How the U.S. Drove Venezuelans North

A relentless history of U.S. imperialism and anti-socialism brought thousands of migrants to the floors of Chicago police stations.

Lilian Jiménez

A man bottle-feeds an infant among strollers and sleeping bags.
A migrant father from Venezuela feeds his 15-month-old son in the lobby of a police station where their family has been staying since their arrival to Chicago on May 9, 2023. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lea este artículo en Español.

This is part one of a two-part interview.

In the last week of August 2022, as head of the Illinois Welcoming Centers and State Refugee Coordinator, I went to meet a bus of migrants that had been sent to Chicago from Texas. They arrived with no familial connections and nowhere to go. They would be the first of thousands.

The federal government decided to stay on the sidelines, so the community and aid organizations that have long served the Latine community and displaced refugees and asylum seekers met the moment. Partnering with the city and state, those groups provided food, hotel rooms, shelter, case management, legal services, housing and rental assistance.

The buses slowed that winter, and at the end of 2022, the state shifted to focus on resettlement and the city stepped up. But when Title 42 was lifted this May, the buses started coming faster again. Two-thirds of the more than 340 buses have arrived since May 12. In total, the city estimates that Chicago has seen almost 20,000 new arrivals since August 2022. Most are from Central and South America, and many are from Venezuela or have some connection to Venezuela.

Right now more than 3,000 are sleeping on the floors of police stations; others are at overflowing shelters. Their presence has provoked both an outpouring of mutual aid and also an outcry over the use of city resources in a city that has long shortchanged poor and Black and Latine communities. The city’s plans to shelter the migrants in winter have been controversial and remain up in the air.

On a sidewalk in front of a brick wall, a woman pulls a suitcase and a man carries a toddler on his shoulders.
A migrant family from Venezuela arrives with their belongings at a police station in Chicago on May 9. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

To understand more about the roots of the crisis and what can be done, I spoke with two people who are experts on both Venezuela and Chicago, Jesus Rodriguez Espinoza and Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

Rodriguez Espinoza served as Consul General of Venezuela in Chicago from 2008 to 2017. He then returned to Venezuela and founded OrinocoTri​bune​.com, a socialist, anti-imperialist website that covers Venezuelan, Latin American and world issues in English from a Chavista perspective.

Ginsberg-Jaeckle is a longtime Chicago organizer who cofounded Southside Together Organizing for Power and led a multi-year fight against the closure of Chicago mental health clinics. Currently he organizes with United Working Families. As a Spanish-English interpreter and translator, he has also long supported language justice work for movement groups in Chicago and Latin America. He lived in Honduras for a number of years and was close with the indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016.

We spoke about how the migrant crisis in Chicago springs from decades of U.S. neoliberalism both municipally and globally.

Lilian: For many in Chicago, four or five months ago was when we first heard about the increase in migrants coming over the border. Not the typical migrants that we see in Chicago, who tend to be from Mexico and Central America, but an increase of migrants traveling dangerous terrains on foot, coming from South America and particularly Venezuela. And those migrants really came into focus for a lot of people when Republican governors began bussing them to Washington, D.C., and New York, and then later to Chicago.

When we talk about the reason people leave their country of origin, many times it can be political, economic or a combination. For whatever they have lost the ability to live the kind of life they had once lived. And what we’re hearing is that many of these migrants are motivated to leave a really dire situation in Venezuela. What I really want to understand from you is where this story begins. How far back do we need to go in U.S. history, in Venezuelan history, in South American history to understand this moment?

Matt: You know, I am a longtime Chicago organizer and also had a foot in the world of Latin American solidarity, and always worked to bring those two worlds together. And now they’ve come together — maybe not the way we expected — and it’s in our face. 

From the beginning, from Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998, you started to see U.S. attempts to destabilize the Chavista project. A U.S.-involved coup attempt in 2002 was reversed by a popular uprising. When that didn’t work, a lot of our tax dollars started going to opposition groups like Súmate that were trying to destabilize the Chávez government, including during periods of particularly violent protest, when people were sometimes burned in the streets for being Black and therefore assumed to be government supporters.

And it still wasn’t working. And so when Chávez died of cancer in 2013, the U.S. said, Now is our moment,” and started to ramp up targeted sanctions to support the opposition. 

And yet those were still not working. And then Trump comes in and says essentially, Obama, you’re a weak imperialist. Let me show you how Imperialism is done.” He turns those targeted sanctions into sweeping sanctions in an attempt to completely suffocate the Venezuelan economy. 

And he also provides diplomatic cover for a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, to proclaim himself president, although he was unelected and unrecognized by the elected government of Venezuela.

Protesters walk through the streets of New York with signs saying "No U.S. empire No blood for oil" and depicting the United States as an octopus strangling Venezuela.
Protesters march down Wall Street in New York City to oppose U.S. intervention in Venezuela on February 23, 2019, as the U.S.-backed, self-declared president Juan Guaidó tried to seize power from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress

Guaidó then uses the pretext of the U.S. recognizing him in order to seize control of Venezuela’s biggest foreign asset, Citgo Petroleum Corporation. Many of us have filled our cars at Citgos in Chicago and other places in the U.S. and don’t realize that’s Venezuelan oil. Citgo was a generator of about $2 billion in annual revenue for social programs and for the Venezuelan government. That seizure also helped suffocate the Venezuelan economy. 

And actually, right now, as we speak, U.S. oil companies Chevron and ConocoPhillips, claiming they were harmed when Venezuela reclaimed its natural resources for its own people, are now standing in the corporate welfare line while a court in Delaware gets ready to seize Citgo’s assets and pay them billions of dollars.

So that’s a broad sweeping picture.

Jesus: A good one, by the way! Another way that the U.S. was involved in destabilizing the governments of Chávez and Maduro was through a massive exodus of Venezuelans to other parts of South America starting five or six years ago. The Lima Group, a coalition of mostly right-wing governments in the region, was playing the tune Washington asked them to play: that Venezuelans were escaping a communist dictatorship, and that this was a humanitarian crisis. Presidents of those governments — mainly Chile, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador — for several years openly invited Venezuelans to migrate. They even accepted Venezuelans without documents, without passports or with expired IDs.

If you live in Venezuela, you notice immediately how the migration of professionals and working people has affected the quality in services, the quality in education, the quality in everything. We lost people that knew how to build things, how to fix things, how to educate, how to cure. That lack affects the economy terribly. It is catastrophic, if you ask me.

All these U.S. and European attacks against Venezuela, all the sanctions, have been a failed attempt to get rid of Chavismo — by getting rid of Chávez at the time, or Maduro right now. And they haven’t been able to achieve that because Chavismo is something very solid. It’s not just a party or a person, it’s a movement. It’s something very rooted in Venezuelan — I don’t know the word in English—idiosincrasia.

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Matt: For readers who might not be as familiar with some of the history, it’s important to point out that the reason that Venezuela became Public Enemy No. 1 for successive administrations, from Bush through Obama, through Trump, and now into Biden, has to do with it breaking a longstanding pattern of what’s called the Monroe Doctrine. This is the assumption that Latin American governments are primarily subservient to U.S. pressures and U.S. corporate interests in the region. Other than Cuba, Venezuela was really the first to openly break from that doctrine. And not just break it, but to foment a process in the region of beginning to seek independence from U.S. dictates.

Remember that this was after the 2008 financial meltdown of the United States. In the aftermath, we saw all kinds of uprisings around the globe where the previously assumed consensus around neoliberal economics was beginning to fade away. There was Occupy Wall Street on our streets here, and in Latin America, first Venezuela and eventually Bolivia with Evo Morales, Brazil with Lula and Ecuador with Rafael Correa were saying, We also reject neoliberalism. We also think that this has been an imposition that’s not about serving people’s interests, but about serving corporate interests.” And so in the face of these domestic and foreign pressures, the U.S. ramped up an effort to do what it’s done in Latin America for years, which is to try to destabilize the governments that aren’t in favor of its interests. Principle amongst those is Venezuela, because in addition to its political posture it has those oil resources and that economic power to help make independence possible for other countries in the region.

Lilian: I have to ask — when I talk to people and I tell them some of these broad strokes, people say, Well, why are migrants coming here right now at this time from Venezuela? Isn’t Maduro a dictator, doesn’t he oppress his own people? Aren’t people leaving because of that?” So I have to pose the question. What do you say to that?

Jesus: I believe that that’s mostly U.S. propaganda, repeated ad nauseam by mainstream media. I mean, Venezuela is not perfect, but no country is perfect. I actually believe that human rights and civil rights in Venezuela are better respected than in the majority of Latin American countries. When you dig deep, you usually don’t find anything solid to support that we do not have free and fair elections in Venezuela.

I actually believe that what happened in the U.S. with Trump (I’m not a fan, by the way) is way more regretful than the issue that Washington is raising about the disqualification of opposition politicians in Venezuela. Disqualifications are legal procedures that happen in many countries. In the case of far-right candidates like [María Corina] Machado or [Henrique] Capriles, those disqualifications are pretty old, and no one can allege they were issued in a rush before the 2024 presidential race. [Editor’s note: Capriles’ disqualification dates back to 2017; Machado received a 12-month disqualification in 2015 and a 15-year ban this June.] In Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and many other countries, disqualification has been the rule against socialist and progressive candidates with very real chances of winning elections, but mainstream media say nothing because they are not candidates blessed by the United States.

I usually laugh when Washington talks about free and fair” elections in Venezuela, because immediately what comes to mind is that they (the U.S.) just want an election where Chavismo decides not to participate and lets the opposition win. They basically want us to commit political suicide and not try to be in power like any political movement aspires to. That’s my opinion, but of course, I’m biased.

Matt: Like Jesus said, I don’t think anybody would say that there’s been no mistakes made. As with any attempt to take the machinations of government and these complex structures that were set up primarily to serve corporate greed, and to try to turn them in a different direction to serve people’s interests, that is a process replete with contradictions. But as far as the narrative [about Maduro being a dictator], that’s completely determined based on U.S. foreign interests.

We were not just defending and providing diplomatic cover for the dictator of Honduras—we were also funding him. And so that's where you see this double standard.

An interesting contrast is to look at the last time we saw major waves of migrants at the border. Many of the famous children in cages in 2018, etc., were Hondurans, right? And up until 2021, the president of Honduras was the inheritor of a coup-installed dictatorship who was plundering the public health system and using a military police force (one funded by the U.S.) to shoot down and kill protesters in the street. He is now actually in jail because he has been discovered to be a drug trafficker whose brother was literally stamping his initials on packets of cocaine headed to the United States. And yet, this was one of the top U.S. allies in the region during the exact same time that we were demonizing every single thing taking place in Venezuela. We were not just defending and providing diplomatic cover for the dictator of Honduras — we were also funding him. And so that’s where you see this double standard. 

Lilian: There have been some recent developments in diplomacy between the U.S. and Venezuela, as well as a Washington Post report that the U.S. is weighing lifting some oil sanctions in exchange for electoral reforms. Can you talk about those, Jesus?

Jesus: President Maduro actually rejected the WaPo report. Venezuela does not need electoral reforms, despite U.S. propaganda.

On Tuesday, two agreements were signed in Barbados between the opposition delegation and the Venezuelan government delegation. In these negotiations Venezuela of course is looking for the lifting of illegal sanctions, and many things can happen.

The more relevant development is that earlier this month the Venezuelan and U.S. governments announced an agreement to repatriate Venezuelan migrants. This is interesting because it plays in the direction of the U.S. finally recognizing Maduro’s government. And it might represent (I hope) a small shift of the U.S. policy toward Venezuelan migrants. Currently that policy is very, very similar to the wet feet, dry feet policy that was applied for Cubans for many decades. 

And Lilian, here I want to go back to something you said about refugees. Because that’s an important distinction. International organizations allied with the U.S. talk about Venezuelan refugees. The narrative of refugees plays in favor of a U.S. political agenda that tries to portray them as people escaping a communist dictatorship. 

If you go deep into the cases of many of those migrants, they are not political refugees, they are just economic migrants. 

The Venezuelan economy, at least for the last two years, has been growing a little bit, recovering from years of U.S. aggression. But prior to that, millions of emigrants had already moved to the south of South America: to Colombia, to Ecuador, to Bolivia, to Chile, to Peru, to escape the economic conditions that we were facing in Venezuela. And after several years there, they began to experience xenophobia, labor exploitation, mistreatment, all the bleak stuff that migrants face. Many have decided to come back to Venezuela when they saw that the economic situation was improving a little bit, but I believe that an important part of them have decided to move north because they have some certainty that they will receive asylum in the U.S.

When they request asylum in the United States, migrants have to say something against their government. But everyone in the Venezuelan community knows that it’s a lie. Venezuelan comedians in Florida, like George Harris, joke about the Venezuelans lying to the migration people just in order to receive asylum. 

Lilian: People ask me all the time, because of my background as an immigration lawyer and former Illinois State Refugee Coordinator, what the difference is between refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and I honestly have to tell them it really depends on U.S. foreign policy. 

Most migrants are not granted asylum protection, which leads to legal residency and citizenship. U.S. foreign policy, federal immigration policy and ultimately immigration courts determine who is entitled to refugee and asylum protection based on what the U.S. deems is political persecution. And that is colored by what type of relationship the U.S. has with the ruling party in the country migrants are coming from. And migrants who cannot show concrete evidence that they suffered persecution may eventually fall into the undocumented” category like so many Mexicans and Central Americans, including many of my family members that have lived in the U.S. for decades.

The truth is that we don’t always know the individual reasons why a person is migrating. There can be one reason or multiple reasons. I think it’s important to give everybody an opportunity to plead their case and to explain what their background and their history is, especially if it is related to something as important as legal status and one’s ability to work and survive in this country. 

Jesus: Part of the complexity of the issue is that Venezuela has historically been a migrant recipient country, similar in scale to the U.S. Between 1970 and 2010 we received millions of Colombians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians. Many of the Venezuelan migrants who are now in Colombia are descendants of Colombians that arrived in Venezuela in the 70s or the 80s or 90s. It’s important to analyze this because many of those migrants have dual citizenship, Colombian and Venezuelan. And they know that if they cross the U.S. border with the Venezuelan passport, they will have more chances to be granted asylum than if they use the Colombian or the Peruvian or the Ecuadorian passport.

Lilian: Yes, that’s another complexity that is not talked about and not discussed. Even when I talked to some of the first few families to arrive in Chicago back in August 2022, as head of the Illinois Welcoming Centers, I was interested to hear that while many were Venezuelan nationals, at times there would be three, four or five different nationalities represented in any given family. People said, Well, you know, I’m Colombian, he’s Venezuelan, but actually our child was born in Ecuador.” 

And now, we have the current decision of the Biden administration to issue Temporary Protected Status only for foreign nationals from Venezuela, leaving out migrants from many other countries that have arrived in Chicago in the last few months, including large numbers from Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Honduras, Angola and Mauritania. 

Jesus: To add to all that we’ve discussed so far, the actions of the governors of Florida and Texas are the last link in a bigger chain, but I believe that it’s important to highlight them. The waves of Venezuelan migrants in New York or in Chicago is the direct result of a Republican policy to try to disrupt the traditional flow of migrants. I don’t believe that those Venezuelans that you find in the streets of Chicago or New York decided by themselves to go there. But the internal U.S. political dynamics are putting them there and making them more vulnerable to anything.

Lilian: The legal term that we’ve heard before is trafficking. 

Jesus: Right, exactly. Human trafficking. I believe that’s what those governors in Florida and Texas are doing; at least that’s my impression. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read part two here.

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Illinois State Rep. Lilian Jiménez (D-4th) is an attorney who has focused her work on labor and immigration policy and advocacy. She is a former Chief of Staff for Jesús Chuy Garcia at the Cook County Board of Commissioners and previously served as the Director of the Fair Labors Standards Division of the Illinois Department of Labor. Most recently Jiménez served as the administrator for the Office of Welcoming Centers for Refugee and Immigrant Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services. 

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