Violent protests hit home for Stetson Venezuelans
By Casey Kelly, News Editor
What started out as peaceful demonstrations against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro two weeks ago quickly escalated into violent clashes with police, striking a chord with the several Stetson students who call Venezuela their home.
The students immediately began promoting awareness about the situation back home by trying to rally support for the opposition movement among fellow Stetson students. In addition to sharing pictures and messages on social media sites, they also shared information with students by tabeling outside of the CUB, and traveled to Miami this past weekend to volunteer in a pro-opposition rally.
One of the students involved is junior Political Science major Dame Perez, who lives in Valencia, Venezuela when she’s not attending classes at Stetson. “My mind and heart are not at Stetson this week, they are in Venezuela,” she said.
Perez posted pictures of the tabling sessions on her Facebook profile last week, which were later shared by SOS Venezuela, a pro-opposition Facebook page that has been “liked” by more than 178,000 people worldwide.
The pictures were found by a national organization called the Venezuelan Student Association, who contacted Perez about setting up a central Florida representative. She and some other Venezuelan students worked with students from the University of Florida to organize Stetson volunteers for a rally in Miami this past Saturday.
Alejandro Malave, a junior Marketing major, was one of the five Stetson students who volunteered at the rally with UF students.
“It is really disappointing to see that [citizens]have to reach extreme situations in order to be heard,” Malave said. He is originally from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela and where the majority of the violence has taken place. “My family and a lot of my friends still live in Venezuela, and I feel that a lot of Venezuelans around the world can relate to this situation.”
Malave also said he and his friends are in the process of establishing a VENSA chapter on Stetson’s campus that would promote more collaboration with non-Venezuelan students.
“As long as we continue to have the support from the Stetson community, I think that there could be a really good chance of us putting an effort into bringing this new organization on campus,” Malave said.
The students’ efforts come after several weeks of violence between Venezuelan students and police, triggered by the death of three students on Feb. 12. The students were reportedly killed by Venezuelan police while peacefully demonstrating against the Maduro administration’s lack of response to the high inflation rates and human rights violations.
Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world with 126 murders for every 100,000 people. Lots of the demonstrations before the Feb. 12 murders were led by students who simply wanted to feel safer on their campuses.
While there are multiple opposition leaders, one of the most-recognized is Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested last week on charges of arson and conspiracy. Venezuelan authorities accused Lopez of provoking violence amongst protesters that led to the deaths of five more people.
Media censorship by the Maduro administration also sparked international outcry from free speech organizations, especially after CNN reporters were forced to leave the country last week.
While the protests have only recently turned violent, Dr. William Nylen, Professor and department head of Political Science at Stetson, explained that the problems highlighted by protestors really date back to the presidency of Hugo Chavez, who died last year.
“This is the most recent outbreak of a divided political system that’s been broiling under the surface for at least 15 or 20 years,” Nylen said. “Socialism fails when it doesn’t have democracy to discipline the power of the state, and that was the problem with Chavez’s socialism.”
The intense violence throughout the region has been making many of Stetson’s Venezuelan students uneasy. Maria Abreu, a junior Finance major and native of Caracas, said she worries her family and friends will get caught in the violence.
“My parents still live there and I talk to them everyday. Thankfully the government has not shut down internet so my friends can chat with me,” Abreu said.
She and Malave say they do not have plans to go back to Venezuela for spring break because of the violence. “I’m not planning on going to Venezuela because right now the level of insecurity is extremely high,” Abreu said.
Malave added that the protests also posed logistical problems for people trying to travel through the region. “I am not traveling to Venezuela for spring break because I cannot afford traveling there for such a short period of time, and anyways, if I did, it would be difficult to arrive to Caracas because all streets are blocked with barricades,” he said.
Perez said she is not sure exactly how the whole situation back home will play out in the long run, but added that the students’ efforts were crucial in preserving her country’s integrity.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the government is capable enough to control the economic, social, and political chaos that the country is undergoing,” Perez said. “Students are bravely going to keep the fight for their rights to be respected.”
As of press time on Feb. 25, the death toll was thirteen.
*As previously reported by The Associated Press, police estimated that around 4,500 people attended Saturday’s rally.