IF you’ve struggled to comprehend the current images of starvation, disunity and violence in Venezuela, then it’s hard to imagine how Cesar Contreras feels.
The Brisbane-based rugby league player is watching from afar as his friends, his siblings and parents are in the eye of massive political and social upheaval in the capital of Caracas.
“It’s heartbreaking…a massive concern,” says Cesar.
“You can be in Australia and have our quality of life, but in the back of your mind you know everybody left behind is struggling.
“Deep down, you just want to get everyone out of that situation.
“Things are getting worse and worse and it’s reaching an intense level of riots, protests, and shortages of medicine, supplies and food.
“It’s such a failed model that can only be compared to Cuba’s situation, where people could not freely choose what they wanted to purchase, or when they wanted to purchase it, and were instead limited by quotas.”
Cesar and wife Danella moved to Australia four years ago, around the same time that previous long-serving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died.
Educated to a Masters level, he works for multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Danella, who is less than a month away from giving birth to their second child, is also Masters-educated.
Their story is a fascinating, humanising reminder of what it is like to be young family from a developing nation trying to achieve a better life in a world that is increasingly anti-immigration.
In a little over a year the international community has witnessed Brexit, Donald Trump’s elevation to US presidency, far right politics surging in France, and Australia’s move to abolish temporary skilled work visas (457).
But if you spend any time with the Contreras family, you fail to see how any city would not welcome people of their values and outlook on life.
“While I’m a permanent resident, I’ve met people whose situation has changed drastically because of the 457 visa announcement and they’ll be going home to Venezuela and Colombia,” says Cesar.
“I try to be objective and understand the point of the Australian Government, because they are just trying to protect the country.
“But I guess the part that affects me is that, underlying, there does seem to be misconceptions and pre-judgment of immigrants, which is a shame because Australia is famed for its multicultural history.
“Australia’s society, culture and economy developed from being welcoming, and I don’t want to see it lose its uniqueness, or risk labelling people and stop them contributing to society.”
A starting pitcher for his university baseball team in Venezuela – where baseball is the national sport – Cesar began playing rugby league after he arrived in Australia, despite having no background in contact sports.
While his brother Daniel was a fly half for the Venezuelan national rugby team, Cesar came to Australia with limited understanding of rugby union and zero knowledge of rugby league.
It was only through a friend he met at a Mexican restaurant that he heard about Latin Heat Rugby League – a team which provides free coaching to help Latin Americans experience the 13-man game.
“It took me a while to figure out the intricacies, but what I’ve become passionate about is the values and analogies for general life that rugby league gives you,” Cesar says.
“And I guess a big part of what you first experience when you start learning the game is the type of people that are involved. They really bring it to life.
“I’m actually really honoured to be a part of the team, because it kind of gives people an experience of Australia itself, with a Latin American twist, and teaches you values which are deeply personal.
“There’s a real effort to make it inclusive, special and part of something much bigger.
“And it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, Latin Americans remain very supportive of each other and lean on each other in times of difficulty.”
When he was announced in 2016 as the Latin Heat’s Best Newcomer, a prized award within the team for players who have not grown up with rugby league, he described the sport as “pure”.
By “pure”, he meant that the endeavour was a natural representation of everyday life.
While Cesar is still to find a permanent position, he has the speed and awareness to play both fullback and wing, but reads the game and passes well enough to be considered a five-eighth also.
He will be in contention for one of the spots when Queensland Latino plays New South Wales Latino in a special interstate challenge at Davies Park, West End, on May 27.
The event will feature a full 80-minute men’s tackle game between the Latin American communities of the two states, plus earlier non-contact rugby games between the Brazilian and Colombian communities, and between female Latinas living in Australia.
Purposefully, the event will be held only days before Game One of the 2017 State of Origin series in Brisbane, and close to Queensland Day celebrations, which highlight multicultural contributions to the state.
In the meantime, while Cesar continues training hard and focuses on the arrival of his next child, he promises that what is happening in his homeland is never far from his mind at any time.
“It’s crazy and devastating to see a resourceful country like Venezuela hit rock bottom and reach such levels of poverty,” he says.
“Some are dying because they do not have proper access to medicine, adults are being reduced to two meals a day so they can feed their kids, and families have been torn apart by uncontrolled violence.
“You’d think these aspects are only hitting people in the lowest economic classes, but it’s everywhere.
“It’s important to make the international community aware of the situation in Venezuela.
“Sometimes it’s surprising to see how the story is portrayed overseas, as opposed to the localised reality.
“The greater the awareness, the more can be done and the sooner Venezuela can be the country it can be, rather than the one it is right now.”
The efforts of the 100% volunteer-run Latin Heat Rugby League are supported by Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, S.H.I.E.L.D Security, Tattoo Tears, OneBigSwitch.com.au, Cast Graphics, SeriousAboutRL.com, Retrocom Digital TV Specialists, Colombianos en Brisbane, EMSA Education and Migration Services, Raw Juicery, SEMCAR Mechanics, Lichtnauer and Associates Accountants, Cabramatta Ink, Majestic Property Maintenance, musician Royal El Latino and Darkside Studio Photography.