By Erin Longney
Venezuela is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis. In recent years, the country has been rocked by severe food and resource shortages, hyperinflation, political turmoil and economic collapse. In fact, since 2015, over 5 million people have fled the country in a bid to escape ongoing repression and human rights violations. Political opponents are jailed or killed for speaking out, whilst opposition lawmakers are denied the opportunity to stand for office. Many citizens live in a perpetual state of fear.
After the death of Socialist President Hugo Chávez in 2013, Nicolás Maduro succeeded to the Presidency. He was re-elected in 2018, though opposition groups denounced the election as illegitimate and heavily rigged towards Maduro. Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader, declared himself interim President in January 2019, and while over 50 countries recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s President, the Venezuelan military has continued to side with Maduro, allowing him to effectively remain head of the country. Under Maduro’s leadership, the United Nations has criticised the Venezuelan government of committing ‘egregious violations’ of human rights, including the violent suppression and murder of political opposition and state-sponsored torture of citizens.
In recent weeks, the students of The Mary Word were privileged enough to hear a staff member from Loreto Normanhurst, working here through a House of Welcome program, speak about her life and experiences living in Venezuela. I recently spoke with her to discuss the political and social situation in her home country, and her work at her own university’s student newspaper. Her words have been edited for clarity, and her identity will remain anonymous.
I am from Venezuela, in South America, we used to be a nice country before… we have the biggest reserve of petrol in the world. It wasn’t a first world country, but it was okay to be in South America. But then, in 1999, the Communists came to my country.
I was very interested in the situation, since I was little, around 7 years old. I was seeing how everything was changing. When I was in high school, I was in the newspaper, I was very active in the high school and in my community. I decided to study law, and I became a lawyer. Six years of study. Then, in that process, I was very involved in the political situation at my university, and in my community as well. Then I decided to study political studies, which I didn’t finish, because I had to come here.
I have my family, I have my parents, my mum is a lawyer as well. I have my sister; she is a lawyer. I have a brother; he is in high school. We were pretty much… like a regular family, until we got very involved in the political situation.
I remember we used to live okay. There, if you have money to afford stuff, you can live… if you don’t, you’re going to struggle a lot. It is a very divided country. I was very lucky that… I used to travel, I did music, I could study English, I went to university, I had the resources to have an okay life. But I wasn’t very happy about the situation because I am very sensitive. I can be okay, but if I see someone that is not… I try to help. I am very interested in justice. I always try to help, since I was in high school… I was always in trouble, since I was trying to help, I was standing up for my classmates.
Since I was in high school, and I saw the changes happening in my school, I started standing up and speaking out. I tried to do it through the paper, more than twice I was called by the Principal… and told you have to be careful. They used to reject my writings. The government was taking the school, and they were changing the important subjects to political stuff, so I was trying to speak out, I was trying to make the community realise what was going on. It was pretty hard.
I wanted to study at the best university, and my Mum said this is going to affect your future… it’s better if we change you. They put me in a private school. Then university came, and it was worse. We had more contact with the political situation. We were very, very active. All the deans, and all the authority in the university, they used to have seats in the Congress. We used to fight a lot in the university, I studied there five years. Those five years were pretty hard, I had to run.. many times. Some people were killed, even.
I wasn’t getting scared in that moment. I was younger, I used to say ‘we have to do this, we have to fight, we have to defend our rights’. But it’s pretty hard to do that in a country where there’s no human rights. They don’t care if they kill you or kidnap you or put you in prison.
My mum was one of the lawyers for a group of students who were protesting. They were protesting because they were asking for free elections… they were asking the dictator to resign. They were asking for human rights. They were 17, 16 years old. Some of them got killed. My mum was one of the attorneys for this group. After that, the situation got worse for us.
In 2015, I almost got kidnapped. I was very lucky that I didn’t, I think it wasn’t my time. I was driving, and these people approached me, lucky there were other people behind, because they saw them following me, I didn’t see it. They couldn’t do anything in that moment. After that, I left, and my mum said, you have to go study English. I wanted to study a Masters in Human Rights, or a Masters in International Relations, so of course I had to study English. That’s why I came here.
My sister is a doctor, and she was in the hospital, and she was trying to take care of these patients who were getting injured because they were protesting. The police got into the hospital, and they brought guns to the doctors, to stop them from doing their job. My sister said, ‘I have to leave, I can’t even do my job’.
They started a Socialist government; they have been in power for almost 23 years. In the process, they started making reforms, changing the constitutions, changing all the laws and all the systems. One of the changes was… they were going to take all the money from the rich people and give it to the poor. It was very… optimistic. So they started shutting down all the private companies, and they took it and made it part of the government. But the corruption was so big, they didn’t want to help people.
We didn’t have medication, we didn’t have electricity… the basic stuff you should have, we didn’t have it, because the government was taking it. They were saying that it was because America was blocking the economy. They were changing the constitution. We used to elect a President every five years, you could be elected twice, and that’s it. Now they’ve changed it: they can be President forever. When people start protesting, they started killing, putting them in prison. That was why people were protesting, because they were losing their rights.
I wasn’t living properly, because I was hiding all the time. On weekends, I had to travel overseas, because I couldn’t stay at home. I couldn’t attend my university ceremony, because I was scared of being there. When my friends used to go out, I couldn’t do it, because I was scared.
I wasn’t living. I used to have a lot of nightmares, because it’s like they are chasing you all the time. You are very paranoid of everything around you. I remember we used to open a hole in the wall to hide our passports. We were waiting for the right time to leave. In Venezuela, it’s another right we don’t have: the right to identity. They are not giving passports to Venezuelans, to stop the people leaving the country.
Here, it’s pretty hard… I have no one here. No one. That’s the hard part. I have friends, but they are busy all the time. But at least I can sleep, and I feel safe.
In 2018, there was a boy, he was around 16 years old. You are scared, but there gets to a point where you have lost everything, that you don’t care anymore about anything. I’m going to fight. They were a poor family; they didn’t have gas. We have the biggest reserve of petrol in the world, but we didn’t have petrol. His mum was hungry, and his brothers, and so he went out and started calling all the people in the community. They tried to block the road, protesting, but the police came. And they shot this guy in his face, he lost his eyes. He was only 16 years old.
Even my neighbour got kidnapped by the authorities because he was posting on twitter: ‘I’m tired of the situation, we are in a dictatorship’. The police took him, and no one knew where he was.
I see here, you can do stuff for you, you have the resources to stay, you have the rights. Even sometimes I hear people complaining that they can’t go out because of COVID, and it might be annoying. But when they take your passport away, you don’t have ID, you don’t have anything. You are no one. I want to visit my family, and I haven’t been able, not only because of COVID, but because I don’t have a passport.
We are humans. Anything that can be painful for you, can be painful for someone in India, can be painful for someone in Venezuela. At the end, we are the same.
Often, the stories of trauma and oppression that we see on the news seem distant, and it is hard to fathom that the violence and brutality we see on our television screens and news feeds is someone’s reality. Though, through hearing these personal stories and accounts, the truth about the lived experiences of global violence and injustice truly comes to the fore. As we purchase hot chips, feast on donuts and dance at the Loreto Day concert, it is imperative we remember that when the 3:15 bell sounds, the oppression and violence faced by those we are supporting does not end. That we are not simply supporting a cause, rather, the real people behind the screens and infographics for whom these seemingly distant stories of torture and repression is an everyday reality. ‘At the end we are the same…. we are humans.’