Today I write to you, members of the Drexel community, in hopes of making you aware of the situation that Venezuelan people have been in since Feb. 12. Venezuela is a country down in South America, and here in the U.S. it is mostly known for its role in beauty pageants, in setting up international oil prices, and for its former president, Hugo R. Chavez, sticking his finger in the U.S. government’s eye. Other than those few things, my country is not of much interest to the U.S. media.
Right now, however, we need the attention of the international community. Since Feb. 12, my country has been going through a series of demonstrations that, although started out as a pacific way to protest against the current government, have turned quite violent as days pass by. The Feb. 12 rally was organized by student groups nationwide, and its purpose was to condemn the government’s inaction in fighting delinquency and crime rates, as well as its overwhelming power to limit democratic practices across the nation. Politics, opportunism and repression mixed, and Venezuela’s streets nowadays are the perfect example of massive civil unrest.
Thinking of Venezuela’s current situation as a war between President Maduro’s supporters and the people who oppose him is nothing but shortsighted, reductionist and harmful. The current civil unrest is neither red (the government’s color) nor blue (the opposition’s color). It is tricolor: yellow, blue and red like Venezuela’s flag, like all Venezuelans’ flags, for people on the street are not necessarily arguing whether they support President Maduro or the opposing forces. Most people on the street are collectively crying out that they need a government that listens to them and that responds to their needs. And here we are not talking about fancy things; we are talking about basic needs.
The violence and crime rate that we experience on a daily basis is tricolor. It does not discriminate. Robbers and kidnappers do not care about what side of the political spectrum Venezuelans are on. They will rob you, kidnap you and kill you without a reason, without being aware of your political preferences, for the most part. They may kill you even if they do not rob you, but well, Venezuelans’ lives nowadays are worth the same as our country’s currency — nothing! Victims have been children of diplomats, bodyguards of current government officials, well-known media-related people, and of course, countless other Venezuelans who, like you and me, would not make it onto the news except as a number, if at all: “253 people died in Caracas this weekend.” Safety is a basic need.
Another basic need is food. Venezuelans do not need a supermarket aisle full of cereal boxes; we just need corn flour so we can make our staple foods: arepas (corn cake) and bread. Venezuelans do not need a supermarket aisle full of all imaginable versions of milk; we just need milk for our kids. Venezuelans do not need a supermarket aisle full of single, double, triple toilet paper rolls; we just need toilet paper, well, for obvious reasons. Venezuelans do not need supermarkets full of different versions of the same product; we just need to be able to buy some very basic products. We need to be able to feed our families and ourselves, just like we were able to in the past.
And another basic need is to live in an environment that respects democratic practices. I understand that this is neither a need nor a common privilege in some places around the world. Yet, according to Venezuela’s government, Venezuela is a democracy and lives in democracy. So, my question to you is, how is it that most people outside of Venezuela do not know of this civil unrest? How is it that major news agencies, newspapers and TV stations have not reported this news at all?
Certainly, one reason could be lack of interest. But that is not what I would like to focus on here. The reason that concerns me is that these media people have not been able to, for the most part. The government of Venezuela has controlled, limited or simply blocked people’s access to any reporting that addresses the civil unrest that the country is experiencing. It basically ordered TV and radio stations to shut up. And in Venezuela the government has enormous power over the media. Not only does it require licenses for the television and radio stations to function, but it also decides when to take over their air time, when to expropriate them and when to revoke their licenses, even if for no reason.
So Venezuelans have turned to social media to make their voices heard. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have basically become the only resources we have to let the people of the world know that democratic practices in Venezuela are highly questionable, that freedom of speech is nonexistent and that random gunshots are killing dozens of Venezuelans on a regular basis. Social media has become that microphone that Venezuelans do not have access to anymore, just like it did for countless other people a few years ago during the Arab Spring. Will it last? I do not know. On Feb. 13, Nu Wexler, a Twitter spokesman, acknowledged that the Venezuelan government was blocking images on Twitter. So, who knows?
It bears repeating though that the massive civil unrest that is currently happening in Venezuela is not bicolor; it is tricolor. It is yellow, blue and red, the colors of all Venezuelans — this civil unrest affects all of us. For even if something is accomplished at the end of the day, and I do hope this is the case, some Venezuelans have already died, some Venezuelans have been injured, some Venezuelans are being abused, and some Venezuelan businesses have been damaged, among other tragedies. I invite you to watch Andreina Nash’s video, “What’s going on in Venezuela in a nutshell.” It will provide you with a clear visual picture of today’s reality in my country. Nash is a Venezuelan student currently attending the University of Florida.
So, if this is a “war,” then it is the battle of countless courageous students, and now also moms, dads, seniors, and public and private employees fighting for their right to live a safe, well-fed life in which they can express themselves — publicly or otherwise — without fear of retribution. Nothing less, nothing more.
Mariana Mendez is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected]