MONTREAL — Rebecca Sarfatti, a Toronto-based activist originally from Venezuela, says the retirement income her mother living in Caracas receives every month doesn’t cover the cost of bread and cheese for more than two days.
“Meat has not been seen in a long while,” she said in an interview Thursday from Toronto. “Fish — forget about it. People are relying on grains and rice and whatever they can find.”
Sarfatti is part of the Venezuelan diaspora in Canada looking anxiously at the political turmoil in their home country. But she is holding out hope that the 35-year-old opposition lawmaker who has declared himself interim president, Juan Guaido, can restore democracy in Venezuela.
On Wednesday, violence flared once again in the South American country and at least 12 people were reported killed in the escalating confrontation with President Nicolas Maduro, who has drawn increasing international criticism.
Guaido, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said Wednesday in Caracas, that his taking power is the only way to end the Maduro “dictatorship” in Venezuela, which has seen millions flee in recent years to escape sky-high inflation and food shortages.
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Canada, the United States and many Latin American countries quickly announced support for Guaido. But other countries, including Russia, Turkey, China, Iran and Syria, are backing Maduro.
Soraya Venitez, a Montreal artist and activist originally from Venezuela, participated in a protest Wednesday against the Maduro government. It was one of many rallies held in Canadian cities and around the world in response to an appeal from Venezuela’s National Assembly to take to the streets.
Venitez, who works with a lobby and aid organization called the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, said when she announced at the protest that Guaido had declared himself to be interim leader, people had tears in their eyes. “There is hope now. It’s a big window of hope that has been opened,” she said. “We want to rebuild our country.”
Venitez, like Sarfatti, has family members all over the world who have left the deteriorating political climate in Venezuela. Two of Venitez’s female relatives recently fled Venezuela and travelled “for days” to Peru by bus and on foot, she said.
“One is 23 years old and the other is 25 years old,” she said. “They are working now in Peru and sending money back to their families.”
Sarfatti, also with the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, said her mother is lucky because she owns her home and has a relative with a job living with her who helps pay expenses. Many others aren’t as fortunate, she said, adding that the price of basic foodstuffs increases so quickly due to inflation that the cost of cheese could almost double within 24 hours.
She said the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum raises money to get supplies into Venezuelan public hospitals. Members send aid packages by boat, which reach her group’s network of doctors and human rights workers. They store the supplies in private homes until they can be smuggled into hospitals. Sarfatti says the material needs to be brought in clandestinely because if not, it will be stolen.
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“There are no official channels” that would allow her group to send aid openly, she said. “I know it sounds crazy, but this is the reality.”
While Canada and others have supported Guaido, Venezuela’s top military brass pledged their support for Maduro on Thursday, delivering vows of loyalty before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.
In an address Thursday, Maduro recalled the long history of heavy-handed U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War as he asked his allies for support. “Don’t trust the gringos,” he thundered to a crowd of redshirted followers. “They don’t have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, the nerve and the ambition to take Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold.”
Sarfatti said she recognizes that being aligned with the United States in support of Guaido gives ammunition to Maduro supporters who claim his critics are tools of an imperialist power. But she said the support of Canada and other Latin American countries for Guaido shows the opposition is much broader.
“We appreciate the support of the world,” she said. “But at the end of the road, it’s us who have to step up. Our leaders have to step up and stand straight against this evil.”