Saturday, February 22, 2014

#SOSVenezuela in Athens, GA.

I was asked to be the speaker at the #SOSVenezuela rally in support of Venezuelan students.  Below, what I said:

Good afternoon,

Thanks to the student organizations and to all the students who organized this event.

Special thanks to all of you for being here.

We’ve seen the pictures of the repression in the streets of Venezuela, we’ve watched the videos. We’re here because we’re troubled by so much violence. And Venezuela’s everyday life is now marked by that terrible word: violence.

It is important, however, to remember other aspects that have been manifest in Venezuela’s everyday life for a while now and that are at the root of the current protests:

1.    The state of the economy.
a.     In the year 2013, Venezuela’s international reserves dropped 25%.
b.    The country’s annualized inflation rate was 56%, one of the highest in the world.
c.     Food inflation was 74%
d.    Health care inflation was also 74%
e.     The Scarcity index is now 28%
f.      Economic policies and the foreign exchange system have curtailed or, literally, stopped several industries. One example: the automotive industry, which used to employ 80,000 Venezuelans. It must be pointed out that there are also shortages of spare parts.
g.    The government owes international airlines 3 billion dollars; hence, some airlines have stopped flying to Venezuela, others have suspended ticket sales in the country.
h.    There are also shortages of medicines, particularly those necessary for cancer treatment.
i.      The government is trapped in its own failed economic policies and hasn't shown, so far, that it has the political will to correct them. Instead, it continues a strategy of creating scapegoats. In this way, it unloads its own responsibility on others (the business class, the private sector and the U.S.), and distracts attention.
2.    Crime
a.     According to the World Health Organization you can speak of a violence epidemic when there are more than 10 violent deaths per 100,000 people. The government says there were 39 murders per 100,000 people in 2013 in Venezuela.
b.    NGO Violence Observatory says the rate was much higher: 79 murders per 100,000 people. According to this organization, in 2013 there were 24,763 violent deaths in Venezuela.
c.     Stickups and kidnappings (express and long-term) are also the stuff of everyday life. You will be hard pressed to find a Venezuelan whose life hasn’t been touched by some sort of crime in the last decade.

These are two of the most important aspects of the context of the protests. How different opposition leaders have channeled (or not) Venezuelans’ dissatisfaction is a point of discussion. But, I want to focus our attention on the government’s response to the students’ protest. And that has been repression and intimidation by security forces and by paramilitary groups that are encouraged and defended in the government’s discourse.

According to yesterday’s report of the Foro Penal Venezolano, an NGO that gives legal and human rights assistance to detainees, there have been 506 confirmed detentions. Courts have decided that 23 of them are to stay in prison. Others wait for their day in court. The ones that have been let go, have court ordered restrictions on their freedoms: prohibition to protest or manifest publicly, prohibition to speak to the media or to express themselves in social media, prohibition to leave their city and the country, etc. Many of them are reporting to human rights NGOs that they were victims of tortures. To protest, which is a constitutional right, is being criminalized.

We have a human rights crisis in Venezuela.

But, violence isn’t only what we see in the streets or in the courts of a justice system in a country in which the government party controls all branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The government’s discourse of demonizing and intimidating dissidence is also violence.  And that discourse didn’t start last week. For years the government has assigned demeaning labels to those who think differently: escuálidos, apátridas, golpistas. The latest one: "the fascist right." Half of the country is "the fascist right." Under that label there are people who locate themselves in every point of the left-right continuum. A critical scholar like me is also "the fascist right." All of you for being here in support of Venezuelan students are, by the government’s definition, also "the fascist right."

This isn’t the only violence in the government’s discourse. I encourage you to read government officers tweets. You will find a lot of violence in their 140-character strings. Furthermore, the president threatens on national television. Not only does he threaten opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles, María Corina Machado, and Leopoldo López who’s now in jail; but also opinion leaders who aren’t politicians. Writers, artists and journalists who oppose the government have endured the hacking of their Twitter and email accounts and continuous phone threats for several years.

The president also threatens the media, whose situation in Venezuela is dire too. The government’s non-renewal of the broadcast license of oppositional TV and radio outlets, censorship, self-censorship and media buyouts by economic groups with close ties to the government, have all reduced to a minimum the window for dissident opinions. 

Media is my expertise. I’ve been studying the Venezuelan telenovela industry for more than 15 years. I’ve seen how the straight jacket has been placed on the country’s media and how it has been steadily tightened. These recent events evidenced this. But, the silencing has been in the making since 2004. And, after having domestic media totally under control, the government now goes after international media outlets. The government ordered Venezuelan cable companies to take out of their grids NTN24, a Colombian news network. Why? Because it was broadcasting from the streets of Caracas on February 12th, while Venezuelan networks were showing cartoons and cooking shows. This week, the government threatened to do the same to CNN en español. And it has already revoked the press credentials in Venezuela of several CNN reporters and producers. These actions speak volumes about the government’s real colors. They were executed after CNN en español broadcast a conversation between pro- and anti-government students moderated by Patricia Janiot, whose credential was also revoked and who was harassed by immigration and customs officers at the airport. CNN en español organized a dialogue and these were the consequences. This is what the Venezuelan government really thinks of dialogue. Some people believe that the government is overplaying its hand. After so many years of research, I must say that THIS has always been the government’s hand: intolerance and repression.

Violence engenders violence. Violence is the government’s game. This is the reason behind its actions and discourse. Those who take advantage of the people’s discontent to create more violence are playing for the government. They’ve become what they adverse. Venezuela needs peace. This can only happen through true dialogue. Through the real acknowledgment that there are different political positions and that dissent is valid. It can only happen through the respect of the constitutional right to protest peacefully. And I underline the word peacefully.

I started my remarks today by saying that we’ve all seen the pictures and videos of the events in the last two weeks.  But, I’d like to add one more picture: 

This is my mom. She’s 83 years old and yesterday she went to Altamira Square in Caracas, where many of the protesting students are, and gave out slices of the pound cake she baked for them. I found the photo in Twitter, I don’t know the person who took it. But, she has given us a picture of the Venezuela that has been forgotten in the midst of all of this: the country whose smile is wide, warm and welcoming, the one that is delighted to cook a feast for others, the one that extends its hand and hospitality every single time. It’s the Venezuela in my heart, the one I always want to go back to, and the reason why we’re all here.

Thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this in depth account on the past and present situation. I would like to hope that this is a true beginning of what such an amazing country has to offer, and that all this effort is not lost…. As for your wonderful Mother, well , this is the heart and human aspect that we all Venezuelans hope to reflect to not only our own people, but to those that hopefully are watching…..