Canada’s Venezuelan community horrified by humanitarian crisis

Venezuelan-Canadians who are scrambling to help their family and friends are asking Canadians to take notice of the escalating political and humanitarian crisis in their homeland.

Alessandra Polga, the human rights director for the Canadian-Venezuelan Engagement Foundation, says few Canadians seem to realize Venezuelans are dying from food and medicine shortages as President Nicolas Maduro gradually moves to consolidate power amid a growing political crisis.

“My country is alone, my people are dying of starvation, of chronic diseases,” she said in a phone interview.

“You can’t even find a Band-Aid in a hospital. The government is shooting and killing people, there are over 600 political prisoners right now.”

On Saturday, a newly installed constitutional assembly ousted Venezuela’s defiant chief prosecutor, a sign that President Nicolas Maduro’s embattled government intends to move swiftly against critics and strengthen his grip on power.

The Canadian government, which has been vocal in its criticism of the Venezuelan government, spoke out against the move.

“Canada condemns the removal of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, from office, the first action of the constituent assembly,” a government spokesperson said in an email Saturday.

“This demonstrates yet another step towards dismantling the separation of powers and democracy in Venezuela.”

But Polga says the Canadian government must move beyond strongly-worded statements and take action.

She says she’s not surprised by the Venezuelan government’s decision to oust its prosecutor, believing it is just another step toward a complete dictatorship.

“It’s part of their plans,” she said in a phone interview from Toronto. “It’s like when you play chess, you move your figures in your favour, that’s what they’re doing.”

Her message, which has been echoed by members of the opposition Conservative party, is that Canada should follow the United States’ lead and impose sanctions on key members of the Venezuelan government.

She’d also like to see a concerted effort between Canada and its international partners to deliver humanitarian relief and stop the violence.

“How many people need to be dead in Venezuela for them to intervene in some way?” she said.

In the meantime, Polga says she and other Venezuelans in Canada are doing their best to help family and friends.

Nereida Coello, who moved from Venezuela to Montreal eight years ago, says she’s trying to send supplies to her sister, a retired lawyer who now gets only $12 a month in a pension and can’t afford food.

“The government blocks the entry of food and medicine but I’m trying to send it,” Coello, 64, told The Canadian Press earlier this week.

“This week I made a little box, it had vitamins, ibuprofen, some medicines, and a little food, like lentils,” she said.

Coello, who was a university professor in Venezuela, says it breaks her heart to wonder how many of her former students were among those killed in the recent anti-government protests that have rocked the country in recent months.

“When I think of people being killed in defence of liberty I just can’t stop crying,” she said.

Coello’s daughter, 25-year-old Francis Ortiz, says she wonders why many of her fellow students and the Canadian media have taken so long to notice the crisis.

“Nobody seemed to be interested,” she said. “Now it’s changing and people’s eyes are opening.”

Ortiz, who says she attended school with someone who died in a protest, says she feels both sadness and rage when she thinks about what is happening in her birth country.

“Yes, we left because of what was happening but we haven’t forgotten our country, we still love it,” she said.

-With files from Michel Saba and The Associated Press

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