Diego Scharifker, a Venezuelan pro-democracy activist and former leader of the country’s student movement, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Diego Scharifker: Good morning. I am immensely honoured to be with all you distinguished regional and worldwide activists for human rights who, like I, believe that even though the fight for democracy is a life-long task, it is necessary to take action so that our children and grandchildren can live in a better world. I, as a student movement in Venezuela, understand there are quicker paths to accomplish this objective. But there are none as long-lasting as the objectives reached through peaceful means and the respect of law. My name is Diego Scharifker, I am 20 years old and am currently the youngest President of the Law School Student Government in the history of my university, Universidad Central de Venezuela. I would not be interested in the area of politics and human rights if I wasn’t reminded every day how fragile democracy is due to persecutions made by the government. Events written in our current history pressure us to realize that it is our turn to take on that life long task in the fight for democracy and now we have a blank page to write our history.
For a generation of students no older than 25 years, this is a huge responsibility. But we are confident that in the fight for democracy, it is not our age that defines our capabilities but our understanding that we are being robbed of a future we deserve. Our spirit for change makes us not afraid to take risks, to accomplish our goals, and dream for a better country.
Historically, the student movement has come up with changes in Venezuela. The generation in 1928 was a force necessary to awaken the democratic fire in Venezuelan citizens to fight against the violent government of Juan Vicente Gomez, who with an iron fist governed Venezuela for 30 years, persecuting those who thought differently. The [student] generation in 1957 had the responsibility of ending Venezuela’s last formal dictatorship under dictator Marco Perez Jimenez. Even though [he] brought progress and development to the country, he systematically violated human rights and the liberties established in the constitution. After this overthrow, general Marco Perez Jimenez saw himself obliged to escape the country to Spain and Venezuela saw 40 years of democracy, which represented a different beacon of light compared to dictatorships in South America during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
My participation in the student movement started with the generation in 2007 when I was a high school student and president of the National Federation of High School Students. It was founded over 30 years ago in reaction to the closure of the TV channel RSTV station that served as one of the two portals that allowed dissidents of the government to express their points of view. The student movement did not surge as a movement against the government or against President Chavez, but in defense of fundamental rights and principles of freedom and democracy. Due to our non-partisan stance, the student movement has been able to gain immense credibility throughout Venezuelan society, has played an important role in the electoral processes, where President Jugo Chavez has to ‘democratically’ impose a totalitarian regime in Venezuela similar to Hitler’s use of democracy as a vehicle to rise to power and later destroy it. In 2008, the student movement was a decisive force in the campaign to reject the constitutional reform proposed by President Chavez, both by playing an active role during the campaign and as observers in the elections. Now, in 2010, we have denominated ourselves the bicentenary generation because on April 19th, we will be celebrating 200 years of the independence of my country from the Spanish crown. We are now the ones in charge of the development of the movement and establishing the strategies to accomplish our goals. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the Venezuela of 2010 is completely different from that of 2007.
While in 2007, the world economy was still booming and oil prices were a record high, the Venezuela of 2010 does not see the light at the end of the recession tunnel that is affecting us. Slowly but surely social issues are starting to exacerbate. The bicentenary generation resurges with greater force, as with a deja vu with new closure of RCTV by the government in January 2010. Except now, we are not protesting only for intangible ideas, such as for democracy and liberty, but also against social problems affecting us daily, such as the rationing of water, the rationing of electricity, and high rates of insecurity and crime, the three issues affecting basic rights to a decent quality of life expected from a rich and socially conscious government.
Baseball is our national sport and one all Venezuelans relate to with passion. According to baseball rules, three strikes and you’re struck out. So we have used this popular expression to nominate each social issue as a strike and then the phrase “1 2 3, Chavez has struck out.” We have risen consciousness above all Venezuelans of the responsibility the government has in resolving this issue.
[In reference to the image displayed] This was In the stadium that is inside the university where I study, we play in at my school, Universidad Central de Venezuela. We were brutally attacked by police once we took out that cloth [with an anti-government slogan] because apparently the President was there in the stadium and did not want any protests in the stadium while he was watching the baseball game.
Since January, we have had over 20 protests, which all ended with police dispersing us with rubber bullets and gas bombs. A physical tax only committed by police forces, but we are also attacked by Chavez supporters inside and outside of university.
[In reference to image displayed] That is a weapon the police are now using in Venezuela. In theory, it is used just to separate barricades when they are on fire. But the police now use it to throw against students, try to trap them by their clothes, and get them closer to get them and detain them in jail.
During the week following the closure of RCTV, most students protested peacefully in front of their universities, chanting our motto and giving out pamphlets explaining why we were protesting. As a reaction, the government started to give out their own pamphlets. In theory, it should have been a mature and responsible act, where they invited us to discuss and debate the subject. However, the pamphlet read: Do not mistake yourselves. If you continue, we will come with our weapons. As noted, the levels of intolerance and polarization have risen to levels never seen before, becoming a serious danger to present and future generations, where hatred and violence reign instead of peace and understanding. The supporters of the government have not only threatened us but have taken action. About a year ago, about 2000 students left Universidad Central de Venezuela to protest against the government policy that diminished their already precarious budget destined to public universities. The office of the student government had three buses that were all burnt; the state has not investigated this case. Another case of violence inside my university occurred 6 months ago when five heavily armed men, with weapons ranging from hand guns to machine guns, entered where I studied, law school, looking for students. The gunmen passed from classroom to classroom, pointing guns at teacher’s heads asking if that person studied in the room. After ten minutes of havoc, the men left the law school full of student and through a gas bomb to cover their escape. The government have not investigated the incident, neither why civilians are in possession of gas bombs if Venezuelan law only permits the police and the army to acquire them. Similarly, no more than a month ago, a group of five hooded men entered the Universidad Central de Venezuela and shot at the windows of the headmaster’s office and threw two molotov cocktails inside. Still, no investigation has been done to solve this case. These are only cases that have occurred in my university. But, similar events occur daily in other universities around Venezuela.
Fortunately, I haven’t been a victim of a physical attack. But a year ago, I was harrassed on a TV program that runs late at night on the government-owned channel. This program, called The Razer Blade, is meant to metaphorically open the opposition and show who they really are. On January 13th, 2009, a ten-minute telephone conversation between David Spolansky, another student leader, and I was transmitted on national television where we were ridiculed not only because we were members of the student movement but also because we are Jewish. In the conversation, we both discuss the organization of protests for the following days in Caracas. As soon as the conversation ended, the host, Mario Silva, expressed the following: “Scharifker and Spolansky. Their surnames, if I’m not mistaken, are of Hebrew origin, Jewish. See, their problems at this moment [are] not only with Palestine but also with sectors of power. But I’m not saying all the Jewish community, but sectors of power of the Jewish community that are at this moment very unhappy with the position of the president of the republic on the matter of defense of Palestinian sovereignty.” If that’s not enough, he continued: “Today, I was searching for pictures of them, pictures to recognize them, to know who are the ones that are going to provoke protest, raising their hands and voice, creating conflicts on the streets.” Unfortunately, he never found pictures of us or I would not be able to be here, speaking before you because I would be in jail or physically attacked by supporters of the regime. But that was a year ago.
However, this Friday, as I was leaving Venezuela, what happened to me seems straight out of Orwell’s 1984. A few hours before leaving my home, I made a few phone calls to my family and friends to say goodbye. As I finished one of my conversations with a female friend, I heard a male voice tell me through the phone “be careful!” At first, I thought this was one of the weekly threats I get on telephone calls. But what happened at the airport would better explain it.
As I arrived at the airport counter to proceed with my check-in, a female national guard began asking me where I was going and what was the reason for my trip. After answering her questions she let me proceed with the check-in. As I exited the counter, a male national guard, who I’m completely sure was there waiting for me, asked me for my passport and told me to follow him. He took me straight to police headquarters inside of the airport and started asking me where I was going, what was the purpose of my trip, if I was a member of the student movement and if I had a copy of my speech I was going to read today so he could read it. I really doubt the guard’s intention was to give me tips on what to say today.
Is this democracy? Does freedom of speech really exist in my country? One thing we know for sure, I have left clear to the government officials and I am here today to ratify, is that we are not afraid. [We] are not intimidated by these actions but are rather stimulated by them. This type of bullying only motivates us to continue our fight for a free Venezuela. For young Venezuelans, politics has ceased to be a subject we only heard in our parents’ conversations. Politics has become part of our daily life, which has been translated and present not only in bigger conversation about abuses committed by the regime, but also through participating as candidates in the next parliamentary elections on September 26th. About 30 student leaders, including Riccardo Sanchez, have great possibilities to be elected as Parliamentarians. There is a new generation, one that is determined to change the way politics has been historically carried out in my country based on the principles of democracy, liberty, tolerance, and respect for human rights.
A long lost quote I really love [that] represents us, entitled The Rock, is the following: “The distracted tripped over it. The violent used it as a projectile. The entrepreneur built with it. The farmer, tired, used it to rest… Michelangelo created beautiful sculptures. In all cases, the difference was not in the rock but in the man.” 2010 will be the same year for all of us around the world. But, the generation of the bicentenary will continue fighting so that this year we can gain our second independence.