A Look Inside the Venezuelan Opposition
We spoke with an opposition activist about what's happening in Venezuela.
Francheska Salazar took part in the protests of 2017 in Venezuela and maintains contact with opposition groups from Colombia
We spoke with Francheska Salazar, a Venezuelan living in Colombia and an ex-activist for the opposition, about what is currently happening in Venezuela. What follows are her original comments from the Spanish, edited for space and clarity.
MI: When did you leave Venezuela?
Francheska: In 2016 I came here to Medellin (Colombia). I worked here for a while and then I returned to Venezuela. I spent about six months there before I came back to Medellin again in 2017, this time to live permanently.
MI: You told me that you were in Venezuela in 2017 during the last big protests against Maduro. Could you explain that situation to us a bit? What exactly happened?
Franchezka: Yes, I was in Güigüi. I am from the area of Valencia but a small town outside of the city called Güigüi. It is a town that formerly was Chavista..a town where they used to support the government very strongly. I say it 'used to be' because the situation has changed considerably. And I imagine it was due to the hunger and the misery in which they are living. When I returned...in 2017, the situation had become very severe. We lived without food, without money. We couldn’t even acquire basic personal items.
I have three children, so if you could try to imagine what it was like not to be able to provide enough food for the kids, to not be able to get diapers, or really anything at all that we needed daily.
MI: I really can’t imagine that.
Franchezka: And aside from that, I found myself in really bad health, because I was giving my share of the food to the children. I was giving them what little I could, but they were still hungry and kept asking for more. So, I took it upon myself to go without food personally, to give it all to them. I began to suffer from anemia. I lost weight really quickly. And my hair even began to fall out because of the hunger and the stress. I spent every day looking for food and waiting in lines.
I had to wait sometimes two days in lines to buy food, sleeping in the streets. But I didn’t even have it the worst. Some people had to endure longer.
MI: Were you working in Venezuela during this time?
Francheska: My family used to have our own business (in Venezuela). We sold fruits and vegetables and clothing. It was a very secure and stable business, with capital in the bank. But we woke up one morning and the money wasn’t worth anything anymore. Every day the value fell more. Our customers would complain about our prices, and as the value of the currency fell more and more because of inflation the government decided to put in place an official price for the goods sold in Venezuela.
And it was a terribly unfair price. Also during this time, the cost to purchase our goods was rising. Eventually, there arrived a point in which all of the small business owners decided it was better to simply consume what we produced instead of selling it. What little money we could gather was worth less every day. Our savings in the bank devalued completely.
Who wants an account in a Venezuelan bank nowadays? Nobody. It makes even less sense for a business owner. We occasionally could sell our goods for dollars (on the black market) at an expensive rate. But that was better than the worthless Venezuelan currency.
Agriculture has collapsed completely. And now in Venezuela the people eat only vegetables, and that’s if they are lucky. You might think to yourself “Wow. What was once the food eaten only by poor is now the food for the rich!” The poor people can’t acquire any food at all.
Nicolas Maduro, one of two Venezuelan presidents speaks to soldiers Jan 30
MI: What is the difference between the current protests and the protests of 2017?
Franchezka: The difference is that now there is international support, there is backing that we didn’t have before during the protests in 2014 or 2017. Then, we were only cannon fodder, or that is to say that we were risking our lives to change a situation that only mattered to us.
MI: Cannon fodder. That is an interesting phrase, because last time the protests were put down violently isn’t that correct?
Franchezka: Well, there is violence this time, but less than before (in 2017). Because the government feels cornered, or on the defense. While in 2017 the government felt secure in what it was doing, because there was no one to intervene and say “Look, we are watching. And if you keep doing this there is going to be a consequence.”
The only consequences then were towards us (the demonstrators).
I was an activist, I participated in the student movements during that time, in the marches. I was in the Guarimba.
MI: What is the Guarimba?
Franchezka: The Guarimba is a group of the resistance. It is a youth group mostly comprised of University students. We weren’t really representative of the majority of the population of the opposition involved in the situation or representative of any party. We were a student group against the government generally. We were protesting against the government repression...
We encountered tear gas, sometimes gunshots or beatings. We knew that our lives were in play. And we knew very clearly that at any moment, it was possible we might find ourselves unable to return home.
Many of my friends were raped, others were beaten. Many were killed, many were jailed. The international support (this time) has lowered the amount of deaths. But the official deaths are not correct either, there are many, many, many more deaths that we don’t hear about.
For example, the news keeps reporting that there have been 80 deaths during these protests. But the figure is much higher. While the television says there have been 80 deaths in Venezuela, I personally know of more deaths in Valencia, in my community. I can say that with certainty.
Another example, when the number was lower a few days ago, (the media) said 40 deaths had occurred at the time (In all of Venezuela). But there was a patrol that day that killed 20 people in my town alone.
And everyone knows. But all information is censored by the government.
MI: So, you would say that the world doesn’t know is happening in the country? Or in the streets?
Franchezka: No. One would have to be there in person to really understand what is going on. I don’t think the world knows because who would tell them? There are things we can’t talk about. There are things we can’t post to Facebook. Facebook itself blocks them. We upload videos of the violence to Facebook and Facebook blocks the videos. Or the government simply shuts off the internet.
MI: Yeah I have read about six internet blockages only this year.(Crosstalk)
Franchezka: Exactly. And because of that there are groups that exist on Whattsapp for the opposition, in which we send each other videos or audio recordings- any information that we can get out. Because there are things we can’t post on Twitter, on Instagram or on Facebook. Because it violates their rules.
But this time the government is scared. For example, now we see, in 2019, a government that is recruiting kids. Between 12-16 years old. It’s like “Wow, where did they get the raw ambition to do that?”
And I think it comes from desperation, because they feel cornered. They don’t have an exit.
Franchezka told us Maduro has resorted to recruiting child soldiers out of desperation
They know that the same way they respond to the people is what they are going to receive from the international community. (The international community) is prepared to respond. Because Trump has said all options ‘are on the table.’ And when we talk about this, that all the options are on the table, this gives us an incredible amount of hope. Because we know that there are going to be many deaths in Venezuela. Everyone is very conscious of that.
I support the intervention 100%. Including a military intervention. Because I think a military intervention is the only solution. It’s because the people are disarmed. How does an unarmed people fight against a government that has all these weapons at their disposal?
MI: I would like to ask a question because I have a lot of curiosity. I have seen my country go to war many times in my life. And I don't know if you are aware but there are two men on the team handling this situation and their names are John Bolton and Elliot Abrams. And they have a history of creating and supporting many wars around the world. In Libya, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Nicaragua. And in my opinion have been very wrong many times throughout their careers. And it makes me a little bit worried that they are a part of the team handling this situation. Usually things don’t turn out well for the countries in which they have done what they wanted let’s say. What do you think about that?
Franchezka: Well, to be honest I don’t know their personal history very well. But I do know very well the situation in Libya, because I also had family that lived in Libya.
My family from Libya had to come to Venezuela. They couldn’t live in Libya anymore. You have to understand that these are countries in which, let’s say the Queen of Death had been circling...These are countries in which peace has never existed. Peace has never existed on their soil. Countries in which terrorism exists, countries in which the people simply cannot survive day to day. And this is precisely what is happening in Venezuela. It’s not possible to live there anymore
But I’d say that a lot of us form our opinions without really understanding what it’s like to live in a place... If we don’t have a lot of information about a situation, we form opinions about people that resemble what we might say about characters in a movie. We say “Oh those are the good guys. And those are the bad guys” but the truth is that it’s a lot more complicated than that.
To explain what I mean let’s talk about the news we see every day, they say the United States only wants the petroleum from our nation.
MI: It’s kind of a joke on Social media, right? They say they surely the gringos are only interested in the arepas, right?
Franchezka: (Laughter) This is always the first thing that comes up every time when people talk about the intervention of the United States in any country. Always!
“Oh, they only want the wealth...or they only want this other thing”. And they’re partially right. But up until what point is that true?
Because in the majority of countries in which the United States intervened it was also true that there were dictatorships, or misery, in which there was hunger, or there was death..It’s not sufficient to take one detail from one country in which (an intervention) occurred and say “Well in this case it turned out badly. And it’s the fault of the United states, or because it’s Russia’s fault” or whomever.
No. Rather it’s often because of what was already happening inside of the country in which these events were occurring. It’s due to factors that already existed within the country before (the US) arrived. You have to look deeper.
If we take the story of Libya, which was worse for the people? Before or after the intervention? It’s difficult to say. And whose fault is that? A lot of people say it always turns out badly when the United States intervenes, but there were already inherent problems in every situation...Oftentimes it’s the same people and the same government officials that created the problems saying things like this.
If there weren’t hunger, or death, or misery or what-have you, the United States wouldn’t have had an excuse to intervene.
MI: And what would you say to the people who are publicly supporting the Maduro regime or speaking against US influence? They say “Oh he was fairly elected. We shouldn’t insert ourselves into the situation?”
Franchezka: He has never won a fair election.
MI: Explain that a little
Francheska: How can I explain? We keep voting in the elections. I voted last time, for capitalist (Henrique Capriles) Radonski...The elections were clearly won by Radonski. It was extremely evident. When one went out on the streets, when you went to vote and looked at the people...you knew that we were the majority. When you looked at the marches, there were multitudes of people. And those weren’t images I saw on television, rather something I lived personally. And you thought “Wow! All of the people are behind this change!”
It was the opposite of the marches organized by the government. You only saw people that were obligated to vote for the government. People that worked for the government, or that had family members that worked for the government. They are obligated to vote for the government. Because the government says “If you don’t support this government, we’re going to take your houses. If you don’t vote for the government, we’re going to take away all of your benefits.”
These people are coerced to vote for the government. One begins to wonder if the vote is really secret. If this vote is secret, how would they know if I vote for or against the government? No one thinks the vote is secure. The people were afraid to vote for the opposition. And even in those circumstances Maduro had to lie about the results.
But the people aren’t afraid anymore. That’s the biggest difference I see between now and 2017. The people have suffered enough. I love that in spite of everything that is happening the hope is growing. I have absolute faith that this government is falling.
MI: You don’t think the people are going to tire of this revolution?
Franchezka: No. I don’t think so. And If I’m wrong it would be the worst thing they could possibly do after achieving so much. For the first time we are not alone. In the past the government killed us with impunity. They killed us and no one said anything. No one cared or even paid attention.
A lot of people also don’t realize the censorship that we live under. I use my Social media now the way I want to from Colombia because for the first time I’m not afraid that the government will see me.
When someone influential in Venezuela is speaking out against the government, they come to your house and they arrest you. They charge you with terrorism and they put you in jail, or they beat you, or they simply disappear you.
MI: If you had to guess, what would you say Maduro’s approval rate is?
Franchezka: I would say that if you told me Maduro had 10% of the support of the people in Venezuela, I would tell you that is too high...you have to understand that even the areas that were once Chavista, like my town, are no longer supporters of the government. It used to be stronghold of Maduro. The support has collapsed completely.
They are tired of the hunger, of the suffering and of the oppression.
For the first time, the government cannot put down this opposition with violence.
MI: But the problem in Libya wasn’t the war itself. It was the chaos that followed the war.
Franchezka: The difference is that we already have the support, we already have the people behind a leader. There is a group of people willing to take charge. Everything is ready. We only lack the opportunity.
MI: What would you say to people who might not know what is happening in Venezuela?
Franchezka: Our television is censored, our news is censored, our people are censored. So, I would say to people watching from other countries, we as human beings cannot know what it’s like to live in a place unless we do it. And the majority of the news that gets out of Venezuela is only that which the government wants to get out. There is much more happening there, and I would tell them with my hand over my heart that the people are suffering...Maduro is a dictator...The people of Venezuela want this change.