Students, professor react to Venezuelan turmoil

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Victoria Bonomie, a UC Berkeley senior born and raised in Venezuela, was first held at gunpoint at age 10.

She remembers playing on a Venezuelan beach with her brother when two men emerged from nearby bushes, brandished guns at her family members — including her 3-year-old sister — and demanded her parents’ watches and wedding rings.

It’s a memory she relays almost nonchalantly. Such acts of arbitrary violence — from robberies to 48-hour kidnappings — blended into the lives of Bonomie and her peers growing up in Venezuela.

The country’s high crime rate and its worsening economy have become the focal point for a number of protests in recent months as opposition leaders and some citizens criticize President Nicolas Maduro’s response to these issues.

In February, students flooded the streets in protests nationwide, calling for better security in response to the attempted rape of a university student. Other concerns include increased inflation, food shortages and alleged freedom of speech violations.

The demonstrations turned violent when students clashed with government forces, swelling into the largest protests Venezuela has seen since the death of Hugo Chavez in March 2013. Twenty-eight people have died since the protests began, and more than 350 have been injured.

Students for Vzla
Some UC Berkeley students have been protesting in solidarity with the Venezuelan demonstrators.

Andrea Perez, a Venezuelan UC Berkeley senior, said she couldn’t stand by and watch violence against fellow students in her home country. She organized a demonstration with about 40 attendees on Sproul on Feb. 14, to raise awareness of the protests and later produced a video in which Venezuelan students asked for help from the international community.

Perez also founded Students for Vzla, an organization she hopes will become an international network for students expressing their support for the Venezuelan demonstrators. The group translates Venezuelan news on its website and Facebook page — which has more than 5,000 likes — intending to fill what they see as a void of accurate information about the situation on the ground, according to Perez.

“The hardest thing for me was that I would talk to so many people around the world and nobody would know anything about Venezuela besides Miss Universe,” Perez said.

On Feb. 23, the students protested with a group of Bay Area Venezuelans, forming a hundreds-long human chain across the Golden Gate Bridge. The groups have also held vigils in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building for those killed in the violence.

Opposing the opposition
Though some students are trying to attract more attention to what they believe are human rights violations, campus professor of sociology Laura Enriquez — who has studied social transformation in Venezuela — said the issues aren’t “quite as straightforward as that.”

While Enriquez said “crime and inflation are very serious,” she added that while some shortages are caused by government-set price ceilings, others are induced for political reasons.

According to her, the print media, which she said is “mostly opposition-controlled,” will repeatedly write about the scarcity of a certain food and then announce its availability, resulting in high demand and an artificial shortage. She added that such scarcity hardly counts as a human rights violation.

“We’re not talking about life-and-death shortages,” Enriquez said.

But Sara Cooper, a Venezuelan UC Berkeley freshman involved with Students for Vzla, said the protesters’ claims about freedom of speech violations are founded. She said that at times, she’s known more about the situation from social media than her family back at home.

Gabriel Hetland, a UC Berkeley graduate sociology student who has studied Venezuela, acknowledged that though Venezuela is dangerous, the crime in the nation’s capital isn’t worse than in comparable Latin American cities.

Enriquez added that the student protesters in Venezuela are not blameless, noting that they sometimes incited the fighting. Cooper, however, disagreed.

“How can it be a civil war when only one side is shooting?” she said.

Hetland and Enriquez both said the protesters — who are mainly upper-middle and upper class — exaggerate their claims.

According to Enriquez, these wealthier classes are dissatisfied with Maduro, who, like Chavez before him, constructs social policies that favor the poor. But Perez mentioned that many of the issues don’t affect the upper class.

“They affect the poorer communities that can’t get milk for their kids … and are scared to be outside because gangs and the violence could kill them at any second,” Perez said.

Enriquez and Hetland expressed concern that protesters were trying to depose a legitimately elected government. Hetland, however, called accusations of electoral fraud “fairly unsubstantiated.”

Looking forward
The members of Students for Vzla, however, insisted that the organization is not political. Though the protests may have initially been ideologically driven, Perez said the demonstrators care more about stopping the violence.

Now that the Venezuelan crisis is more commonly known, Students for Vzla’s next goal is to prompt international pressure on the Venezuelan government. Bonomie repeated that their main concern was the safety of their fellow students in Venezuela.

“It’s not me versus you, rich versus poor, Chavistas versus non-Chavistas,” Cooper said. “We want what’s best for the country.”

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.