Feb. 20, 8 a.m. Oscar Navas is starting his morning as an intern at the Luis Razetti hospital in Venezuela. Students are on the streets protesting and setting up barricades in coastal city Lecheria.
Two male protesters, aged 17 and 19, are brought into the emergency room under police custody. They’re suffering from wounds caused by plastic bullets shot at close range. Instead of having time to separate into four pellets as intended, they entered the youths’s bodies as single, large projectiles.
Venezuelan students have been marching in the streets in cities across the country and protests were reignited in early February. Although student involvement in the protests is being highlighted, much of Venezuela’s population is lashing out. This is not just a student issue.
Crime and violence within Venezuela have played key roles in fuelling the protests. Last year, an estimated 24,763 people were murdered in the country, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-governmental organization.
“I would like to live in a Venezuela where I walk the streets without feeling fear,” says Navas, a student at Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela.
The spark that started Venezuela’s charged political atmosphere was another act of violence.
A first-year student was sexually assaulted on the Universidad de Los Andes campus in the city San Cristóbal. Students staged a march to protest the police’s lack of response to the crime. The police did react this time, deploying tear gas and firing plastic bullets at the protesters.
The teenagers under Navas’s care are not the only casualties of police bullets. These young men survived. The official death toll currently stands at 13 students killed during February’s protests.
Navas is also the youth co-ordinator for the small political party Voluntad Popular and helps lead political demonstrations. As the boys are receiving medical care for their injuries, a local radio station calls Navas to gather information about casualties from the morning’s round of protests. The radio station, Unión Radio Noticias, puts Navas live on-air where he tells the audience about the wounds and injuries of the people he sees.
Local authorities are listening to the broadcast and Navas’s words capture their attention. Station monitors communicate with the officers watching over the injured protesters, and they begin to record Navas’s words. Police begin to fill the ER.
Doctors at the hospital warn Navas to get out. As he’s leaving the hospital a friend calls to say he’s overheard the provincial chief of police give the order for Navas’s arrest.
“The police forces were chasing me because I said to a radio station what was happening in hospital, things that were happening at that moment, and that’s not fair,” he says.
Navas goes into hiding where he stays, safe, for 48 hours. “My conscience didn’t allow me to stay there,” says Navas. “I couldn’t be calm knowing that yeah, I was safe, but my friends are risking their lives for (a) future that involves me … I’m on the streets again, and I’m going to all of our protests and we are doing all that we have to do to make our people wake up.”
Venezuela is ruled by the left-wing government of Nicolás Maduro and his United Socialist Party which was founded by former president and socialist strong-man Hugo Chavez.
Though Venezuela has its share of social issues — shortages of food and basic necessities, increased inflation rates, systemic poverty and a repressive media climate — the political arena is far from black and white. In a country of deep economic divisions, the political interests of Venezuela’s rich and poor have long been at odds.
University of Toronto Latin American studies lecturer Juan Marsiaj says the situation is not that simple. “How much of [what’s going on] is because of the economic interests of the elite in destabilizing the country? And how much of it is just to do with bottlenecks of bad economic policies from the government?” he says. “All of that is very complex and sometimes it’s very difficult to parcel out.”
“These claims of tyrannical dictatorship, to repression of the democratic desires of the mass of the population, which is often what you get from a cursory reading in the media … It’s a little more complicated than that.”
Imperialist, meddling powers subtly pulling political strings have characterized the history of Latin America since Europeans landed on the continent centuries ago, Marsiaj points out. The result is a confusing mix of political actors, motivations, power plays and intrigue. This seems to have little effect on the day-to-day reality of the student protesters who are marching, and in some cases, dying in Venezuela’s streets.
“I want and I dream of a Venezuela where the people that think differently than those who have the power don’t fear,” says Navas. But he’s already paying a price for that dream.
Despite the risks and the fact that he’s on the police’s radar as a troublemaker and organizer, Navas is committed to the process he has helped begin. “That’s why I fight, because now we have two options. We, the young Venezuelans, can leave the country or fight,” he says. “Because we are not going to settle.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 5, 2014.