BEIRUT: After 16 years in Venezuela, Lebanese-Venezuelan Walid Rustom packed his bags and returned to Beirut with his younger son to begin a new chapter of his life – hopefully free from violence and daily instability. Despite having just arrived in early August, Rustom gets around the country’s capital – where he grew up – with efficiency and verve. Singing along to Latin music while picking up and dropping off commuters, the service driver has reintegrated himself into Beirut’s daily grind with relative ease.
The job choice, Rustom says, is for income but also a security net, providing medical insurance – one of the benefits of a red license plate – for himself and his son.
“I returned to Lebanon with one of my sons on Aug. 4,” Rustom, born to a Colombian mother and a Lebanese father, told The Daily Star. “People always ask me where I’m from because I don’t look Lebanese at all. Also because I mostly play Latin reggae and pop while I drive,” he said.
“I hope this job won’t be permanent, but for now I enjoy it. It’s very social, which I like, and it also provides me and my son with the insurance we need.”
While the single father was smiling and relaxed as he talked, his return to Lebanon was spurred by the traumatic events of the recent political instability in Venezuela.
Rustom may have been raised in Beirut, but many members of the Lebanese diaspora in South America have been rooted in their adopted countries for several generations. In the elapsed time, their connections to the Levant have dwindled.
“Many of the Arabs, mostly Syrians and Lebanese, speak Spanish,” Rustom – who briefly worked as head of public relations for the Arab Club in Venezuela’s Maturin – said.
“If one of their parents speaks Arabic, they will learn a little bit. We try to encourage this at the Arab Club, but still, they mostly speak Spanish.”
Dr. John Tofik Karam, author of the academic paper “The Lebanese Diaspora at the Tri-Border and the Redrawing of South American Geopolitics, 1950-1992,” said that Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians began emigrating to Venezuela and neighboring countries in the late 19th century.
“The children of these, and later waves of migrants began moving into liberal professions as early as the 1950s,” Karam, Associate Director of the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an e-mail. “The migration wave after World War II continued, but at a lesser rate,” he added.
Despite having developed a deep affection for his second home, Rustom said that the situation in Venezuela had grown unbearable.
“The situation there is really bad. There are robberies, kidnappings and killings every day,” he said. “I myself was kidnapped in March 2014. You just can’t live there anymore.” With extended family in Beirut, he decided it was time to move back.
Venezuela’s political instability and deteriorating security situation can be attributed to the failed policies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro took over the presidency from the much beloved and controversial socialist leader Hugo Chavez following the latter’s death in 2013.
While Chavez was able to wield Venezuela’s oil wealth in the service of his socialist project, Maduro’s government has been unsuccessful in maintaining Chavez’s model, resulting in the cutback of many social programs.
Maduro’s struggles resulted in an increasingly vocal and angry opposition, who accuse Maduro of moving towards a dictatorship. Loyalists and dissenters now engage in violent clashes that break out regularly on the country’s streets.
According to Karam, many Arabs in Venezuela fall into the pro-government camp. “Given their background in business and liberal professions, Lebanese and Arabs in general tend to support the status quo – so it’s no surprise that we see Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs making up Chavista governments,” the professor explained, using a term to denote the Maduro regime, which is in the Chavez tradition.
“Tarek al-Aissami is currently vice president under Maduro. His mother is Lebanese and his father is from Jabal al-Druze in Syria. He was formerly minister for interior and justice under Chavez,” Karam noted to illustrate the widespread presence of people of Arab descent in Maduro’s government.
Despite prominent Arab connections to the regimes of both Chavez and Maduro, Karam noted that strong divisions still exist among civilians. Jeber Barreto and his wife, Marrun Adriana Rahme, immigrated back to Lebanon several years before Rustom did, once the couple could see no future in Venezuela. Having left South America in 2015, the young couple chose to settle near Jounieh, where they welcomed the birth of their son.
While Barreto is of pure Venezuelan stock, Rahme's father is from north Lebanon’s Bsharri. Her Venezuelan mother, however, remains in her home country. At first, they considered moving to Miami, but ultimately decided that Lebanon would be a better alternative in terms of their son's linguistic education.
“English, French, grammatical Arabic and colloquial with the added Spanish,” Barreto said. “In what other part of the world can you learn so many languages?”
Despite having settled a world away, Barreto remains active in Venezuelan politics as the leader of the Voluntad Popular political party – a major Venezuelan opposition party – in Lebanon. Voluntad Popular was founded in 2009, and has highlighted the human rights infringements carried out by Chavez, and now Maduro.
This past July, Barreto organized voting in an unofficial Venezuelan referendum – called by opposition parties in response to a Maduro’s aborted move to take over the opposition-controlled National Assembly – for eligible voters in Lebanon. Ultimately, 1,404 votes were cast in Lebanon.
“We are extremely happy for this big turnout of the Venezuelans living here in Lebanon,” Barreto said in an interview with Nuestra Tele Noticias, an international Spanish-language news channel, on July 16. “It was a historic manifestation. Out of 1,404 voters, 1,399 voted ‘yes’ [to reject Maduro’s proposal of a Constituent Assembly], two voted ‘no’ and three abstained.”
“Everybody is against dictatorship and everybody is in favor of an opening of the humanitarian channel,” Barreto added. “No more political prisoners. We need more jobs, cultural programs, educational reform, healthcare and bread for Venezuela.”
Speaking to The Daily Star, Barreto emphasized his dedication to fostering his family’s connection to Venezuela, its culture, people and political situation.
“[Our] ties with Venezuela, however large the distance, are intact. We always talk to our people there and travel back,” he said. “But the Venezuelan community in Lebanon is very united as well. We always meet and host cultural events, like concerts with Venezuelan artists.”
While Lebanon seems to have welcomed back a significant amount of Venezuelans with Lebanese origins, Barreto could not provide an accurate estimate of the number.
“I would be lying if I gave you a number of how many Lebanese have left Venezuela,” Barreto said. “This crisis has made much unclear.”
A representative of the Venezuelan Embassy in Lebanon, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the embassy did not have any data on returning dual nationals. She declined to answer further questions, adding that Ambassador Zoed Karam Doueihy was not available for comment.
Both Barreto and Rustom noted that those who chose to move back were members of the diaspora who had maintained close connections – family, property or even businesses – in the Levant. Those with little connecting them to Lebanon were less likely to make the reverse trek.
When Barreto was asked whether he and his wife would consider moving back to Venezuela, he gave a realistic, but not hopeless, response. “We haven’t ruled anything out,” he said. “My wife and I are very idealistic people, but the situation is getting worse day after day.”