fbpx The Venezuelan Consulate in New York Is Falling ApartDocumented
 

The Venezuelan Consulate in New York Is Falling Apart

The building was a casualty of diplomatic fighting and New Yorkers are paying the price

No notice states this, but the pile of newspapers at the doorstep makes it obvious: The Consulate General of Venezuela in New York is closed. The building faces St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on 51st street between 5th and Madison Avenue—a glitzy Midtown block and a natural habitat for luxury storefronts and corporate towers. By contrast, the decrepit townhouse that houses the Venezuelan consulate looks like an unwelcome neighbor. Its yellow walls are dirty. The dusty street-level windows are covered with brown paper, to prevent pedestrians from peeking in, and posters to remind them of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. “Six million Venezuelans have had to leave the country,” one reads.

“Every time I would walk past the consulate, it reminded me of the ruin that my country has become,” said Patricia Colmenares, a freelance architect from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela who recently moved from New York to Miami. “Feels like it exists to mock me and all Venezuelans abroad.” 

It is not just in New York. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC and all the consulates in Miami, Chicago, Houston are closed to the public. For more than three years, Venezuelans living in America—a population totaling more than half a million, according to estimates of the Pew Research Center—have been cut off from consular representation. 

This imbroglio reflects an ongoing geopolitical contradiction: while an attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to overthrow the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro in 2019 has lost momentum, the United States continues to recognize Guaidó as acting president and has granted control of Venezuela’s diplomatic properties to his envoys. But despite the diplomats’ promises to reopen the New York consulate, the building has remained shuttered.

Without a working consulate or embassy, Venezuelans in America have no institution to register births or deaths, help repatriate nationals’ remains, or issue visas for their American relatives. They can’t get new passports, only extensions for old ones—if the expiration date is recent—with a sticker to paste on the pages, which must be sent from Venezuela by post for a fee of $180. Due to these difficulties, the US federal government has recognized the validity of expired Venezuelan passports for interstate traveling, but banks and landlords and municipal authorities have not been equally accommodating. 

Also Read: Latin American Immigrants Can’t Reach Their Consulates

Those who can afford it often head to Mexico City or Ottawa and queue for hours outside the Venezuelan embassies in these capitals to obtain their passports. But traveling is precisely what many Venezuelans who lost their passports cannot do—unless they hold passports from other countries. Guillermo Nolivos, a Venezuelan immigration lawyer in New York, said he does not know how to assist clients who come to him with this predicament: “I just send them home.”

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China Daily newspapers have piled up at the doorstep of the consulate. March 2022, Gisela Salim

The closure of the consulate is the byproduct of a tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute that began years ago and remains unsolved. In January of 2019, the Venezuelan National Assembly, which is controlled by opposition parties, proclaimed its leader Juan Guaidó as interim president of the nation until free elections could be held. The assembly argued that the previous elections—which occurred the year before and favored Maduro—had failed to meet minimum standards of fairness and transparency, a claim supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Parliament.

Within hours of this proclamation, the Trump administration endorsed Juan Guaidó as the new legitimate president of Venezuela. (Fifty-four countries eventually followed suit.) Maduro was not happy: “The imperialist government of the US seeks to establish a puppet government in Venezuela,” he said addressing crowds from his balcony in Caracas less than a day after the White House published its press release. He broke all diplomatic ties with the United States, giving American diplomats in the country 72 hours to leave. 

Maduro also ordered the Venezuelan embassy and all consulates in the US closed. Just two days later, Maduro’s chancellery tweeted a picture of the staff of Venezuela’s New York and Puerto Rico consulates arriving at the Caracas airport, leaving behind empty buildings.

Trump did not relent in his support for Guaidó—quite the opposite. In early February 2019, the American president recognized Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s appointee, as the new ambassador. “I am the first ambassador of a free Venezuela,” said Vecchio in a press conference just outside the White House. 

In March 2019, Gustavo Marcano, the minister counselor under Vecchio, traveled from Washington to New York and ceremoniously opened the doors of the consulate. He gave the press a tour of the ground floor, posting the recording on his Periscope channel. As he took down pictures of Nicolás Maduro and his dead predecessor Hugo Chávez, he said that the consulate would start serving all Venezuelans, regardless of political persuasion. Marcano also pasted a poster to the windows facing the street. “Soon,” it read, “this consulate will open its doors so that we can all return home.” 

In Caracas, however, Nicolás Maduro never stopped ruling. And although hopes that Guaidó would lead a transition to democracy eventually faded, the United States continues to recognize him as the country’s legitimate president. This means that his appointee, Vecchio remains the ambassador of Venezuela to the United States. 

Not that he can do much. Vecchio’s job is to represent a new government of Venezuela abroad. But since the old government never loosened its grip on power, his abilities have limits. Without access to citizenship records in Venezuela, which remain tightly guarded by Maduro’s party, ambassador Vecchio’s offices cannot even issue passports.

“A consulate is like the arm of a country abroad,” said a former staffer of a Venezuelan consulate in Europe, who asked to remain anonymous. “But in this case, it is like the arm is disconnected from the brain.”

Today, the poster Marcano pasted to the windows of the consulate three years ago—with promises of reopening—no longer hangs. Omar Alcalá, a Venezuelan man who volunteered in the repairs of the building, decided to remove it. He said it generated too much confusion. 

In its early days, the consulate aptly represented not a country in ruins but one awash with oil prosperity. Bought by the Venezuelan government in 1973, the five-story building had a past life as Harry Winston’s jewelry store, according to a New York Times article reporting on the acquisition of the “prominent townhouse.”

The consulate once rotated art exhibitions on the first floor, hosted receptions on the baroque room with gilded walls on the second floor, and supplied consular services in the rest of the building, according to Humberto Tovar, who worked there between 1983 and 1993, first as a clerk, then as assistant to the Consul-General. He said his favorite part of the job was registering the US-born children of Venezuelan couples and fondly remembers handling visas for Celia Cruz, the Cuban salsa singer who toured the country frequently.

By the time Carlos Vecchio’s staff in Washington DC seized the keys of the New York consulate in the spring of 2019, the building had fallen into disrepair after years under Maduro. Vecchio and Marcano entrusted a copy of the keys of the back door of the consulate to Erick Rozo, a young member of their party who lived in New York City and agreed to help with the repairs of the building. 

When Rozo first toured the consulate, he was shocked. “What’s the point of having this house made of crystals if it’s falling apart?’”  Rozo remembers thinking. “Is this what’s left from Saudi Venezuela that these people destroyed?” 

The pictures, Rozo recalled, were not hung, but stacked in a cold and humid room, which Con Edison cut off from heat after hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills had gone unpaid. The pages of an original letter between the legendary Venezuelan statesman Simón Bolívar and George Washington, which were once pristinely conserved and exhibited in a vitrine, had turned yellow. 

When Rozo managed to open the safe, he found a box with hundreds of newly issued passports but did not have the authority to give them to their owners. He put them back inside.

Meanwhile, Venezuelans in New York were beginning to grapple with the absence of their consulate. 

Around the time the new diplomatic staff took over, Yoel Pimentel, a young Venezuelan immigrant with a degree in medicine, was admitted to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens with severe pneumonia. He had been in the city for less than a year, and his mother wanted to travel from Venezuela to care for him. However, Maduro had expelled US diplomats from Venezuela. As a result, the American embassy in Caracas was closed and Pimentel’s mother could not get a visa. She traveled to Colombia to apply at the US consulate in Bogotá but was rejected. Her relatives in New York used a friend’s personal connection to contact Brian Fincheltub, a member of Carlos Vecchio’s staff, but Fincheltub responded that the ambassador could not do anything to help. (Fincheltub ignored a request for comment.)

Pimentel’s mother did not make it to the US before her son Yoel died in June 2019. 

When people die abroad, the first step is to contact the embassy or consulate of their country of origin, which in turn registers the death, provides information on how to repatriate the remains, and sometimes even subsidizes the costs. Carlos Arteaga, Pimentel’s cousin, was hoping to send the body to Venezuela so that his aunt, Yoel’s mother, could bury him. But since he could not go to the Venezuelan consulate, Arteaga sought the advice of Adriana Malavé, the well-connected owner of a popular Instagram account called Venezolanos en New York. She put him in touch with a Venezuelan business that coordinated the cremation of the body and the shipping of the ashes through regular postal mail, skipping all formalities. 

“For my aunt, the wait was horrible,” said Arteaga. “Not knowing if her son’s ashes would actually arrive.”

Malavé also used her network to raise funds to cover the bill of cremation and the shipping of the ashes, which totalled almost $3,000. 

“I was so happy I could help,” said Adriana Malavé. “But I wish there was a consulate to assist people with these things–not just some Instagram account.” 

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Volunteers cleaning up the third floor of the consulate.  September 13, 2019

While the promise by Guaidó’s envoys to reopen the consulate remains unfulfilled, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

The impetus to start preparations arrived in the summer of 2019. The United Nations General Assembly would convene in the fall, and Rozo wanted the consulate to be ready so that the ambassador’s subordinates could host a reception afterwards. 

Rozo recruited a group of volunteers to help repair the building after years of neglect. All of them worked for free, since Rozo did not have a budget, and got close to preparing the consulate for reopening.

“The feeling was that by repairing the consulate we would start repairing Venezuela from the damages that Chávez and Maduro caused,” said Rozo. “Volunteers put their nails in the work, sometimes also their own money.”

Rozo brought together gallerists, who advised him on how to preserve the art; retired staffers of the consulate, like Humberto Tovar, who advised on where to find objects; and miscellaneous aides, who changed the lightbulbs in the chandelier, vacuumed rugs, and kept busy. 

The most instrumental helping hand was supplied by Omar Alcalá, a Venezuelan-born retired construction worker with decades of experience at the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Alcalá stepped in to fix broken pipes, then the roof suspended over the ground floor. Eventually he became, with Rozo, the boss of the operation. Volunteers called him Señor Omar

To everyone’s surprise, the consulate was ready for the reception, which took place in September 2019. Attendees included Carrie Filipetti, then the Deputy Special Representative for Venezuela at the US Department of State, and Gustavo Marcano, the minister counselor of the embassy in Washington, who tweeted a video of the event. Ambassador Vecchio did not come but sent letters thanking the volunteers. 

The efforts resumed over the fall of 2019 but then slowed down. As the weather cooled, the portable heaters the volunteers were using no longer sufficed.

By January 2020, Erick Rozo had put together PDF documents with plans for the full reopening, a legal framework, a to-do-list, and a budget. He had also managed to restart the heating of the building through a deal with Con Edison mediated by the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. 

However, Rozo said that Ambassador Vecchio in Washington did not take these plans seriously, perhaps because the diplomatic staff  began reconsidering the merits of reopening a consulate that would be so limited in the services that it could provide. The disillusionment in New York echoed frustrations in Venezuela: a year after the National Assembly proclaimed Guaidó president, his chances of ever exercising power had faded. Rozo also blames Julio Borges, Juan Guaidó’s then-foreign minister in Venezuela, for his “unwillingness” to appoint a Consul-General. 

Borges told me that he never truly served as foreign-minister but as a “commissioner” and hence did not have the authority to name a consul. Moreover, he said all diplomatic appointments were decided by a coalition of opposition parties that picked all envoys before he started this role. 

Omar Alcalá and Erick Rozo’s visits to the consulate became more sporadic as they realized that reopening the building was not on the horizon. “It’s sad because buildings need the warmth of human use,” said Alcalá. “Without it, they crumble.”

Venezuelans have continued scraping by without consular services. Although Vecchio’s office has established a hotline and an email, many Venezuelan immigrants I interviewed complained that they are unresponsive. 

“They are like ghosts,” said Reinaldo Pirela, who attempted to contact the consulate many times during this past February with questions about the repatriation of the body of his nephew Keyner Barrios, who passed away in January. “I think all they do is tweet.”

The press office of the Embassy of Venezuela in the United States ignored a request for comment. 

Last year, Erick Rozo returned the copies of the keys of the Venezuelan consulate to Ambassador Vecchio and asked not to participate further. “Many volunteers were upset that we did not reopen,” said Rozo. “I struggled to explain that it was not my fault.”

One of the last services Rozo and Omar Alcalá volunteered to do was replacing a dirty flag that hung on a diagonal pole outside the townhouse—a flag that, last summer, had been photographed and mocked in viral Twitter posts. The ambassador’s office sent a new one from Washington, perhaps hoping it would provide more dignity to an otherwise dilapidated diplomatic building. 

“At least now the flag is clean,” said Rozo. “That’s just the bare minimum.”

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