By María Isabel Rueda. El Tiempo. 02-23-2014
Lorent Saleh, Venezuelan student leader, talks about the situation in his country.
Saleh is currently exiled in Colombia and is the director of Operation Freedom. He discusses the protests in Venezuela and calls on the international community “not to be unmoved” in face of the deep crisis his country is going through.
Who are you? What is your story?
I am a 25-year old Venezuelan who studied foreign trade and was about to receive his diploma when the clashes with the Chavez’s regime started in 2007. Our awakening was parallel to the rise of Chavism, which we did not understand. We lived through the Faddoul brothers’ slaughter, the massacre at Altamira square; we often saw soldiers beating women or evicting families from their PDVSA (the Venezuelan oil company) houses using tear gas. The story they were telling us in school, Castro style, was not the same of the one in the streets.
When did the Venezuelan student movement emerge?
When the closing of media outlets began. The closing down of RCTV (a private TV station) was what awaken the student movement. It was spontaneous, not even understood by us, and thousands of young people took to the streets. We communicated through social networks with other universities. But the closing down of RCTV was the boom.
Once on the streets, did you know where you were heading?
Between 2008 and 2009 we carried out the ‘Chavez is lying’ campaign explaining all the lies of the government, which we promoted the student way, with graffiti, pamphlets, going door to door. We were faced with pellets and tear gas. In 2008 I was arrested doing that campaign. I was severely beaten by the police in Valencia, State of Carabobo, and thrown in a jail cell with common criminals. In the early morning, people gathered in front of the prison while we were inside being threatened with getting raped and chained alongside the worst prisoners. The next day, our peers almost knocked down the court doors, and we were released 72 hours later under probation, but I was charged for organizing to commit a crime, public unrest and a number of political charges for which I would not be no longer allowed to protest or take part in demonstrations again.
But you continued the fight…
Imagine this. The government went for an education reform to take full control of the universities. We called for a national demonstration, a week after we were detained.
And they arrested you again?
The government began a campaign to smear my reputation using state media, accusing us of being funded by the CIA, trained by them, and they began discrediting us. They called us white buttocks, mummy and daddy’s children, stateless, servants of the empire. On one side, media aggression, on the other, frequent threats to my mother’s home and family. We spent about three days in hiding and planned a meeting at a certain place. Thankfully, the car I was in broke down and I did not make it, because the place was raided and everyone there got apprehended. Disguised as an altar boy, I went to visit my peers in prison, but we were discovered and I would not have been able to leave if it wasn’t for one of the guards. I went back to Valencia, where I began a hunger strike demanding the liberation of my peers. I also requested for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to go to Venezuela. That strike became very important, and our friends were released.
How many hunger strikes have you carried out?
In total, I have done 3 hunger strikes of up to 23 days. All certified by the Red Cross.
Are the students helping any opposition leader?
We have helped Capriles. We are also going to support Leopoldo, but he is not more important than the other 200 people who are currently political prisoners. We also support María Corina. But we are independent. The students’ movement cannot be tied to any of them.
How much of a leader are you in the current demonstrations?
Pretty much. This started getting organized in 2007, and we were waiting for 2014 to consolidate the movement, since it is not an election year. This is our year.
When did you have to leave Venezuela?
Last year, after Chavez’s death. In January we organized a demonstration and we got five states on a strike. I wanted to travel to Costa Rica to attend the Inter-American Court. But two days before the trip I was kidnapped, tortured, and they took away my passport. I managed to escape from the airport and spent about three months in hiding, remaining active. Finally, the government allowed me to leave the country and I went to Honduras, where we met with Latin American leaders who supported the cause. In Guatemala I managed to get us credentials for the OAS Assembly. I had a confrontation with the Venezuelan representative, Roy Chaderton, who accused me of being a Mossad agent. But we were able to do a very important diplomatic work. I arrived to Colombia in June, I managed to organized support networks with young Colombian people, and I traveled to Costa Rica because in August Venezuela removed itself from the Inter-American Commission. The last two days we had a vigil and we started to announce what was planned for this year. Since Alba’s policies were to weaken the Inter-American Justice System. They have a stronger criminalization of protests and a systematic persecution against the students.
How can you lead opposition demonstrations from abroad?
I’m abroad temporarily, but in constant communication, one of the reasons why the government is making the Internet connection so difficult. At CELAC’s Summit, we announced in a document —that was delivered to President Laura Chichilla— we would have a vigil in front of the Inter-American Court demanding: first, for countries member of the CELAC to request the disarmament of ‘collectives’ (civilian armies) in Venezuela; second, to end the persecution and criminalization of students; and third, a bid for the return to the Inter-American System and the creation of an International Commission to tend to our complaints. They received it, but they did not pay any attention to it. If Latin American governments have acted responsibly, the massacres could have been avoided.
If no government supports you from outside, what are the plans of the student movement?
As of February 12 we decided to take to the streets with no return. What we did not expect is they were going to kill people right away on February 12, shooting them in the head. So far ten have died, but there are many missing without any knowledge of their whereabouts. It has been very difficult for me, because I have always been the one in the forefront of the protests. People got used to seeing me covered in blood, chained. I’ve been shot twice at close range, two days before my mom got beaten in Barinas. It is becoming unbearable. Temporarily, I’m based in Colombia and Costa Rica, which has been a base for operations since it is the cradle for human rights.
Are you planning to go back to Venezuela soon?
In Venezuela I have an array of arrest warrants and they want me dead. My peers say that at the moment I’m more useful outside rather than burning tires in Caracas. It was very hard for me to find out via Internet about the death, at the hands of the Prosecutor’s Office, of Bassil D’Acosta, one of my best friends. We are demonstrating for the right to live. If the government in a demonstration doesn’t kill us, we get killed by insecurity in the streets.
What’s next for the student movement?
Why is the government being so aggressive? Because they don’t have the people. There are tanks, protesters getting raped with rifles, we do not know how many have died or disappeared, they cut off the Internet, electric power. But Diosdado Cabello, President of the National Assembly; Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela; and Interior and Justice Minister, Miguel Rodríguez; as well as Carabobo’s Governor, are accountable and will have to face international justice, since there is no justice in Venezuela.
Do you think the spark has ignited in Venezuela, or is there still a point of return?
No. This is a break point with no return. This is not a dialogue with the government. Seven years were lost in that dialogue. They never granted it to us. We want them to face justice and criminals to pay. Carabobo’s Governor announced via Twitter: “Let’s respond to those fascist students so they learn respect”. And what did they do? They killed Génesis Carmona with a shot to the head. They forbid the hospitals from tending to our peers who are wounded. There is no return, because, either way, they are going to kill us.
What do Venezuelan students ask from the international community?
Not to remain quiet. Just like they cried and spoke out when Chavez died, why aren’t they doing the same in a responsible manner about the slaughter and massacre of young people and students? No matter how much the government makes an effort to call us fascists through their media machinery, the truth is we are confronting tanks with flags; rifles with pans. We don’t have weapons. We never have.
What do you ask from Colombians?
That the interests of some elite Colombian companies not to be above the human rights of the Venezuelan people. And that is a message for President Santos. We cannot allow the Venezuelan government to protect, finance the murderers of Colombian farmers, neither the government of Colombia can continue to be on the side of a criminal government that murders students. We ask from President Santos to be responsible as a man, as a son, damn it, as a father! Why the hell did he speak after Chavez’s death and not after the death of these kids, all of them killed with shots to the head and younger than 25 years of age? How is it possible that there is no medical attention for these young people? How is it possible that the government of Colombia is not offering support and protection to the young people who are being persecuted? What’s going on? The Colombian people have always been very caring. Young people from Colombia are going all out to help us. But we are so alone. Tell me: to whom can we complain? Before a communist Public Prosecutor, that’s ordering the death of students? Before whom, tell me before whom. How is it possible that the government of Colombia, that is right there, man, closely connected, has not asked us how many wounded young guys can they help extract? Due to economic interests? But Venezuela is bankrupt! Who do we turn to? We’re not even inside the Inter-American Justice System anymore. We are extremely alone.
Translated by #infoVnzla