Life in Venezuela, One Year After the Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela exists in a state of anticipation and apprehension as its 28 million remaining residents collectively ask “Que viene ahora?”—“What comes now?”

In 2017, violent protests engulfed Caracas and the nation, threatening to topple the autocratic regime of President Nicolas Maduro. Marches closed off vast swathes of the city, protesters flung Molotov cocktails and human feces at National Guard troops and paramilitary fighters on motorbikes. About 125 people died, among them Juan Pablo Pernalete, a student killed by the impact of a tear-gas canister, and David Vallenilla, shot by military police.

A year after the protests, Venezuelans have, little by little, resumed their daily routines as the economy disintegrates amid hyperinflation. Cash is almost worthless, and they struggle to find medicines, food and a reason to believe their lives will improve.

Below, meet four young people who spent 2017 fighting a profound struggle on the streets, and see how their lives have changed.

(Interviews have been edited for clarity and condensed.)

Life in Venezuela, One Year After the Protests

Rafaela Requesens, 26

Then: student government president 
Now:studies political science at Central University of Venezuela

I won the presidency of the Central University student federation in February, and already in March we were starting the first protests.

At first, I let myself be carried away by sentimentality and ideals—until I saw the first young man killed. There, I realized that this could happen to me; we never thought that could happen. It was traumatic to see how our comrades in Caracas and the rest of the country were murdered, to see them imprisoned and tortured. It was very hard—and to see that today, in 2018, Venezuela is much calmer than it was before. It is surprising and frustrating.

This year is to get up, go to college, study. But I am also focused on raising the spirits of Venezuelans, on continuing to work for the country and not forgetting the young people who died. Now I am working in a foundation to help malnourished children.

There are days when I feel like I can’t go on, but I see the misery of the country, and it gives me strength. I see starving kids eating from the garbage, I see people dying because of a lack of medicines, so I must keep fighting.

I stay here because I was born here—my life is here, my family. I do not criticize those who left, but for me to leave is to leave a space free for the regime and let it win.

Life in Venezuela, One Year After the Protests

Erick Izaguirre, 28

Then: daily protester
Now: law student at Metropolitan University in Caracas

My routine was to get up early every day and go out to protest, day after day. I was part of the resistance. We stayed late into the night, waiting for the injured guys in the clinics. We cried a lot. Our days were not only of resistance on the street, but in our minds.

On the contrary, 2018 is a year where everything looks hopeless, lifeless, there are fewer people; we have suffered the greatest exodus in the history of our region. There is not even traffic. I only wake up early to study, to work and to fight to not lose hope, to help others—and also, I keep fighting for my son. I have a small baby who needs me.

Every day I remember when Juan Pablo Pernalete died. He was from our university, and I was right there at the moment he died. I wake up at night sometimes with nightmares about that. I also have several scars, on my back and chest, and I have an ankle injury that occasionally bothers me and makes it difficult for me to walk.

Life in Venezuela, One Year After the Protests

Daniela Liendo, 23

Then: Member of “Green Helmets” medical aid group 
Now: lab worker and Central University of Venezuela medical student

We were dedicated to helping all those affected by the protests, without distinction. We cared for protesters, military police. Sometimes I couldn’t go home because of blocked roads, or for security reasons. We were also chased by the security forces. My job was to transport wounded people to hospitals or try to help them right in the middle of the clashes. I was afraid, but I knew I had to help.

This year, I have resumed my study routine, but I continue to do work in the neighborhoods and poor areas of the country. I do social work in poor sectors. For me, this “normality” is relative. I continue to help people. Sometimes, I want to have a break, but then I think of all those who need, and I’d rather be doing something than nothing at all.

The day that young David Vallenilla was killed, I saw how that young man fell to the ground, and my colleagues and I took him to the clinic to try to save him, but nothing could be done. He was already dead. That image repeats itself in my head persistently. Today, I can be having any conversation, with my mom or someone else, about any topic—and then all of a sudden, I catch myself thinking about that moment.

Life in Venezuela, One Year After the Protests

Ricardo Falcon, 24

Then: fugitive 
Now: business student at Houston Community College

moved out of Venezuela after living through one of the worst periods of its history.

The most shocking moment of the protests was Tuesday, May 30. I was protesting, along with two of my best friends from college and leaders of the political party Justice First, at the Francisco de Miranda Avenue in Chacao. When we got there, a huge group of National Guard troopers were waiting for us. ... They started firing gas bombs and even shot one straight at us. We defended ourselves with shields and rocks, trying to push them back and away from us. At a certain moment, around 30 bikes were coming after us, and we had to run as fast as we could through smoke, shotgun pellets and a huge crowd to hide from them.

I lost everyone I knew, as we all ran separate ways. I ended up hiding in Lido Shopping Mall and saw how they surrounded it and were patiently waiting for us to come out. Some of them even came in and tried to take us by force. The most shocking moment for me was calling my mom and my girlfriend to tell them that there was no way I was coming out of there without them taking me to jail and torturing me. I will never forget that extreme feeling of fear and angst.

I ended up hiding behind some cars for a while in the mall’s parking lot, and making a run for it. As soon as I got out, I hopped onto a mototaxi, which got me out of the reach of the National Guard in a matter of seconds. Those guards had my wallet, which I’d dropped on the run, and they had all my documents. After that day, it was not safe for me to go out there anymore. 

It’s been a year and a couple of months, and I still have bad dreams about that day.

Sometimes, I feel it was all for nothing. How many students and civilians were killed? How many were and still are being tortured or starved to death? After 100 days, protests were slower and slower until people got tired, and they all went back to their houses to live their lives normally, like nothing happened. And it is hard to blame them. It’s not easy standing in front of 50 armed men with shotguns, tanks, motorcycles and fiberglass armor, and to throw rocks at them and shield yourself with the lid of a trash can.

I don’t even know how this all is going to end, but I guess no one does.

 

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