‘No solution’: Houston’s growing Venezuelan population lacks consular services

A break in U.S-Venezuela diplomatic relations in 2019 led to the closure of Venezuelan consulates and embassies across the country.

By Anna-Catherine Brigida, Houston LandingJanuary 30, 2024 9:45 am, ,

From the Houston Landing:

Jesús, who grew up in the tropical Venezuelan coastal city Barcelona, spent his first freeze in Houston without power. He tried to set up his electricity days before, but the energy company didn’t accept his expired Venezuelan passport.

“I sent in my documents. Five days passed by, and I was rejected. So we had to endure it,” Jesús said in Spanish.

For Jesús, who is only being identified by his first name because of his pending immigration case, experiencing freezing weather was a new experience. His native city’s temperature rarely drops below 70 degrees.

A break in U.S-Venezuela diplomatic relations in 2019 has led to the closure of Venezuelan consulates and embassies across the country, with Houston’s growing Venezuelan population among one of the largest affected. That means the estimated 54,000 Venezuelans in Houston have nowhere to turn to renew their passport, register their newborns as Venezuelan citizens, or repatriate a relative’s remains. Without an ID, many like Jesús, can’t open a bank account, sign a lease, or set up water and electricity.

Now, as the Biden administration has opened a dialogue with the Venezuelan government, there is some hope that the reopening of consular services could be on the horizon.

Jesús was eventually able to get in touch with the energy company to send in additional documentation to confirm his identity. But he is among the lucky ones. He was granted parole at the border so he has documentation proving he can legally reside in the U.S., albeit temporarily. And, after spending the freeze without enough blankets, he was able to get some new sheets on Saturday at the donation center run by Houston nonprofit Acción Social – Venezuela.

“Even if we have legal status in the U.S., this affects all Venezuelans – citizens, residents and migrants,” said Jorge Márquez, a Venezuelan community organizer who lives in Houston. “It is something that unfortunately, for now, has no solution, and it places Venezuelans in a state of defenselessness and with no access to a right as elementary as identity.”

Douglas Sweet Jr. for Houston Landing

Jesús, a Venezuelan native, poses for a portrait on the balcony of his Houston home Tuesday in Houston.

Consulate closure

Houston previously had a Venezuelan consulate, but a diplomatic break with the government of Nicolás Maduro led to its closure. In 2019, National Assembly president Juan Guidó declared himself interim president in a move by the opposition to try to oust Maduro, who has presided over an economic and humanitarian crisis leading an estimated 7.7 million Venezuelans to migrate. President Donald Trump recognized Guidó as president, and dozens of countries followed suit.

Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Treasury also sanctioned state-run oil company PdVSA in January 2019. Maduro has repeatedly blamed international sanctions for the country’s economic decline. State sanctions have made economic recovery more difficult for Venezuela, although the country’s collapse and its soaring poverty predates the measures. About 74 percent of Venezualans oppose broad economic sanctions, according to polling agency Datanalisis, although a majority approves of sanctions against specific individuals.

In response to U.S. recognition of Guidó, Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats to leave the country and shut its embassies and consulates in the U.S. The Trump administration then granted the Guidó government the right to operate the consulates and named a new Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S.

From 2019 to early 2023, the Guidó government staffed Houston’s consulate, yet its capacities were limited as long as Maduro remained in power in Venezuela. The Guidó-run consulate did not have access to records there, so it could not even issue passports.

In January 2023, the Venezuelan National Assembly voted to dissolve the interim government. The Biden administration then announced it no longer recognized Guidó as interim leader.

Since then, consular operations in Houston fully ceased. A number for the consulate is still listed online, but the number has been disconnected.

The Biden administration has recently changed its diplomatic stance toward Venezuela, easing Trump-era oil sanctions in exchange for better conditions for free and fair elections in 2024. The strategy has been met with cautious optimism, as many still fear Venezuela’s political climate is too repressive for truly free elections.

Although neither government has publicly stated that diplomatic relations will be reestablished, the ongoing dialogue presents a potential opportunity to restore consular services.

“It will be good for both countries to have at least consular services,” said Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of the human rights advocacy organization Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “But it’s a decision that has political implications and I think they’re both calculating what these implications could be.”

Jiménez Sandoval added that establishing diplomatic relations would provide consular support services for the estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans in the country and give the U.S. access to Venezuelan oil, while the Maduro government would gain international legitimacy — which some opposition leaders oppose.

What can Venezuelans do?

In the meantime, Venezuelans in Houston are left with few options when their passport expires or they need documents from Venezuela. In 2019, the U.S. State Department said it would recognize Venezuelan passports up to five years past the expiration date, helping to ease the situation.

Now, the closest Venezuelan embassy is in Mexico City. But sometimes even those with legal status in the U.S. sometimes can’t travel internationally — to renew their passport, visit friends and family in another country, or spend time with ailing parents in their final days in Venezuela.

“There are fewer Venezuelans that have this opportunity. I can’t do it because my passport expired in 2018,” said Márquez, who is essentially banned from international travel because of his expired passport. He has legal status in the U.S., but is not a citizen and therefore doesn’t qualify for a U.S. passport. “In the face of an emergency or any unforeseen event, I wouldn’t be able to leave.”

Jennifer, another Venezuelan immigrant who also arrived at the Acción Social – Venezuela donation center on Saturday, arrived in Houston in October with her husband and 8-year-old son. Their passports have expired, and her son doesn’t have a passport.

Jennifer is expecting her second child in two months, and she’ll have no way to register the baby as a Venezuelan citizen. The family’s lack of documents only increases the anxiety she has felt since leaving Venezuela.

“You’re scared. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Your life depends on other people’s political decisions,” said Jennifer, who is being identified by just her first name because of her pending asylum case. “If immigration has taught me anything, it’s to learn to live with fear.”

Another woman at the donation center that day, 41-year-old Maribel who is also being identified by first name, arrived in Houston in November after leaving Venezuela because her husband was being harassed at work for opposing the Maduro government. She recently tried to open a bank account, but was turned away because of her expired passport.

“We can’t do anything, because they always ask for your passport,” Maribel said.