LGBTQ Venezuelan migrants struggle to survive in Colombia – Los Angeles Blade

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Edgar García and his partner, Dannys Torres, on Oct. 3, 2018, used a canoe to cross the Arauca River that marks the Venezuela-Colombia border.
García was a member of the board of directors of Alianza Lambda de Venezuela, a Venezuelan LGBTQ rights group, before he fled Venezuela. Torres worked as a hairdresser in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
The couple now lives in Rafael Uribe Uribe, a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá, the Colombian capital.
Torres continues to work as a hairdresser. García most recently worked for a telecommunications company.
“We are settled here in Bogotá,” García told the Los Angeles Blade on Sept. 21 during an interview with him and Torres that took place at a shopping mall near their home. “You have your life here.”

García and Torres are two of the more than 5.4 million Venezuelans who the Coordination Platform for Migrants and Refugees from Venezuela say have left their country as of November 2020 because of its ongoing economic and political crises.
Statistics from the Colombian government indicate there are currently more than 1.7 million Venezuelans in the country. More than 50 percent of them live in Bogotá and the departments of Norte de Santander, Atlántico and Antioquia.
Colombian President Iván Duque in February announced the country would legally recognize Venezuelan migrants who are registered with the government.
Sources in Colombia with whom the Blade has spoken say there are likely many more Venezuelan migrants in the country than official statistics indicate. Venezuelan migrants who are LGBTQ and/or living with HIV remain disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination and violence and often lack access to health care and formal employment.
A report the Red de Movilidad Humana LGBTI+—a network of advocacy groups in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala and Mexico—published with the support of the U.N. Refugee Agency notes sex trafficking and even death are among the myriad threats that LGBTQ migrants from Venezuela face once they enter Colombia. The report indicates they also face discrimination in shelters because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual violence and a lack of access to the Colombian judicial system.
Vanesa, a 25-year-old transgender woman from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, came to Colombia eight years ago “in search of a better quality of life.”
She told the Blade on Sept. 14 during an interview at Fundación de Atención Inclusiva, Social y Humana (FUVADIS)—an organization in Barranquilla, a city in Atlántico department that is near the mouth of the Magdalena River in northern Colombia, that serves Venezuelan migrants—she entered Colombia near Maicao, a city in La Guajira department via an informal border crossing known as a “trocha.” Vanesa said she was nearly kidnapped.
“The people who were standing on the sides (of the “trocha”) who ask you for money were supposedly security,” she said. “There was no security. They left me there because I was trans. They said a lot of ugly things. They assaulted me, including one (man) who was not going to let me go. They wanted me to kidnap me or have me there to do whatever they wanted to me.”
Vanesa said a woman helped her escape.
“The experience was horrible,” she said.
Vanesa traveled to Cartagena, a popular tourist destination that is less than two hours southwest of Barranquilla, and began to work at her friend’s hair salon. Vanesa told the Blade that her friend’s mother “never liked me because … she is a Christian.”
Vanesa now lives in Barranquilla and supports herself through video chats. Vanesa also competes in local beauty pageants and is able to send money to her mother in Venezuela.
“I work here,” she said. “I am relatively well off.”

Andy, a trans man from Venezuela’s Maracay state, left Venezuela four years ago with his partner and their daughter. Andy, like Vanesa, entered Colombia via a “trocha” near Maicao.
“I migrated because the situation was becoming worse and worse each day,” Andy told the Blade on Sept. 14 as he attended a workshop that Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ group in northern Colombia, organized at a Barranquilla hotel.
Caribe Afirmativo has opened three “Casas Afirmativos” in Barranquilla, Maicao and Medellín that provide access to health care and other services to Venezuelan migrants who are LGBTQ and/or living with HIV/AIDS. Caribe Afirmativo also operates several “Casas de Paz” throughout northern Colombia that support the implementation of an LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that came into force in 2016.
Andy said his work in Venezuela allowed him to learn how “to sell whatever product,” but he told the Blade he struggled to find a job once he arrived in Colombia.
Andy told the Blade that he, his partner and their daughter now have stable housing in Barranquilla. Andy said he also has received a job offer in Medellín, the country’s second-largest city that is the capital of Antioquia department.

Jesús Gómez is a 33-year-old gay man from Venezuela’s Trujillo state in the Venezuelan Andes that are close to the country’s border with Colombia.
He previously worked with Venezuela Diversa, a Venezuelan LGBTQ advocacy group, and accepted a position with the municipality of Chacao that is part of Caracas. Gómez, whose mother was born in Colombia, also joined a student protest movement against the government.
Gómez fled to Colombia and is pursuing his asylum case with the help of UNHCR.
“I feel bad emotionally, but I am well-off compared to other people,” he told the Blade on Sept. 16 during an interview at a hotel in Cúcuta, a city in Norte de Santander department that is a few miles from the country’s border with Venezuela. “I am working to help other people who are in the same situation.”
Gómez in December is scheduled to graduate from nursing school. He also works with Fundación Censurados, a Cúcuta-based HIV/AIDS service organization that works with Venezuelan migrants, and has supported other organizations in the area that serve them.

FUVADIS Executive Director Luis Meneses, like Gómez, was an LGBTQ activist in Venezuela.
Meneses, who is from Venezuela’s Zulia state, in 2010 unsuccessfully ran for Venezuela’s National Assembly. Meneses in February 2018 fled to Colombia because of the “political persecution” he said he suffered.
“Discrimination and prejudice against me began when I came out to defend LGBTI rights,” Meneses told the Blade on Sept. 14 during an interview at his office.
Meneses in August 2018 launched FUVADIS, which receives support from groups that includes UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. FUVADIS provides health care, antiretroviral drugs and a host of other services to Venezuelan migrants with HIV/AIDS and other populations that include sex workers. Vanessa and nearly 900 other FUVADIS clients are LGBTQ.
“We cannot work for the migrant population by only giving them humanitarian assistance,” said Meneses. “It’s also about guaranteeing access to their rights.”
The New York-based Aid for AIDS International estimates more than 10,000 Venezuelans with HIV have left the country in recent years. Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs.
The Venezuelan government has also targeted HIV/AIDS service organizations.
Members of Venezuela’s General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence in January raided the offices of Azul Positivo, an HIV/AIDS service organization and arrested President Johan León Reyes and five other staff members. Venezuelan police on Feb. 15, 2019, raided the offices of Fundación Mavid, another HIV/AIDS service organization in Valencia, a city in Carabobo state, and arrested three staffers after they confiscated donated infant formula and medications for people with HIV/AIDS
Deyvi Galvis Vásquez, a doctor who is the manager of prevention and testing for AIDS Healthcare Foundation Colombia on Sept. 17 during an interview at AHF’s Cúcuta clinic showed the Blade pictures of Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS in Colombia who had cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“The conditions are of extreme vulnerability,” said Galvis.

Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a Medellín-based group that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, during a Sept. 13 interview with the Blade in his office echoed Galvis. Cardona added stigma specifically against Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS is one of the myriad issues he and his colleagues confront.
“The issue of the elimination of HIV also implies not only an issue of communication and prevention, but also an issue of effective attention,” said Cardona. “We have our conservative culture, an idea that the Venezuelans who are coming are going to give us HIV.”
“This is totally discriminatory,” he added.
Cardona, like those inside Venezuela with whom the Blade has spoken, said there are no services in the country for people with HIV/AIDS.
“There are many Venezuelan migrants with HIV who enter Colombia, because they are going to die if they don’t,” he said.
AHF operates other facilities in Bogotá and in the cities of Bucaramanga, Yopal, Valledupar and Ríohacha. The organization, along with the Colombian Red Cross and the government of Santander department, in March began to distribute condoms, food and water and offer rapid HIV tests to Venezuelan migrants who travel through Páramo de Berlín, a high plateau in the Colombian Andes through which a highway between Cúcuta and Bucaramanga passes.  
AHF, among other things, offers migrants rapid HIV and syphilis tests and counseling for people who test positive. AHF also provides lab tests, formula for children of mothers with HIV and health care with an “interdisciplinary health care team.”
AHF Colombia Country Program Manager Liliana Andrade Forero and AHF Colombia Data Manager Sandra Avila Mira on Sept. 20 noted to the Blade during an interview at AHF’s Bogotá clinic that upwards of 2,000 migrants currently receive care from the organization. They also pointed out that 1,952 of them are taking antiretroviral drugs the Brazilian government donates.
Galvis noted to the Blade that many of AHF’s patients also have access to mental health care and social workers.
“AHF’s policy is to reach out to everyone,” he said.

Galvis, Fundación Censurados Director Juan Carlos Archila and other Colombian HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke say the pandemic has made Venezuelan migrants with HIV/AIDS in the country even more vulnerable.
Lockdowns prevented sex workers and others who work in the informal economy from earning money. A “pico y género” rule implemented by Bogotá Mayor Claudia López that allowed women to leave their homes on even days and men to leave their homes on odd days sparked criticism among trans activists.
Archila, who is a nurse, on Sept. 16 told the Blade during an interview at a Cúcuta hotel the pandemic has also left Censurados in a precarious situation.
“We endured practically two years with the doors closed, with expenses increasing,” he said. “The need of people who come to us for the issue of HIV remains, and yet we are all trying to cope with the situation.”
Andrade noted AHF’s Bogotá was closed for several months at the beginning of the pandemic because of the city’s strict lockdown.
The pandemic also forced FUVADIS to close its offices in March 2020, but Meneses told the Blade the organization was able to see a handful of patients at a time. He said “basic humanitarian assistance” that included hygiene kits and food were among the things that FUVADIS was able to provide its patients during the pandemic.
“Understanding how the situation for the LGBTI community, people with HIV, the migrant population and the refugee population is, we could not allow (our services) to shut down,” Meneses told the Blade.
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Program based on Corporate Equality Index

WASHINGTON — The Human Rights Campaign on Thursday announced its initiative to promote LGBTQ equality in workplaces around the world has expanded to two South American countries.
A press release notes the HRC Foundation has launched Equidad AR in Argentina with the country’s Instituto de Políticas Públicas LGBT+, and Equidad BR in Brazil with Instituto + Diversidade.
The initiatives, which are based on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, have three specific objectives for the businesses that take part. They are the adoption of non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity, the creation of employee resource groups or “diversity and inclusion councils” and “engagement in public activities to support LGBTQ+ inclusion.”
“Argentina is one of the most advanced countries in terms of rights for the collective of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary people in the region,” said Instituto de Políticas Públicas LGBT+ President Esteban Paulón in the press release. “However, the formal equality achieved does not always transform into real equality of opportunities. We believe that in the corporate sphere there is a great opportunity to achieve the equality that we dream.” 
HRC’s annual Corporate Equality Index is the blueprint for Equidad AR and Equidad BR. Similar indexes have been launched with LGBTQ rights groups in Chile and Mexico.
“An index that recognizes inclusive companies and practices is a must to push forward and accelerate LGBTI+ inclusion in Brazil,” said Instituto + Diversidade Executive President Joao Torres.
Thursday’s announcement comes less than two months after HRC fired then-President Alphonso David after his implication in the sexual harassment scandal around now former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Joni Madison is HRC’s interim president.
LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement took effect in 2016

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Colombia mission says he and his colleagues remain committed to the implementation of the country’s LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement.
“The entire portfolio that we have and all of our work here in Colombia is really to support a durable and an inclusive piece,” Larry Sacks told the Los Angeles Blade on Sept. 21 during an interview in Bogotá, the Colombian capital. “The core principles of what we do are based on equality, inclusion, rights and justice.”
The agreement then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño signed in Cartagena on Sept. 26, 2016, specifically acknowledged LGBTQ Colombians as victims of the decades-long conflict that killed more than 200,000 people. The accord also called for their participation in the country’s political process.
Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ group in northern Colombia with which USAID works, is one of three activists who participated in the peace talks that took place in Havana.

Colombian voters on Oct. 2, 2016, narrowly rejected the agreement in a referendum that took place against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from religious and conservative groups. Santos and Londoño less than two months later signed a second peace agreement — which also contains LGBTQ-specific references — in Bogotá.
“That was a very progressive move,” said Sacks in describing the inclusion of LGBTQ Colombians in the agreement.
President Iván Duque, who campaigned against the agreement ahead of his 2018 election, spoke to the U.N. General Assembly hours before the Blade interviewed Sacks. Duque described it as “fragile.”
“Peace accords worldwide tend to be made or broken within the first five years of implementation, and Colombia is right at that point,” Sacks told the Blade when asked about Duque’s comments. “There are certain people deep in the territories and others and high governments who are really helping and making sure that it’s successful, and that there’s continuity, and that the gains that have been made are irreversible. And there’s others who may question, but at the end of the day, I think that from our analysis, it’s on pace with what we’ve seen of the implementation of other peace accords worldwide.”
“At least from USAID’s perspective, we’re doing everything that we can to help support the implementation on multiple chapters of the peace accord,” he added.
USAID specifically supports the implementation of rural development programs through the agreement, efforts to reintegrate former child soldiers into Colombian society and expand the government’s presence into “violence-affected areas.” USAID also works with the Truth Commission, the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the government’s Victims’ Unit and NGOs that support the conflict’s victims.
USAID’s fiscal year 2021 budget for Colombia is $212.9 million. Upwards of $50 million of this money is earmarked for human rights work that specifically focuses on indigenous Colombians and Colombians of African descent, security, access to the country’s justice system and victims of the conflict.
Sacks said USAID’s LGBTQ-specific work in Colombia focuses on four specific areas.
“The first is really to kind of shine a light on, raise the visibility, raise the profile on issues of discrimination and violence and stigma and all the issues that this population is facing,” he said.
Colombia Diversa, a Colombian LGBTQ rights group, on Sept. 15 issued a report that notes 226 LGBTQ people were reported murdered in the country in 2020. This figure is more than twice the number of LGBTQ Colombians — 107 — who Colombia Diversa said were known to have been killed in 2019.
Sacks acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is increasing in Colombia.
He said the mission works with Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, an independent agency within the Colombian government that oversees human rights protections in the country, to provide additional support to LGBTQ rights groups. Sacks noted USAID also works with the Interior Ministry to “support the development of their LGBTQI-plus policies” and the country’s attorney general “to hold those accountable.”
Sacks told the Blade that USAID also works to provide “technical and legal support to help” LGBTQ Colombians and other vulnerable groups “access public goods, services and justice.”
The Colombian government earlier this year said there were more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants in the country, although activists and HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade has spoken say this figure is likely much higher. Duque in February announced it would legally recognize Venezuelan migrants who are registered with the country’s government. 
The Coordination Platform for Migrants and Refugees from Venezuela notes upwards of 5.4 million Venezuelans have left the country as of November 2020 as its economic and political crisis grows worse. The majority of them have sought refuge in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
Venezuelan migrants are among the upwards of 570,000 people who have benefitted from a USAID program that provides direct cash assistance — between $49-$95 per family — for six months in order to purchase food and other basic needs. USAID also supports Americares, a Connecticut-based NGO that operates several clinics along the Colombia-Venezuelan border and in northern Colombia that specifically serve Venezuelan migrants with the support of the Colombian Health Ministry.

Sacks noted USAID has an “agreement with” Aid for AIDS International, a New York-based group that serves Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS. Aid for AIDS International has used this support to conduct a survey of 300 sex workers in Maicao, Medellín and Cali.
USAID is also working with the Health Ministry to provide health care to Venezuelan migrants with HIV/AIDS, among others, who are now legally recognized in Colombia.
Caribe Afirmativo has opened three “Casas Afirmativos” in Maicao, Barranquilla and Medellín that provide access to health care and other services to Venezuelan migrants who are LGBTQ and/or living with HIV/AIDS. Medellín officials have also invited Caribe Afirmativo staffers to speak with LGBTQ migrants in the city’s public schools.
“Colombia has shown a generosity that you don’t see in many other countries with regard to migrant populations,” Sacks told the Blade. “They really open their borders, their homes, their hearts, to migrants, including the LGBTI community.”
The White House earlier this year released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad. State Department spokesperson Ned Price in May told the Blade the protection of LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers is one of the Biden administration’s priorities on this front.
Sacks said the memo “gives us the political framework with which to operate and obviously sends a message from the highest levels of the U.S. government about LGBTQI-plus rights and equality and inclusion.”
“So for us, it’s a tremendous benefit,” he told the Blade.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power — a vocal champion of LGBTQ rights — has yet to visit Colombia, but Sacks said she has spoken with Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez.
“We hope to get her down,” said Sacks.
Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers was on assignment in Colombia from Sept. 11-22.
Fabiano Contarato challenged homophobic comments during hearing

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazilian Sen. Fabiano Contarato on Sept. 30 won praise across the country when he publicly confronted homophobic social media attacks. 
In a session of the Senate’s Parliamentary Inquiry Committee that is investigating Brazil’s response to the pandemic, Contarato, the country’s first openly gay senator, made a historic speech.
As businessman Otávio Fakhoury testified, Contarato, who was presiding over the hearing, questioned him about a homophobic social media post that personally attacked the senator. Fakhoury, a known supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro, is suspected of funding a fake news scheme during the pandemic.
Fakhoury’s post, mocking a spelling error in one of Contarato’s tweets, implied that the senator was flirting in the committee.
“You are not a teenager. You are married, you have children. Your family is no better than mine,” Contarato told the businessman.
“My family is no worse than yours because the same marriage certificate you have I also have. You talk about the Fatherland, you talk about legality, you talk about morality, but you are the main violator of that legality and morality. You speak of ‘God above all,’ but God is among us,” added Contarato, who became emotional.
Fakhoury later said that the comment was a joke with no intention of diminishing him, and apologized.
“I respect your family as I respect mine. I have friends from all sides, with preferences, orientations. Therefore, I declare that my comment was not intended to offend you,” he said. “I know I have offended you deeply and I apologize. I’m not a person who discriminates against race, color or sexual orientation.”

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