Student Protests as a Force for Change: The Case of Venezuela
The photo depicted above was shared on a social media website one week ago by a dear friend of mine, with the caption below it reading: “It is an unexplainable pain: your country is slipping through your fingers and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can only hope it pulls through. SOS Venezuela”.
This post is in response to the protests against the government in Venezuela that have been ongoing since early February, the largest to sweep the country in the last decade . After spending five months living and studying abroad in Milan, Italy with her and understanding where she came from and how much it means to her, to see her express such concern over what was happening in her native country was heartbreaking. This experience resonated with me and made me want to know more so I could gain a better understanding, so I immediately contacted her to discuss the matter and her perspective on it. She was more than willing to share with me because she feels strongly that while she is in the United States the most important and positive contribution she can make to the struggle is spreading information and raising awareness. Just one day prior to my conversation with her, a friend of hers in Venezuela was taken by the National Guard for peacefully protesting, was beaten by a guard, and then held for four hours before ultimately being released. The protests are indeed violent with 13 protesters dead, at least 150 injured, and more than 500 arrested since the protests began . Understanding the struggle is both eye opening and thought provoking in a number of ways.
The protests were initiated by students on a campus in the city of San Cristóbal, in the western state of Táchira  and spread to the capital, Caracas, on the 12th of February when the student movement organized a peaceful march there . Venezuela is cited as having the fifth highest murder rate in the world, and widespread insecurity and crime, as well as a report of a female student of an alleged rape attempt, sparked students’ demands for increased security measures against violence. Further, while Venezuela is Latin America’s largest exporter of crude oil, with the world’s largest petroleum reserves, it faces 56% inflation and major goods shortages in essential basic items such as milk, sugar, and toilet paper .
While students initiated the movement initially, it has swept across the country and the protests now have a middle class majority making demands with the nationwide effort being called “La Salida” or “The Exit”. Prominent members of the political opposition group have stepped forward to join the protests including former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, currently in jail awaiting trial for instigating violence, and Maria Corina Machado, a member of parliament . Current President Nicolas Maduro only narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles, elected leader of the opposition, a mere ten months ago . Politics in Venezuela are severely divided and have been all throughout the 14-year presidency of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor . While the opposition leader was initially opposed to the marches, he has since voiced support for and has emphasized peaceful demonstrations 
Collectively, protestors have a number of demands. First, they wish to see the release of leader Leopoldo Lopez from jail as well as a number of other student demonstrators that have been detained . Further, the government has been heavily criticized for the excessive violence it has used in response to the student movement, evidenced by its sending of the National Guard into residential areas, accusations of beatings and torture of arrested protestors, and the rising toll of deaths and injuries that have together been called a violation of human rights, much of which is denied by the government . Protestors want pro-government groups to disarm and to address the aforementioned issues that are plaguing the nation, and attention has been called to a blockage by the government of media sources leading demonstrators to demand the free flow and more reliable sources of information within the country. Even more extreme members of the opposition want Maduro to step down from office .
President Maduro refuses to step down and has accused the United States of backing the political opposition in staging a coup . After Maduro forced the removal of three American embassy staff from the country, the United States responded by ordering three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the U.S. . While the United States has a long history of disagreement with the Venezuelan government, it is still the country’s main importer of oil. Despite this conflict, Maduro is encouraging dialogue with the United States and has been quoted as having said in a speech that “U.S. society needs to know the truth about Venezuela” , however it is interesting to consider what “truth” he wishes to convey on an international stage especially given the reported heavy censorship of media within his own country and the denial of much of the violence that is occurring.
Learning more about the current state of unrest in Venezuela and a movement that began first and foremost with students, really led me to reflect on the role of education as a force for change. As I think about college campuses around the United States today, I cannot help but feel that civic engagement is not as high as it may have been at other points in our country’s history. While at the level of discourse surrounding education in the United States critical thinking skills are hailed as desired and necessary for innovation and progress, I am skeptical of whether youth in the United States today are encouraged to follow through with these critical skills when it comes to a number of political and social issues.
Education can be just as easily used as a force that maintains the status quo as it can as one for change. It is intriguing to consider the conditions under which one force takes over the other, and what other factors might contribute to students’ feelings of empowerment to incite change in their own societies.