A mother walks through the grocery store, empty shelves surrounding her where basic household products like toilet paper, flour and cooking oil once were. Parents tuck their children into bed every night hoping someone doesn’t break into their home. A man, angry that he doesn’t have the right to the freedom of speech that he deserves, protests against the government.
A wave of anti-government demonstrations have been sweeping through Venezuela since early February, and many of these demonstrators are students, fighting for their rights and for their country. Although demonstrators are demanding better security, an end to goods shortages and protected freedom of speech, all they really want is peace. In order for any of this to be possible more people need to be aware about what’s really going on in Venezuela.
Demonstrators blame Venezuela’s government, which is currently led by President Nicolás Maduro, for the problems the country is facing. These issues started with former President Hugo Chavez, who ruled Venezuela for 14 years until his death, which was from cancer, last year. Maduro, who was Chavez’s vice president, was elected into presidency in 2013 and has been running the country since – although many, like UCF alumni Jorge Benzaquen, consider it ruling instead.
“Democracy turned into dictatorship,” Benzaquen said. “The people favored Chavez. His ideas manipulated people for more than 10 years. With Chavez’s death, Nicolas Maduro faked winning elections and became the president.”
Since Chavez’s rise to power, crime has increased dramatically and it continues to worsen with Maduro as the president. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which is a nongovernmental organization, one person is killed roughly every 21 minutes in Venezuela.
UCF sophomore Melissa Zapata, who is from Caracas, Venezuela, talks about her family who still lives in Venezuela and the hardships they’ve had to endure, including times of violence. Two of her uncles have been kidnapped and held for ransom, one of her cousins was kidnapped and held at gunpoint while he was driving home at night and a few of her other cousins did not have class for over two weeks due to the unrest occurring in the streets.
“One of my cousins has had her apartment broken into and they stole her Wii, laptop, television and her cell phone,” Zapata said. “Even at school she has had her phone stolen many times, and I am mortified that children are willing to steal at such a young age.”
Zapata said that she also has a lot of friends and cousins who are currently college students in Venezuela who have been participating in the protests. She said they have been protesting because this is their future that they are fighting for.
“The demonstrations are a non-violent way of bringing awareness to the public, and to also make the government realize that change needs to occur in Venezuela to maintain peace,” Zapata said.
Adryelle Villamizar, a freshman at Valencia College, is one of Zapata’s cousins and has family in Venezuela as well. She believes that spreading the word here in the United States and making everyone aware of what is happening could eventually make a big difference.
“Bring it up in class discussions, in casual conversations, with your family, friends – anywhere,” Villamizar said. “Do the research too. Make sure that you have all the facts before bringing up the subject. You don’t want to spread false information about something as big as this.”
Benzaquen, whose family is from San Cristobal, Táchira, believes that a lot students still do not know what is really happening in Venezuela. He said that showing the truth on television would be a good start because he thinks the media hasn’t really shown the truth about what has been happening so far. Zapata thinks that social media is the best way to spread more awareness.
“Go on social media,” Zapata said. “My friends and family who are Venezuelan constantly post links to videos and news articles about what is going on right now in Venezuela. The more people that see what is going on, the more people will want to get involved.”
Social media is a big part of today’s society and it is considered one the most effective ways to pass information around. Although social media may be one of the most efficient ways to help Venezuela, there are more hands-on approaches that can be taken as well.
Taka Takas, which is a restaurant in Orlando that serves authentic Venezuelan food, is doing their part to help. According to Zapata, the restaurant, which is located on East Colonial Drive, is accepting donations of clothes, bandages, rubbing alcohol, food and other crucial items, and will bring them to the students that are fighting for their freedom in Venezuela.
“It is important to participate and donate supplies,” Zapata said. “Imagine trying to fight for your freedom when you have nothing to sustain you. They need all the support they can get in their fight for a better future.”
Another organization that is lending a helping hand is the Hispanic American Center of Economic Research (HACER). According the official HACER website, HACER is a nonprofit organization devoted to promote the study of issues pertinent to the countries of Hispanic America as well as Hispanic Americans living in the Unites States, especially as they relate to the values of personal and economic liberty, limited government under the rule of law, and individual responsibility.
“They [HACER] support media websites that defend their rights, and they have very good coverage of Venezuela since the government has shut down major news channels and websites. Their efforts are out of reach of the Venezuelan government,” Villamizar said.
There was even a 5K run in Miami, which is home to the largest concentration of Venezuelans in the United Sates, to help support student protestors in Venezuela. The International Democratic Network and the Venezuelan Student Alliance at Miami Dade College organized the run, which took place on April 13. All of the funds raised went towards humanitarian assistance for students participating in the protests.
There have been many demonstrations in various states such as New York and here in Florida to spread awareness and to demonstrate our support for government reform, according to Zapata.
“It makes me happy beyond words that so many people are showing support and sharing their views on what’s going on in Venezuela. I see it through the news, online, through art, on campus – everywhere,” Villamizar said.
Even though so many people are showing support, much more is still needed. Villamizar said that she thinks this is a serious matter that all students should be aware of. Zapata said she wants Venezuela to be the place that it was when she was a child. She wants Venezuela to have the same freedom and safety that she gets to experience everyday here in the United States.
The citizens and the demonstrators of Venezuela want to put an end to all the violence with better security, they want goods shortages to be stopped and they wanted protected freedom of speech – but most of all they want peace. Spreading awareness is crucial, and help from American citizens and students is needed. Spread the word: SOS Venezuela.