Venezuelan youth leader who went into hiding to escape arrest by the Maduro regime, Hasler Iglesias, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.
We humans develop a strong sense of belonging to our motherlands. And for me, that’s Venezuela. But my story begins several years before: When my father left Spain after its civil war, and when my mother left Colombia for better economic opportunities.
They met in Caracas, Venezuela. At the time, it was the richest country in Latin America. The middle class took great vacations abroad and spent money on trending appliances and fashions.
Fast forward 30 years, and now a shocking 80% of Venezuelans live in poverty, with the highest inflation rate and the second biggest displacement crisis in the world.
I am one of those 7 million people who had to leave everything behind to look abroad for what Venezuela denied us.
As a son of migrants, I wasn’t raised in a politically engaged family. My mother and father were small business owners and they never even voted. But, as Hugo Chavez started dismantling democracy, politics crept into our home without asking for permission. The year 2002 was filled with demonstrations, oil workers’ strikes, and violent attacks on civilians. I was just 10 years old when my father was shot dead in a robbery attempt at my mother’s clothing store. And it turned my world upside down. I developed empathy for those suffering from poverty and inequality and became intolerant of injustice. My mother prohibited me from going to any political demonstrations. But then, I joined the largest student movement in Venezuela.
Unlike student movements you might’ve heard of before, the Venezuelan student movement is highly engaged with national politics. We organized peaceful demonstrations with several thousands of people. But the regime wasn’t going to allow this blissfully. Armed, pro-government student groups wreaked chaos on campus and intimidated those of us who wanted reforms. I was barely 17 years old the first time they held a gun to my head. In 2001, they had set fire to various offices on campus, and even managed to occupy the university principal’s office. But their violence wouldn’t stop a whole generation yearning for future and freedom.
My leadership grew at a fast pace. First, I organized local student assemblies. Then, I deployed on nationwide tours in 21 out of 23 states, meeting mayors, students, and political leaders. We demanded better study conditions, like up-to-date libraries, well-paid professors, safe and clean classrooms, student transportation, and better on-campus security. But we also protested this authoritarian regime that wanted to deprive us of every single right we had consecrated in the Constitution: The right to education, the right to vote, to associate freely, to peaceful demonstration, to food, even to safe drinking water. I took part in all of these demonstrations. And in doing so, I gained the support to be elected president of the Student’s Federation of the Central University of Venezuela in 2015. I kept studying, but studying itself was a feat. There were multiple years when the university was shut down for 6 months in a year because professors and workers were paid so little that they went on strike. It was — and it continues to be — outrageous how the Venezuelan regime has decided to let its public universities die from starvation… literally.
In 2016, along with other students, professors, and university authorities, I was invited here, to Geneva, for Venezuela’s Universal Periodic Review. We had developed a report showing how the government violates the right to education and academic freedom. But when I got to the airport in Caracas, even before I showed anyone my ID, I was detained by police.
They took me into a screening room and accused me of smuggling drugs in my stomach. They threatened to X-ray my abdomen, to which I agreed since I knew they wouldn’t find anything. But the hospital was almost an hour away, so they sent me off to be escorted by military officers with rifles.
Miraculously, on the way out of the airport, we ran into the mayor of Caracas. He knew me from all the organizing work I had been doing and he alerted the press. Thanks to this fortuitous event, they did the X-rays without forging them, brought me back to the airport, and I was lucky enough to board the plane at the last second.
But it was the first time I’d been detained and the first time the regime sent me a personal message: that they would disrupt my life if I continued to be uncomfortable for them. And from that day on, every time I stepped foot in the airport, I was scared of what they could do against me.
A few months later, I got a call from my mother who could barely utter a word. She had received some pamphlets at home signed by a pro-regime armed group stating that, “If I continued to carry out demonstrations, they would take drastic measures against me.” I was disgusted and instinctively wanted to protect my mother. So the next day, I went to the prosecution office and filed a death threat lawsuit using footage from the security cameras in our building. But until this day, the prosecution office has done nothing.
It would be naïve to expect differently.
In 2018, I finished university and I joined Voluntad Popular: The political party with the most political prisoners, including Leopoldo López, or leader Juan Guaidó. Two years later, in the middle of COVID lockdowns, I was alone at home with my mother, when the president of the Venezuelan parliament appeared simultaneously on all the TV channels in the country; he accused me and four other colleagues of supplying money and weapons to a criminal gang. Their evidence was just a forged WhatsApp screenshot allegedly obtained from a member of parliament. The announcement ended with a warrant for my arrest.
I had enough time to leave my home immediately and went into hiding. Perhaps the heaviest moment of my life so far was hugging my mom that day before leaving home, not knowing when I would be able to meet her again, seeing her watching, devastated by the news, with tears running down her cheeks. I told her that I would be okay, even though I had no certainty of that. After years of prohibiting me from going to demonstrations, now she sent me a message: “If they capture me, please don’t turn yourself in under any circumstances.”
I got rid of my cell phone and spent a couple of nights in an abandoned apartment with no finished floor, no water, no electricity. The next days were filled with news of arbitrary detentions of fellow party members and their relatives. Six months later, Venezuelan authorities were still looking for me, so I managed to escape to Colombia. But not everybody has had the same luck I’ve had. At this very moment, 284 Venezuelans are unjustly behind bars. Roland Carreño, a journalist who has been in prison for 933 days, or Juan Requesens, a young member of Parliament.
You may wonder what can be done to put an end to the yoke the Venezuelan dictatorship has put upon Venezuelans’ shoulders. Well, it’s not resuming oil purchases from Venezuela, and certainly not complying with their demands, or even stopping the International Criminal Court from investigating the Venezuelan regime’s crimes against humanity. It’s quite the opposite. It’s ensuring that Venezuelan people can take part in free and fair elections, and, above all, holding accountable those who distort the people’s will.
I started by talking about my family’s migration story, and I ended by talking about my own exile experience. It’s said that history is cyclical… but we cannot let 30 million Venezuelans continue suffering in this cycle. We must fight for democracy in Venezuela.