Venezuela: Building Unity to Challenge Oppression with Hasler Iglesias

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 his prepared remarks.

Prepared Remarks:

We humans develop a strong sense of belonging to our motherlands. For me, that’s Venezuela. But my story begins several years before I was born: 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 nice vacations abroad and spent money on trending fashions and appliances. 

Fast forward 30 years and a shocking 80% of Venezuelans live in poverty. With the highest inflation rate and the second worst 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 voted. But as Hugo Chavez started dismantling democracy, politics crept into our home without asking for permission. 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 student movement at the largest university in Venezuela. 

Unlike student movements you might’ve heard of before, the Venezuelan student movement is highly engaged in 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 & intimidated those of us who wanted reforms. I was 17 years old the first time they held a gun to my head. In 2001, they 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 freedom and future. 

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 in the country, 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, and to safe 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 our 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 government has decided to let 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 developed a report showing how the government violates our right to education and academic freedom. But when I got to the airport 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, and 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 my student organizing work and alerted the press. Thanks to this fortuitous event, they did the X-rays without forging them, brought me back to the airport and I boarded the plane at the last second. 

It was the first time I’d been detained and the first time the regime sent me a personal message: that they’d disrupt my life if I continued to be uncomfortable for them. And still today, every time I step foot in the airport, I’m 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’d 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 & instinctively wanted to protect my mother. So I went to the prosecution office and filed a death threat lawsuit using footage from the security cameras in our building. Until this day, the prosecution office has not investigated my claim. 

It would be naïve to expect that. 

In 2018, I finished university and joined Voluntad Popular: the political party with the most political prisoners, including Leopoldo López and 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 across all the country’s TV channels: he accused me and four other colleagues of supplying money and weapons to a criminal gang. Their evidence? A forged WhatsApp screenshot allegedly obtained from an MP. The announcement ended with a warrant for my arrest. 

I left my home immediately and went into hiding. Perhaps the heaviest moment of my life so far was hugging my mom before leaving home, not knowing when I’d see her again, and watching her devastated by the news, with tears running down her cheeks. I told her that I’d be ok… 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, electricity or tap water. The next days were filled with news of arbitrary detentions of other party members and their family members. Six months later, Venezuelan authorities were still looking for me, so I escaped to Colombia. 

You may wonder what can be done to put an end to the yoke the dictatorship has put upon Venezuelans’ shoulders. Well, it’s not resuming oil purchases from Venezuela, and certainly not complying with their demands or stopping the International Criminal Court from investigating Venezuela’s possible crimes against humanity. Quite the opposite, it’s ensuring that Venezuelan people can take part in free and fair elections, and holding accountable those who distort the people’s will. 

I started by talking about my family’s migration story, and I’ve 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. 

Thank you. 

Speakers and Participants

Hasler Iglesias

Venezuelan youth leader, went into hiding to escape arrest by the Maduro regime


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