Imprisoned Speech


By Daniela Flamini

A young protester walks between burning trash at a road block in Altamira Plaza in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 6, 2006, set up to protest against the murders of three brothers and their driver who were kidnapped on their way to school, as well as the death of a news photographer who was shot to death Wednesday evening on his way to cover one of the protests. (AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch)

In May of 2007, President Hugo Chavez denied the license renewal for RCTV, Venezuela’s last running private television channel. All other channels by then had been nationalized, and RCTV stood as the last form of freedom, the last piece of evidence that free speech was still valued and practiced by Venezuelans. With its destruction, Chavez infuriated a generation of protesters, and thus began the student movement.

Students in major cities all over the country began demonstrations, but it wasn’t until Chavez proposed to amend 69 articles of the 1999 constitution that they began to organize and mobilize. The Student Movement began to coordinate protests and raise awareness aimed at winning back their freedom of speech, and on December 2nd, 2007, Chavez was defeated in a referendum for the first time in nine years.

This was the start of a struggle between the country’s government and youth that would continue to get more violent, complex, and fruitless. Throughout the following years, as inflation skyrocketed, shortages of basic supplies worsened, corruption scandals were exposed, and universities lost autonomy, protests became more frequent and threatening.

The Student Movement had a repertoire of tactics that included marchas, volanteos, sit-ins and hunger strikes, and awareness campaigns. Protests often emphasized peace, made use of symbols like flowers and white hands, and tried to stay away from any political ideology. In such an extraordinarily polarized country, it is hard to read a protest as anything other than anti-government, but the students’ demands indeed didn’t include political change. They were protesting the country’s state of insecurity, economic instability, lack of freedom of speech, lack of academic freedom, and corruption.

As years passed and the country deteriorated further, students were no longer the only ones protesting. It seems that in the last three years, every citizen living in Venezuela has had something to be upset with the government for.

On February 12th of 2014, opposition leaders in 38 cities across the country lead simultaneous protests, and in many cases, these resulted in severe acts of violence by the government, including the use of tear-gas, shootings, and death threats. Militant groups known as colectivos would often carry out the government’s orders, attacking peaceful protesters and threatening international journalists and foreign envoys. In March, colectivos went as far as to burn down a university. It is estimated that parliamentary groups interrupted or attacked 31% of all protests through use of these military groups.

An opposition demonstrator dressed in a skeleton costume with a Venezuelan national flag draped over his body, lies on the pavement close to the Bolivarian National Police officers forming a human chain to block opposition marchers from reaching the National Electoral Council building in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are marching in Venezuela's capital to demand authorities set a date for overdue regional elections. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The government also used internet blackouts to slow the protesters down, as social media campaigns were some of the most important and successful aspects of their protesting. Throughout 2014, students promoted an #SOSVenezuela campaign, aimed at creating global awareness of the injustices taking place within the country. Within 12 weeks, posts with that hashtag received 8,400,000 engagements, which include likes and comments, link clicks, and photo and video views.

Though the Student Movement was meant to be a neutral platform of student leaders from all over the country, in recent years this neutrality has become impossible. The polarization in the country between pro and anti-government has become so sharp, and so many different groups have merged together in protest of the regime’s policies, that the Student Movement that once provided all of the momentum has now dissolved into the masses of unhappy Venezuelans who risk their lives in anti-government demonstrations almost every day.

The effectiveness of both the Student Movement and of modern-day-protesters is questionable, as the country has remained stagnantly socialist, resulting in repression and abuse and inhibiting efficacy. If anything, the government’s policies have become more authoritarian. Though social media campaigns like #SOSVenezuela were popular in their time, there have been few long-term successes as far as gaining the attention of other countries.

The most recent and hopeful development has been, surprisingly, a tweet from President Trump urging Venezuela to let Leopoldo Lopez out of prison. Lopez is the most popular Venezuelan political opposition leader, imprisoned unlawfully for having incited mass protests against the government. Though Trump is an unexpected and potentially toxic ally to have, the repressed, abused and exhausted protesters have little else to hope for. Perhaps attention from the U.S. may be, for once, welcome in Latin America.