Heed the S.O.S. Call from Venezuela, Say Protestors

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It took a week and three protests for Venezuelans in New York to get the attention of American media outlets: they lay on the ground in Times Square on Monday in protest of the current leadership of President Nicolas Maduro; they sang the Venezuelan national anthem in front of the United Nations on Wednesday; and when the #SOSVenezuelaNYC movement formed a giant human S.O.S in Union Square on Saturday, CNN and other media outlets were finally present to record it.

To the group’s surprise, however, a small band of people that supports the current government stood in front of them on Saturday, shouting “fascists!” and pointing fingers at them. The police prevented any escalation of the confrontation into violence, but the turn of events was a stark reminder that even miles away from their home country, deep divisions exist within the Venezuelan community.

“There is so much anger right now,” said Alexander Chaparro, a Venezuelan student who recently arrived in New York, “but the real problem is that there is so much of a divide: 50 per cent of the population is still convinced that the other half wants to steal from the nation. This is about the division within a country, it’s not really about Maduro.”

Since Maduro was elected in April 2013, after the death of Hugo Chavez, the economic conditions continued to deteriorate even though the country has the world’s largest known oil reserves. And dire economic conditions have exacerbated street crime.

As a result, thousands of students rallied in the western city of San Cristóbal, on Feb 2, to protest against high inflation, product shortages and rampant crime. It was not the first time these type of protests occurred, but reports of government crackdown triggered a wave of demonstrations in the rest of the country. At least ten were killed and more than 100 injured, according to Al Jazeera.

More than 10,000 Venezuelans live in New York City, according to the 2010 Census Bureau. Many of them left their socialist country with dreams of a better future and now they are taking to American streets. Their aim, said Mariana Martin, a Columbia University public administration student and one of the leaders behind the #SOSVenezuela movement, is to raise awareness in the international community of violence against protestors in their home country.

According to Bloomberg, the Venezuelan Central Bank’s “scarcity index” rose to a record 28 percent last month—meaning that one in four basic goods were out of stock at any given time.

In podcasts sent to NY City Lens through the WhatsApp mobile application, Venezuelan student Ana Teresa Valladares describes the shortages in Caracas.

The conditions back home are prompting even more Venezuelans here to get involved.

“Today I cry of both happiness and sadness,” wrote Cristina Estanislao, a Venezuelan studying in Berlin, on her blog. “I cry for my family that has been divided due to an idea of a system that is unsustainable. I cry for the friend with whom I played so much in school, for the aunt I love so dearly, and for my cousin and my other uncle that I still have left over there.”

According to Alejandro Velasco, a historian of modern Latin America at New York University, the Venezuelan government is in a precarious position. “Three weeks ago, there were plenty of meetings between the government and the opposition. But since the former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, embarked on a mission to expand his support base beyond the middle class, there has been considerable splintering of the opposition, and huge tensions between different strategies,” said Velasco.

“The protests are not new,” he said, “but the timing and the context is different from before.”

Maduro has contended that “fascist groups,” led by one of his main opponents Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard educated economist, was behind last week’s violence. Lopez was arrested at a protest on Thursday and faces charges of murder and terrorism. “It’s really sad. Both sides are more radicalized than before,” said Miguel Centeno, another Venezuelan student protesting in Times Square in New York, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Some Venezuelans in New York say they want to go back home to try to make a difference, despite the risks. “I wish I was there,” said Marielys Molina, a performer on Broadway. “I am seriously thinking of going back, even it that means losing my job.”