Student Protests Take Venezuela by Storm
EspañolVenezuela’s streets have become a protest scene once more, this time in the states of Tachira and Merida. Last week, college students began a series of demonstrations to demand better security in their campuses, and they have continued on into this week.
Concentrations were initially peaceful, but several ended in violent encounters with police and the National Guard. The more visible confrontations, including arbitrary arrests, generated more rage in the university population and only increased the number of demonstrations in the country.
Venezuela’s severe crime rates — with approximately 24,000 murders in 2013 — have permeated educational institutions and been the initial catalyst for the protests. Robbery, gunpoint assault, kidnapping, and even rape are some of the many crimes committed on campuses.
The most recent event was the attempted rape of a student at the University of Los Andes (ULA), specifically in the center of Tachira state. Students condemned the fact and began a protest on Tuesday of last week, demanding better security from the government. While the rally was peaceful, the National Guard still arrested two students: Junior Sanabria and Anthony Omaña.
Students took to the streets again, to demand the release of their peers. Consequently, directors and university officials had a conversation with the wife of the Tachira governor, José Vielma Mora, and the secretary of government, María Gabriela Varela, to end the protests in exchange for release of the students.
Sanabria and Omaña were released — however, with injuries, as a result of physical assaults perpetrated by the police.
The police repression and injuries to students provoked the eruption of even more violence on Thursday, when students and hooded individuals attacked the governor’s residence, throwing stones and bottles.
Vielma Mora, in an attempt to divert public attention from the students’ demands, accused the offenders of being sent and paid for by Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition and national director of the Popular Will Party (Voluntad Popular). Days before, Lopez had invited people to protests in the streets against the main problems of the country.
Following the violence, Jesús Gómez, Gerad Rosales, Patricia Sarmiento, and brothers Leonardo and Reinaldo Manrique were arrested and accused of associating with criminal intent, damage to government property, and conspiracy. The next day government officials transferred them to the state prison in Coro, Falcon state, to await trial.
Irregularities in Arrests
Relatives of the arrested students, criticized that the pre-trial hearing had taken place in a military court, as opposed to a civil court. Attorney Carlos Rodríguez alleged that the defendants were arrested for over an hour without a warrant. They also did not have access to the assistance of their attorneys, which according to Rodríguez turned the matter into an “illegal arrest.”
According to National Assembly Representative Walter Márquez, presiding Judge Richard Antonio Cañas was an activist member of the Movement of the Fifth Republic — Chávez’s first political party. He also has links to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), so Márquez called the judge’s decision political.
“It is not a fair trial, because of his ideological associations with the present regime. Therefore, the arrest and transfer to Coro violates Article 42 of the Constitution, which guarantees due process. Due process means that civilians should be judged by civilian judges, and it goes by state; so they should be judged in Táchira,” Márquez stated.
The husband of Sarmiento claimed that his wife, one of those arrested, is not even a student. She actually runs a business nearby the Catholic University of Táchira (UCAT). Sarmiento was walking near the riots, and the National Guard troops arrested her as a passerby, along with students. The businesswoman was released on Tuesday for humanitarian reasons; however, she faces the same charges as the other detainees.
Mérida state has also been the scene of students protests and arbitrary detentions. Francisco Segovia, a student at the University of Los Andes (ULA) and member of a student movement called “Team 10,” was detained and questioned by officials of Sebin for two hours. His crime: distributing flyers demanding the end of repression, persecution, and the incarceration of the four remaining students.
According to Liliana Guerrero, president of the ULA Federation of University Student Unions, Segovia “climbed on a bus to go home but was beaten down and taken to a corolla car without plate.” The authorities told Segovia that the reason for his arrest was his participation in the protest.
Along with Segovia, eight students — 18 and 19 years old — whose identities are still unknown, have been arrested by police during protests in recent days.
On the Streets Until the Release of Arrested Students
On Sunday, students accompanied by women dressed in black, parents, and political leaders took to the streets of San Cristóbal, Táchira, demanding to governor Vielma Mora the release of the arrested students.
Jefferson Rojas, a student at the Catholic University of Táchira, invited the community to participate in a permanent vigil, saying, “We want to tell the government that the Manrique brothers, Jesús Gómez and all the others individuals detained are not alone. And to the people from Táchira and all Venezuela: we want to let you know that we will continue fighting without fear, without violence, and peacefully. The violence you have witnessed has been the sole responsibility of the regional government.”
Students from universities in Carabobo, Zulia, Coro, and Anzoátegui have shown their support to the detainees. Along with the opposition leaders they have called the people to a national march today, Wednesday February 12, 2014 — a patriot date that Venezuela celebrates as Youth day.
Translated by Estefanía Uribe.