SALT LAKE CITY — Former Venezuelans living in Utah joined a worldwide movement Saturday to urge support for their fellow countrymen.
The South American country has erupted in violence following protests against the government and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
"They say they have democracy and freedom in Venezuela but it is not true," said Andres Diaz, who came to Utah to attend BYU decades ago.
Diaz has family in Venezuela, some of whom support the current regime that is accused of being oppressive and dictatorial.
"Whoever supports Chavez and his people, they hate, hate, hate the opposition," the Cedar Hills resident said. "There is no middle ground."
The hundreds who gathered — bedecked in Venezuelan flag colors of red, yellow and blue on the Capitol steps — chanted and sang national anthems of both America and their homeland. They prayed together and stood in silence for the civil unrest in Venezuela.
"All the attention is to the Ukraine, but the same thing is happening in Venezuela," said Arleny Dimond, president of the Venezuelan Association of Utah.
Dimond said family and friends still in her native country are having a hard time finding food and other basic necessities.
"I miss the Venezuela that I grew up in," Diaz said. "It used to be a great place to live, and it is scary to see my native country go down that road."
Sayei Metcalfe, of Taylorsville, stood on the steps and shouted "down with the government in Venezuela" in Spanish. She was flanked by her three children, as well as her mother and sister and several nieces and nephews, each clutching posters that also contained quips in her native language.
"Anything to serve our countries," Metcalfe said, adding that she speaks with her father and other family members in Venezuela every week.
"It's scary there. There is no toilet paper for months. It's getting worse than Cuba, and we don't want to be like Cuba," she said. "We are fighters. We do not just take it."
Protests against the government in Venezuela have led to violence, including rumors of police-inflicted deaths. The country is "basically in a civil war," said Thomas Reams, of Taylorsville. He said citizens in Venezuela, his wife's native country, are fighting against tyranny.
Those gathered in Salt Lake City joined Venezuelans around the world who stood out Saturday to "be their voice," Reams said, as the South American country has no objective media.
"They don't have a voice. There is no freedom of the press," he said.
Word of the S.O.S. Venezuela event spread through Facebook and other social media outlets to get the movement going. Groups throughout the U.S. signed a petition that will be delivered to leaders in Washington, D.C., who will hopefully "act and not just speak out against what is going on there," Dimond said.
"We're all here to let our leaders know that Venezuela needs international help," Reams said. "Almost everyone here has family there."
He estimates that there are nearly 14,000 Venezuelan-Americans living in Utah, many of whom have close ties to or are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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