CARACAS – By the entrance of the Hewlett Packard building in Caracas, home to the United Nations Development Program headquarters in Venezuela, a handwritten banner reads: "Welcome to the Museum of Peace and Dialogue.”
The letters are painted with the colors of the flags of Venezuela and Cuba, an open wink to the influence of the Castro regime on the government of president Nicolás Maduro, one of many reasons why thousands have taken to the streets since February to protest the government of this South American country – others being the soaring rate of murders, an inflation above 50 percent and the humiliating shortages of essential household goods.
We do have the means to protect ourselves, because our fight is peaceful but not stupid. If they fire bullets they'll get stones.
Hundreds of empty cartridges of pellet guns and tear gas bombs have been carefully placed on the floor to denounce the fierce repression used by security forces to meet the wave of demonstrations against Maduro policies.
Call it “Occupy Venezuela,” though that’s not the official name of this protest camp set up on March 24 by 85 young protesters in front of the U.N. building to draw attention to what they say are blatant human rights violations.
What started out with 50 tents is now a sprawling settlement that gives shelter to more than 300 people in almost 200 tents. The tent city is replicating in other cities and now there are up to 19 camps all around Venezuela.
“We have demanded the U.N. to have a strong position against the regime because in almost three months of demonstrations 43 people have died, over two thousand people have been imprisoned and there are 60 cases of torture,” said Gerardo Carrero, general coordinator of the National Organization of Young Venezuelans, the group behind the protest.
Although he highlights the peaceful nature of the camp as a form of protest, Carrero doesn't distance himself and his effort from the rest of demonstrators across the country.
“We've called everybody to participate in any way they want to join: with or without barricades, banging pots or not, marching, rallying, taking to the streets. But let's be clear that it’s them (the regime) who have the weapons and the ones who promote violence.”
“We do have the means to protect ourselves, because our fight is peaceful but not stupid,” he added. “If they fire bullets they'll get stones.”
According to Carrero, the student protest requires a big organizational effort and lots of resources, which are being provided by people and groups all over Caracas. “They give us food to feed 300 people daily. They bring tents, mats, everything. That's when one realizes that we are creating national awareness”, he said proudly.
Support is coming from ordinary people like Carlos, an orthopedic surgeon who left his private practice to take care of the protesters health. “I came to offer my help to the students in their struggle. We have a tent where we can give them first aid treatment. All the medicines are donations from civil society. When we need something, I simply have to ask and they get it for us”, he explains.
Carlos joined the camp to raise his voice against the increasing shortage of medicines in Venezuela's public hospitals. In spite of his personal commitment, he asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “Even when we just help the students in their civil resistance struggle, the government treats us as criminals”, he said.
Protesters here are reticent to compare their movement to those in other countries, saying the conditions and the government's response greatly differ. “Venezuelans have been demonstrating peacefully on the streets for several years,” said Marco Antonio Ponce, coordinator of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.
“Besides, there's a huge difference given that protesters in the U.S. faced a government that respects human rights while in Venezuela things don't work that way, as we can see in the number of dead people during the protests,” he added.
Ponce highlights that in spite of being attacked by security forces on several occasions, the camp has kept its peaceful nature.
Miguel Angel Martínez Meucci, professor of Political Studies at the Simon Bolivar University, said he is convinced this nonviolent strategy will bear better fruits than a violent one. “I think that the effectiveness of a protest that seeks to raise awareness among your fellow citizens is best achieved when it resorts to creative ways that are organized and specifically aimed at a goal,” he said.
And no small goal it is. “We want Maduro to step down,” declared Carrero undisturbed, adding that it would make a big difference if the millions of Venezuelans who are against Maduro got outside their homes and peacefully demand the end of the regime. “We have taken to the streets and now there's no way back”, he said.