«Quietness, that was the first thing Venezuela gave us, how much it offered us.
Do you know what it’s like to wake up because you just wake up and not because there are bombs or because, at dawn, the repressive forces knock on your door?» tells BBC Mundo Rodrigo Arocena, a former voter at the University of the Republic of Uruguay, who went into exile in Venezuela in 1975.
As he many fled the military regimes of the Southern Cone and found a new home in Venezuela, historically a recipient of migrants who in recent years has seen millions of people leave.
«My dearest memory of Venezuela is generosity and immense affection of some friends who welcomed me, especially the Torres Hecker family. Ildemaro, Sonia and their three children replaced my family that remained in Chile and lost in exile,» Chilean writer Isabel Allende tells BBC Mundo.
«When they adopted us, I felt like it finally belonged fully in Venezuela,» he says in an email.
But Latin Americans were not the only ones who found the door open, there were also immigrants who came from much farther lands.
BBC Mundo rescues five stories of figures who exceled in science, art and literature and who experimented with their families «the generosity of Venezuelans».
The Benacerrafs and the son who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine
«Abraham and Henriette married in Oran, Algeria, on September 11, 1919 and departed immediately for Caracas, Venezuela, where they settled in the large house where Abraham resided with his brothers.» «I was born in my parents’ room on October 29, 1920.»
These fragments were written by Baruj Benacerraf in his autobiography: From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life in Medical Science («From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life in Medical Science»).
In 1980, the doctor won the Nobel Prize in Medicine (along with George Snell and Jean Dausset) for discovering genetic factors that regulate immune responses.
«My grandfather was always in a hurry to say he was born in Caracas,» Oliver Libby tells BBC World.
«He spoke Spanish with pride. He was well aware of his inheritance and had a special place in his heart for Caracas. Being the Nobel laureate of Venezuela was something that gave him great happiness.»
Abraham, the young immigrant
Benacerraf was of Spanish descent and Sephardic Jew.
His father, who was born in Tetouan (Morocco) as a Spanish colony, had eight siblings.
Baruj Benacerraf’s father was born in northern Morocco, in Tetouan, when that region was a Spanish colony. IMAGE SOURCE: ROGER VIOLLET VIA GETTY IMAGES
«As a teenager, my father took me to Tetouan to see the people of his ancestors and the house in which he was born in the Jewish ghetto. It was a pitiful house, without electricity, water or wastewater disposal system,» he wrote.
«I easily understood why at the age of fourteen, alone and without money, he went to Caracas, where a distant cousin, Nissim, secured him a job in his textile warehouse.»
Abraham sent money to his family in Morocco and helped four of his brothers go to Venezuela. Together with two of them he founded the company: Brothers Benacerraf, while elsewhere in the country, two of his brothers devoted themselves to cocoa and coffee trade.
One of them, Fortunato, was the father of a pioneering and icon of Venezuelan cinema, the director Margot Benacerraf, whose feature film Araya is considered by many to be one of the best documentaries in history.
In his autobiography, Baruj says that when he turned five, his parents decided to move to France, where his brother, Paul, a prominent philosopher of mathematics, was born.
Abraham left his brothers in charge of the «successful business» of importing textile products, while he tried to open an office in Europe to improve operations.
Away from Caracas
The start of World War II brought them back to Venezuela in 1939.
Although his father wanted him to continue the family business, Baruj had another idea for his future.
He studied in the United States and became one of the great innovators of modern immunology.
«There are many memories I have of my grandfather, from the extraordinary pride I felt as I watched him speak at medical conferences around the world (often taking me on those trips), to the little family moments at home,» as when they spent whole nights assembling models of boats or when I helped him put on his stockings.
«He was astonishingly brilliant, revered by classmates and students, wise.»
«The frontiers of human knowledge advanced and left his mark on the world forever; his research saves millions of lives,» Libby says.
As Harvard University explains, where Benacerraf was a professor, his discoveries help explain.basic processes of thes DiseaseIs such as infection, autoimmune disorders and cancer, and have shaped research on organ transplantation, HIV/AIDS treatment and the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines.»
Sofia Amber, an icon of Latin American art
Sofia Amber was born on May 8, 1924, in Soroca, a city that belonged to the Soviet Union and is currently located in Moldova.
«As a Jew in my family, we had to escape from those sides of the world when the siege of our race began.
I arrived in Venezuela as still very young, in 1930. The bloodthirsty General Gomez was alive, but for us, who had been fleeing from all the horrors, this was a country of peace«.
These fragments belong to Diego Arroyo Gil’s book «Mrs. Amber. Genius and figure», a biography born of long conversations between the writer and the prominent journalist.
Sofia and her mother and older sister Lya landed in the hot port of La Guaira.
The father, who had passed through the United States first, was in Venezuela trying to use his experience as an agricultural technician.
Although her mother had a hard time adjusting to Venezuela’s customs and, at first, clinging to Russians, «she always instilled in them that they had to be grateful to the country that had received them,» Arroyo tells BBC Mundo.
His two daughters would end up making history.
«Give me a garage»
Lya became a pioneer of pediatrics in Venezuela.
«In 1936 he obtained his medical degree and always refused the sensationalism of the media that longed to document the first woman to get a medical degree in our country,» says a publication by carabobo University.
Sofia, who received the Picasso Medal from Unesco, became an icon of art and culture in the region.
In 1973, he founded what became the best museum of contemporary art in Latin America, with a collection that surpassed 4,000 works.
Years earlier, when the authorities approached him with the proposal, he had replied, «Give me a garage and I’ll make a museum.»
The intellectual was at the helm of the center for 28 years until, in 2001, President Hugo Chavez dismissed it.
«I had no other north or concern in my life than the museum. I will never part with him,» Amber said that year.
According to Arroyo, «Sofia never had the dilemma of whether she was Venezuelan or not. She never returned to Russia, even when she was a very famous person and invited by ambassadors, presidents.»
«There are no skies like caracas,» Imber told Diego Arroyo Gil, author of his biography. IMAGE SOURCE: COURTESY RICARDO TORRES
«She said it was absolutely Venezuelan and he was upset when someone peeked into the idea that he was a foreigner. That word didn’t exist in his vocabulary.»
Leaving Venezuela was something I didn’t want to contemplate.
«Even in the end, after the death of her youngest son, when her daughters lived abroad, she would ask, ‘Are you going to leave?’ she replied with a recurring phrase, ‘There is no heaven like those of Caracas.'»
And I added, «This is my house. This is my country«, the writer points out.
Although in her later years she spent vacation seasons in Miami, where one of her daughters lives, she always returned to her residence in Caracas.
And it was precisely in one of those returns that he died, in 2017, after suffering severe pneumonia.
Isabel Allende, one of the most acclaimed authors of Spanish-language lyrics
«I went to Venezuela because it was one of the few remaining democratic countries in Latin America,» the author told the BBC in 2018. Credit: GETTY IMAGES
«The first part of my life ended on September 11, 1973. That day there was a brutal military coup in Chile,» chilean writer Isabel Allende wrote in a reflection she titled: «Life in Exile,» from which we extract some fragments.
«President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist president, died. Within a few hours, a century of democracy ended in my country and was replaced by a regime based on terror. Thousands were arrested, tortured or killed. Many disappeared and their bodies were never found.»
«I stayed until I couldn’t take it anymore; in 1975, I went with my husband and our children«.
«We went to Venezuela, a green and generous country. It was the time of the oil boom, when black gold flowed from the earth like an inexhaustible river of wealth.»
«It took me many years to overcome the trauma of exile, but I was lucky, because I found something that saved me from despair: literature.»
The first novel
In another reflection he titled «A Spiritual Letter,» Allende realizes that his fate changed on January 8, l981. «That day, we got a phone call in Caracas saying my grandfather was dying. I couldn’t go back to Chile to say goodbye to him, so that night I started some kind of spiritual letter for that beloved old man. I figured I wasn’t going to live to read it, but that didn’t stop me.»
He kept writing till dawn. And he did it again the next night.
«I wrote every night, ignoring the fact that my grandfather had died. The text grew like a gigantic organism with many tentacles, and by the end of the year it had five hundred pages on the kitchen counter.»
The letter ended up becoming his first novel: «The House of Spirits».
Over time, more than 20 books and more than 70 million copies sold in more than 40 languages would come.
13 years old
«I went to Venezuela because it was one of the few remaining democratic countries in Latin America,» the author told BBC journalist Kirsty Wark in 2018. «I was in Caracas for 13 years and I ended up loving that country and its people«.
She was a high school teacher and worked at the newspaper El Nacional.
In fact, that newspaper highlighted a few words that the author said in 2017 about that time:
«We got thousands and had job opportunities, they treated us wonderfully. Venezuela gave me another glimpse of life, I came from a gloomy country, a country hurt by the coup.»
«Venezuela was an exuberant country, where any pretext was good for dancing and singing, the least Chilean there is.»
And in 2019, in an interview with Belén Sarriá, of the Spanish newspaper 20 minutes, the writer reflected:
«Venezuela was a country that welcomed immigrants and refugees from all over the world. I find myself among them, and now that it is the Venezuelans who are fleeing, I hope that the world welcomes them in the same way«.
Victor Penchaszadeh, one of the pioneers of genetics in the service of human rights in Argentina
«I had to leave my country overnight,» Victor Penchaszadeh, director of the graduate career in Genetics, Human Rights and Society at the National University of Three February in Argentina and a member of the Unesco Bioethics Network, tells BBC Mundo. He had been «the subject of an attempted triple-A kidnapping,» as the far-right paramilitary group Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (AAA), accused of kidnappings and murders in the 1970s, was known.
They blindfolded him, gagged him and tied his hands, but they couldn’t finish the operation.
«I was lucky they didn’t achieve their goal.»
As he prepared to leave the country, with his wife and two children, 6 and 3, he took refuge in friends’ homes in Argentina, fear of returning to his residence.
«I left in December 1975.»
Three months later, the coup that paved the way for seven years of military rule and years of repression in the so-called «dirty war,» which left between 9,000 and 30,000 dead.
«I got support»
He embarked on to Venezuela, where his brother (with his wife and daughters) had gone into exile.
«I was very lucky because, thanks to my professional contacts, when I arrived I got support. I was welcomed as a researcher at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC).»
«Sergio Arias was in charge of IVIC, he was providential to me. We had met in America when we did a postgraduate degree.»
«I feel gratitude to colleagues who did their best and the impossible so that people like me could settle down.»
That allowed him to get a visa and bring his wife and children. «Venezuela was a country that housed us with great solidarity«.
«It was the very rich petrodollar country that needed a high-level scientific workforce in different areas.»
«We were also very well received by the areas of the State (…) They gave us positions that honored the scientific value we had.»
Penchaszadeh devoted himself to investigating the causes of genetic diseases in Vit enezuela and while doing so found a «lovely» country, with an «amazing geographical beauty».
He recalls that Venezuela brought him peace while seeing in his country «a bloody and unbolent military dictatorship, in which many friends disappeared.»
Penchaszadeh was the bond that connected the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo with the scientist Mary-Claire King in 1982. A short time later it would help create the granny index. IMAGE SOURCE, COURTESY: GRANDMOTHERS OF PLAZA DE MAYO
He left in 1981 for the United States, where a mission would await him.
There he founded, in 1982, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo with the American scientist Mary-Claire King and her team.
And he helped create the granny rate, which was key in identifying children, grandchildren, appropriated by the military regime.
Penchaszadeh was also instrumental in the founding, in 1987, of the National Bank for Genetic Data (BNDG), which is the public file of genetic material and biological samples of relatives of people abducted and disappeared during the military regime.
Rodrigo Arocena and Uruguayan mathematicians
After a coup d’e rule, a military regime ruled Uruguay between 1973 and 1985. Rodrigo Arocena was a young mathematician, who together with a group of colleagues had to leave his country.
«Our first attempt was to stay as close to the family as possible,» he tells BBC Mundo.
The University of Buenos Aires welcomed them, but, after intervention, the situation became very unstable and they were forced to leave.
«Much of the former Institute of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of the Republic of Uruguay went to live in Venezuela and that’s when the word peace of mind appears«.
At the age of 27, Arocena arrived in Maracaibo in January 1975.
«We were living in Uruguay, as soon after it would be lived by Argentina, as Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, dictatorships ironily repressive who didn’t respect human rights.»
«Venezuela was a home at peace. Therefore, one of the things we remember about the arrival in Venezuela, as if it had been today, is to sleep peacefully.»
«I felt it at the time and I always felt it: a Caribbean cordiality that in Venezuela is very noticeable,» says the author of books on education and development. «We Uruguayans are not going to say that we are not friendly people, but if I may we are people marked by tango, nostalgia, introspection, a kind of pessimism.»
«Getting to Venezuela was like open a door and see all the light of cordiality come in, of hope.»
«How wonderful that optimism, coming from countries marked by the darkness of dictatorships, the luminosity of kindness in a democratic climate was a first impression that stayed.»
And, in that context, the retired professor highlights how a Latin American scientific and academic community was formed.
As one of them
«I started to feel at home again at Venezuelan universities, when we were able to enjoy not only freedom, but one’s own trade. Teaching is a blessing and in Venezuela I was able to return to it like never before, with incredible possibilities.»
This 2017 mobilization was done in memory of the missing during the military regime that ruled Uruguay between 1973-1985. IMAGE SOURCE: MIGUEL ROJO/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Together with his partner he studied postgraduate studies at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and acquired nationality.
And it is that, he says, venezuelans made him feel like one of them.
«I will never forget that in Venezuela we were given the opportunity to re-study, work on our own, complete postgraduate studies and, perhaps most importantly, in Venezuela they were born and we started raising our children«.
He says being part of the UCV «is something that’s always carried in the heart.»
«UCV has an anthem, that surprised me because in Uruguay the university has no anthem, and it says it is ‘the house that overcomes the shadows’. I never forgot that, it gave me encouragement because I knew I was collaborating with the country I was in and the future of the country I was born in and would return to.»
And so he did, he came back, but not forgetting Venezuela.