Maracaibo is the capital of the state of Zulia. Located in the northwestern side of Venezuela, it is nationally known as La Tierra del Sol Amada, the Beloved Land of the Sun–a title that first appeared on a 19th century poem written by Rafael Maria Baralt, a native of our city. The imagery of Maracaibo is always accompanied by the sun. Throughout the year, hundreds of Venezuelans visit Maracaibo to see the sunrise from Lake Maracaibo, a highly touristic spot. My sister Loraine says:
People in Maracaibo are extremely warm-hearted. We see our friends as siblings. People welcome you in their houses without even knowing you. They give you food, water, and talk to you. There are many things that characterize Maracaibo: People selling fried, salty pastries in the mornings, the smell of café con leche in every breakfast spot, and young students eating cepillados to combat the heat. I love looking at the houses around the French Quarter because of all the colors, they remind me of El Saladillo. It feels really good to live in a city that resembles Maracaibo in so many ways.
Leaving Maracaibo was a really hard thing to do but, I consider it the best decision I’ve ever made. During the first couple of months of 2014, a series of protests began in Venezuela due to the country’s high levels of violence, inflation, and food shortages. In Maracaibo, high school and college students started protesting every single day. I used to be a student at the Universidad Rafael Belloso Chacin (URBE), a private, prestigious university in Maracaibo. I never wanted to join the protests. Several of my friends at URBE that did so were victims of police violence.
Instead, I joined a national movement in charge of distributing flyers in buses, schools, and public settings. My job was to design these flyers and send them to students in other cities. The purpose was to inform people about the amount of lives being lost in this struggle. The government censored many TV channels because they broadcasted protests as well as leaders of the opposition denouncing the crimes that members of our own National Guard were committing. For many people in Venezuela, these flyers were the only source of reliable information that they had. Collaborating with journalists, police officers, students, and teachers, we managed to deliver the truth in pieces of paper.
In the month of April, I decided to go back to school. According to URBE’s president, our campus was a safe place. When I got there, I was shocked to see that several men, dressed as civilians, were holding up rifles and machine guns. I didn’t feel safe at all.
Later on that day, I was in one of my classes when I heard gunshots. Soon enough, the smell of smoke infiltrated our classroom. I grabbed my backpack and decided to leave. My professor said, “Everything is going to be okay.” No, it wasn’t.
I quickly rushed to the second story balcony made out of bright red bricks and saw a huge cloud of smoke rising from the plaza behind our university. When I looked down, I saw students running and coughing. Members of the National Guard were throwing tear gas at them.
I couldn’t waste any more time. A very good friend of mine, Zam, looked at me with a perplexed expression that I still remember very clearly. I told her, “We have to go, now!”
We started running. When we got to the first floor, the National Guard was already inside the university. We didn’t do anything wrong. Why did we have to run? Why did we have to hide?
Our university was a closed campus, and by the time we reached the back gate we figured it was shut tight. We climbed over a fence and started running toward the front side of the university. What I saw next has remained in my mind ever since that day. Sometimes, I can still recall the fear that flooded my body.
We saw students running, screaming, and being shot at. We were paralyzed. For a moment, I felt like I was in a movie. A couple of men wearing hoodies with their faces covered, realizing our presence, started to walk toward us with knives in their hands. Zam was in a state of complete shock. I grabbed her arm, and we both ran as fast as we could without looking back. All of the sudden, her father appeared in his car and we immediately got in. We looked at each other, hugged, and sobbed.
After this event I went back to URBE only once–to drop out. I consider myself a very lucky person. A lot of people in Venezuela have gone through things worse that the one I just described. However, I had the chance to leave. They have to stay and deal with a government that does not care about the people. These protests continue nowadays.
Continued shortages of food, inflation, and low oil prices are among the causes showcased in the media. The rights and principles stated in the Venezuelan constitution have been violated over and over, and yet, the international community chooses not to interfere. Thousands of Venezuelans have no food, no shelter, and no protection. Venezuelan authorities say that only tear gas is used to repress violent protesters. According to them, rubber pellets, ammunition, and torture are never used.