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Number 10 in the Land of Cristiano Ronaldo

Carlos Fernandes was born and raised in Barlovento. It was there, in the deepest reaches of the state of Miranda, where he emerged as a political leader. It was also there where his parents settled a long time ago when they migrated from Portugal.  In 2017, he would leave for Portugal because he did not want to become yet another Venezuelan political prisoner.

Photos: Álbum familiar  

Carlos Fernandes was born and raised in Barlovento. It was there, in the deepest reaches of the state of Miranda, where he emerged as a political leader. It was also there where his parents settled a long time ago when they migrated from Portugal.  In 2017, he would leave for Portugal because he did not want to become yet another Venezuelan political prisoner. Carlos Fernandes looked out of the airplane window and rubbed his eyes. After a five-day layover in Lisbon, he had finally reached his destination. He stretched, pressing his back against the seat. He yawned, then stood up and walked in the only way you can walk through an airplane aisle without running over other passengers: sideways, taking short steps, holding your carry-on luggage to your chest. At that moment, at 26 years old, he vowed to rewrite his story. It was May 30, 2017. The airplane had landed smoothly at the Cristiano Ronaldo Airport. The strong winds that blow over Madeira make the airport of the 250,000 inhabitant island the most dangerous runway in the world, for part of it was built on pillars over the ocean. Carlos then headed to meet a maternal aunt, who was waiting for him at the terminal exit. He had brought Devil Ham cans and chocolate bars, and Belmont cigarette packs for his uncle. The souvenirs were packed in a suitcase full of worn-out clothes. All he had taken with him from Caucagua, the town where lived up until then, were his same old t-shirts, his love of the streets, and the memories of his career and struggles as a politician. It was in that small town of the state of Miranda, in the north-central part of Venezuela, where his parents settled a long time ago to make a home of their own when they migrated from Portugal. His father arrived during President Carlos Andres Pérez’s first term in office, at the height of the country’s oil bonanza; his mother’s turn came almost 20 years later, during Pérez’s second term. And that is where Carlos left them, downhearted, when he followed in their footsteps; only this time the trip was back to where they had started their journey decades before. Venezuela was a thriving and prosperous land, but much had changed since. For Carlos, a passionate political activist, remaining in the country meant living with the threat of imprisonment hanging over his head.  If Venezuela was where his future as an attorney lay —he earned his law degree in 2016 at the Santa Maria University—, then Carlos was landing in the past, or at least in his family’s past. For his parents, returning to the island of Madeira, which many of their fellow countrymen abandoned during a time of hardship, was not an easy decision to make. When they left, the island was a province of rural families who dressed in rags to sift through their own crops for what would probably be the only meal they would have in the entire day. Theirs were homes torn apart by the military dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who held power from 1926 to 1974. But now everything was different. It would not take Carlos long to see it for himself. Two days into his arrival, he traded his political agenda for a sponge. His ego blew up in his face when he let go of his political aspirations to wash dirty plates with leftover food. “I know you’re not used to washing dishes, and I am sorry, but that’s what I was able to arrange with the owner of the restaurant where I work,» his cousin told him, trying to sympathize with him on his first day at work. “It’s all right! I’m willing to do any kind of work,” Carlos replied. “That’s the attitude, my man!” “When I left Venezuela, I knew things were going to change and I am ready to deal with the consequences of my decision.” “There are Venezuelan doctors and engineers here waiting tables, working in supermarkets, behind store counters, and cleaning hotels.” Unlike the most visible faces in the opposition, Carlos had engaged in politics in the area of Barlovento, a cluster of towns and hamlets where Caucagua belongs. He tried to change the things that, in his opinion, were wrong. For almost a decade, he played a leading role in the Political Secretariat and in the Regional Youth Board of the Justice First [Primero Justicia, PJ] party. It was with that idea in mind that the decided to run for the 2013 municipal elections as a councilman. It was his first major political challenge, and one that happened to coincide with a family ordeal: the kidnapping of his uncle, who was now giving him a place to stay in Portugal. After the race, in which he came within 400 votes short of winning, he began to feel as he was being harassed. His best friend, David Viana, also a PJ activist, was being hounded. One day, Carlos had to take him out of his house in Guarenas to his own house in Caucagua in order to save him from the regime forces that wanted to take him away. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service was a rabid pack charging at the opposition. The aggression, the human rights violations, and the rising number of political prisoners made Carlos realize that he had to take a break from the streets and that he was in danger. As he contemplated the idea of migrating, something happened that added to his distress: the crackdown on the “Primero Justicia Twins» —as Nicolás Maduro referred to the PJ leaders José and Alejandro Sánchez during a radio and television address—, who had been charged for allegedly orchestrating a violent plan to attack the premises of the Executive Directorate of the Judiciary, in Chacao, in April of 2017. Carlos had also taken part in those demonstrations, which ended up in street barricades and riots, and he feared he would share the same fate. So, without so much as a plan, he hopped on a plane to Portugal. Carlos was a small-town, river boy who partook in caimaneras, or impromptu soccer games, in the middle of the afternoon.  From very early on, he learned to play hooky from school, taking yellow-dirt shortcuts strewn with thick vegetation to go swim in the Capaya River. He was quite the daredevil. And he had many interests. Instead of cartoons, he would sit and watch the news and interviews with political leaders on the TV. At the age of 11, he was already making questions about the problems in the country, and especially about those facing Caucagua. As a teen, he sold motorcycle parts with his elder brother, and bread with his father. In his family’s bakery, he bore witness to how his father, a Portuguese national who had become a baker as an adult, turned into an opponent of Chavismo. It was behind the bakery’s counter that the young boy learned the language of yeast and the perfume of dough; he also established a rapport with people and showed an interest in their problems: the lack of basic services and poverty. The bakery, located across the Bolivar Square in Caucagua, sold canillas, a type of French bread, fresh from the oven, and was also the place where makeshift electrical connections were made for the opposition’s electoral rallies. On weekends, Carlos worked as a waiter in his mother’s restaurant, sweeping the place and cleaning tables and chairs. “Hurry up, Son. The customers are about to arrive.” “Mom, remember that I may be sweeping the floors today, but someday I will be the mayor of Caucagua.” “You need to study for that.” “I will be mayor, Mom. You will see.” “Oh, boy. Enough with the nonsense. Just get down to work.” And work he did. He wouldn’t become the town’s major, but he would get into politics. He washed dirty dishes in the restaurant in Portugal for one year and eight months. He then ventured into cocktail making and worked as a baker, as he improved his proficiency in the Portuguese language. One day, during an informal soccer match, a friend familiar with his background in Venezuela suggested that he participate in a congress of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the party of Alberto João Jardim, the man who went down in history as the architect of the island’s modernity. Carlos attended the event and was fascinated. He decided to join the center-right party, to whose ideology he is closely aligned. He helped found the Núcleo de Emigrantes [Migrant Center] —an organization that grouped the island’s diaspora— and became a spokesman for the migrants’ problems. His name began to appear in the Madeiran media following two events: a demonstration in support of Juan Guaidó’s proclamation as interim president of Venezuela, and his performance during a debate held in the National Assembly of Portugal on Venezuelan political prisoners. This is how he became known to the party’s regional elite. They spoke of him with respect and admiration. The elections for the Madeira Assembly were soon to take place in September of 2019, and Carlos began to be considered as a potential candidate. One summer afternoon, he was working in a bar when he received a phone call. “Hello, how are you?” “Hello,» said Carlos. “We would like to add your name to the list of candidates for parliament for the PSD.” “Who is speaking?” “The president of Madeira.” “Excuse me. Who?”   “Miguel Albuquerque.” “Right! How may I help you?” “I am calling to inform you that you’ll be number 10 in our list of 47 nominees. Don’t say a word until we shall make it official tomorrow in the regional press.” It took him a while to process the new, but he accepted enthusiastically. A few days after the announcement, he went campaigning for several weeks, focusing on the Portuguese-Venezuelans living in the archipelago. He stressed the importance of having some sort of representation in the parliament, and offered them to work from that position for the migrant community. When the results were announced on September 22, Carlos had won, but the party had been dealt a defeat: for the first time in more than four decades, the regional executive —which won 21 of the 47 seats— was not a majority. It had fallen three deputies short of the 24 lawmakers it needed to govern. Eventually, the PSD was able to govern by securing a coalition with the Social-Christians, who had claimed the other seats it had failed to obtain. It was a weird day for Carlos. There was no effusive shouting or enthusiastic crowds or rounds of applause or anything that resembled a victory. It then dawned on him that his had not been a collective triumph, but a personal victory along a path he began to walk in Venezuela, 4,000 miles or so from where he was. His phone would not stop ringing with messages of congratulations from everywhere. His family joined the celebration from afar, in Caucagua.  He needed to fly away for his political career to take off. This story is one of the many written within the framework of the Tras los rastros de una historia [Trailing Stories] workshop that we offered to fifteen Venezuelan migrant journalists through our online El Aula e-nos platform in the 3rd year of the La Vida de Nos Itinerante training program.

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Periodista. Apasionado por el arte de escribir, formado en medios impresos: El Nacional, El Universal, 2001, La Voz y Últimas Noticias. Premio Cobertura Noticiosa 2017 de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa. Fanático y crítico de Caracas.

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