It has been more than a month since protests started in Venezuela; in that time more than 37 deaths, 550 injured and more than 150 detained. Despite those staggering numbers, many Americans know little beyond the basic facts. With that in mind, NYU Local interviewed a leader of the Venezuelan Student Movement to get a clearer picture of the country’s complex crisis. Daniel Yabrudi is the president of the Federation of Student Governments of the Simon Bolivar University (USB), one of the most important and biggest public universities in the country.
NYU Local: Why are you protesting?
Daniel Yabrudi: 40 days ago, the protests started because of insecurity, when they almost raped a girl in the Universidad de los Andes. Venezuela is one of the most insecure countries today, but inside our universities we could feel relatively safe. That’s not the case any more. Now in the universities, they’re stealing, kidnapping, raping. That’s where the protests started and it all then evolved into a social movement. Today we are putting as a flag the recuperation our future. The future here in Venezuela for the youth is not at all safe, and that´s why many of the young that have the means, opt for leaving.
We have established the crisis in three parts. There’s a political crisis, a social crisis and an economic crisis. The political crisis is in the fact that this is not a democratic government. The constitution isn’t respected and there’s no separation of powers. The government, the state and the political party are one same thing. The economic crisis is joblessness, high inflation and also scarcity of basically everything, even food and medicines. The social crisis is in the strong division between us, the Venezuelans. Government discourse has divided us between rich and poor, entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs, red and blue. That has made intolerance the main way we communicate. So we’re also fighting for reconciliation.
NYU Local: What are the problems with public education?
Yabrudi: Like public schools, public universities depend on the budget the government gives them to function. That budget hasn’t changed in the last 6 years. You can imagine that if the budget doesn’t increase but inflation does, the budget is enough for less resources every year. So public universities cannot maintain their installations, fund research or pay decent salaries to college professors whose salaries the lowest in Latin America.
NYU Local: Why do students play such a prominent role in the protests?
Yabrudi: This is not something new. Students here have always had a big responsibility because more than 70% of the population has more confidence in the students than in the political parties or the government. And although the government tries to say that this is a student movement of opposition, we are the Venezuelan Student Movement. And yes we oppose to this government, but we represent the interests and the voice of all the youth in our country.
NYU Local: There’s a lot of international media portraying the protests as coming only from the elites and taking place only in the rich sectors…
Yabrudi: The surveys show that more than 70% of the Venezuelans think that there is a crisis in the country and are unhappy with the reality. Now, there are different ways the protests are being enacted. Some of the ways are supported by a majority and others are not. For example, the barricades that have called a lot of attention, and the street blocking, is not supported by the Student Movement.
It’s false that people in the popular sectors aren’t protesting. We have taken the time to go to different communities and slums to talk to them. We have seen that what happens is because of the high inequality and there are so different realities we cannot generalize. People in the slums have a great difficulty going out to protest because if they don’t work that day, the probably won’t eat. And although there is mass discontent, people in the slums are also scared. There are small groups in the slums that are supported by the government to scare them from protesting. They mark their houses, have them identified and threaten them.
NYU Local: Have you experienced violence in the protests?
Yabrudi: The police and the National Guard are treating the people brutally. More than fifty cases of torture have been declared. I’ve met lots of people who have been detained. On February 12, six students were imprisoned and spent more than 45 days in jail. When I visited they told me how police kicked them, they wrapped them in foam, hit them with bats, put gasoline on their bodies.
NYU Local: What has been achieved in the protests?
Yabrudi: First of all, there has been a big demonstration of hope in the people that were very, very disillusioned. Hope has come back, and this has been seen in the big amount of people that have come out to the streets. The second thing is the international support. We have demonstrated to the world that this government isn’t democratic and that it’s repressive. We were able for example to give chancellors of the UNASUR [the United Nations of South America] documents in which we demonstrated cases of violation of human rights and of the Constitution.
NYU Local: What do you think of the dialogue taking place between moderate opposition leaders and the government?
Yabrudi: I believe that dialogue is a vital tool for all of this. The dialogue implies an ability to debate topics in national spotlight; we can show the situation that our country is living and to show who the responsible for the problems is. That doesn’t mean that the protests will end, though. On the contrary, we will confront the government face to face but at the same time we´ll continue the protests.
NYU Local: What has to happen for the protests to stop? Because you haven´t mentioned the change of government as an objective.
Yabrudi: As I said before, the main goal is to recuperate the future that all Venezuelans deserve. That’s a lot more important and it doesn´t depend on only one person. Our flag is not Maduro leave Now [ popularly known on social media as #MaduroVeteYa], or the fall of the government. For protests to end, we require from the government that they rectify the way they are dealing with power.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.