Venezuela is going through a period of social upheaval. Andreyna Valera and Ana Escaso explain, through this series of shocking eyewitness reports for Pandeia, just how bad the struggle for transparency, democracy and freedom has become.
Despite being the largest deposit of oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is facing a difficult financial situation. All economic indicators have been declining; inflation is presently at 56% and still increasing; and food staples have been scarce in supermarkets. Meanwhile, President Maduro disagrees. In an interview with Christine Amanpour for Al Jazeera, Venezuelan President assures that the GDP has grown dramatically, unemployment has dropped from 40% to less than 10% during the revolution and extreme poverty is minimal at 6 % compared to 25% before the presidency of Hugo Chavez.
In the words of Maduro: “Our democracy is so strong because we do not belong to any economic group, no international arms company. I’m not a businessman in the power to enrich a minority. And I don’t think the whole opposition is fascist”.
However, insecurity and social unrest is palpable in the Caribbean breeze. Testimonies coming from different parts of the country describe a situation quite different from what we would consider – in theory – a democratic system.
An Unstoppable Uprising
The tide of protests that has shaken the Venezuelan presidency began with a very specific and representative episode of what is actually happening in Venezuela. On the twelfth of February , a number of students entered the streets showing their unhappiness with Maduro’s administration. In that protest, a member of the military attempted to rape a student in the city of San Cristobal, Tachira . As a result, students took to the streets to protest against the abuses of power. The government in response arrested some of them. This caused more civilian reactions calling for condemnation of the military for the attempted rape. The government responded violently to the pacifist demonstrations. The protests spread to other states and began to take place in working class neighbourhoods, in which people cried out for change and pointed the finger at President Nicolas Maduro as the guilty party.
As the death toll rose to ten during the protests the opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was accused of conspiracy against the government and for inciting violence. “My arrest will make people wake up, Venezuela will realize what the majority wants. My arrest will not be in vain,” declared Lopez in a video released after his imprisonment in Ramo Verde military prison, where he remains detained.
The Maduro government supporters, both inside and outside of Venezuela, have attempted to politicize the student demonstrations, naming them as “the most radical and fascist right wing of the opposition.” However, words and testimonies of young protesters clearly explain that they do not take to the streets for political reasons; they do it for the simple reason that Venezuela bleeds, as Caracas has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
“I’m just asking for justice”
Several young people who are actively participating in demonstrations in Caracas and Valencia have told their stories. All have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “It does not matter if they know our names. Everyday we are vulnerable to anything and the government doesn’t care,” mentioned one of the students.
Joseph, a health sector student, complains of continued abuses by the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB): “We have been pushed to put the slogans down and start throwing stones to defend ourselves […] They charge at us so disproportionately, as if they were attacking criminals”. On the twentieth of February, the FANB attacked demonstrators with guns and armoured tanks in San Diego during the concentration of Tulips; children and the elderly suffered from suffocation due to tear gas, Joseph tells us.
Mary, another protester, spoke about the media control from the government: “The demonstration on the twelfth of February in Valencia passed peacefully. I found it amazing the amount of people that were there but I was surprised the lack of media’s presence. It was a very high attendance march, it was an important event in our country and no national media cover the event ( … ) the only way to know how things were going in different States was through social media , Twitter especially”. She also tells of how supporters of Chavez attacked the protesters: “Two cars tried to sweep along the crowd. The first one succeeded: the car literally drove over a girl who was next to us squashing her legs”. During that first day of protests, a young man had already died in Caracas for a headshot, allegedly by the FANB.
Teresa, another student of physiotherapy, tells how the eighteenth of February took a radical turn when protesters were aware that they had to begin to defend against FANB’s attacks and supporters of Chavez. On that day, she came to reside in Valencia as they were doing since February twelfth, all day until nightfall. “Suddenly there were no more cars in the streets and in the distance we saw many lights. No cars lights but motorbikes. About twenty of them arrived and stopped 100 meters from us. Within seconds, they started firing pellets. The next thing a tsunami of people running, running from the guards, shots everywhere and the sound of motorcycles could be heard behind us”. Teresa claims that so far this year, she has learned more about how to make Molotov cocktails to defend against GNB’s attacks rather than techniques of physiotherapy exercises.
One of the youths arrested in the protests and led to jail Core 2, Valencia, claims to have met with fifteen soldiers also detained in the same prison during the first week of March. This shows how some of military had come to join the uprising. One man told of how these military encouraged them to keep fighting, because they felt more guards would do it as well. The same student also claims to have seen Cuban military around demonstrations: “They don’t even try to be discreet by dressing in the Venezuelan military uniform, they feel free going out in the Cuban uniform”. He also describes how the GNB try to camouflage in CANTV’s vans (Venezuelan phone company) to be closer to the barricades. “Some are in uniforms, others in civilian; they got out of the vans and shoot against the ‘guarimbas’ (barricades)”. He claims he is not on the street for political reasons: “I ‘m just asking for true justice for those demonstrators that have been murdered”. He further claims that there is evidence that government-armed groups have killed many protesters.
Cristina, the mother of a three-year-old child, reported that on the night of the eleventh of March at approximately 23:14, the GNB used tear gas against civilians indiscriminately in Chacao, Caracas. She tells how the GNB committed an abuse of power and an attack on public health using expired tear gas against civilians. Her son was hit by tear gas and got sick, and then she denounced these events through social media.
There is no official number of deaths, nor the number of wounded and detained people after a month of protests. La Mesa de la Unidad (opposition block) held a press conference last week that had been posted so far: 21 deaths; 350 injured by bullets, choking, lacerations, buckshot and tear gas; 1322 under arrest, of which 1195 are under precautionary measures; 92 prisoners; and most disturbingly there have been 33 confirmed cases of torture.
State media intervention
Despite military repression there remains a diminishing international media coverage, “half the country does not pay attention to what happens unless it affects your daily life (…) is the schizophrenia of a country divided into two,” says a journalist from Cadena Capriles in Caracas. This journalist showcased an investigation into the claims military forces were shooting from close range at students. “Then motorbikes went out to intimidate the population. The streets were still closed due to barricadas. They were shooting at buildings, we couldn’t get out from the newsroom…” the journalist claimed in an article for lanacion.com.
The international media have faced difficulties when reporting on what is happening in Venezuela, with more than a dozen journalists arrested during the protests. According to President Maduro, the safety of the media has always been guaranteed in Venezuela, as long as they do not cause harm to the Venezuelan people. After the closure of the Colombian television channel NTN24, the case of the CNN in Spanish came to light. CNN showed a false image of the protests, according to the Venezuelan President, and for that he had to interfere personally causing an intervention in the signal.
Already during Hugo Chávez’s administration, despite many protests complaining about the lack of press freedom, threats to media from the government continued. First they took control of Radio Caracas Television, following their takeover of Globovision, the main news channel in Venezuela. Now the few surviving channels are hesitant to report on the demonstrations. The press has also suffered political pressures, even having difficulty finding paper for printing newspapers.
Meanwhile, most large foreign media has not given enough importance to these events and what it means for Venezuela and the international community. While protests in Ukraine has been monitored and analysed, the crisis in Venezuela has been barely told, and when it has it’s been delayed and muted. All this has meant that the main source of information for both journalists and citizens, is social media and in particular Twitter, which remained down in different parts of Venezuela during protests.
The people responsible for the testimonies and images in this article have asked for their identities to remain anonymous. This video has been launched and promoted by the civic platform SOS Venezuela.