Overnight I received a message from a Venezuelan friend I met whilst travelling his country some four years ago. Squinting away the sleep, my eyes still heavy, my brain blearily trying to make sense of the Spanish, it read, “Hello Cris…please help us, you know many people in the world, right now, here there is a massacre and we are defenceless…write to your government, your friends, that they might incite an international protest… please help us…”
A peculiar sense of shame and helplessness washed over me that resonated right through to the tips of my fingers. Shame, that I had been seeing, but largely overlooking the tweets and posts from my Venezuelan friends over the last few weeks. Helplessness, because, well, what on earth could I do for him, sat thousands of miles away?!
His message affected me as I fumbled my way through the morning routine. I stood motionless in the shower, letting the hot water run over me, deep in thought over what I could possibly do to help. After all, this direct and unashamed cry for help had been aimed entirely at me, what sort of person would I be to just sit by and do nothing? His faith in me as a beacon of hope to raise awareness of his plight, was touching, perhaps futile, but not one I could simply ignore.
In 2010 I lived for a short while in the Andean town of Mérida in Western Venezuela, a stones throw from the Colombian border. As I am sure you are aware, the crime in Venezuela is amongst the worst in the world with a homicide taking place every 13 minutes, which outnumbers the Iraq War in civilian deaths despite the country being at peacetime. I volunteered at a local zoological park and shadowed a vet, Félipe, who told me of some of his own experiences. He had been shot in the thigh and left for dead two years previously on leaving his office with the day’s takings and his elderly father had been the victim of a “secuestro exprés” or express kidnapping just a few months before my arrival. When driving at night, Félipe never stopped at traffic lights, advising me it was more dangerous to obey the road signs and become a target to armed gangs, than to run the light and crash. The father to an 8 year old daughter, I wondered how he coped bringing her up in such a violent country needing to be constantly on his guard. Félipe’s stories aren’t unique, pretty much everyone person you encounter has a similar story to tell.
Even during my short time there I became a victim when an armed gang mugged myself and my companion, threatening us with a makeshift weapon (a plank of wood with nails through it), and forcefully alleviating me of all my belongings (the strap of my bag around me was cut with a pocket knife). By Latin American standards this was relatively tame, no harm was done to either of us, and we were released with the orders in Spanish: “keep walking and don’t look back until after the corner.”
Despite all of this, the majority of my memories of the country are fond ones, a Venezuelan flag has hung in every flat I have lived in since my return, and I count it as #1 of my favourite countries out of the 60 or so I have visited. With such a wealth of natural beauty and incredible people, Venezuela should be up there as a top tourist destination, not a crime rate.
The more I have delved in to the news events, the more I have come to realise the great disparity in what is reported to us, and what is left to fall by the way side. An obvious case of picking and choosing the events THEY want us to hear about which makes me wonder what else happens but never reaches our eyes. The most up to date reports are coming through from Venezuelans in situ, utilising that new phenomena of social media. They have been uploading some seriously shocking and violent videos of the Bolivar National guards attacking and opening fire on peaceful protesters, yet none of this is reaching the world headlines. The world news has been awash with images and videos of the current unrest in The Ukraine, yet there is a distinct lack of coverage of Venezuela. They seem to have a blind spot and fail to update their news pages on the current events. So if they aren’t going to raise awareness, it is down to us to make sure the Venezolanos don’t continue to be ignored and that their voices are heard. I am doing my best to retweet, repost and generally bring as much focus to the issues arising as one person can do. I ask that if you agree, perhaps you might do the same, as a member of this planet it is our combined duty.
I may not be able to do much, Jose, but I have done my best.
Do your bit: #Venezuela #SOSvenezuela #Venezuelanoestasola