Watching what’s next in Venezuela

Joanna Valencia and  Daniela Orlando, vice president and president of the University of Miami Venezuelan student organization, Union Venezolana, or UNIVEN. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami.

By UM News

Joanna Valencia and  Daniela Orlando, vice president and president of the University of Miami Venezuelan student organization, Union Venezolana, or UNIVEN. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami.

Watching what’s next in Venezuela

By UM News
Across campus and South Florida, people are keeping a close, hopeful eye on the growing political maneuvering and turmoil in the oil-rich nation.

Now both 20, Daniela Orlando and Joanna Valencia were born in the same hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, as the late Hugo Chavez’s chaotic presidency and crippling socialist reforms began. 

But the two didn’t meet until they joined the University of Miami's Union Venezolana (UNIVEN), an organization that raises awareness about Venezuela and has united its two student leaders over love of homeland and a wish to see the reign of Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, end. 

On Thursday, they joined Venezuelans near and far in welcoming the extraordinary events that began Wednesday when Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president and Maduro’s widely disputed 2018 reelection illegitimate. A succession of world powers, including the United States, quickly recognized Guaidó as the beleaguered nation’s rightful interim leader, setting in motion a plan pushed by Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a UM alumnus, to oust Maduro and create a caretaker government until free and fair elections can be held. 

“We’ve been here before. But it’s never been like this,” said Orlando, a junior majoring in motion pictures and president of UNIVEN, which has more than 100 student members. “We actually have support this time. We are not alone.” 

Added Valencia, UNIVEN’s vice president and a senior majoring in health sciences, “In the past, a president would come out, say how unfair things are in Venezuela and then go back to their business. But now I think it’s just reached a point where you can’t ignore it.” 

As UM President Julio Fenk noted in a message, sustained international engagement will play a crucial role as Venezuelans strive to find a path to the restoration of democracy. "Indeed," the president wrote, "as the Hemispheric University, we join the chorus of voices in the region and around the world—including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the European Union, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and the United Kingdom—calling for a free future in Venezuela."
Gelys Chacin, a former lawyer in Venezuela who works in UM’s Office of the Registrar and continues to promote the human rights of Venezuela’s political prisoners, is buoyed by the response to Guaidó’s brave declaration, both inside and outside her homeland. 

“I have hope because this time it is different,” said Chacin, who fled what she called the “destruction and misery” of the Chavez regime with her husband and two daughters in 2002. “We now have a young member of the National Assembly who has the same values that all of us Venezuelans have. What we want is freedom, justice, and, above all, a true democracy.” 

Chacin said Guaidó gathered popular support by holding small forums throughout the country and listening to the concerns of citizens. Residents of poor neighborhoods who had ardently supported Chavez and his successor are no longer supporting Maduro, she said. 

“There is a lot of hunger and misery in Venezuela,” said Chacin, noting that, unlike demonstrations of the past, many of the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets this week calling for free and fair elections come from poor neighborhoods. 

Coupled with the international response, it is the pervasive hunger and misery across Venezuela that UM’s Michael Touchton, assistant professor of political science and a veteran Venezuela-watcher, believes could soften Maduro’s stranglehold on the military and lead to his ouster. As Touchton notes, oil-rich Venezuela has been in crisis for years, and the military rank and file understands the crisis is due to the Chavez and Maduro reforms that left the economy in shambles, driving out investors and more than 3 million Venezuelans, about 300,000 who took their wealth to South Florida. 

“Maduro hasn’t stepped down or given any indication that he is going to give up any authority, in which case Guaidó is interim president in name only—at least in Venezuela,” said Touchton, who credits Rubio for President Donald Trump’s prompt action supporting the interim leader. “But outside Venezuela it could set in motion this chain of events that could lead to his removal from office or perhaps stepping down under threat of removal.” 

If the military withdraws its support from Maduro, which Touchton cautions is a big if, and transfers it to Guaidó as interim president to support free and fair elections, then Maduro could be forced to step down. “Even if the military wants to hold on to power, and their leaders want to plunder the treasury with Maduro’s help, your average lieutenant commanding a squadron of troops might not feel so inclined to open fire on starving unarmed protesters,” Touchton said.

Given the ever-deteriorating conditions in his homeland, Dr. Hermes Florez, professor of public health sciences and division chief of epidemiology and population health at the Miller School of Medicine, felt compelled to move his ailing parents from Venezuela to neighboring Colombia. He also stopped visiting his homeland three years ago due to safety concerns. But the anguish he has felt for so long is now tinged with guarded optimism for a new future, and better health care for the millions of Venezuelans who have gone without for so long. 

“With this new president, hopefully things will change so that health experts will be authorized to get into Venezuela to take medications, vaccines, and supplies,” said Florez, who still knows there is a long road ahead before he and his wife can return to Venezuela.

“This is a journey,” he said. “We are hopeful that things will get better, but I don’t think it’s going to be a quick change. Even if Guaidó is supported, we need a cleaning process in the government, but at least the major needs of food and health care will improve.”

At the Miami Business School, Cecilia Sanchez, executive assistant to Dean John Quelch, was following the riveting news from Venezuela very closely and thinking about her own troubled homeland of Nicaragua. She believes that if Maduro’s government falls, the repressive government of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega could be next. 

“Here I sit hoping the military will support the people of Venezuela and turn on the illegitimate regime,” she said.

Reported by Barbara Gutierrez, Ashley A. Williams, Janette Neuwahl Tannen, Megan Ondrizek, and Maya Bell—UM News