Every 40 minutes, somebody is murdered in Venezuela. With 13,080 homicides in 2013 alone, and a steadily increasing rate of violent crime, the South American republic now sits in fourth place on the United Nations’ list of murder rates per capita. The recent murder of Mónica Spear however, went beyond being a statistic.
In a country where pageant queens are placed on as high a pedestal as professional athletes and movie stars, Spear’s was one of the most gilded. In 2004, she was crowned Miss Venezuela, and would later star in La Mujer Perfecta (The Perfect Woman), a soap opera that found tremendous success across the continent. On the night of January 6, 2014, that pedestal was shattered.
Spear spent her last days on vacation with her ex-husband Thomas Henry Berry and their five-year-old daughter, until their vehicle broke down. While stranded on the country road, awaiting assistance, the family was confronted by a group of armed robbers. Spear’s daughter, while suffering a bullet wound, watched helplessly as her parents were shot dead.
While some of those responsible for Spear’s death have been apprehended, many of the country’s murders, as much as 90 per cent, go unpunished. The prominence of Spear brought to the forefront an issue that for over a decade was already on the minds of many Venezuelans—the egregious lack of security in the country.
National Youth Day and the Carnival of Tears
The protests currently being held across Venezuela began in Caracas, the country’s capital, just prior to the nation’s Youth Day, held annually on February 14 to commemorate the Battle of La Victoria, a decisive victory in the country’s war of independence from Spain in 1814, which many students fought and died in. The protests have centred around not only the increasing prevalence of violence within the country, but the widespread lack of food and basic items, chronic inflation, and the controversy surrounding current president Nicolás Maduro’s electoral victory last April.
The main protests were preceded by several staged on Venezuelan campuses, namely the University of the Andes, where the attempted rape of a female student took place. Students across the country had also reported an alarming number of thefts and assaults on and around campus.
Mariana Barboza, a design student at VIU who grew up in Caracas, says that the country’s food shortages have become increasingly dire since Maduro took power, and that basic items such as eggs, flour, and toilet paper are now scarce, while queues outside supermarkets are growing larger.
Barboza also stated that the protests have become so large that the day-to-day for Venezuelans has become wholly disrupted. “My sister is living there and she can barely keep up with all the things going on,” says Barboza. “It’s unsafe to go outside. The students don’t have classes, they don’t know when they will have exams, and they don’t even know what is going to happen with their semester, so it’s really hard. The National Guard is also going into private properties, going inside homes, and taking students to prison. It’s really scary when your whole family is there.”
While numbers dropped, protests continued through the Carnival, a three day holiday in late February traditionally spent on the beach with friends and family. Despite urges by Maduro and other government officials to take advantage of the holidays, many protesters saw no reason to celebrate, and remained on the streets. Though the outcry began as relatively peaceful, things soon took a turn for the worse. As of March 5, clashes between protesters and police have resulted in approximately 28 deaths, and the arrests of 1084 protesters, as well as the arrests of some officers deemed responsible for the deaths. While some protesters dropped their concerns, at least for a few days, to spend Carnival on the beach, others were forced to celebrate in dark jail cells.
The Rise of Juan Requesens
As emotions escalate in Venezuela, Maduro has turned to the 24-year-old student council president of the Central University of Venezuela, Juan Requesens, for cooperation. Over the course of unrest, the young student politician has become one of the most prominent faces within the anti-government protests.
Requesens’s popularity has, on several occasions, prompted Maduro to extend him an invitation to peace discussions. Requesens has promptly denied all of Maduro’s invitations, calling for the release of all detained protesters before he will attend discussions. Other opposition leaders have followed Requesens’s example, calling for similar conditions to be met before resuming talks with Maduro. Venezuela’s interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, has also asked Requesens to visit Tachira, one of the country’s most heated regions, and encourage protesters to stand down.
The Washington Post equated Requesens’s appeal to his “speaking style, and because he is a new face, not one of the well-established opposition politicians already familiar to Venezuelans.” Media outlets who have spoken to Requesens describe him as a “bearded, disheveled 24-year-old who lives with his parents.”
Though Requesens has enthusiastically referred to his role in leading the protests as exciting, his position puts him in enormous jeopardy. Fellow student and former protest leader, Daniel Tinoco, was killed on March 10 after suffering a gunshot wound to the chest. Shortly after his death, social media sites were filled with photographs of protesters surrounding Tinoco’s corpse, and posts by Venezuelans lamenting the young leader’s demise.
The Future of Venezuela
When I ask Barboza how she thinks the protests will end, she sounds concerned, yet optimistic. Her answer echoes what a lot of the protesters, filling the streets of her home country, have repeatedly demanded.
“I think what is going to happen, or at least what I hope, is that Nicolas Meduro steps down from presidency so someone new can come and help rebuild the country,” says Barboza. “We’re missing so much basic stuff and we want a secure country. We have so many good things in Venezuela, but we’re not taking advantage of it. It’s so heartbreaking. Our whole country right now is just on the floor—there are a lot of things we have to change.”
On the morning of Monica Spear’s death, she posted a video online titled “La Magia de los Llanos” (The Magic of the Llanos). The video showed a lush, green field on the tropical plains as the sun rose from behind the Andes, and the shadows of the mountains began to vanish.