Andrés León: On Surviving in Venezuela & Seeking Asylum in the United States
“God, what did I do wrong?"
This is a true story of a man leaving Venezuela to seek asylum in the United States. In order to protect his identity, I have changed the names of all the people involved and some of the countries involved. Everything else (timeline, events, experiences) is true.
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Photo credit: Hansel Vasquez
Andrés answers our video call with a smile that could light up this whole city. I haven’t seen a smile like that in a long time.
He is laid back, attentive, and his eyes glisten when he speaks. His warmth and kindness are palpable even as we speak thousands of kilometres apart. Andrés is so rare, almost an enigma, and I find myself not knowing how to deal with such a unique soul. I wonder to myself: “what is it about this guy that makes him so special?”
Well, I’m about to find out…
Before we begin what will be a 2.5-hour interview, I start by thanking him — profusely — for sharing his story, his heart, his trauma, and time with me. “I hope this will help many people understand the situation in Venezuela,” he says.
I hope so too, my friend, I hope so too.
Living in Venezuela
Andrés was born in Caracas, Venezuela to loving parents. He has three brothers whose names also start with “A” (which he laughs at to himself). He has an unshakable faith in God and loves to play volleyball. If the photos I saw were any indication of his volleyball skills, then he is freakishly good at it!
When he turned 14 years old, his family moved from Caracas (the capital city) to Mérida (a city in the Andes mountains, in the West of the country). The reason for the move was simple and unfortunate: a scam.
Turns out, the apartment his parents bought was actually sold twice — once to them and once to another family; effectively meaning that Andrés’ family didn’t own the apartment. Now, they were out of money too. With nowhere to live, his parents decided to move the family to Mérida where they owned land and could eventually build a home.
When he finished high school he studied “paramilitar”; the basics of patriotism, military parade, and arms use. He liked it a lot and in fact excelled at it — so much so that he was asked to teach the course around the state of Mérida.
He later enrolled in the University of the Andes to study Information Technology (I.T.). But upon graduating he felt like so many of us feel around that time — young, lost, and unsure of where to take our one wild and wonderful life.
It wasn’t until his girlfriend told him he needed “to get more inspiration for [his] life” that he decided it was time to find a real job.
As fate would have it, Iván and Ana, who also played volleyball with him, owned an optometrist clinic in the city. Andrés approached them to ask them if they would hire him... And that’s how he got his first “official” job; distributing and selling eyewear and glass frames around Venezuela.
When talking about his professional life he remembers his career with such pride. I can see it in his eyes and I can hear it in his voice.
“I was quiet and shy, but managing optometry clinics forced me to step out of my comfort zone. I had to be social and resourceful. To figure out how to solve problems. I really enjoyed working. It helped me grow as a person.”
They say that hardship lights a fire in people that others simply don’t have. This definitely seemed to be true for Andrés.
2014-2020: Economic Blows, Punches and Burns
The first “golpe” (goal-peh), or economic hit, happened in 2014.
Venezuela was facing huge levels of inflation, crime, and an unending shortage of basic goods and services thanks to Hugo Chávez (the previous President) and now Nicolás Maduro’s (current president) governmental policies.
It was hard to find food, toilet paper, medicine, light, and even access basic healthcare. People were killing each other over a pair of tennis shoes. With time, videos would surface of Venezuelans searching in dumpsters to find and eat rats.
The Venezuelan life was decimated to *that* thanks to poor and corrupt government decisions.
This new reality stood in stark contrast to the Venezuela we knew from decades ago. A country that possessed some of the world’s largest crude oil reserves, that had a relatively stable democracy and a thriving economy for many decades. In fact, Venezuela was the dream country in Latin America but now it was crashing and burning and swallowing its own people whole.
There were a million reasons for that…
The decline in oil prices, printing too much money (which devalued the currency, the bolívar), massive social spending, economic mismanagement, corruption at the governmental level, lack of education, and the inability to protest against governments — together these issues created a new world in which starving Venezuelans allegedly broke into zoos to eat animals.
In those years, the Venezuelan people learned that the government would take everything it wanted from its people - and never return it.
Bitcoin as a Safe Haven
When the golpe came, Andrés was at the height of his career managing two optometrist stores/clinics located in Mérida and Barinas. Unfortunately, the government was now making it impossible for him to succeed and it was doing that by setting national price caps on eyewear he was trying to sell.
“We had to sell a pair of glasses for, let’s say, 10 bolívares when in reality it cost us 30 bolívares to buy in the first place. So, we had to sell 3 pairs of glasses to buy one. It didn’t make any economic sense. The government was making the businesses fail.”
Then, another golpe in 2016.
Desperate to make the business survive, he sought out ways to “dollarize” the business because dollars were seen to be more stable and reliable. But getting U.S. dollars was extremely difficult.
Venezuelans couldn’t easily access PayPal, external bank accounts, or even get dollars via money transmitter businesses. Plus, the conversion rate between dollars and bolívares was set by the government so that government officials, the military, and the powerful elite had better conversion rates while ordinary Venezuelans had to resort to the black market to get dollars.
With nowhere else to go Andrés turned to bitcoin…
Bitcoin was a way to get rid of the useless currency that was the bolívar and a way to own money that could actually hold its value. Sure it was volatile, but it paled in comparison to the volatility of the bolívar. At least it trended upwards! With inflation compounding daily, bitcoin began acting as a safe haven asset.
“If you left your bolívares in the banks or as cash they got stolen. It was better to have crypto than to have bolívares. Bitcoin was good business. It wasn’t devaluaing like the bolívar was so a lot of Venezuelans started buying bitcoin. Did you know a lot of Venezuelans buy bitcoin?”
Even better, the government could not control or manipulate or steal his bitcoin from him in the way that it was already doing so with inflation and corruption and crime.
Believe it or not, bitcoin was a place of respite in a burning hell. It was fiercely protecting the little financial wealth and dignity Andrés had left.
2020-21: Surviving in Venezuela Made Harder by COVID-19
By the time COVID-19 hit, living in Venezuela was already a time of extreme scarcity, pain, and sadness.
“The situation in Venezuela kept getting worse. There was no gas, no light, no food, no medicine. Then COVID-19 happened. The worse it got, the more people became passive. And when people became more passive, the government became more in control.”
He takes a long pause…
“It shocks you, you know? You study and work hard to succeed but it was hard to eat. That’s your reality. You’re losing your life.”
No longer able to pay his bills on one income, Andrés decided to teach children’s volleyball classes at a Sports Centre. When the Centre wanted to pay him a wage, he faced a moral dilemma.
“I couldn’t accept the money because it meant parents were deciding between feeding their children or giving them a chance to play sports.”
(It is incredible to me that the less Andrés had, the more he gave.)
That’s why he began working as a customer care representative for an international company based in Spain (on top of teaching classes). For Spanish companies, hiring Venezuelans was an opportunity to cut costs. After all, Venezuelans were highly-educated, smart and hungry for work at minimum wage.
(**While working at this company, a Spanish colleague told him about a cryptocurrency called Bitcoin Vault. It was the “next bitcoin” and sure to grow in value. Vulnerable and desperate, Andrés bought some Bitcoin Vault only to see it come crashing down and never come back up again. That’s when he learned the high cost of investing in ‘alt coins’ and of trusting people when they make such promising claims.)
According to Andrés, the minimum wage in Spain at the time was around 2,000 euros per month while in Venezuela it was $100 per month. By the time we speak, he tells me the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela is closer to $3 (though his relative listening nearby is quick to interrupt: “It’s $1.50!”).
To put this into context, the price of one bag of harina pan (maize flour, a staple food) in Venezuela is around $2.
“You work all month to eat for 3 days. Imagine that.”
On top of not eating, Andrés had no way of commuting to work so he would walk one hour in the morning, two hours in the night, and an additional 40 minutes every single workday… That came to about FOUR hours of walking every day while having barely eaten anything.
“I didn’t recognize myself. I lost so much weight. I was just focused on surviving.”
I can’t help but ask “how did you stay sane under these cruel circumstances?”
“I would ask ‘God, what did I do wrong’?
There is a high level of suicide and depression among Venezuelans. One time I was walking home and I saw my neighbour hanging. He hung himself. Some parents commit suicide because they can’t bare to see their children starve to death.
For me, teaching children occupied my mind. I taught them volleyball, baseball, kickball. It distracted them - and me. It was hard to be a child in Venezuela and during COVID, even worse. Trying to make them happy kept me sane.”
I am not at all surprised to hear him say he struggled with faith. He was after all shaking the hand of the devil.
Freedom is a Thin Line
One night he speaks to a friend and shares how tough it’s been to live in Venezuela. His friend tells him:
“Andrés, when God has a purpose for you he will open doors and bring you the right people. You’re a good person. Talk to your friends who live abroad and ask them for help. Tell them you’ll pay them back.”
That’s what he did. He started calling his friends in Colombia, who were quick to reply:
“Look Andrés, if you pray to God he opens ways.”
“I see. I’ll be praying for you. Best of luck.”
Defeated, he realized there was no way out of the hellhole that was Venezuela. Not through friends, not through family, not through money. That was of course until his friend, Evita, called him. They hadn’t spoken for about six years and yet THIS was the time she called him - out of the blue. When she learned about his living situation she asked:
“Andrés, how can I help you? Tell me, please. I have to help you.”
That was the first time he ever said the words:
“I’m thinking of leaving Venezuela.”
There were two major issues though! Lack of money. And a passport that expired in less than a month. Worse, the United States had just announced it might close off its borders to people seeking asylum by land.
“I didn’t renew my passport because I was trying to survive.”
Andrés needed money to cross the border into Colombia, to fly to México via Guatemala, to book a return flight and accommodation as cover, and to pay off the “people smugglers” who’d get him across the U.S. border. Not only that, he needed money to pay off countless guards and officials along the way.
In total, he would need approximately $6,000 USD.
Evita hesitated for a day or so. Should she send such a large sum to someone she hadn’t spoken to in years? Soon enough, her decision was clear. She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t at least try to help.
The next problem was how to send it. Evita tried sending the money through Western Union but they weren’t operating well in Venezuela. Plus, her transfer was was being flagged as suspicious. She said:
“I truly don’t know the reason why. Western Union said it was for security reasons when I called. They were being unhelpful and said the transaction could not take place.”
The reasons were never made clear, which infuriated Evita. They couldn’t afford to lose days bickering with and trying to convince Western Union to approve the transfer. Evita herself was now experiencing what it felt to be on the receiving end of financial exclusion.
The only option left was for Evita to pay for the flights and accommodations directly and for a friend of Andrés to pay the smugglers directly, which made everyone nervous. What if this was all a scam? What if someone traces these transactions back to me? Evita and Andrés’ friend were also immigrants to other countries and working very hard to make a living.
But they too had faith. Evita said:
“I just had a good feeling about giving him the money. I had a feeling that Andrés was honest. Something inside me was telling me to send him the money.”
Finally, it was up to Andrés to make his decision. Should he stay in Venezuela or should he risk it all to make it to the United States? With nothing left to lose, the decision was clear.
The Journey Begins
Andrés got in touch with his “coyote.” Coyotes are immigrant smugglers in México. They help people cross the border from México to the United States for a fee (in U.S. dollars).
During their call, the coyote could tell Andrés was nervous. This whole thing felt so illegal to Andrés. Plus, Venezuelans knew that crossing the border from México to the U.S. was risky because people frequently got caught by the cartel or killed trying to cross the border.
But the coyote reassured him that he’d be OK. That he’d be able to travel and give this escape a shot. In fact, he knew just the right woman to help him: Fabiola. That same night, Andrés and Fabiola spoke on the phone and figured out all the logistics and timing.
Andrés couldn’t believe he’d just done that. He did not tell ANYONE he was planning to escape for fear of being discovered and for fear of stressing out his parents. So, he carried on with his “normal” life.
On the night of August 20, 2021… he carried on with his nightly routine as usual. But by midnight, he quietly grabbed his backpack which contained his clothes, passport, and some cash.
Packing a suitcase was a terrible idea. It would’ve made it too obvious he was trying to escape.
Venezuela to Colombia
Quietly, he got into his pre-booked ride which would take him all the way to the Colombian border. Though before starting the journey, the driver turned to ask if he had cash with him — they would need it to bribe guards across the various checkpoints.
“Yes, I do.”
Every checkpoint and guard interrogation made Andrés sick to his stomach. When not speaking to guards, he spent the entire journey praying and pleading to God to let him through. When they arrived at the border, the driver turned around and said:
“I don’t know what you did, but I’ve never seen that happen. This is the first time I make this drive and am not asked for money.”
Andrés knew why… God was rooting for him.
Colombia to México
When he arrived at the airport in Bogotá, Colombia, the lady checking him in at the terminal looked at his passport, back at him, back at the passport and called the manager. They whispered to each other, which made Andrés’ heartbeat jump out of his throat. He was sweating and nauseous from nerves.
They were debating what to do. Do they let him through with a passport expiring in 10 days or send him back? The manager takes one final look at him and says “you can go.”
Then, the Colombian immigration officer asked: “Why don’t you have a stamp showing you entered the country?” The immigration officer knew very well that Venezuela wasn’t letting people leave the country so how did he get through without a stamp?
“I came via an irregular route” (which was code for “I’m escaping”).
Compassion washed over the officer and he began filling out the form on behalf of Andrés, which is something immigration officers rarely do.
Finally, he gets onto his flight to Guatemala, where he would have a 1.5-hour layover before his flight to México. But he is not relaxed. In fact, he is beyond stressed. If the flight is delayed more than two hours, he will have to go through the whole immigration process again and risk getting sent back to Venezuela. Luckily, the flight takes off on time.
It’s a rainy day when he lands in México. The Mexican immigration officer asks him:
“What are you doing in México? Do you have a reservation and a return flight?”
Andrés lets the Mexican immigration officer know he had booked a flight to Reinosa (which is on the border between México and the U.S.) and hotel accommodation. Though he knew this was just a way to throw the officer off. His real plan was to cross the border.
Once he passed through immigration, he contacted the coyote to let him know he’d be flying to Reinosa that same night at 7pm, to which the coyote replied:
“Are you crazy?! That’s too dangerous! That’s peak time for crime.”
Freaked out, Andrés changed his flight to 3:00 am. Surely crime would be asleep by that time? But randomly, Andrés gets a text from his pastor saying:
“Son, please don’t stay in the airport because they will steal from you.”
That’s a strange message, he thought. Around midnight, a Mexican immigration officer approaches him to ask where here’s going. “Reinosa,” he replies.
The officer says:
“Reinosa is the second most dangerous city. I know why Venezuelans go there. Tell me the truth, what are you doing? I know what you’re doing. Pay me $100 USD and I’ll let you through immigration. I’ll be at the office and can let you through without questions if you pay me.”
Grateful to not have been in trouble or deported, Andrés pays the money but when he goes through immigration a few hours later, he never saw the “officer.”
When the plane lands in Reinosa, an agent specifically calls all passport-holders from Venezuela, Jamaica, and Nicaragua forward. He looks at Andrés and tells him:
“I know Venezuelans are crossing through Reinosa. This can be solved. It’s no problem. Pay me $100 USD and I’ll let you through.”
Isn’t it amazing that wherever there is great suffering, there is also great profit?
In a small way, México was benefitting from its close proximity to the United States and the catastrophe from its neighbouring countries. I suppose crisis and war can be lucrative businesses on many sides.
Andrés paid the money and left the airport without making eye contact. The coyote’s taxi driver recognized Andrés based on a photo he’d received from the coyote. When Andrés gets into the cab, the driver tells him:
“If we get stopped and they ask you what we’re doing, I know nothing and I charged you pesos. Not dollars.”
After driving for an hour, they arrived at the coyote’s house. The coyote comes out to greet Andrés with wide, open arms. He is charming, loud, and caring.
“Andrés, welcome! Did you eat yet? Let us feed you. Come on into my home!”
In less than an hour, joy turns into seriousness. The coyote says: “Venezuela, it’s time to cross!”
Crossing the U.S. Border
The coyote tells Andrés he won’t be joining him further in his trip. Instead, his helper will take him the rest of the way. At this point, the helper introduces himself and immediately goes on to give Andrés specific instructions.
“Listen to me, you can’t take your backpack with you. It makes it too obvious you’re crossing. If the Federal guards catch you they will deport you. You have to go unseen.
You see that electric tower about 3 kilometres away? Run there and hide. When the Federal guards go away I’ll come looking for you.”
Andrés ran as fast as he could to the electric tower 3 kilometres away. His life depended on his sprinting as fast as humanly possible. On his not tripping nor on his hesitating to go back to what feels safe. He could not — for his life — afford to get caught. Not when he’d come this far… from the Andes mountains in Venezuela to the U.S. border.
Once he got to the tower, he desperately dug into the ground and carved a hole. He lay buried without moving at all, under the hot Mexican sun, and watched as the insects crawled all over him from 11 am - 4:30 pm.
But where was the helper? He still hadn’t come to get him. It didn’t look like he’d come back for him either… was this a scam too?
Andrés peaked and saw an old house in the distance. He noticed there was a lot of commotion with people entering and leaving a rugged, old house. After observing the house for 30 minutes, he thought:
“The helper is taking too long. Maybe something happened to him. I’m going to risk it and run to the house.”
He sprinted as fast as he could towards the house where an elderly woman greeted him and said:
"Stay here. I think I know who you’re looking for.”
A few minutes later, the helper came rushing into the rugged, old house, shocked to see Andrés. Almost as he’d just seen a ghost. Turns out, the helper had completely forgotten about him!
I suppose he can’t be too much at blame since he was also trying to help other asylum seekers…
The helper proceeded to gather Andrés, a 14-year old girl with a baby, a father with three children escaping El Salvador, and a few others who would together be crossing the river and the border without their backpacks. Just their IDs.
The problem was the group was too big which made them more visible to the helicopters flying above, patrolling the border. The group needed to be divided. They agreed that half of them would first cross the border with the helper — which included Andrés — and the other half would stay behind waiting for the helper to come back for them.
Andrés began the beginning of the end of his journey, helping carry the baby across the river while crossing the US border.
He’d made it.
The second group that stayed behind wasn’t so fortunate. They were caught by U.S. patrol officers.
Seeking Asylum in the United States
Now that the group was inside the United States, they were free to seek asylum, but even this process would add to Andrés’ humiliation. The police guard began to intimidate and belittle Andrés to his face. For the entirety of their conversation, he ridiculed Andrés, who said nothing in reply.
I suppose it’s easy to take advantage of someone when they are vulnerable, afraid, and unable to speak up for themselves. Little did the guard know that Andrés already knew how to lose in this world. Plus, you can’t break what is already broken into a million, tiny pieces.
As if that wasn’t enough, Andrés was then sent to prison. It’s at this point in our conversation when Andrés cannot stop emphasizing how cold this prison was. Actually, it was so cold the asylum seekers called it “la hielera” or “the freezer.”
“It was so cold you couldn’t think. It was a way to torture us. They knew they were doing that.”
The room they were kept in was made of cement walls and was about 10x10 feet long. In it slept 20 asylum seekers who were squished up like sardines. And the lights never turned off. There was no way of knowing if it was day or night. Yet, that was where Andrés met a Venezuelan man who had been in there for 28 days — without ever going outside.
The asylum seekers began praying, singing, worshipping God, and asking for help. Even as they were held captives in a room designed to make them suffer, they filled themselves with hope. They chose to believe that there was a way out. That hope was a wonderful thing.
After a few days, Andrés was sent to another prison...
Upon arriving at the new location, he was told to take off his clothes and put on blue prison outfits. Unlike the other prison, asylum seekers here could go outside for one hour each day to play basketball, breathe fresh air and bask in the sun. It was at least more humane than the last location.
Then one night, Andrés was abruptly woken up at 3:00 am.
“We were told we had to wait for “ICE” (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We ended up waiting from 3:00 am — 9:00 am. We were so tired.”
Once ICE arrived, he was put on a bus and driven to a church that volunteered to take in asylum seekers. The church cared for them, gave them phones to call their friends and family so they could pay for the remainder of their journey. For Andrés… that was Houston, Texas.
It is so interesting to me that his journey started at midnight in Venezuela, filled with prayer and ended in the morning at a church in the United States. I don’t think Andrés would’ve seen this as a coincidence.
His voice cracks when we talk about his experience leaving Venezuela to seek asylum in the U.S. During our conversation he says he’s thirsty and needs water but I can tell that’s not entirely the whole reason…
I know the knots are forming in his throat and that the room is closing in on him. He’s fighting the trauma that is stuck inside him wanting to claw its way out of his body.
He’s not the rock he wishes to be, yet I think he’s the most powerful man I’ve met in a long time. It’s in this exact moment that I understand one truth: the brightest smiles have known the biggest pain.
The little boy with loving parents, three brothers whose names start with “A” and who loved to play volleyball did not choose this to be his life. Andrés did not choose to be born in Venezuela, nor to be degraded and nearly killed (whether directly or indirectly) by his own governmental leadership. He did not choose to be ridiculed and bullied in his attempt to survive in another country.
He had no choice in any of this in the same way that you had no choice to live the wonderful life you now live. Yet he played the cards he was brutally dealt with such courage and humility and faith.
If he can get through this; through this impossible trip, then you and I can stand up for them. We can choose to bring their stories to light and to be of service to the misfits who have lost their voice and their human rights. When so much is given to us, much is required of us. What will you do about that?
Andrés is still in disbelief that he made it this far, and so grateful to God that he wasn’t caught. Because the truth is, the odds were stacked against him.
“There are experiences in life that are hard that no one prepares you for. These experiences asphyxiate your life. Then you feel your liberty again. Like you’re not living your life in vain. Then when we are alright we help those we love who are stuck back home. That’s what Venezuelans do, they send money back and help each other.”
We end our call after speaking for 2.5 hours. I feel moved, sad, desperate and helpless all at the same time. I wish I had more money, influence, and power. I wish I had the answers for him but I don’t even know what to say.
So, I write to him. Somehow I have to get him to believe in everything that his life could be. To keep him smiling even when it hurts. Most things in life aren’t certain, but something I’m sure of is that our lives are made bearable when we have each other’s support… after all, that is ALL we really have. It is our obligation to defend and protect those that are trying to survive.
I hope this piece is a small but significant way to remind the world that the Venezuelan people are not ghosts and that they shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s on us to help the Venezuelan people who are still struggling, crying, and losing hope under Maduros’s regime.
Today, Andrés is in the United States working on his application to become a refugee. He can’t afford a lawyer so he will be representing himself. But he is terrified. He is so nervous to speak in front of a judge. He fears his application might get rejected and all of this would’ve been in vain. If you pray, please consider praying for his verdict. And if you’d like to donate bitcoin to him, please let me know by replying to this email.
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