Constable: After her film about Venezuela, woman seeks asylum in Bartlett
Venezuelan filmmaker Stephanie Rodrigues couldn't be happier -- or more heartbroken -- about her temporary home in Bartlett.
"The day I applied for asylum, I cried," the 28-year-old mom-to-be says. "This is an amazing country. But Venezuela is home. It's going to be my home forever."
Venezuela can't be her home now because of "The Truth," an award-winning documentary she wrote that includes graphic scenes of protests, violence and chaos that she photographed and recorded from the streets of her homeland. "Today, Venezuela can be defined in three words: Crisis, repression and struggle," she wrote in the movie's opening scene.
The United States and most Western nations support Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself interim president of Venezuela in January, contending that the re-election of socialist President Nicolás Maduro was illegitimate. The U.S. has placed economic sanctions on key Venezuelan officials. But Maduro, who has the backing of most military officials and police, refuses to step down, arrests critics and runs Venezuela with an iron fist and the support of Cuba and Russia. Medicines and food are in short supply. Tear gas and riot police are plentiful.
"In 2017, the protests in Venezuela were really hard for months. A lot of people were killed. Others were in jail," Rodrigues says. "I started covering the streets with my camera, posting all the pictures and video to show what is going on."
Her brother, Fernando, was arrested on April 6, 2017, at the age of 20 and brought to Sebin, a military jail run by the National Intelligence Service, where he was beaten and tortured with electrical shocks, Rodrigues says. When she went to pick up her brother, officials detained her for four hours, warning her to remove her social media posts and stop shooting video and photographs. She deleted a few, but nothing of importance.
"I had my passion, my camera and my country," Rodrigues says, her jaw tightening as her voice grows louder. "It's about the people, their fighting for freedom."
Her work was known by journalist, actress and producer Natalia Denegri, who collaborated with her for the documentary.
When the show was about to air last year on a Spanish station in neighboring Colombia, the film team told Rodrigues that she needed to leave Venezuela to avoid retribution.
A frequent traveler to Europe and the U.S. (she went to Disney World with her family as a child and learned English as a teen during a summer in Boston), Rodrigues flew to Florida in August on a tourist visa.
"When I'm so far from my country, sometimes I feel useless. But I didn't give up," Rodrigues says. "I'm just at another level, thinking what else can you do for your country? If you don't talk, what's going to happen? You'll be afraid your whole life."
With it unsafe to return to Venezuela and her visa about to expire, Rodrigues applied for asylum in the United States in February. She's staying legally with friends in Bartlett while she waits for her case to be heard. She's one of about 4 million Venezuelans who have fled the country. Nearly a third of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States now are from Venezuela, easily surpassing those from Guatemala, which is second at 12 percent.
The Trump administration has made it more difficult for Venezuelans to be granted asylum but has hinted at more strategies, including military intervention, to remove Maduro from office.
"Maybe if we have an invasion by the United States today, we can change it," Rodrigues says about the bleak scenes in her film, which is in English or with English subtitles to make an impact outside Venezuela.
"The Venezuelan people already know what is going on. They live in it," Rodrigues says. "I want the world to know what my people are going through."
An engineering student who ended up getting her degree in journalism, Rodrigues also understands Italian and Portuguese. In November, while in Madrid filming a part of her movie, Rodrigues got a tattoo on her left forearm in Spanish that translates to, "Being happy comes from the soul."
Her mom, an architect, her dad, who works in construction, and her brother, now 23, remain in Venezuela along with a host of relatives. "When are we all going to be together again?" Rodrigues says.
"I really love my country. I'm afraid to go back, but I dream about going back. I want to go back, but it's not about me anymore," Rodrigues says, patting her pregnancy bump. "I want my kid to grow up in a place where he or she can be safe."