I have had several people reach out to me in the past few weeks expressing their concern about Venezuela. They ask for clarification on the situation, apologizing for the ignorance. I tell them it’s not ignorance when the country in question is in an information blackout. But on that note, I want to take this opportunity to address the million-dollar question:
What exactly is happening in Venezuela, and why should we care?
(Note: This was written to the best of my knowledge, and I apologize for any factual discrepancies. Please let me know any mistakes and I will make corrections.)
A brief history
Venezuela has been under a “socialist” government since Chavez took office in 1999. After fifteen years of “Chavism”, opposition leaders have been pushing for a regime change. Chavez died last year, and his right-hand Nicolas Maduro took over, winning by a narrow, controversial margin in April’s special elections (the controversy being that the opposition leader who ran against him, Henrique Capriles, won almost half of the vote which according to the constitution is grounds for a recount. The government refused, and there’s evidence to suggest the elections were corrupted from the start). However it happened Maduro came into power in April of last year. The problem? Chavez was smart, albeit for the wrong reasons. He was a master at balancing antagonization with just the right amount of repression control. Maduro is nowhere near as popular or charismatic or intelligent (he used to be a bus driver and made his way to the top through corruption and zero education.) And the country has taken advantage of this weakness to break through the repression in a way they had been unable to do under Chavez.
So why is it worse now?
In the last few years there has been a significant rise in violent crime, making Venezuela one of the most dangerous places on Earth. One person is murdered every 21 minutes in the country, and the homicide rate has quadrupled since 1999, according to the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory. When Chavez was in power, he imposed several anti-private sector policies, which slowed down business and scared off external investments. Rising crime only weakened the already poor economy. Serious food shortages have plagued the country for a year. Venezuela’s currency exchange rate with the U.S. dollar has dropped to 87 to 1 in the past year. Inflation is up to almost 60%, according to Bloomberg.
To put it on a personal perspective, I was just in Caracas for my cousin’s wedding in the beginning of January. We had to pack an entire suitcase of toilet paper, sugar, toothpaste, vinegar, and basic medicines for my grandpa who has Parkinson’s because none of those things can be found in the country right now. I went to the supermarket one day and was in shock at the empty shelves. We stood in line to pay for nearly three hours and watched people fight each other when the manager brought out three small packs of toilet paper. Perhaps most impacting was on the cab ride from the airport to my grandma’s house. My dad all of a sudden turned to us and said, “When you convert it to US dollars, the fare for this cab ride is the same amount your mother and I paid for our first apartment in Caracas 25 years ago.”
So why is all this important now?
It began a few weeks ago. The protesters were initially students, calling for the release of arrested students who had been publicly advocating for better security. The protests spread to other cities, all ending in more clashes and arrests. Opposition movements joined forces with the students and called for a national peaceful protest on February 12, known in Venezuela as “El Dia de la Juventud” or the National Day of Youth. Around 2pm when the protest was winding down and students were starting to dissipate, a group of uniformed officers opened fire on a group of students. Three people were shot and killed, two of whom were college students running away from bullets.
This is when the messages from my family started to come in. My cousins had been at the protest and had luckily left before the violence started. But not long after the shooting began, the government imposed a media blackout. There was a single Colombian channel covering the protests and by nightfall, it had been pulled from the air plunging the country into full censorship. There was no way to spread the word about the violence or alert people as to what was happening.
Except for the fact that we live in 2014 and these protests were led by students who have more power in the hand that holds a camera phone than any journalist with pen and paper.
By the end of the day, hundreds of pictures and videos had been shared on social networks, circulated by WhatsApp, desperately trying to reach people outside the country (namely the US) who could alert the world as to what was happening. But it wasn’t long before the government blocked Twitter images in the country as well. Since then, Venezuela has been in full blackout.
On February 13, the government issued a warrant for the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, another opposition leader. Lopez went into hiding for a few days communicating only through YouTube videos and Twitter messages. Protests and clashes continued every day. On February 17, he announced that he would be turning himself in and urged the country to keep fighting. Tens of thousands showed up to support him on Tuesday, February 18. He is still in custody.
On February 19, everything changed. The protests erupted and lasted well into the night. Pictures and videos circulated of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorcycles roaming middle class neighborhoods, storming into apartment buildings, shooting at anyone who seemed like a protester. There is now proof of dozens of serious human right abuses, including National Guardsmen shooting tear gas canisters directly into residential buildings and soldiers shooting civilians on the street. Real-time citizen journalism has never been more important. For the first time we have actual footage of the crimes and the violations that are happening against Venezuelan citizens. These were no longer street clashes. This was a state-sponsored offensive to suppress and terrorize its opponents.
So what can we do?
I barely slept that night. Horrible pictures and videos kept coming through via my family WhatsApp and on student Twitter accounts I was following. But I just kept thinking – finally the international news media will begin covering this. There is no way they can ignore this. Imagine my surprise when I woke up to nothing. Not a single news story or alert about anything that happened. I don’t know if it is the censorship or the controversy of US-Venezuelan relations. But still… there is no excuse for the media to not have reported the violence, the human rights violations, the international laws the Venezuelan government was breaking.
This is why what is happening is so important. Venezuela is fighting but they have no voice. Our main request is the respect for human rights: the freedom of political prisoners like Lopez and all the students who are being incarcerated, abused, and tortured for practicing their constitutional right to freedom of assembly.
Sixty years ago, Cuba was going through a similar situation. But Venezuela can benefit from something now that didn’t exist back then: social media. And that’s why Venezuelans and supporters around the world have taken to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WordPress, blogs anything to spread the word about what is happening. Because the media isn’t covering it. Venezuela is censored. It’s up to us to spread the word and make sure the senseless violence stops, that justice and human rights are reestablished.
This isn’t the first time Venezuela has tried to implement a regime change. But we haven’t seen this kind of popular unrest for years. That’s why right now these protests are so critical. We need the world to be aware of the horrible things that are happening to these citizens who are simply expressing discontent at economic and social insecurity.
We need to be their voice because they have none.
Please spread the word. Thank you.