DORAL, Fla. – Simon Vera knows what it feels like to be met with tear gas. He also knows what it's like to be jailed and tortured for wanting Venezuela's embattled President Nicolás Maduro to step down amid hyperinflation and shortages of food and medications.
In 2017, Vera and six other students were protesting in Barquisimeto, a city about four hours west of Caracas. Members of the National Guard detained him along with Jesús Antonio Niño Mendez and Néstor Graterol, the president of the Federación de Centros Universitarios de la Universidad Yacambú.
Vera said he spent two weeks in prison where officers tortured him and other students. After he was released, Maduro's supporters threatened him, his friends and his family. He said he feared for his life and was forced to move to Miami-Dade County.
Vera said he hasn't given up on his beloved nation. On Wednesday, he met with other exiled Venezuelans at El Arepazo, a popular restaurant in Doral, a city also known as Doralzuela because of the impact that the Venezuelan diaspora has had in the area during the last decade.
"We want to go back to Venezuela," Vera said.
Many of the Venezuelans at El Arepazo have loved ones back home who are responding to Maduro's opposition's calls to take to the streets. With the recent power outages that are affecting the supply of potable water, they said there are plenty of reasons to protest.
Vera also said a video showing a Venezuelan National Guard military vehicle running over protesters Tuesday afternoon in Caracas' Altamira area was painful to watch. He said it angered him and it made him feel powerless. He wasn't alone in his outrage at El Arepazo.
"It has been 20 years since this regime has taken over and we want them out," said Rafael Moya, a Venezuelan American student who rushed to El Arepazo Wednesday afternoon.
At El Arepazo, dozens of other exiled Venezuelans felt like them. They celebrated together when they learned opposition leader Leopoldo López was freed and SEBIN leader Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera sided with Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-recognized interim president.
German Perez said he also feels powerless at times and he has been praying. He wants Venezuelans to join him at El Arepazo, so that they can do what they can to support the efforts back home.
"We need one word, 'Freedom!' in Venezuela," Perez said.