, when everyone sleeps deep and tries to rest in their homes…..In the camp areas people were sleeping or not paying attention and then they started to evacuate the camp by force. Several of my daughter’s companions called her around 5:00 a.m. and she left alone, so we wouldn’t worry.   When she saw her friends being abused, beaten, shot, dragged away, she intervened, then a 21-year-old girl started defending them… Mayor Jose Ramon Lopez gave the order to his bodyguards to attack her.  She recorded that, you can still see the video on youtube, she uploaded it.   Then she threw away the cell phone when they were going to pick up the phone and the voices of the fight were further recorded.

Then she decided to leave, at that moment we also started planning our flight from Puerto Ordaz, we stayed in Venezuela for a while but … The next days were very bloody in Puerto Ordaz and other cities. Hercules planes and other military planes arrived and disembarked armored vehicles and motorcycles. It is believed that it was an elite command sent to crush the population.

They started shooting everyone, the boys who fled to the forest – it’s a big city and there are still wooded areas in the city – were hunted like animals, they shot them down so they couldn’t escape, they killed them. There were several young people who were wounded by bullets, who moved through the mountains for 2-3 hours to another place and when they arrived there they were immediately killed when those killers discovered them.

We participated in many of the protests, supporting the boys by bringing them food, for example, in the afternoons and evenings. Participabamos and las protestas. There was an old Spanish lady, who could not participate directly in the protests, she was 80 years old, her whole life she lived in Venezuela because she could not participate, she made 50 or 100 meals a day and a two large thermos flasks of liquor and sugar to give energy to the young people and lots of ice because the city is very hot, in Puerto Ordaz the average temperature is 45°.

The night after the incident I told you about – we had seen what had happened in the morning but the hunt was still going on – we were handing out food and seeing who we could help when I got a call from a friend priest, a friend who had studied with me for many years before he became a priest ….he told me that he had heard gunshots next to the church, shouting from young people and it seemed to him that they were shooting the young people, but he was not sure. He told us to go there because he didn’t dare to go alone.  We arrived and saw blood on the ground, a patrol passed and stopped next to us, we continued on other roads, but we couldn’t stop. We saw some boys in a dark house and stopped to see if we could help, we asked if they wanted food but they wanted us to take them out, they didn’t dare step out of the house because then they would be killed.  I was with my wife and a friend with her daughter, who always helped us with our logistic activities, we put 4 boys in the car, two in the back of the trunk and two on the lap of our friends. We closed the windows, there the cars usually have tinted windows because of the crime so they wouldn’t see inside and also because of the sun. We took the boys away, fortunately we weren’t stopped by the military patrols we encountered, I put my window down a bit, they saw me and we could drive on, otherwise they would have killed us all. Helping and rescuing young people was a punishment punishable by death or imprisonment. We managed to bring the young people to their homes. The area where they lived was closed off, full of barbed wire and barricades. It looked like a war zone, we were in civil war against the dictatorship and the rest of the world knew nothing about it.  They said they were leaving the protest zone, they were escaping, the militia were chasing them, they were fleeing, One of the patrols caught up with them and asked them to stop, because if they didn’t stop, they were going to be shot, two of them were going to stop, and those who were a little further away also stopped and saw how the soldiers got out and shot at their friends, they shot them down. The young people cried desperately in the car because of what they had seen, it was what my friend the priest had also seen.  The militia had shot in cold blood two young men who were doing nothing but fleeing for their lives.

I knew a lot of people, I called two journalist friends, acquaintances.  One is called Alicia Estaba, a journalist with a lot of experience in the city, the other is called Carlos Mora. They went to the area and the army took everything from them, their clothes, their underwear and told them to leave or they would be shot, they couldn’t film anything and they couldn’t report anything of what was happening or they went looking for them and they were going to kill them.

That was what we did that day, we managed to save 4 young people, it took us about an hour to get there, because there were barricades on each street and we had to explain to people that we were bringing young people to their homes. I got a call from another friend, he had fled too, I can’t remember what time it was, 11, 12, I lost every notion of time and many memories were blocked by the traumas. I received a phone call from a good friend, our group of friends was very much bound to each other, he had also fled and in order not to be killed he had thrown himself over the wall of a nursery for the sale of plants, next to the hospital and the church, he had heard all the cries and dared not to leave.   The soldiers kept wandering around with weapons of war and everyone who stopped was shot dead.  We couldn’t leave him there, I was alone with my wife, we left our girlfriend and her daughter at home because they didn’t want to go back to the murder zone, and we decided to go and save him.  She started crying, she didn’t want them to kill her like those other guys, and she asked us to drop her off at home. We did this and we returned to the Altavista area, we called our friend but he didn’t hear his phone because he had turned his phone on so that the military wouldn’t hear it. We made a few trips, then he called to tell us that he had seen a car that looked like ours but that he wasn’t sure and that he hadn’t come out because he was scared, finally he jumped over the fence, got in the car and we got him out.

There were many other protests like that day and ….the armed groups were very violent, had an irrational hatred of anyone who was against the government, they were armed, almost always drugged or drunk.  I was the target of an aggression in 2014, you can look it up on youtube “Chavistas attack peaceful protest in UNEXPO – Puerto Ordaz”.

I was one of the many who was attacked that day by the chavistas, they threatened to kill me because I was defending an older woman who, like all of us, was protesting, the chavistas threw her on the ground and started to beat her, she just stood there.  The university was very close to our house, about 20 – 30 meters from our front door, we opened the door to the young people who walked away so they could come in and protect themselves.  In Puerto Ordaz, the residential areas were fenced off and there were only small doors in the fences so that the people who went to work on foot could go there to take public transport. I opened those doors so that the young people could flee from the chavistas that tried to kill them. The door of our house was fired with weapons of war, the followers of Chavez drove by on a motorcycle and shot at our door, to our house. We had bullet holes from the war weapon and the FAL guns. All this has led us to make the decision to leave the country.  Unfortunately and with great sadness, we left Venezuela in September 2014.

[i] How did you get out of the country? By plane? By car?

[r] We left by plane.  We decided to try our luck in Ecuador first. We sold the cars, paid our tickets and went to Ecuador. It is very difficult to pack your whole life in 2 suitcases.  …..we each packed two suitcases and brought our dog, a small poodle that was part of our family. In Ecuador we tried it a few months before I had the Ecuadorian papers, we decided to open a restaurant, but we ran into a problem, the start of a big wave of xenophobia against Venezuelans that started all over Latin America, because of the large influx of Venezuelans fleeing to all of Latin America and the whole planet, but of course the most affected countries were those closest to Venezuela such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. After 4 or 5 months we ran out of savings, the money from the sale of the cars and the savings we could have brought with us, people didn’t come to our restaurant because we were Venezuelans, we had to close down and sell everything, so I started to prepare….I’m a lawyer, I’ve been preparing for several months to take an exam for a public position, if I had my Ecuadorian passport, to prepare for it.

I won some applications, but I was not accepted at that job because they told me that despite the fact that all the papers were in order and I was already of Ecuadorian nationality, they could not accept me because I was Venezuelan, and they could not accept that a foreigner was in a public position. I, as a lawyer, protested against this because I had the nationality of Ecuador and I finished first in all the exams, I had passed all stages of the selection, I had the right. I was told that I could try what I wanted, but that I wouldn’t succeed. I kept trying because I had no other option… I hadn’t been able to find another job ….I tried to work as a taxi driver or in cleaning, but I couldn’t because I was Venezuelan. Even with friends or family of my wife, but everything stuck to promises, finding work was impossible.  At that time there were hardly 10000 Venezuelans in Ecuador. I won a job application for a position in the agency of regulation and control of hydrocarbons, I was the first to end up in a position of assistant lawyer. It was a position intended for students of the sixth cycle of law and I went there, I won, I passed the selection interview, I was made very difficult so that I would not succeed in the trial period and would resign. But I had to work and I passed the 3 month phase, I got a permanent contract, and in the next 6 months I worked a lot and I also studied a lot, the laws on hydrocarbons, the constitution, etc. I continued to study all the legal rules. After six months there was a new boss, he compared my work with the work of the other lawyers, I had to come to his office, he wanted to talk about my work, I thought he was going to fire me, I thought I had made a mistake, but he told me that he liked my analyses, my reasoning etc and that it was therefore that they were winning things. He told me that he wanted me to be coordinator of offences at national level, I didn’t want to, he gave me 1 week to think about it, I repeated that I didn’t want to but he told me, I’m the director and I give you an order that if I didn’t accept that I should resign.

[i] Why wouldn’t you accept it?

[r] I didn’t want to check the work and files of the Ecuadorian lawyers, I accepted the position and after two months it caused a lot of problems with all the lawyers in the country, I couldn’t sign any document unless it was very well substantiated and well written.  They started opening my cabinets to steal my files, they removed the data from my computer, I had to have a backup of all my documents, my files, everything … I also started to get threats. …the president was then Correa……right, his wife is Belgian…(laughs)…. I hope you see this, Rafael Correa… [laughs].  I have seen a lot of old files and discovered a lot of irregularities, a lot of facts of corruption from different governments that were hidden….with Petroecuador and all the companies connected with Petroecuador y Petroamazonas, one company was involved in the exploitation and the exploitation and the other in the trade in hydrocarbons.     This gave me a lot of enemies, and after the threats, they wanted to accuse me of corruption. I was warned by a lawyer and by other people, I talked to my wife, I told them that I didn’t want to spend my life in prison for something I hadn’t done. Because I couldn’t work in Ecuador anymore and because the wages were very low, we made the decision to come to Belgium. It was too difficult, although I had tried, to get a job in the public sector.

[i] How long were you in Ecuador?

[r] Two years, from 2014 to 2017. Another move, we had gone to Ecuador for the convenience of the language and now we had to learn a new language, my French was very bad, I didn’t speak Dutch when I arrived here but well,  my father was Flemish and my daughter already lived here in Antwerp.

[i] Where was your father born?

[r] In Schaerbeek, but they came from a village in Flanders. They decided to move to Brussels after the First World War because my grandmother got gas from the Germans during the war when she was pregnant by my father.  The fetus suffered from this during pregnancy and the area they lived in was destroyed during the war. I don’t remember the name.
We arrived here in Belgium and started the difficult adjustment process.

[i] Did you arrive in Brussels and then go straight to Antwerp? Did anyone receive you?

[r] Yes, our daughter received us with her boyfriend. She took us to her apartment, she had already rented one for us, she started to buy some things, she helped us to make everything less traumatic. We are very grateful for all the help she gave us and the help we received from her boyfriend’s family. That was in February 2017 and we are still in the process of adjustment.  In February 2019, we have been here for 2 years and we are still in the process of adjustment.

[i] I imagine that in the beginning everything is new, to get to know the city……when did you realize that you had to start building a whole new life here?

[r] My daughter had already made the arrangements at Atlas, at the municipality, to change our address, we immediately arrived in Atlas and we were assigned a person to guide us and tell us where to study Dutch.  With my wife it took longer because she didn’t have any official documents and so she couldn’t start the lessons. She has no Belgian nationality.

[i] Did you arrive with a Belgian document and your wife? A tourist visa?

[r] I arrived in Belgium with my Belgian passport and my identity card, which I asked for at the embassy in Venezuela, and my wife with her Venezuelan passport, she did not need a visa. If you come with a European citizen, you have no problem at all. She entered without any problem as my wife.

[i] And your other two children?

[r] Pierre was already here, he finished his secondary school in Ecuador and came for us, He studied for two years in Ecuador, he arrived here in July 2017 (the wife “25 August”) yes, in August, he had finished his studies in Ecuador and his girlfriend was also visiting (laughs) and he came here in August 2017.  His sister waited for him and supported him, she had already enrolled him in the course … he had all his papers, his Belgian passport, his Belgian identity card. Although having Belgian nationality is very important for the legal issue of being here, it doesn’t matter if I have Belgian nationality, Belgian documents, Belgian name and surname and seem to be Belgian….many people don’t consider me to be Belgian because I don’t speak the language or…because I don’t speak it well…many people don’t care about it and try to help, but there are many who don’t accept it… easily.

[i] What do you notice?

[r] For example, with some colleagues……..I started working as a welder (after VDAB training) in a bus factory in Lier in June 2018. The people here in Belgium are not like those in Latin America. When someone comes to work, they introduce themselves and offer their help if necessary….here even the boss doesn’t introduce himself….I as Latino introduced myself to everyone.  Some were friendly and others not so much…..a man gave me his hand and spoke to me in dialect, when I told him that I didn’t understand him, one of the first things they teach you in the CVO is to ask people if they can talk more slowly, (laughs) he asked me “don’t you speak Dutch…?” and I told him “yes, a little but not so good” the man didn’t tell me a hello for three months and didn’t speak to me anymore because I didn’t speak Dutch. The same sentence I spoke to several other people in order to understand them, There are many people who do not like to receive people who are not Belgian. Well, I’m Belgian, but not purely Belgian or that I grew up here…. Luckily not everyone, there are a lot of good people here, bon … I don’t think these people are bad, but… I don’t understand why they don’t accept in any way someone who isn’t like them… I don’t understand.

I also imagine that they get confused when they see you, it shouldn’t be usual to see a Belgian who didn’t grow up here and who doesn’t speak the language. I guess it’s not easy to place me, it’s weird for them.

[r] I think…here in Antwerp there is more mixing of cultures, but in more remote areas where most people are Belgians, it must be more difficult for people to deal with people who are not like them. I don’t know the reason but it happens….

[i] How did that affect you?

[r] It affects of course….but we have to understand it… for example … that gentleman … who in those three months didn’t even turn around to greet me … he and others … almost 40% of the employees didn’t turn around to greet me, I insisted on greeting even though I knew she wouldn’t answer my greeting … I kept being polite because … I wanted to show them that I was just a human being like her and that they had to get used to me because I’d always be there.  Eventually I had to work with the one gentleman who was the first and whose reaction impressed me the most, I had to work with him and then he talked to me and smiled at me once (laughs) which was a great success …..he asked me that when I had finished my part of the work, I had to put it in his workstation so that he could start with his part right away, He started at 6am and I was done at 4pm. If I could be so kind as to leave my part of the work to his workstation with the work order he would be able to start his part right away at 6:00 in the morning. I told him, with a big smile, that I was going to do it, since that day he has changed and he started to greet me sometimes… but it was a change, we have to keep pushing and being friendly so that people understand that we are people like them, we are people, we are not aliens.

We are in Belgium, and if we felt more stable…. with work, although we still have to solve the problem of my wife’s documents, we felt the need to meet again with the Venezuelans and we decided to create whatsapp and facebook groups of Venezuelans in Belgium. My daughter also has a group of Venezuelans in Belgium and both groups together will have a total of more than 7000 members, not all in Belgium, some want to come and others are in other countries but need contact with other Venezuelans.

[i] How many people from Venezuela are there in Belgium?

[r] The asylum statistics show that around 450 asylum applications were submitted in 2017. Usually only half of the applications are approved, with the possibility for those rejected to lodge an appeal. This year 2018 the quantity has increased significantly, according to EU documents the increase is estimated at 40 or 50% so far this year, according to EU statistics. The country in Europe that receives the most asylum applications is Spain because of its language…..Belgium is one of the first three countries in Europe to receive Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Here we have contact with Venezuelans, because of the groups we now have new friends, families. Some asylum seekers and others have come with employment contracts. The Venezuelan is very cheerful, we always meet, to celebrate birthdays, to celebrate Christmas. A friend, for example, organized a meal to support a soup kitchen for Venezuelan children living in extreme poverty.  She sends the funds there through some Belgian Jesuit priests. There are also groups of Latinos and Venezuelans in Belgium who collect essential medicines to send to Venezuela, medicines are very scarce in Venezuela. These are the activities that we do, directly or indirectly, with the group. Why visit Venezuelans? Maybe to find the warmth of the Venezuelans that I think is the happiest group in the world……even in unfavorable situations, the Venezuelan makes a joke, a Venezuelan may be dying and the last thing he does will be a joke, this makes us feel good, feel better, feel more at home, …..the majority of Venezuelans live in Wallonia because it is easier to learn French, when people do not know another language, because of the Latin origin.  Learning Dutch is more difficult, although there is more work in Flanders and wages are high, the Venezuelan has a tendency to settle in Wallonia. Even those who apply for asylum… When they get it, they are usually assigned to Wallonia.

[i] Do Venezuelans from both regions come together? Is there much talk about the situation in Venezuela?

[r] Yes, we are talking about it, for example, we have some friends who have arrived recently, they were granted asylum very quickly, the fastest I have ever seen, in a matter of a week.

[i] And why so fast?

[r] Because they were linked to the case of police officer Oscar Perez, who was slaughtered by Maduro’s dictatorship, they were linked to a person around him and his house in Venezuela was raided many times. Luckily they managed to escape and provided so much evidence that asylum was granted immediately, they had so much evidence that their application was accepted immediately, the parents and their three children ….they were always connected to political activities and that is very dangerous in Venezuela. We met another person, a man from an Andean city, a man who was a trader, I can’t give his name…his life is still in danger. He made many reports of irregularities, the Chavista mayor of his city stole a lot of the money that was allocated to the city. His life is still in danger. He discovered many irregularities, he also helped groups protest in his city. The police went to his home to pick him up and he fled on foot across the Colombian border and in Colombia friends lent him money to come to Belgium.

[i] Is his life here also in danger?

[r] Yes, the dictatorship has tentacles all over the world.  There are police officers from the political police who send the regime to gather information about people fleeing to frighten them, to give an example that you can’t run away from the revolution and it’s always dangerous ……… Some people prefer to hide their identity and their location to prevent them from being slaughtered by the regime, even outside the country.

[i] And you are still afraid of your life or the life of your family?

[r] No, not here in Belgium. I was afraid for the life of my wife and especially for the life of my children there in Venezuela.

[i] Not here?

[r] No, not here, it is very quiet and safe here…and that is what we were looking for when we left Venezuela, to have peace, to be able to live peacefully as a family, not to be persecuted to be killed or to be imprisoned, that is what we were looking for…. peace.

[i] What do you expect for Venezuela in the medium term?

[r] I always hope it ends, sometimes when the night is darkest, the sun rises.  The country has been destroyed, the structure of the state, the economy, the industry, the mentality of many Venezuelans……they have armed many delinquents, cleaning up the society in Venezuela is not easy, maybe it takes 5 to 10 years to clean up the economy, but cleaning up the population can take 15, 20 or 30 years… that’s the most difficult part. That the country is changing and we can return is something we don’t know now, we don’t know what we will do at that moment, one always dreams to return to his country, his house, but the house and home is where the family is … we have children and if they are already settled here and have family here, then it will be harder for us to return to Venezuela. It all depends on the future.

[i] Good luck and thank you [name].

[r] Thank you very much.