Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Ana Gil-Garcia, 60, Venezuelan-American and Northeastern Illinois University professor.

When I came to Chicago 21 years ago, there were probably less than 70 Venezuelans in Chicago. Right now, the number is unlimited. When you go to a restaurant, ask whoever is serving you, and you will find a Venezuelan.

I lived in Venezuela when the government was stable, when it was one of the flagships of democracy in Latin America. It was a refuge for many people coming from Argentina, from Chile, from Colombia.

When I left the country to come and work here in the United States, it was 1996, two years before [Hugo] Chávez came to power. At the time, the oil money was coming into Venezuela in big chunks. People were feeling like, “OK, we have this poor class that hasn’t got any chance to get into the middle class.” And Chávez came with this discourse, saying, “I’m rescuing the poor.”

Chavez was trained in the military, and for me, a person that is trained with such a philosophy only has one way of thinking. Because of him, the Socialist Party came to power and has remained in power. It has become a dictator type of government. A year after his inauguration, he was changing the constitution to give himself more powers. He created this sense of division in the country: “If you’re not with me, you are my enemy.” He was obsessed about how to get all the institutions under his control. Freedom of expression immediately started getting cut. Cuba had a lot to do with this—it became the number one adviser of Venezuela. Fidel [Castro] finally found somebody who really went along with his ideas about dominating Latin America. Chávez was the perfect puppet. Maybe that looks familiar, right?

Chávez then died, and [Nicolás] Maduro came to power. Maduro used to be a bus driver, and from being a bus driver he went to be president of the country. His government has started controlling all the communication systems—the government closed TV stations, the government closed radio stations, the government closed newspapers. CNN was thrown out of the country. There have been already dozens of people killed in the streets protesting for freedom. We have politicians in prison right now, we have business people in prison right now, and the only crime is that they think differently from the government and have been very vocal.

I do not represent any political party in Venezuela. I’m just the voice of the opposition. I am organizing protests in front of the Venezuelan consulate here. I have organized forums at universities, calling for attention. Just today, a woman contacted me and said, “I just arrived from Venezuela, and I don’t have any place to stay in Chicago, could you help me?” I said, “OK, I can have you for a week, and then we can place you somewhere.” That’s the day-to-day thing now.

I know that it’s going to be very difficult for the country to recover; it will take years and years and years. I am very worried about not only my family in Venezuela, but everybody’s family there. When they don’t have toilet paper, when they can’t go to a supermarket, yes, of course I have to be worried. Everything I’ve seen, I’m gonna tell you, that has scared me a lot, a lot.   v