MADRID — Waiting in the Caracas airport, standing next to a pile of luggage that contained all her belongings, Mercedes Vázquez didn’t cry.
She stared hard at the floor as she tried to process it all: That she was leaving Venezuela, her home for more than six decades, and didn’t know when she’d be back. That she had no concrete plan for when she arrived in Spain, the country where she was born in 1949 and that she fled as a child during the era of dictator Francisco Franco.
She did not want to go. But at 70, with a heart condition and in the midst of the political and humanitarian crisis triggered by the regime of Nicolás Maduro, she felt she had no choice.
“I can live without rice. I can live without flour,” Vázquez later recounted. “But what was killing me was seeing my country crumbling day after day, seeing people eating out of garbage cans, wandering from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for medicine. It was terrible.”
In the airport last fall, she feared that the guards would stop her for some arbitrary reason. “They can say things like, ‘You have bags under your eyes, so you must be on drugs. We’re taking you to the hospital.’ ” But they let her through. Nine hours later, Vázquez landed in Madrid, a city she had not seen since she was a young woman.
As Venezuelan refugees and exiles have poured into neighboring countries in South America and Latin America, Spain has emerged as a destination of choice for many Venezuelans of means, including those whose families once left to get out from under Franco’s rule.
The number of people from Venezuela living in Spain has more than doubled in the past five years, according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics. Many of the newcomers can claim Spanish citizenship based on their ancestry. Others have applied to Spain’s “golden visa” program, which grants residency to anyone who invests more than $560,000 in real estate. And those with more-limited resources can apply for asylum. Indeed, for the past three years, Venezuelans have topped Spain’s list of asylum seekers, with Venezuelans filing more than 19,000 asylum applications last year.
For those who get to stay, the common language and cultural similarities can help ease the transition. Some Venezuelans, too, are reuniting with family who stayed in Spain or preceded them there. Vázquez, for instance, joined her adult daughter, who decided years earlier she wanted to experience life in Spain, and has since had children of her own.
Still, it can be difficult to reconnect with a homeland that for so long was little more than a distant memory. “I have a certain feeling for Spain — the social services, the quality of life,” Vázquez said, sitting in a Madrid cafe last month. “But I don’t like soccer, and I don’t like bulls. I don’t like standing at a bar and eating. I’m going to die a Venezuelan.”
Like Vázquez, Sebastián de la Nuez was born in Spain — in his case, in 1953 — and left with his family for Venezuela during the Franco years.
De la Nuez made the return trip in October 2016. Shortly before his departure, he says, he witnessed a confrontation with the Venezuelan state police directly outside his apartment window. “They fired on students,” he recalled.
He said his years in Maduro’s Venezuela have left no doubt in his mind about the inherent cruelty of a dictatorship of any kind. “It’s against the human project.”
But his father briefly served Franco, and de la Nuez recently traveled to Ferrol, the small town in Galicia where Franco was born and where his childhood home is frequently vandalized. What he was looking for, exactly, he could not say.
“Coming back to Spain has awakened something in me,” he said. “My father never wanted to talk about it.”
Diplomatic representatives of the opposition are also among the Venezuelan immigrant community in Spain. They are working to burnish the international reputation of Juan Guaidó, who has been recognized as the country’s legitimate president by a host of foreign nations, including the United States, Spain, France and Britain.
The problem, said William Dávila, Guaidó’s ambassador to Austria and an economics professor in Madrid, is that while European nations have thrown their support behind Guaidó, they still largely recognize Maduro’s ambassadors and embassies. “My answer to that is that they don’t represent anyone,” he said of Maduro’s emissaries. “We already know that anything they say is a lie.”
Meanwhile, the Guaidó team functions like a start-up, he said. “My offices are the wonderful Viennese cafes. And my drivers are Uber drivers.”
Antonio Ecarri Bolívar, Guaidó’s ambassador in Spain, said, “Spain sets the pace for relations with Venezuela in Europe. So we are pressing Spain to finally recognize us as [Venezuela’s] ambassadors, so that the other European countries will, too. We hope it is soon, because the Venezuelan situation can’t hold on for long.”
Ecarri said the Spanish government has allowed him to represent the growing Venezuelan population in Spain, negotiating the internal use of expired Venezuelan passports as legal identification and managing babies born in Spain and their families’ ability to register their births legally.
Ecarri points out the historical and cultural ties between Spain and Venezuela.
“It’s unusual that a family in Spain doesn’t know someone who went to Venezuela and prospered. And many who returned to Spain came back with fortunes,” Ecarri said. “Venezuela was always a country that welcomed immigration. Never emigration. This is the first time in Venezuelan history that there is an exodus and people are leaving Venezuela. During 40 years of democracy, the doors were open to immigrants and they prospered because it was a prosperous country.”
For now, however, there is both the memory of home and the hope of what that home may one day become.
“It’s a feeling,” said de la Nuez. “I was walking in a street the other day, and it was the strangest thing — it seemed to me it was an identical street in Caracas. I dream very often of Caracas.”