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What Led One Venezuelan Protester To Finally Leave His Country

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Venezuela is in political upheaval. The authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro is holding onto power while politicians inside his country backed by the United States tried to force him out.

It has taken years to get to this moment. And through that time, we've been checking in with a man named Carlos. We've only used his first name out of concern for his safety. The first time we talked with him was in June of 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS: The food situation is pretty extreme. I cannot find basic food. I mean, no rice, no chicken. Fruits are very expensive. So what has really shocked me is that this past year, you can see in every street of the city, there is somebody in the garbage looking for food. And it's not a homeless person. It's a regular guy, dressed up normally with a backpack or with a working suitcase, looking for food in the garbage.

SHAPIRO: Carlos used to be a tour guide. As tourism in the country dried up, he started marching in the streets every day with thousands of other Venezuelans.

By the time we talked with him six months later, in December of 2017, the protests against Maduro had stopped. Carlos told my co-host Robert Siegel it was just too dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS: The violence by the government increased so much. The police would come and fire to the protesters, either rubber bullets or real bullets.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Live rounds.

CARLOS: Yeah. It got pretty, pretty violent, so people got pretty scared.

SHAPIRO: And Carlos told us then that his hopes for the future of his country had faded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS: We believed before that we were able to make a change. Now I don't feel I can make a change, and neither do the people in the streets feel they can make a change. Once we get a job outside Venezuela, we're going to leave. I mean, it's like just - the last one can turn the light off.

SHAPIRO: That was just over a year ago.

Now, the opposition to President Maduro has the best chance it's ever had to unseat him. Opposition leader Juan Guaido has powerful allies, including the United States and the European Union. And so we have reached out to Carlos once more. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CARLOS: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You are no longer in Venezuela. Where are you living right now?

CARLOS: Well, actually, I've been living in Belgium for three months. I had the very good luck to have very good friends in Europe who have been looking after me all this time. And they made me an offer that I couldn't reject to come to live with them, and they would pay, also, for my plane ticket. Very, very generous, loving friends of mine. I couldn't say no.

And with a lot of pain, I had to leave my country, leave my family. Only my parents are there. My two sisters already left. I felt that ship was sinking, and my sisters and me, we were like, leave the country first so we can help my parents maybe leave, or I might go back if things change, but I don't know. It's a lot of uncertainties (ph) for the time.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about that decision to leave Venezuela after all of this time, having lived there your entire life. You're now in your late 30s. You say the offer to move to Belgium was one you couldn't refuse, but it was also a difficult decision.

CARLOS: No, of course. I didn't want to leave. I work in tourism in Venezuela. And also, I'm an actor and architect. But the TV stations closed up, so there was no more work for an actor. My tourism company would depend always on how the streets were. And if their protests exploded like it does now, we were out of a job from one day to another.

So these great, great, loving friends of mine - they told me to come to Belgium as a tourist, of course, for the beginning. And now, we're asking for a student permit so I can stay as a student. And therefore, I can work as a student for a part-time job.

So it's like figuring out, but it's very, very hard and painful for me, for my late 30s, to begin from zero in another country. And it's, like, frustrating.

SHAPIRO: What is daily life like for your parents? They're getting older, and it seems like the situation in Venezuela is getting progressively more difficult.

CARLOS: Yeah. Actually, my mother - she's 60, and she tells me every day that she doesn't see a future there anymore. But my father - he has a little - hopes more down. I think he's depressed as well because he feels like, at 59, he's not able to start from zero. And my sisters and I would tell him every day that, yes, he can start from zero, that he must find the strength to leave the country. But they don't want to.

Every day for them, it's like wait in lines to buy food, or manage to change some dollars that we send them to bolivars to buy food in the black markets, buy medicine at a black market because you don't find anything in the supermarket. My father started planting at home vegetables so it wouldn't be so hard to go to the supermarket to find them. And, well, now, they're protesting every morning.

SHAPIRO: Which is why we're not using your last name, out of concern for their safety.

CARLOS: Thank you. Thank you, because, yes. So every day, I write with them to check if they were back OK at home after the protest because you never know what's going to happen.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to get your perspective on the political developments of the last month. Right now, Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, is recognized by the U.S., Europe, many other countries as Venezuela's interim president. They've declared Maduro an illegitimate leader. How do you view all of this?

CARLOS: Well, for us, it's great. Guaido is our hero right now. He's very clean, very honest. He went to school with a friend of mine, so we think he's a fresh start for us as interim president. And we're very, very happy. And we're, as well, shocked with all the support of international countries.

Not all Europe is supportive. For example, Italy does not support us - Guaido. There is a lot of things going on. There's a lot of diplomacy. There's a lot of negotiation. Of course, I'm not current of all of it.

SHAPIRO: Juan Guaido has called for massive protests in Venezuela tomorrow. Is it hard for you not to be there?

CARLOS: Yes. My parents are going, so I've been checking up with them today. But we hope this protest is - seal part of the pressure. We need the military to buck up on us because currently, the military are with Maduro, and they are the tipping point to change everything.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to play a clip from the last time we spoke to you in December of 2017, when you said your hope for the country had faded but was not entirely gone. This is what you said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS: This little hope that I have - this little spark of hope is, every time, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It hasn't gone all out yet, so I'm counting on that.

SHAPIRO: How's that little spark doing today?

CARLOS: Well, that little spark - I think it turned up again this month. It's very funny that now, with all my friends - most of them, they lived abroad for the same situation. And now we're joking like, OK, who's going back first? So there's, like, this crazy energy going on with all Venezuelans abroad. I saw the video of a Venezuelan shoveling snow, singing that he was going back to Venezuela, back to the sun once things change.

SHAPIRO: That's an incredible level of optimism.

CARLOS: Yes. It changed from the most pessimist from months ago to now very optimistic. But we are very - well, I'm scared all this optimism - to fade away. We hope not because I think Guaido's plans, if it doesn't work out, I really don't know what to think. I haven't even thought about it.

SHAPIRO: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us. We really appreciate it.

CARLOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURS AND 9TH WONDER SONG, "TALE OF TWO CITIES")

SHAPIRO: Carlos is a Venezuelan who we've been checking in with several times over the last 18 months. Now living in Belgium, he's one of about 3 million Venezuelans who have fled that country since 2015.

And tomorrow on Weekend Edition, some of the security forces that back President Nicolas Maduro are wavering. We hear from a Venezuelan police officer considering whether to switch sides and join the opposition. You can ask your smart speaker to play NPR or your station by name.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURS AND 9TH WONDER SONG, "TALE OF TWO CITIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.