NEW YORK - When Wuilly Arteaga takes his violin out of its brown case and starts playing Rihanna's "This Is What You Came For" near the platform of a busy Manhattan subway station, several passersby stop to listen or shoot video with their phones. Then someone recognizes the violinist and runs to greet him.
"Brother!" says a fellow Venezuelan in Spanish, taking a selfie with the musician.
Arteaga gained international fame as a young face of the Venezuelan opposition, playing his instrument in the streets of Caracas during the deadly protests that rocked the South American country last year. The 24-year-old violinist has gone from dodging tear gas to entertaining New York City commuters as well as playing in Queens, Manhattan and Long Island clubs and bars. He dreams of returning to Venezuela but says it's too dangerous for him to go back now under President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.
"I suffered a lot only because I played the violin against the government. I was tortured, I was put in jail. I don't want to repeat that experience. Even though I am here and I feel safe, I fear returning to Venezuela and going through the same thing," he said at the small, empty studio where he lives in Manhattan.
"My biggest dream is to make music in my country, but for the moment I can't do it," he added.
Arteaga walks the cold streets of the city with his violin and a big portable speaker system. Other times he visits a music studio and composes songs for a pop album he dreams of releasing. He is often absorbed in his cellphone, chatting with friends, calling his girlfriend in Venezuela or accepting a gig to play at a Latin club.
Even though he smiles in his Instagram posts, where he describes himself as "the hip hop violinist," he says many days he feels alone. Only seeing people enjoy his violin makes him forget his solitude and last year's "stormy" months, as he describes them.
The young violinist won notice after playing sombre renditions of Venezuela's national anthem during the 2017 protests. During one clash with security forces, he and his violin were dragged to the ground and he was later thrown in jail, where he said he was beaten.
He arrived in Manhattan in September, after receiving an invitation from the Human Rights Foundation to play and speak about Venezuela at a forum. Because of threats he says he received by phone and social media, he decided to stay. He plans to start taking English classes and has applied for a visa granted to artists, athletes or people with abilities in science or business.
"Because every day I think and remember the many things that I went through in jail, it makes it hard to say I'll be able to be happy at some point. But I think that little by little, I've realized that I can achieve it," he says. "And that's why I am finally ready to make the most out of all the wonderful experiences that I can have in this city."
More than 2,000 miles away, oil-rich Venezuela has been sinking deeper into a political and economic crisis. Maduro, who is running for a second six-year term, has drawn criticism abroad and at home for tactics considered dictatorial. Independent groups estimate as many as 3 million to 4 million Venezuelans have abandoned their homeland in recent years, with several hundred thousand fleeing in 2017 alone.
In New York, besides focusing on his music, Arteaga still speaks about Venezuela in forums and events in Washington.
While there are some who hug him in the streets, there are others who insult him when they recognize him, he says.
"Venezuela is going through a very dark moment," he said. "Many of us have been forced to leave the country, but that does not mean that we have forgotten about Venezuela or that we have stopped working for the well-being of Venezuelans."
Claudia Torrens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ClaudiaTorrens