Venezuelans living abroad are collecting box loads of items -- including safety helmets, gas masks and first-aid kits -- to support the crowds marching in their homeland against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro. Increasingly violent near-daily protests that began April 1 have left a toll of 38 dead, and hundreds wounded and under arrest. In Miami, often referred to as the "capital of Latin America" and a city with a large Venezuelan community, meet- ups where donations are collected are increasingly common. The gatherings are advertised among community members on Whatsapp, Instagram or Twitter, and identified with Venezuelan flags and signs like "Solidarity" or "SOS Venezuela." Lists of preferred items are also posted online. "I did what I could to buy everything that was on the list and contribute my grain of sand to support these people who are fighting for my country," said Michelle Lewin, a 31 year-old fitness model who lives in Miami. Lewin dropped two large bags of supplies on a table at a Colombian restaurant where donations were being accepted. Half of the 225,000 Venezuelans living in the United States reside in Florida, mostly in the greater Miami area. Most donations are geared towards protecting demonstrators from tear gas, pepper spray and other crowd- dispersal gases used by Venezuelan riot police. Police also use high-pressure blasts of water from water cannons to break up the crowds. Hooded protesters, sometimes carrying home-made shields, respond by throwing rocks, fuel bombs and bottles filled with paint or excrement. Liquid antiacids -- the kind sold at corner pharmacies -- are good to treat gas-caused skin burns.
For eye protection, swim goggles and over-the-counter eye drops are popular. Also in demand are walkie-talkies, hydrogen peroxide to clean superficial wounds, neck braces, anti-biotic cream, and leather gloves for protesters to pick up and hurl hot gas canisters back at the cops. Jose Colina is a Venezuelan fomer army lieutenant who heads a group called the Organization of Persecuted Venezuelans Living in Exile (VEPPEX). He told AFP that he hopes to collect 100 boxes of donations over the weekend. Last week he said he collected 1.4 tonnes of supplies. The items are sent to the Green Cross, a group of first responders from the Universidad Central de Venezuela that rush in to aid wounded protesters. "This is a way of doing something, to show that we may be far away but we are not absent," Colina said. He described the support from Venezuelans and sympathetic Latin Americans in Florida immigrants as "exceptional." Recently the Green Cross volunteers were blasted as a "paramilitary group" on a state-run VTV television show in Venezuela. Medical supplies, almost all imported, are especially hard to find in the cash-starved Venezuela, where the oil- dependant economy is in a free fall.