During the height of Venezuela’s fierce anti-government protests in the Spring of 2017, Wuilly Arteaga, 24, a self-taught violinist, rose to international fame by calmly playing the violin in the midst of the violent chaos.
Often sporting a jacket with the Venezuelan flag, the violin perched on his shoulder, Arteaga played classical tunes as national guards shot rubber bullets and threw tear gas towards him and other protesters during rallies that culminated in over 100 people killed.
Arteaga and his violin quickly became a symbol of resistance.
Videos of him playing went viral on social media, leading to news headlines around the world, and eventually, to the destruction of his violin by national guard troops.
He was thrown in prison where he says he was beaten by authorities.
“They would tell me I would be in prison for 30 years. I was afraid, but I would try to stay calm,” said Arteaga, who became one of the best-known faces of the protests.
After nearly a month in prison, he was released. He came to New York, where he plays the violin in subway stations. He collects about $100 an hour when he plays, a rare fortune among others like him.
Arteaga applied for political asylum. For now, he finds himself in limbo. He is free to express himself but is haunted by the uncertainty over whether his request will be approved in a process that can take years.
“I’m happy but I’m not going to be at ease until my asylum is approved,” he said.
Since 2015, over three million Venezuelans have fled what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries. It's a number comparable to ones seen in war-ravaged countries like Syria and Afghanistan.
The exodus, one of the biggest migrations ever on the continent, has spread unevenly throughout the region. Its neighbor, Colombia, is hosting the greatest amount of Venezuelan migrants, at over one million. Other countries like Peru and Ecuador have taken in hundreds of thousands.
In the U.S., the amount of Venezuelans seeking asylum has soared in the past couple of years: In 2015 Venezuelans filed 5,605 applications; by 2017, the number rose to 27,629. Venezuelans now request asylum far more than citizens from any other country.
Because the overall amount of asylum requests in the U.S. has soared from 25,500 in fiscal year 2008 to over 106,000 in fiscal year 2018, the backlog can be years long.
In Venezuela, political detentions, like that of Arteaga, have become rampant. Many opposition leaders are either jailed or exiled.
“If you ask any Venezuelan in the world if they know someone, either family or friend, that has been detained for political reasons, everyone will know at least one person,” said Alfredo Romero, head of Foro Penal, a group that represents Venezuelan political prisoners.
Aside from the political situation, Venezuelans are escaping an unprecedented economic crisis that has led to severe shortages in food, medicine, electricity, water and gasoline. This is taking place in a nation with the largest oil reserves in the world and one of the largest gold deposits.
Hyperinflation could hit 1 million percent by year’s end, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.
It’s not unusual to see Venezuelans looking through trash for food as children and adults go hungry. Venezuela’s high crime rate, often fueled by poverty and desperation, has turned the country into one of the most dangerous in the planet.
Many of those arriving in the U.S. were once middle-class, educated, professionals that ended up living in precarious conditions in the country.
Arteaga has been sending money to his parents, who live in humble conditions in the Venezuelan city of Valencia. With the funds, they were able to purchase a smart phone and recently saw and talked to Arteaga for the first time in a year.
Through sobs, they say, “I love you” and “I miss you.” They are not sure when they will be together again.
It's extremely difficult for Arteaga’s parents to obtain a U.S. tourist visa to see their son and Arteaga cannot return to his home country.
“It would be devastating if he came back to Venezuela,” his father, also named Wuilly Arteaga, said. “If he did, he’d go straight to prison.”
It’s a stressful situation for Arteaga, waiting to find out if his asylum petition is approved.
“I do feel sad,” Arteaga said. “But I always try to stay positive.”