Exchange student Maria holds a hat from her home country of Venezuela.

Living abroad when violence strikes home

"Canadians are so lucky."
Those are the words of Venezuelan exchange student Maria who is living in Prince Rupert.

“Canadians are so lucky.”

Those are the words of Venezuelan exchange student Maria, who requested her last name be withheld as she didn’t want to draw attention to family and friends at home, in reflecting the many freedoms people in Prince Rupert and across the country take for granted.

Maria arrived in Prince Rupert from her hometown of Caracas in September for an exchange through the Shecana organization. Since she left Venezuela’s capital, 19 people have died in incidents related to protests taking place within the city.

“When I started talking [about what’s happening in Venezuela] I never expected all the support and attention. I’m not use to that, or expected it. I’m so thankful and surprised at the same time,” she explained.

Demonstrations began on Feb. 1 when Leopoldo Lopez called upon students to peacefully protest against the shortage of goods and the lack of security in the country, with students in the Táchira protest being accused of attacking a residence. On Feb. 11 students in Táchira, Zulia, Coro and Maria’s hometown of Caracas protested for the release of fellow students, with major opposition demonstrations starting on Feb. 12 in 38 cities across the country on Youth Day in Venezuela.

“By the end of the day, three people were dead [due to conflicts on the streets between demonstrators and government supporters],” Maria said.

“That night was critical. Everyone was afraid and mad. The decision was to continue protesting on the streets.”

Tensions have been boiling for years over what many see as a failure of the current government, led by President Nicolas Maduro, to address the high levels of criminal violence and recurrent scarcity of basic goods.

When Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, who passed away in March, was elected as president in 1998, he promised to implement socialism in Venezuela. Opponents say the regimes’ economic policies are the cause of the shortages.

“You go to the supermarkets and you can’t find anything. Like milk … toilet paper or meat. It’s horrible … the shelves at the supermarkets are empty,” said Maria.

The shortages go beyond food. As an example, Maria said a diabetic friend in Venezuela has difficulties finding the regular insulin shots he needs.

Another stated cause of demonstrations  is the high level of serious crimes taking place within the country. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-profit organization that tracks crime, released statistics that show nearly 25,000 violent deaths took place in the country last year. This is up from less than 5,000 homicides that occurred in the country in 1998.

According to The Economist, more than 90 per cent of murders in Venezuela are unresolved, with police making no arrests or investigating a “vast majority” of cases. Many Venezuelans feel the judicial system isn’t working and there is a lack of well-equipped police.

It was a shock for Maria when she first arrived in Prince Rupert and her host family took their dog for a walk at 11 p.m.

“Do that in Venezuela, you are crazy. People could hurt you or rob you,” she said.

Since the protests started it has been extremely difficult for Maria to be away from home and her family and friends. She said she constantly worries for people in Venezuela, hoping no one else will get hurt.

“These people are fighting for my future; It’s hard to be here when I know my future is in a critical moment right now,” she said, adding when she found out about the first protester was killed she felt like it could’ve been her.

“The man who died could’ve been me, or my brother, or my best friend. To me, that man represented my family. I don’t know him … everyone on Facebook calls him a national hero because he died for freedom.”

Social media has been the main way Venezuelans have been sharing information about the protests, as the media is being governed.

“The government started to control the media: T.V., radio and newspapers … they didn’t show anything on the manifestations. The only way for Venezuelans to know what’s happening is [through social media],” Maria said.

Maria hopes by speaking along with the countless other Venezuelans about what’s happening in the country the international community will take notice, and show its support to the people who are suffering.

“I don’t like the violence, and don’t want more death. I don’t want anymore people to be thrown in jail. The justice system needs to be [fair],” she said, adding Venezuela has a great constitution that she hopes everyone will support.

Maria will return to Venezuela in July.