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As foreign minister speaks at UN blocks away, Venezuelan asylum-seekers strain New York City


NEW YORK (AP) — Ysamar López stood beneath the old hotel's canopy, exploring New York City's unfamiliar streets on Google Maps and making a plan to set out into the rain.

The Venezuelan woman arrived late the prior evening after a two-day bus ride from Texas capping weeks of overland travel. She had no idea her country’s foreign minister was about to speak at the United Nations a few blocks away. She had installed herself and her two small children in a room inside, got them fed and had a medical check, and now she was focused on finding warm clothing.

“Thank God, nothing bad has happened, but I’m waiting for a solution to see if they leave me here or send me somewhere else,” said López, 33, as her 3-year old son with big green eyes and a runny nose clung to her. “But we’re OK, we’re doing OK.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil’s speech Saturday comes only days after a U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights violations in Venezuela reported that the South American country’s government has intensified efforts to limit democratic freedoms with threats, surveillance and harassment as President Nicolás Maduro faces re-election in 2024.

The Roosevelt Hotel, a once stately hotel occupying an entire midtown block a stone’s throw from Grand Central Station, is now a center for asylum-seekers and a symbol of the city's struggle to absorb a crush of migrants – most of whom hail from Venezuela. More than 60,000 Venezuelans have arrived over the past year.

As they stream in, city officials have scrambled to open new emergency shelters, turning to tent facilities, school gyms and parks to comply with a state law requiring housing for the homeless. There has been increasingly dire rhetoric from Mayor Eric Adams, who warned this month that the migrant crisis would “destroy New York City.”

A complex crisis that began during the last decade has pushed millions of Venezuelans into poverty and at least 7.3 million to migrate. These days, the minimum wage paid in bolivars is the equivalent of $3.80 per month, down from $30 in April 2022, when it was last raised.

Millions of teachers, professors and public employees earn the minimum wage plus bonuses, often turning to side hustles or remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet. Others, such as older retirees, depend entirely on their pensions, which are equal to the minimum wage, and the occasional bonus.

In its latest report, the three-member international fact-finding mission authorized by the U.N. Human Rights Council said the government shifted tactics since the COVID-19 pandemic, which marked the end of mass opposition demonstrations and extensive arrests and torture of protesters.

Now, according to the report, authorities are increasingly repressing specific members of civil society, including politicians, labor leaders, journalists, human rights defenders and other real or perceived opponents. The targets have been subjected to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.

The most infamous institution for political prisoners is the Helicoide, in the capital Caracas. It resembles an urban version of a terraced rice paddy, with its various paved levels ascending to an Epcot-esque dome.

On Tuesday, activists in New York’s Times Square gave passers-by the opportunity to venture behind the fearsome walls of the Helicoide — more specifically a re-creation based on former detainees' experiences. Users donned virtual reality headsets for a five-minute immersive experience of the Helicoide's conditions; protesters wore black shirts reading “CLOSE THE TORTURE CENTERS.”

International human rights organizations have also criticized the United Nations, Maduro’s government and the opposition for delays in establishing a much-hyped, roughly $3 billion fund to finance health, food and education programs for Venezuela’s poor. Venezuelan assets frozen because of the economic sanctions were to be funneled to the fund, which the U.N. will manage, but it is yet to materialize.

Human Rights Watch last month blamed the lack of progress on Maduro government for not identifying the country’s frozen assets abroad; foreign governments and banks for not quickly releasing identifying assets; and the U.N. for not opening the fund itself. The human rights organization said the U.S. government took six months to agree it would shield the humanitarian fund from creditors looking for Venezuelan money to cover debts.

“The Maduro government, the opposition, the United Nations, and the Biden administration need to act swiftly and transparently to ensure aid for Venezuelans,” Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month. “The millions of Venezuelans with dire humanitarian needs have no time to lose.”

Their struggles at home drive them to seek refuge elsewhere. An early challenge in their exodus is the perilous Darien Gap, which connects South America to Central America. Earlier this year, two U.N. groups said the number of migrants crossing through the jungle area between Colombia and Panama could soar to as many as 400,000 this year.

Many of those who make it through find themselves weeks or months later at an altogether different destination: The Roosevelt. On Wednesday, Adams told local television channel NY1 that there was still time for Joe Biden, in town for the U.N. General Assembly, to visit The Roosevelt, as a delegation of congressional representatives including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had done days earlier.

The president returned to Washington without going to The Roosevelt. But on Thursday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayork announced temporary legal status for an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who had arrived in the country as of July 31, making it easier for them to get authorization to work in the U.S. That has been a key demand of Democratic mayors and governors who are struggling to care for an increased number of migrants in their care.

At The Roosevelt on Thursday, one Venezuelan couple with a baby was on their way out, having been instructed to head a shelter in lower Manhattan. They donned layers of clothing, shouldered their laden bags and the father draped his leather jacket over the baby in the stroller. The blowing wind sent rain sneaking sideways under umbrellas on the street, but the couple didn’t have one for protection anyway.

Lopez, the mother who had just arrived and herself had passed through Darien Gap, was looking on her phone for a store that asylum workers had recommended; it would have cheap coats for her children. But she first wanted to see if she a church might have donated clothing. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was just a few blocks away and she would try there.

“It has been almost two months that I’ve been going through all this,” she said. “It was a little hard, but we came through it with God. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.”

Across the street from the St. Patrick’s Cathedral is Venezuela’s one-time consulate, now closed – the upshot of a power struggle between U.S.-backed Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s leader in 2019 following Maduro’s widely considered sham reelection the previous year.

The consulate’s flag is still on the pole outside but, left unattended, it has twisted itself up with its pole. One of the façade’s glass panels is gone, replaced by plywood. Signs displayed on remaining panels call attention to the misery in Venezuela, noting that millions of people have been forced to leave.

“The crisis in Venezuela is worse than ever,” they read. “Keep your eyes on Venezuela.”


Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.