A Final Standoff
By Daniela Flamini
In October of 1981, the retired political scientist and author Peter Merkl wrote, “It appears that the only trail to a democratic future for developing societies may be the one followed by Venezuela.… Venezuela is a textbook case of step-by-step process.” Though this was a short forty years ago, it is shocking to see how a country that once fit such a description is now also the subject of articles in The New York Times that have titles such as “Descent into Dictatorship” and “How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? Venezuela Is a Case in Point.”
Indeed, the transformation of the country from a prosperous democracy to a failed state has been dramatic, and it has seen not only the complete metamorphosis of a government and an economy, but of a people as well. Though the increasingly oppressive regimes of Chavez and now Maduro have utilized every tactic possible to cut off free speech and silence the voices of any opposition, whether that be student protesters on the street or political opponents in Congress, today the masses have finally torn past their fear of the government and insisted that their rage be understood. Now all that is left is that the international community finally listen.
Currently, Venezuela is undergoing a severe shortage of basic foods and medicine, crumbling economic conditions, disastrous corruption in every branch of the government and police, and a horrific human rights crisis. Still, the government’s jailing and torture of political opponents and international journalists as well as their violent acts of aggression towards student protesters have prevented much tangible change, as freedom of speech is nonexistent and democracy has fallen. In recent weeks, the military has gone as far as to use expired tear gas on innocent civilians partaking in peaceful protests.
The protest movement was initially sparked in 2007 by a group of students who reacted to Chavez’s decision to close RCTV, Radio Caracas Television, Venezuela’s last private news channel. Though they sought to stay away from any political affiliation, today all opposition groups have merged into one mass of anti-government protesters, who tend to make use of social media in order to connect, mobilize, and spread awareness. Recently, the hashtag #350ya (350 now) has been widely circulated on places like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in order to rally people to protest; Article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution states that the country, “loyal to its republican traditions, in its struggle for independence, peace and liberty, should remove any regime, legislation or authority that opposes those values, principles and democratic guarantees or that impairs human rights.”
Though this kind of communication and story-telling is useful to create a community of solidarity and resistance within the country, as people share their pictures, live videos, and messages with each other instantly, their voices do not reach a wide enough audience to truly contribute to public discourse about what needs to be done in Venezuela. Today civilians are so preoccupied with concerns about their safety, their accessibility to food and medicine, and the well-being of their families, that they are in an extraordinarily limited position in regards to connecting with the international community about human rights issues and policy change. 87 out of every 100 Venezuelan citizens do not have enough money for food, according to a study from 2015; the number today is probably even more terrifying.
Being a journalist in Venezuela is no easier: “almost one-third of all Venezuelan journalists refrain from reporting on vital public interest issues out of fear of retaliation, while almost half reported being pressured to change the coverage of a story.” For example, Rayma Suprani is a political cartoonist who worked for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal for nineteen years, but in 2014 she was asked to leave after having had drawn a cartoon that criticized Chavez’s healthcare policies. After death threats and persecution by the government, she has now found asylum in Miami.
Venezuela is at the brink of a refugee crisis, with famine, starvation, skyrocketing inflation, and some of the worst violence and murder rates in the world. No matter how many New York Times articles are written about the ‘Descent into Dictatorship’ or each ‘Crisis Upon Crisis,’ it seems that the desperate pleas of the people who desperately need help are not really being heard by the rest of the international community, or even by the Venezuelan government itself.
The valiant protesters out on the streets, meanwhile, have now gone as far as throwing eggs and rocks at Maduro during a military parade, making it clear that there is now little they have to fear after having undergone years of horrendous atrocities committed on behalf of the government. Hopefully, it will not take many more deaths before the rest of the world begins to truly listen.