By Stepfanie Lam

Sophomore, microbiology major

Remember the commercial that began, “Here’s to the crazy ones”? Well, Caesar Chavez epitomizes this, but Venezuela has another Chavez, known as Hugo Chavez, who was once a military officer. Chavez was thrown into jail when he led a coup in 1992 against Carlos Andres Perez. When he was freed in 1994, he formed a new political party and was eventually elected president. Although he promised to reduce poverty and corruption, the country continued to fall below the poverty line. Although violence was prevalent in Venezuela, it soared when Chavez took over. In 2011, Chavez was diagnosed and treated for cancer but passed away two years later. Currently, his successor is known as Nicolas Maduro. What makes Maduro different from the leader of Ukraine is the fact that he has the entire state, military police, and other personnel supporting him and carrying out brutal punishment to protestors. Currently, oil-rich Venezuela, listed as “one of the world’s top 10 oil exporting countries worldwide” by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is ranked as one of the world’s most violent countries.

To illustrate the political turmoil and poverty in Venezuela, one needs only to refer to the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her husband. Despite the horrified reactions to these deaths around the world, violence on Venezuelan roads and highways is very common. In fact, according to CNN, “there were 25,000 violent deaths last year in a country of about 30 million people.” It is saddening that these murders were only brought to light because of the death of a celebrity.
Chavez and Maduro’s socialist policies that brought the country into hyperinflation are what sparked the nationwide student protests that began on February 12, 2014. According to Faith Karimi of CNN, these protestors were “demanding better security, an end to goods shortages, and protected freedom of speech.” Huffington post writer Vivian Sequera said the government’s attempt to help with the poverty backfired—“…inflation hit a record of 54 percent.” Moreover, many of the basic goods such as sugar and toilet paper are a scarcity in Venezuela. Recently, a state governor from one of the most influential families in Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez, was thrown into a Caracas prison because of his role in organizing the protests.
How does something like this impact us? Many Americans, including students at UF, have family still living in Venezuela. Alejandro Sanoja, a junior biochemistry major, said, “As a first generation Venezuelan American, I am saddened to hear about the current events going on in Venezuela—the country where the majority of my family still lives. Many outsiders speak of the crisis in terms of politics and economics, and support or oppose the government based off of their ideology rather than the facts and morals. To me, this isn’t about ideology; it’s about my people, my family, and their safety. The stories I hear directly from those I love, to know at every waking minute your loved ones are not safe, make you feel powerless. What can I do but pray and hope? To me, a government that needs to maintain power through force is not a legitimate government and needs to be toppled or altered significantly. Killing students, not providing paper for private media groups, and silencing your enemies are just a small fraction of what is happening in Venezuela currently.”
Sometimes it is not enough to be aware of these political and economic issues but to use our knowledge and voice to inform the public about how these issues are hurting people. As students, we can become a catalyst for positive change. Empathy is sorely lacking in many of the individuals in Venezuela who have the power to bring about change.