Juan Pablo Galviz lied wide awake on his bed in the early hours of the morning, listening to every sound on the nearby street. He couldn’t remember how many days he’d gone without sleep since the day he thought he and his family wouldn’t escape the hands of the colectivos – armed paramilitary groups in support of socialist President Nicolás Maduro – in Venezuela.
His pantry was empty, his body sore from the day’s work, and he begged God to deliver him and his family.
“When I graduated as a journalist, I never imagined I would have to live through something like this,” Galviz recalled, “that Venezuela would go through something like this.”
Just a few months before reaching Florida in search of asylum, Juan Pablo had received death threats and visits from the colectivos to his own house because of his work as a host of a popular radio show, in which he highlighted the harsh conditions and painful experiences of many people caused by the failing economy or the cruel treatment received from the government.
“In 2014, Venezuela began its ‘Way of the Cross.’ Protests and street closings started happening [fueled by the economic crisis and gasoline shortages]; government officials and other groups paid by the government began intimidating protestors, even if they were protesting peacefully,” Galviz said. “Protestors began barricading the streets to protect themselves from the colectivos. [The armed groups] had ‘sapos’ [whistleblowers; literally, ‘toads’] on every street, so they showed up at every protest and would browbeat people at gun point using the most vulgar language you can imagine.
“We couldn’t leave our houses for about four months because the government imposed a curfew; in my city, San Cristobal, the curfew started at 1 p.m. The period of the barricades in San Cristobal was among the most disastrous of the country. The [armed groups] burned many things, and there were terrible deaths, including those of many student protestors…
“A big group of students decided to camp out by one of the main streets of the city in peaceful protest, and at night the governor would send the military with their tanks to intimidate the students and the people living in the surrounding neighborhood. They would break windows, break into homes, chase students who ran away to hide…
“All of this is to describe what we started experiencing in 2014, because it was one of the most tragic moments in Venezuelan history, without knowing what was to follow.”
After the country reopened, Galviz, who also has a graduate degree in education and was teaching at the local university, began a video campaign with some of his students to promote good values in society, “because the city was left in ruins.”
In addition, he started his Saturday news radio show that would later be the reason for his persecution.
“We featured many relevant stories on the show. For example, people didn’t know that many mothers, in order to feed their children, would travel all the way to the Colombian border, donate their hair and receive a few Colombian pesos. With the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar, that was a lot of money, and they could at least buy food for three days,” he said.
Galviz highlighted these types of stories for about three years, “causing people in the regime to grow in discontent.”
2017 saw a resurgence of protests, closures, barricades and conflicts, “but this time the colectivos were a lot more violent,” he said.
The opposition organized the “Gran Plantón”, or “great sit-in,” in which, at a certain date and time, people would interrupt their activities and protest wherever they were.
Galviz was in his home at the time, and many of his neighbors decided to protest outside. But then the colectivos arrived.
“They already knew where I lived, so they took advantage of the situation,” he recalled. “I went inside to warn my wife and my mother, who also lived with us. Two minutes later [the colectivos] were at the door yelling, threatening us and breaking all sorts of things. At that moment, I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kill us.’ A thousand things crossed my mind that day.”
After the incident, he couldn’t leave his house in peace: the colectivos continued to keep a close eye on his neighborhood. The situation forced him to take his family in secret and move in with his brother in another part of the city.
These incidents left many scars in the Galviz family. His wife and his mother both suffered from nervous breakdowns, and he himself had to seek out help from a psychologist.
“I tried not to show my weakness, but on the inside, I was deeply broken,” he said.
He was forced to change the content of his radio show out of fear and resigned a few months later.
“I left the show because I couldn’t sleep anymore,” he said. “It was either my work or my family.”
Galviz was forced to find any means to provide for his family and buy his mother’s medicine.
“I started collecting recyclables and taking them all the way to the Colombian border, where they gave you just a few pesos, but enough to buy flour or rice,” he recalled. “I would fill up and carry a big suitcase, and it was so heavy that at night my hands were torn and in a lot of pain.”
But the effects of the situation would bring more suffering to the family.
“My wife and I found out that we were expecting, and we saw it as a sign of hope. But the anxiety and stress of the situation caused her to have a miscarriage,” he said. “We were heartbroken.”
Amid the pain, he was able to return to his position at the university, giving virtual classes, but he knew he couldn’t keep it up for much longer: things were only getting worse.
He received word from his neighbors that the colectivos frequently visited his old home, yelling: “We’re going to kill you! You’re going to die!” and all kinds of obscenities.
“The priests who condemned [the injustices and evils] of the regime receive death threats. I’ve known of many. Father Luis Toro, for example, a very well-known priest in all of Latin America for being a great defender of the faith, was my parish priest. At one Mass, he spoke very strongly against the actions of the government, and he had to leave the country because of it. He’s never returned since then.”Juan Pablo Galviz
A few months later, thanks to the help of his father- and son-in-law, who had managed to move to the U.S., Galviz, his wife and his mother were able to fly to Miami seeking asylum.
“We were scared that they wouldn’t let us in, but I thank God they did. That night at the hotel, before going to sleep, the sensation was unbelievable – we finally felt free,” he said.
Since then, for the past two years the Galviz family has undergone a process of healing, of trying to understand why they had to leave their own beloved country “like criminals,” of getting used to the idea that they may not be able to return any time soon.
“We didn’t want to leave. We left everything: family, friends, house, cars,” he said. “When I realized I wouldn’t be able to return any time soon, and officially resigned from my post at the university, I got very sick.”
Galviz assured that not only journalists were persecuted by the totalitarian government, but anyone who spoke out against it, including regular people of faith, as well as priests and bishops.
“The priests who condemned [the injustices and evils] of the regime receive death threats,” he said. “I’ve known of many. Father Luis Toro, for example, a very well-known priest in all of Latin America for being a great defender of the faith, was my parish priest. At one Mass, he spoke very strongly against the actions of the government, and he had to leave the country because of it. He’s never returned since then.”
Amid the hardships, Galviz is very grateful for the help and community his family has encountered at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora. Ever since he was granted a working permit, he’s been working several jobs he’d never done before, but he will soon return to the communications world as a host on a Spanish Denver radio station.
“It’s hard to leave everything and come do things you’ve never done before,” he concluded. “But since I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve grown and matured. I feel so much calmer. I’m very grateful.”