'It's like you've been abandoned': Wisconsin couple stranded in Venezuela amid pandemic, escalating tensions

Madeline and Jarrod in Venezuela (Undated photo; used with permission)
Madeline and Jarrod in Venezuela (Undated photo; used with permission)(WSAW)
Published: Apr. 27, 2020 at 8:52 PM CDT
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“It’s almost disheartening. It’s like you’ve been abandoned by your country.”

Originally from Wisconsin, Madeline and Jarrod (whose last names NewsChannel 7 is withholding out of security concerns) have lived and worked in Venezuela as teachers since the fall of 2017; Madeline is a special education coordinator and Jarrod teaches physical education and health. But now, with the COVID-19 pandemic still spreading around the globe, all they want is to get home to the United States.

For weeks, both they and Jarrod’s mother back home have been working to contact officials across a spectrum of government departments to get home. Jarrod’s mother, whose access to electricity and internet is more reliable, has stacks of sticky notes tracking seven weeks of calls and emails to U.S. State Department, embassy and legislative officials—and information that constantly changes.

“She gets a different story every time,” Jarrod said. “One time they told her there was a plane; the next time there wasn’t.”

“They’ll tell us, Americans need to leave right away. Get a flight right away; it’s dangerous” Jarrod said. “And then the next email you would get is ‘stay put’.”

“We want to be in Wisconsin,” Madeline noted. “In a time like this, you want to be in your country.”

Updates on the U.S. virtual embassy website for Venezuela list a single commercial flight departing Caracas in April that the U.S. state department was encouraging citizens to board. But the couple lives hundreds of kilometers away in Maracaibo, and they told NewsChannel 7 it’s both impossible—and dangerous—to make the trek. Other press releases on the embassy website echo the messaging that’s frustrated Madeline and Jarrod: On April 21, they said there would be possible repatriation flights from both Maracaibo and Caracas. Two days later, they told U.S. citizens that was no longer an option due to Venezuela’s ongoing pandemic flight ban: citizens are now told to prepare to stay in Venezuela indefinitely.

The Department of State told NewsChannel 7 they do not track the number of U.S. citizens in other countries when asked how many citizens had registered to be contacted when an expatriation flight became available. They did not respond to a follow-up request for comment on Madeline and Jarrod’s situation. However, Madeline and Jarrod estimated from their knowledge of the expat community that just in Maracaibo, at least a couple hundred were waiting to leave.

The couple has also been in contact with the press offices for both representative Ron Kind and senator Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin’s office, when reached for comment, said they had been working with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the State Department Repatriation Task Force over the past five weeks on the behalf of Madeline and Jarrod.

“Main obstacle is that Venzuela has currently suspended all international travel in and out of the country and the State Department has failed to secure their return,” a spokesperson for the office noted.

The couple’s journey to Venzuela started after they met: Jarrod from Manitowoc was adventurous, Madeline—raised in Stevens Point—wasn’t. “I talked her into it,” he said, both smiling. “We got married.”

“We wanted to jump into the international teaching world, and this is where it led us. And it’s been a good experience so far, we’ve gotten to see amazing things.”

In 2019, escalating tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela caused the U.S. to cease diplomatic relations and close their consulate in the country. Now, the closest consulate is in Colombia, through which the couple has been working. Last month, the Trump administration unsealed indictments against the authoritarian socialist regime leader Nicolas Maduro, increased sanctions, and proposed a framework toward a peaceful democracy including a transitory government and free elections.

When the embassy closed, the couple said they felt they had an obligation to their students to stay in the country and serve the rest of their contract. Today, they feel they’ve been left to fend for themselves as a result as they watch colleagues from other countries be repatriated from Venezuela as the pandemic continues.

“We have no help,” Jarrod said. “They just leave you to your own demise here.”