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11 April 2014

Venezuela turmoil spurs social media protests

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Silhouettes of dead bodies taped to the floor surround the names of the victims of repression. Behind them, students with the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag ask other students to support the cause and sign a petition. On a plastic table, a television shows a video of people getting shot at and beaten by the National Guard. And behind them, students advertise for Ultra Music Festival, and others advertise the school’s magazine’s birthday party.

A curious dichotomy falls over the Venezuelan students at the University of Miami. Their bodies are safe in the U.S., but their minds, friends and family are in harm’s way. In the face of an adversity in their native country, their minds drift to their loved ones, but they still have to attend school and deal with everyday life because, technically, nothing’s going on here.

“It’s super stressful,” said Ana Vera, president of UNIVEN, the Venezuelan students association on campus. “I’m sad, I’m really worried.”

For the almost 400 Venezuelan students at the University of Miami, dealing with the conflict in their home country while continuing to take part in events of every day life has proven a challenge. Many students have become activists for Venezuela, engaging in social media campaigns and preparing flyers to give out on campus and raise awareness of the situation. But being students and activists at the same time, a role that they have taken on suddenly, proves challenging.

“I’m definitely not paying attention in class as I should,” said Karen Garzon, a pre-pharmacy student whose parents live in Caracas. “I just can’t get off my phone.”

Since Feb. 12, when student-driven protests against the government began because of the social and economic problems of the country, the regime of President Nicolas Maduro has violently repressed any type of demonstration. More than 18 people have been killed, and hundreds have been injured. The media is also tightly censured; the only news network that was covering the protests was NTN24, a Colombian network that was taken off the air shortly after their reporting.

“Students here are going to be anxious and quite concerned,” said Bruce Bagley, a professor of international relations at the University of Miami.  According to Bagley, the majority of students at the school are from “well off, upper-middle class families or above who have been personally affected by Chavez and now by Maduro,” thus increasing their anguish.

Because of the media censorship, students are using their social media accounts to help spread the word about the situation.

“I think the most important thing we can do from here is to raise awareness,” said Vera. “Basically we need to let the world now what’s going on in our country, and that can be a key for change.”

Vera said she is constantly tweeting and posting on her Facebook any news she reads about the situation. Other students have also turned their Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds into news aggregates, posting everything they read about their country.

Aside from a strong social media campaign, students have also engaged in other types of activism. UNIVEN prepared flyers with information to share with students across campus, which they handed out in front of the bookstore on Feb. 27.

They also held a meeting on Feb. 21 for students who wanted to know more about how they could help Venezuela. In the meeting, UNIVEN leaders handed out a list of important journalists and politicians students could follow on social media to get accurate information. They also stressed the importance of accurate news aggregation, cautioning students to double check the information they are posting, as there were reports of pictures from protests of Chile posted as if they were taken in Venezuela.

“Students here are privileged,” said Bagley. “It is incumbent upon them to think about the future of their country, la patria.”

Bagley said that students here have the duty to get and stay informed, and think about the future of Venezuela because they will be the leaders of the future.

When mentioning the type of student activism that’s happening on campus, Bagley praised efforts to spread information while condemned other efforts, such as a petition students wrote to Congress to take economic measures against the regime.

“It’s a wasted effort to seek to sponsor this,” he said.

Bagley said that because of the political economy of the situation, where Venezuela is one of the principal purchasers of U.S. exports, that resolution would never go through Congress.

“They [students] can stage conferences, write op-ed pieces,” he said. “They should be doing the kinds of things I’m talking about.”

But students feel impotent, said Andrea Da Gama, a junior majoring in business whose parents and siblings live in Caracas, and are doing anything they can.

“I have to spread the word, get the rest of the world to know,” she said.

But when asked if she believes this is going to make a difference, Da Gama hesitated.

“I really don’t know, I’m very sad, I’m very depressed, I’m ashamed,” she said. “The only thing I feel I can do is pray, pray for my country, for my family, for my friends.”