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Expats participate in Venezuelan protests in Boston

Martin Desmarais
Expats participate in Venezuelan protests in Boston
Supporters of the anti-government protesters in Venezuela have demonstrated several times in the last week in Boston. Above, demonstrators on Boston Common on Feb. 18.

On Feb. 18, demonstrators gathered on Boston Common to show support for the protesters in Venezuela, who are calling on the South American country’s government to reduce violence and provide more access to basic necessities such as food and medicine.

Twice in the last two weeks, Venezuelan national Cristina Aguilera has taken to the streets of Boston to show support for the anti-government protestors back in her native country.

Mirroring the student-led anti-government protests that have swept every major city in Venezuela, the demonstrators here have been voicing widespread dissatisfaction with the government of Socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Concerns center on rising violence in the country and the lack of basic necessities such as food and medicine for most of the country’s citizens.

As a campaign organizer for The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, an organization that advocates for minority and worker rights, Aguilera is no stranger to advocacy, so she said she felt she had to be quick to stand up for the place of her birth.

“We want to be the voice of what is happening in Venezuela because nobody is reporting what is going on. The only reports coming out of there is from the government and it is highly biased,” Aguilera said. “We did this with the hope that more people will find out what is happening in Venezuela.”

Aguilera pointed out that, on Feb. 18, demonstrators in Boston joined over 100 cities around the world — and 70 in the United States — who held similar demonstrations to bring to light the current situation in Venezuela.

The protests in Venezuela started in early February, mostly led by student activists concerned about the rising crime and violence, but the demonstrations have since grown in magnitude and intensity. After the government arrested prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez last week, protestors responded with the one of the largest anti-government demonstrations yet on Saturday, which saw thousands take to the streets in the country’s capital city Caracas.

Deep class divisions in Venezuelan society came to the fore when the late Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency in 1999, pledging to share the profits from the country’s oil wealth with the poor.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere. The Chavez presidency survived a coup attempt that many in the international community claim was backed by the U.S. and four contentious elections. Praised among the poor for reducing the country’s rate of extreme poverty by two thirds and cutting unemployment in half, Chavez was criticized for consolidating political power and clamping down on the opposition media.

His successor, former Vice President Nicolás Maduro, has pledged to continue the socialist policies Chavez advanced, but has been plagued by growing inflation and crime.

The most recent report on the growing violence of the protests, from an international news outlet, came from Reuters and reported 13 deaths in the protests so far. The Venezuelan government has publicly stated that over 500 people have been charged in the demonstrations, but only about 50 have been kept in jail, with the rest warned and released. Venezuela government officials also claim that about 150 people have been injured.

Aguilera said that though the protests in Venezuela were initially started by students, she and others joining her on Boston’s streets feel that the students were just giving a voice to all of Venezuela’s people and the fight is for everyone.

“It wasn’t just about the students. They are leading the fight but everyone else is backing them in trying to do something,” Aguilera said. “There is something that we all have in common in Venezuela — crime, scarcity of food, no medicine, inflation, corruption. It is becoming impossible to live there.”

The Venezuelan Embassy in Boston released a statement last week from the government of Venezuela that asked the United States for an explanation “why it finances, supports and defends opposition leaders who promote violence” in the country.

“The Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to impede U.S. agents from instilling violence and destabilization, and to inform the world about the nature of the Obama Administration’s interventionist policies in our country,” the statement said.

According to news reports, the U.S. State Department has channeled $5 million to Venezuelan opposition groups in the last year.

A number of leftist U.S. organizations have voiced support for the current government in Venezuela.

The Washington-based Black is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations publicly backed President Maduro and the current government.

“The greedy, elite Venezuelan opposition, fearful of the growth of socialist organization and aspirations of the working masses, is making attempts to indict the Venezuelan government in the arena of international public opinion,” the statement said. “The Black is Back Coalition is aware that the current violent demonstrations by the opposition are designed to promote the Maduro government’s response as repressive and extreme in order to justify imperialist intervention. The Black is Back Coalition is opposed to these new attempts to promote new coup attempts in Venezuela. We denounce all imperialist-supported interventions in Venezuela.”

The National Lawyers Guild also called on Congress and Secretary of State Kerry to oppose U.S. intervention in Venezuela, calling the current conflict there “a violent campaign brought by Venezuela’s extreme right-wing opposition that seeks to topple the recently elected government.”

“For the last seven years, the NLG has observed Venezuelan elections — most recently, that of President Maduro in April 2013. NLG observers and other human rights groups (notably the Carter Center) found these elections to be free, fair, and exemplary of a democratic process,” said a statement from the organization. “The NLG opposes any U.S. interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs … The NLG urges the U.S. government to rightfully respect Venezuelan self-determination and sovereignty.”

Like many Venezuelans living in Boston, Luzmar Centeno-Valerio, office manager and programs coordinator for ¿Oìste? The MA Latino Civic Education Initiative, says she fears for the safety of her family. She also fears the conflict that the unrest is causing between government supporters and those who support the opposition.

While violence has become some part of the protests in Venezuela, Centeno-Valerio said that she wants peace and she believes most of the protestors there do as well.

She said she does not want President Maduro to be ousted, but instead wants him to lead the Venezuelan government in helping stop the overall violence in the country and make sure citizens have the basic necessities they need.

“I think the U.S. should help us stop violence and the United Nations should help us with the violation of our rights,” Centeno-Valerio said. “They should help us also with the freedom of speech. But this is not about the government. They don’t have to tell the president how to be president or kick him out. That is not the way to do it.”

Anti-government Venezuelans in Boston, and others around the United States, are waiting to see what response the U.S. government will have.

Former U.S. Senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry did publicly criticize the Venezuelan government for its response to the protests last week. He stated that the government’s use of force and legal intimidation against those protesting is “unacceptable” and that he viewed the situation with increasing concern.

Aguilera said she thinks Venezuela could use the United States’ support but not direct military intervention.

“A lot of people are calling on the U.S. to do something. But the thing we want the most is for everything single country, every single politicians to talk about this issue and inform people that this is happening,” Aguilera said. “What is happening here is a rampant violation of human rights, and leaders around the world have a responsibility to do something about it or say something about it.”