By Rosana Lezama Sanchez
Venezuelan emigrants always talk about how much they miss the country they left behind. I returned to Caracas in August of 2018, but I too miss Venezuela. The Venezuela that I grew up in was certainly no better than the one my parents grew up in, but no one imagined that things could reach this point, and yet they did. Just as most people never imagined that we could be talking about a massive political transition today. Yet here we are.
I’ve been working at the Human Rights Centre at Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB) as a Research Assistant. With the experience I’ve gained here and what I learned at the University of Ottawa, I’ve been able to witness not only recent political events, but also our daily routines as Venezuelans from a different optic. I have taken on the task of distancing myself from the situation in order to see the full picture. Sometimes though, it isn’t as easy. After all, this is my home.
The past month has been a mixture of living with the unbearable tension of the political situation while trying to go on with our daily routines. Everyone has been following the news, hearing and repeating rumours, and waiting for what comes next. Despite the uncertainty, our daily routines remain the same. Most stores are still open, we walk and drive the same routes, and we go to work as usual. However, because we have become so used to the unpredictability, whenever we see the slightest flicker of change in our surroundings, or in the news, all sorts of alarms start ringing in our heads. It feels like we are constantly on the go, with no rest in sight. Yesterday, as my mom was coming to pick me up, she called to say that she had just seen a pack of motorcycles rushing along the avenue waving flags, and asked me if I had heard anything about it. I hadn’t, and there was nothing in the news, but we still rushed home “just in case.”
The “just in case” motto has been quite popular these days, but the spirit of being cautious and preventive has reigned our behaviour for a long time. For too long… And how could it not? Lately we’ve been constantly seeing government Special Forces (FAES), who are known for being merciless and violent, deployed around the city. Yet, despite the fear that their presence all across the city produces, I see people willing to answer the call to protest, and more than willing to support opposition leader Juan Guaido as we reach the point of no return. While a few people have been critical of him, people trust him, like him as a politician, and want to follow his plans. He, his family, and even his dog have been so accepted in Venezuela that I realized a fundamental political issue of previous years was that people didn’t support the opposition because they didn’t trust them, so there was no way to confront the government with unity and coherence.
Venezuela has become an entire catalog of human rights issues. Even when there are no protests taking place, arbitrary detentions are still being carried out and torture continues to be practiced. In communities where people depend on government food boxes, those who have been seen protesting are denied the box. Public servants face a similar situation: those who have been speaking or protesting against the government are fired, and those who are still working are threatened with being fired if they don’t attend the pro-government rallies. Once I heard a government worker say, “I barely make 10 $USD a month, and my work isn’t even valued here. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Money issues have been a major crisis. Every day, at least twice before lunchtime, I hear people looking to buy American dollars. This is the new common strategy amongst Venezuelans, myself included, either to save money, or to pay for doctors’ appointments, car tires, articles of clothing, and medicine. When added to the food and medicine shortages, this results in chaos. The price increases and rationing never stop being shocking. I went to the supermarket last week and heard a woman say that she couldn’t afford to buy a sack of potatoes because it cost almost a third of her salary. The same goes for meat, juice, soda, fruit, and any service we might consume. People rely heavily on relatives living abroad, but any Venezuelan emigrant can testify how hard it is to earn enough to both live comfortably in their new country and help their family back in Venezuela.
The cost of living in Venezuela has come to the point where even dying is too expensive. A friend of my mom’s passed away last week. She and her family were average, middle-class citizens. If not for the contributions they received from friends and the company she worked for, she would have had to be buried wrapped in a bedsheet because her family could only afford to rent the casket for the funeral.
We have been asphyxiated in every way possible: the empty aisles, the subtle, yet powerful decision of missing either breakfast, lunch or dinner, the frustration of being scammed because you trusted someone who said they had insulin for your diabetic relative, the concern of knowing that a loved one is just about to walk through the border in the hope of a better life… And I could go on. This situation has hurt our minds, our souls, and our dignity. This is why today we aren’t protesting against an ideology, we are protesting against misery, crime, hunger, and abuse. We aren’t protesting because we want to survive, we are protesting because we want to live.
Rosana Lezama Sanchez moved from Venezuela to Canada in 2015 to complete her post-secondary education. She is a student of Conflict Studies and Human Rights at the University of Ottawa. Currently she works in Venezuela as a Research Assistant on transitional justice and political participation projects at the Human Rights Centre of the Andres Bello Catholic University.
Watch the two panel discussions on the findings and recommendations of the Lima Group meetings in Ottawa on the current crisis in Venezuela. The first discussion included two experts on Venezuela: Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Colombia, and Francisco Toro, Founder, Caracas Chronicles. The second discussion included three Canadian politicians: Hélène Laverdière, Vice-Chair, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (New Democratic Party); Andrew Leslie, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Liberal Party); and Erin O’Toole, Vice-Chair, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (Conservative Party). The discussions were moderated by Kenneth Frankel, President, Canadian Council for the Americas, and the event was hosted by CIPS in collaboration with the Canadian International Council – National Capital Branch and the Canadian Council for the Americas.