The first time I went to Venezuela to meet and visit with my soon-to-be husband's family, I purchased a refrigerator magnet in the Caracas airport of the Cuban and Venezuelan flags joined together. I knew that the reason the magnet existed is because of Cuba and Venezuela's political ties, ties that would lead the wealthy South American oil producing nation down the same path of totalitarianism, scarcity and human right violations as the paradisiacal Caribbean island from which I hail, but I bought the magnet anyway. Today, eight years later, it's still on our fridge and holds a picture of the beautiful American family Tony and I have made out of his Venezuelan and my Cuban roots. In our home, that magnet is a cutesy representation of our union, but in broader political terms, it signifies a toxic partnership between two of the most ruthless and divisive dictators on this side of the planet.
It's possible that you might not have heard about what's been happening in Venezuela over the past couple of weeks - American media seems much more preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine - but the situation in the South American country is critical, and it's only getting worse.
To set the stage, it's important to point out a few devastating facts. One, Venezuela's inflation rate is 56 percent, the highest in the world. Two, the homicide rate is an alarming 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. In a country of 30 million people, there were nearly 28,000 murders last year. Third, Venezuela's shortage index, which tracks the percentage of basic goods in short supply is nearly 30 percent, meaning that over a quarter of Venezuelans are having trouble finding items like rice, flour, sugar, eggs and toilet paper. And finally, the current president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is a former bus driver with no formal education who believes that the prior president, Hugo Chavez, who led the nation for 14 years until his death from cancer in 2013, appeared to him reincarnated as a little bird.
In recent weeks, Venezuela's students have taken to the streets to protest their country's circumstances. They have been met with tear gas, water cannons and bullets. So far, the death toll resulting from the protests has reached 13 with more than 100 injured. Additionally, the Venezuelan government has incarcerated dozens of the protesters. Most notably among these is Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader who turned himself into the authorities after Maduro charged him with instigating violence and conspiring against the government. "We don't have anything to hide," Lopez told his supporters before surrendering.
This past Saturday, Venezuelans all over the world participated in rallies and peaceful protests in solidarity with the students and other members of the opposition in Venezuela. Here in Charlotte, a group of about 700 people carrying Venezuelan flags and dressed in yellow, red and blue gathered in Freedom Park to pray for their home country and form a giant SOS sign with their bodies.
I attended the event with my two children and was struck by the hope emanating from the crowd. The more I watch the news coming out of Venezuela, the more similarities I find with Cuba's situation. Except there's one difference: Venezuelans still have hope. It's hard to admit, but after 55 years of dictatorial rule, I have no hope that Cuba will become a democratic nation. Cuban-Americans in the United States don't take to the streets to rally for change in our homeland, and I hardly ever remember to pray for the political situation in the place where I was born. I have resigned myself to the current system and its repercussions. But Venezuelans still have hope, and it's a beautiful sight to see.
I don't know what will happen in Venezuela in the next weeks and months. I don't know what the answer to the political turmoil is. I have no words of wisdom for the students risking their lives in the streets of Caracas. All I can say to my Venezuelan brothers and sisters is: Don't let them take your hope. They can take your most basic goods, your safety, your freedom, even your life - but don't let them take away the idea that things could be different, that you deserve more, that life could be better, because once they achieve that, there's no turning back.