By Jefersson Leal
Photo credit: All photos in this article are taken from Revista Cuerpo y Territorio.
Sixty-four years ago, the student movement of Venezuela’s Central University (UCV) went on strike to break the silence against the military dictatorship led by Marcos Pérez Jiménez. A few days before that some high schools in Caracas had started a series of protests serving as precursors of the events that took place that November 21, 1957.
College youth then decided to speak out against the dictatorship and its horrific crimes against the population. This moment marked a milestone, it was the day in which students stood up demanding “free elections” and death to the dictator. Two months later, on January 23, 1958, the dictatorship would fall and a new chapter would start in Venezuela’s very harmed history.
Six decades later, on January 23, 2021, a group of human rights and social activists, students, retired people, feminists and workers gathered at UCV’s Tamanaco Door, to break the silence against the Venezuelan state’s authoritarianism and its constant violations against people’s civil, labor and human rights.
A big banner was hanged at the university’s entrance: “For life and dignity, let’s break the silence”. With this slogan, social organizations from different sectors welcomed people to this action. A short message, but a powerful one, reflecting in a good way the sum of demands that are constantly expressed by the Venezuelan society.
In a climate of political persecution, raising their voices, breaking the fear, becomes a truly heroic act. Despite appearances and the media silences, the Venezuelan people have never stopped talking and denouncing the terrible situation that is currently happening.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict in 2020 there were at least 9,633 protests registered across Venezuela. The demands vary, but focus mainly on: better basic services, labor rights, access to fuel, political participation rights, access to health, food and justice.
Special attention must be given to the 5,951 protests demanding rights to housing and basic services that were registered in the country during 2020 in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Services suffer an important deterioration every month and we are witnessing how the electric, water, transportation, communication and gas systems are falling apart. The latter has brought more than one region in the country back to firewood cooking, although the country has one of the biggest natural gas reservoirs in the planet.
But going back to the streets is not a decision to take, in a country with few spaces for political and democratic participation, where protests are constantly at risk of being repressed and its participants detained by the Venezuelan state security forces. Authoritarian systems rely on fear to function, so when that fear disappears in a population, it translates to its executioners and the system staggers until it falls.
In 2020, at least 412 protests were repressed by security forces or by pro-government parapolice organizations; 415 people were imprisoned and 6 died as a result of repressive policies led by the Venezuelan state to criminalize protest and democratic spaces of participation.
Building an ample and diverse tissue, capable of gathering the multiple demands that the Venezuelan society requires today is a fundamental step to free ourselves from the historical entanglement in which we find ourselves. The failure of a project, cannot be the failure of a nation. Laying the foundations of a movement that is able to reconfigure a new way to make politics is a step we must take.
But the street, understood as a space of participation, debate and action for different social sectors, resists the imposed silence, despite the elaborated strategies of fear designed day by day from the bureaucrats’ offices, new imaginaries, diverse, not polarized and autonomous are rising and have started weaving, slowly, an alternative.
Jefersson Leal is a Caracas-born young person passionate about history, teaching and photography. He has studied History of America in Venezuela’s Central University (UCV) and is a facilitator on gender and equality.