Viewpoint: Venezuela en la calle

By Gabriela Vasquez, Managing Design Editor
Published February 15, 2014

Imagine being so afraid that the contents of your stomach try to force themselves out through your throat, burning your insides and causing biting tears to spill from your eyes. Imagine spending a day marching peacefully alongside your fellow classmates, protesting your right to basic freedoms. And imagine that peaceful protest met with violence. Imagine the police, the National Guard, shooting at you as you run away. Imagine clutching your phone as if it were providing you with oxygen, waiting to hear if your family is safe or if they were one of the casualties. Imagine being faced with a choice: stay silent and accept that you are living in a nation where your rights are violated on a daily basis, where you have no freedom of press or speech, or go out and protest, but face serious injury and death. Imagine hearing your president blame you for the violence, imagine having him shut down media organizations, so you have no way of knowing what is going on in your country. Imagine having soap operas playing on every channel while college students are being shot at outside your door.

What you’re imagining is reality for my country.

Last weekend, in Venezuela, various protests over worsening economic conditions rocked some of the nation’s largest cities. The protests were met with a bloody crackdown executed by government officials and their supporters. Many peaceful protesters were taken and put in jail, and treated as criminals. This takes us to Wednesday, Feb. 12, El Día de la Juventud (Day of Youth).

Popular opposition leaders Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado had organized a peaceful protest in Caracas, supported by university students and a host of other organizations.
The protest continued peacefully early in the day, and people began to return to their homes around 1:30 in the afternoon. At about 2 p.m., however, the attacks began.

Police, military and colectivos — armed groups of civilians trained by the government — converged en masse on the main plazas and streets of several cities. Two students and a member of one of these armed groups were killed during the attacks. Almost 70 were wounded, and almost as many were detained by government officials. Friday, it was reported that the arrested students were tortured by the same officials that were supposed to protect them.

That night, or perhaps in the early hours of Feb. 13, the government released an order for the arrest of López, one of the opposition leaders. López has not been seen since the arrest warrant was issued, though he has remained active on Twitter. His last public appearance was at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, on a CNN en Español interview with Fernando del Rincón. Representatives of his party have come out and stated that López is at home, analyzing the arrest order with lawyers.

López’s absence, as well as the sidelining of other political leaders, has left the organization of the protests to students. The movements that occurred Thursday and Friday were completely organized by university students; no politicians participated in or organized any of them. Thursday’s protests were much more disorganized, however, and violence erupted on both sides. Many of the protestors criticize those on their side who responded to violence with violence, advocating for the continuation of peaceful dissent.

Aside from the protests themselves, the government has imposed a near-total media and information blackout. The government’s tightening grip on media has existed for years prior to the protests (for instance, Venezuela’s oldest TV channel, RCTV, was closed down in 2007), but is growing in intensity. Late Wednesday afternoon at about 4 or 5 p.m., NTN24 was taken off the air by Conatel, the government-owned media regulator, and by executive order of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. NTN24 is based out of neighboring Colombia and was the only major television network covering the protests in Venezuela. Since then, there has been no information outside of social media and a few websites that give insight into what has been occurring. Venezuelans are relying on Twitter, e-mail and text messages to get their information, since their government has censored their media.

This is what is happening in Venezuela right now.

Here’s the thing: as terrifying as the photos and videos of the protests circulating are, as horrifying as it would be for you to read in excruciating detail the acts of violence that are occurring in Venezuela’s streets, what’s more important is why these protests are happening to begin with. In the wake of former president Hugo Chávez’s death, Maduro, Chávez’s heir apparent, won the election by just over 1 percent of the overall vote. There is no majority rule; there is barely a democracy. We have moved past a division of ideologies. This isn’t about right versus left, or even us versus them. It’s about freedom. It’s about being granted the basic human rights that come with living in a democratic nation: freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to voice your opinion without fear of being kidnapped, attacked or killed. It’s about security; it’s about living free of fear, it’s about not having to worry if you will have a gun pointed at you today, it’s about being able to leave your house knowing you will be safe. It’s about not having a president claim he can communicate with Chávez through little birds.

It’s hard to imagine this if it isn’t happening to you, so let’s bring it home. You’re living your everyday life as a college student in the United States of America. Recent events have created a deep divide in your country, and the new president of the U.S. gained power with barely 50 percent of the vote. The losing party asked for a recount, due to the closeness of the election, and was denied. You spend a year living under this new government, and things have only gotten worse. The government controls the media. The streets are full of violent crimes. Every time you leave your house, you wonder if you will be facing down the barrel of a gun. You breathe a sigh of relief when your house gets robbed, because at least it wasn’t your life they took. The United States now has one of the highest murder and inflation rates in the world. Basic supplies like toilet paper and milk are hard to find. Restaurants experience a lack of water. Power outages occur sporadically throughout the nation. You are tired of the insecurity, of the failing economy. You are angry at the fact that it costs your family in nearby countries thousands of dollars for a plane ticket (if they can even find one) to visit you. You want things to get better. So, you and virtually every college student in every major city decide to go out and protest peacefully. And you are met with tear gas. You are beaten to the ground. You are shot in the back. You carry your bloody friend out of the line of fire, tears streaming down your face. The vision of the pool of blood that formed on the street, the bright red drops that stained your shoes will haunt you for the rest of your life. You scream as your friend, your brother, your sister, your cousin gets dragged away by “officials,” only to be tortured for exercising their right to speak out in peaceful dissent. You are unarmed, and those who are meant to protect you attack you. You survive, just barely. And you go out the next day to do it all over again.

So, what can you do? Spread the word. Use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, texts, calls, Snapchats, word of mouth. Tell everyone and anyone of what is going on in Venezuela. We have freedom. Let’s speak up for those who don’t.

Mi Venezuela, tu Venezuela, Venezuela de todos.

Gabriela Vasquez is the Managing Design Editor and an LSA sophomore.