Friendship vs human rights

Playing politics while my family suffers

Tess-Maria Leon

Sunday, January 20, 2019

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I was born in Venezuela and moved to Jamaica when I was three years old as my father (a Jamaican) and mother (a Venezuelan) decided to make Jamaica their home. Despite this, our family has travelled to Venezuela frequently throughout my childhood to visit family, enjoy the culture, and maintaining a connection with our roots. The memories I have of this time are of a happy people and a stable society.

However, things changed for the worse when Hugo Chavez became president in 1999. Chavez won the election based on promises of reshaping and restoring the economy which had been reeling as a result of depressed oil prices. Despite these promises, his policies — many put in place to reinforce his power — caused a decline in my family's way of living, and that of many others. Under Chavez, technocrats at the State-run oil company, Petroleum Of Venezuela (PDVSA), were removed and replaced by political hacks, causing irreparable damage to the country's most important source of income. Soon after, the society, economy, and especially health care system began deteriorating.

Although Chavez was known to be very charismatic and he spoke like he loved the people, he was a dictator disguised as a socialist. By 2005, his targeting of foreign oil firms caused many, like ExxonMobil and Conoco, to eventually leave, resulting in further decline of the industry. Soon after, a shortage of common consumer goods became widespread, and Venezuela had to begin importing products it once produced in abundance.

In 2013, Chavez died and Nicolas Maduro became president, and by 2014 the situation in Venezuela really began to rapidly deteriorate. My family in Venezuela began to update me and my mother on many horror stories of empty supermarket shelves as well as babies dying in hospitals because of no medication or working equipment. Venezuela became a huge concern to the region. It was around this time that the Trinidadian Government famously offered Venezuela toilet paper in exchange for oil, knowing that the much-needed commodity was scarce in the country.

Since then, I have personally witnessed my own family members having to flee the country because of the dictatorship of this tyrant. They, like everyone else, have been victims of the economic, security, and social crisis that is ongoing in Venezuela. It is because of the experience of my family and many others that I fully support the Government of Jamaica's vote at the Organisation of American States (OAS) to not recognise the legitimacy of this monster's second term as president of Venezuela. Jamaica stood for what is right, and that is to be concerned of the human rights of the people that are being massacred on streets for opposing the Government and its poor policies.

I understand that Jamaica and Venezuela have shared a friendship for a very long time. I get it, I get it. I am also aware that Jamaica has benefited significantly from the favourable terms of PetroCaribe. However, this existing 'friendship' between the two countries started under a different president, and when the situation on the ground in Venezuela was very different from what it is now. So why is the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) so determined to support this regime that so clearly has and continues to cause the suffering of the people of Venezuela? Is it so blinded by the 'socialist' beliefs you both share?

I remember clearly last year Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs, Lisa Hanna, voicing her supposed outrage at Jamaica's decision to abstain from a vote in the United States condemning US President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She and many in her party were armed with statements about Jamaica ignoring Israel's human rights infringements and Jamaica abandoning its foreign policy principles. Where is that concern now? It could appear to me that there is a hidden agenda behind the PNP's support of Venezuela. Is it that their 'lucrative oil deal'' done in the 70s is more important than the lives of people and how they are treated?

There are many credible reasons the international community, Jamaica included, has begun to shun the Maduro Administration. The human rights of Venezuelans from all walks of life are being infringed upon daily, and many are left wanting for even the most basic necessities. Everyday children die because of a complete breakdown in the health care system across the country. Supermarkets across the country boast empty shelves as people queue up for hours to receive free meals from any institution that will provide it.

In the few places that have food on the shelves, everything has become so expensive, even for the middle and upper class in the society. For example, it costs 15 million bolivars (US$60) to buy one chicken and three million bolivars (US$12) to buy a roll of toilet paper. Bank notes have had to be withdrawn and redenominated. The severe shortages of food, medicine, and other basic items has forced over 2.5 million people to flee the country for safety in any place they can.

The extremely high inflation rate (expected to hit 10,000,000 per cent in 2019) means that the small salary most people make is useless by the time they go to the store to buy the little that is available. This is in a country that was once the jewel of South America and still has the world's largest reserves of oil.

Under Maduro, Venezuela has no freedom or true democracy! In Jamaica, where we are all entitled to speak freely, the Opposition here stands on democracy and very much speaks their own mind when they believe the Government isn't doing a good job. So why so strongly support a Government of another country that rules under a dictatorship? It baffles me. Remaining silent and ''not interfering'', as they supposedly call it, is actually saying and implying a stance of support for Maduro.

Caracas is now the most dangerous city in the world. Murders, kidnappings and robberies are at all-time highs and all are affected. My uncle was killed last year because criminals that are rampant on the streets have more control than the police. My aunt died of cancer a few years ago partially because she was relegated to taking outdated chemotherapy drugs. The private hospital she was a patient tried to source updated ones for her but there were none. She could have lived for a few more years but didn't have access to decent medication.

I can also share with you horror stories of my friends there, whose teenagers, ages 14-19, protesting at their university or high school peacefully with posters saying “We want peace'', “We are hungry'', “Maduro, please resign'' were kidnapped by security forces administered by the Maduro Administration in broad daylight and carried away to detention centres where they were treated with inhumane acts of cruelty. Many of these teenagers were sodomised, hands or feet cut off, and in most cases their tongues cut off. They were detained for a period between five to six months. Some survived and some died in these detention centres as a result of no medical attention. Their bodies in most cases were never returned to the families. Their bodies were burnt and families later advised of their fate.

These families could never dare report their child's abduction to the police/security forces or even speak of it. This was a threat and a lesson to the families to not dare again protest on the streets. Just visit Google or any social media site on Venezuela and you will see thousands of stories, articles and personal posts about what I am sharing with you. It is real.

My mother has had to travel to Venezuela more frequently, once to three times a year over the last eight years to take medication and clothes for her brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces. We assist as best as we can sending money every month to our families to make ends meet. Families have been torn apart because they leave to seek refuge for a better life. My cousins have left for Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and the USA because they can't survive even to buy groceries.

My family's story is just one of many, others are far worse. Yet the Opposition of Jamaica still believes the Government should not say or do anything?

Given all that is going on, why would the Jamaican Government not be justified in taking a stand, in letting Venezuela and the rest of the world know that it does not support the actions of the Maduro Administration? Jamaica stood with the people of South Africa during Apartheid and is now doing the same for Venezuela because it is the moral thing to do.

Has the Jamaican political Opposition party chosen 'friendship' over human rights of the people of Venezuela?

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