—Manuela Alcalá-Sánchez, 21, is a tri-lingual international student from Caracas, Venezuela, studying television arts at Columbia College Chicago. Hoping to spread awareness, Manuela spoke about what it was like growing up in a country where violent oppression and anti-government protests became part of every day life.
What was it like growing up in Venezuela?
We've had this same government for 15 years. You can get killed anywhere you go, for a cell phone. It’s not for some big thing; it’s just for a cell phone. That’s the reality for some people. It hasn't happened to me, but for some people, for most people actually, that’s the reality. Those people are getting tired. People are surviving instead of living, because that’s the way it is. They say, you know what, if I go out today and get killed, at least I died protesting for my country and not for a cell phone. It’s the same odds
Can you describe your ‘reality’?
I lived in a bubble. My family was more privileged, and I’m very grateful for that. In the 20 years I lived in my house, I feel like there was only one year, maybe two, in total that we didn’t have a maid, to give you an example. That’s the reality for a lot of people over there in the middle class because labor is so cheap. Every time I go home everything is three times more expensive than what it was. This is a perfect example: my senior year of high school, the Mac Meal of the day was worth 35 bolivars. It is now worth over 100 bolivars, and I’m going into my third year of college. That’s a big difference. When you put it into American dollars I’m pretty sure that’s nothing. In America, you have not one brand but thousands of brands of anything and everything. Take toilet paper for example, you can pick the softest one, or the cheapest one; you can choose, which is something that we don’t have over there, neither choice nor toilet paper. In Venezuela, you find what you find. But, you’re here and this is your life and, in my opinion, if you want to complain because you have to get up tomorrow and go to class or work, then that’s ok. But, it’s important that you know there is more out there. There are people that don’t have as many privileges as you do, like quality of life, and that suffer everyday.
Did you take part in the protests?
You know, when I was back home I wasn't one to go to the protests and the walks that some people did. My parents did, but I didn't. I think I only went to one, but if I’m being honest I didn't see the point of them. And I’m pretty sure if I were there now I wouldn't be the person in a barricade on the street. I can’t. My dad already lost a daughter in that country. So, I’m not going to risk putting him through that kind of pain again.
Do you have any loved ones taking part in the protests?
My parents and most of my friends have gone to some of them, the peaceful ones. But after hours, and when I say after hours I mean after 4:00pm, things start getting very aggressive. They go, they protest and then they go home. I mean my dad is almost 70 years old, what else can he do? I would be very careful where to go and where not to go. I went home in December and I didn’t leave my house. I’m not going to risk going out clubbing and then the night I decided to go out, something happens. I’m studying here; I’m living this great life that not everyone can and it’s not worth putting my life at risk or mortifying my parents on a whim.
You said that this has been going on for years. Why is this time different?
I think this time is different. I mean the protests have been going on for month now. Before, a week maybe two would pass and then everyone would just go back to their normal routines. But now Venezuela is waking up. We are getting more attention than we’ve ever had, it’s not as much as Ukraine, but for the first time in a long time the world is paying attention to us. Kerry Washington tweeted about it and Rihanna, and Jared Leto talked about us in his Oscar’s acceptance speech, and Madonna, and even Paris Hilton, the list goes on and on. I’m pretty sure the government is very scared right now. We all are, but they must be losing their minds.
Maduro recently threatened to revoke press credentials from CNN reporters working in Venezuela. If Maduro decided to remove all foreign press from the country, do you think he could do it?
In my opinion, it’s going to be really hard for them to shut down Twitter. I don’t feel like they have the technology to shut it down completely. If you look at the quality of television or web pages from the government, they suck. They really do suck. You can censor some information but you can’t censor everyone. For them to shut down Twitter it’s going to take a lot of gut.
Do you think the U.S should get involved?
I don’t know. We don’t want to be a colony of the U.S. What people are asking for is peace. We don’t want a war zone and if the US ever gets involved I feel like it will be a war zone.
Millions of Venezuelans loved and supported the Hugo Chavez, who publicly stated he wants Nicolas Maduro to be his successor. Why do you think that there is so much outrage against him?
The so-called supporters of Chavez don’t support Maduro; at least most of them don’t—the ones that aren't blinded by their government’s lies. They’re saying He’s not doing what my captain said he was going to do—he’s not respecting his legacy. Maduro is not as charismatic. He’s not connecting to the public. I don’t feel like Chavez was doing anything but at least there was a connection to the people.
Now that Chavez is dead, let’s just say, their eyes are opening. Now people are blaming everything that Chavez did wrong that is now affecting us on Maduro.
Why do you think that Chavez’s policies didn't work?
Because Socialism doesn't work. I mean, period. It doesn't work. You can’t have a doctor earn the same as a handyman, you can’t. Not because a handyman is worth less than a doctor but because to become a doctor you have to put all this money and time to be one and you should be repaid in some way. If you work hard, you’ll get wherever you want to go. But with socialism I feel like people are just comfortable waiting for things to be handed to them and that’s how Chavez’s government worked. I think his government was so popular because he was the first president in our history to really care about the poor people. Our problem isn't racism; it’s classism.
Why are you so passionate about voting?
I've only voted twice in my life. I feel like for most people when they turn eighteen, they’re like, ‘yes, I can vote!’ Voting is how you choose what you want, for your country, for you, for your family. We need as many votes as we can get. I was supposed to go back home to vote but my dad told me to go somewhere else, so I went to Canada. It’s your duty to your country. I don’t feel like you should have to go to war if you don’t want to but at least vote. Wait in line, write on a piece of paper and put it in a box. That’s all. In fact you don’t even have to write anymore, you just have to push a button. Then, you go home and wait. That’s all you have to do. The Maduro election was rigged. The international votes weren’t counted. There are the people who voted for Maduro because Chavez said so. There are the people that didn't vote at all because Maduro isn't Chavez and then there are the people, like me, who voted for Henrique Capriles because he was the better option.
Some have labeled Venezuela a democracy. What do you think?
If you talk to Maduro today, he’ll say we have the best democracy in Latin America. Come on, we are not a democracy. What kind of a democracy shuts down TV networks, newspapers or freedom of speech? I can get up today and say ‘Obama sucks’ on a TV network and no one is going to put me in jail. In fact, I’m pretty sure Obama isn’t going to care. Maduro ordered to have one of the opposition leaders, Leopoldo Lopez, put in jail just for stating a different opinion and telling people to join him in the path for a better, different, Venezuela. So, how are we a democracy? Please explain, because I don’t know.
Why did you choose to study in the U.S. instead of Venezuela?
After high school, I spent like three or four months in Europe and it was a big culture shock. People are very closed. It was too different, especially for me. If you go to Venezuela, in less than two hours you’re going to have friends, whether you want them or not. You can’t be antisocial there. And if you are, we’re going to change you. And that’s the truth. Some universities in Venezuela are free and they are actually very good. But, I didn’t want to study in Venezuela because there are always problems. The government doesn’t know how to administrate money and they’re not paying the bills. Why did I leave? Because I didn’t want to get killed. I wanted freedom. I like not having look to the sides when I have my phone out, or worry about what watch I’m wearing. Why live in fear?
What drew you to Chicago?
I applied to four universities here; I applied to Syracuse, Bridgeport, Boston University, Columbia College Chicago and the University of Houston. Columbia was the first one to accept me. It was just a hunch. I’d never been to Chicago before.
Why did you choose to study television?
I applied to Columbia as a marketing communications major. But when they asked me to confirm my major, I didn’t remember what I applied for. I looked through the list, saw television and I decided, you know what, if I don’t like it I can always change it. So, that’s what I did. And, I didn’t change it. I love it more everyday and I’m very passionate about what I’m doing.
Are you scared for your loved ones back home?
I’m not sleeping. You just want to binge—insert action—binge—watch TV—binge. You see these bags under my eyes? They’re called Venezuela. I mean you feel bad for having a good time because there are people over there that are suffering. But, what else are you going to do? Are you not going to live? Either you continue or you sit down and cry, and wait for the worst to happen.
And what are you going to do?
Well, I have to go get up and go to class. That’s what I’m going to do.
—Interview by TAYLOR SCHEIBE