Lost in California

This Venezuelan lawyer explains how even doing a PhD in Stanford, she has to deal with fear, frustration and guilt over the country’s reality.

I sit in the library staring at a blank screen. I can’t resist the urge to check Twitter every other minute. I cry a little watching terrible images of cops tearing into protesters. I’m embarrassed to be crying at the library. But nobody’s watching. It’s the middle of the quarter; people are worrying about exams.

I live on what may be the most beautiful campus in the world. I go to Stanford. Out there it’s all palm trees and pines, impressive buildings and stunning gardens. Most days you can sit outside on the grass or at one of its cafés and talk with the smartest people in the world. Life is made easy in every imaginable way. What feels like unlimited resources are placed at your disposal to help you focus on your studies. Anyone would want to be here, right?

And yet…

I left Venezuela six years ago. Things were already pretty bad, but the Venezuela of 2011 is a paradise compared to today’s nightmare. It’s hard to concentrate on anything.

I’m not making any progress on my thesis, so I decide I might as well read some news. Human Rights Watch is reporting on a severe humanitarian crisis caused by medical and food shortages. In Stanford, it’s sunny.

Over the last month a handful of people have asked me what’s going on in Venezuela. They see it mentioned on the news but can’t seem to follow, smart though they are. I try to explain but only manage a few sentences. I don’t really know what to say anymore. Though I have an encyclopedic knowledge as to what is happening (so many Venezuelans do) I can’t find the right words. And I get a feeling that even if I could that these people wouldn’t believe me. How could they really?

Just a week ago a few Stanford students invited me to join their book club. They were debating whether to read Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ “so we can get a better sense of what a dystopian society looks like, now that Trump has won the election.” I politely excused myself.

Security forces are attacking people who are peacefully protesting. It feels like someone is sitting on my chest, making it hard to breath.

I write to my friend Ani who I know has been struggling and ask if I can bring her something if I go to Venezuela soon. She asks for lentils. “Oh, and if it’s not too much to ask can you please bring some menstrual pads? I know it’s sort of a luxury but if you have some space in your luggage would you mind?” I feel like someone just kicked me in the stomach. I also need to remember not to throw out any expired medicine. Someone will need it back home.

I decide to go to a lunch talk at Stanford Law School. It’s about Chinese internet companies. As with any talk at noon, food is offered to everyone. Free. Everyone takes some. But there is so much of it, and so much left on the table. I can’t stop thinking about the food. So much food sitting there. It will probably get thrown away. If only we could send it to my friend Gioconda’s mom, who is organizing free lunches for kids at a small school in Caracas where she used to volunteer. Parents were not sending their kids to school because they couldn’t serve lunch. Kids were fainting on their desks from hunger. I get stuck on this thought; next thing I know the event is over.

There have been anti-government protests for weeks. Daily, or every other day. I hear that there is already one person dead at today’s demonstration. I hold my breath. My mom, dad, brother, cousins and friends are there. I message them anxiously. After a while, details begin to circulate. It’s a 20 year old student. He died from the impact of a tear gas canister shot by the military. Shot on his chest. I see his picture. He looks familiar. They all do. How can they not?

My friend Tracy, who is getting a PhD in Communications mentions that she read something about journalists having a hard time in Venezuela covering the crisis. I tell her that just last week I got a call from a close friend, a reporter in Venezuela, who used to work with me back home. I tell Tracy my friend is out there covering the protests day after day. Last week she and her cameraman were attacked by armed paramilitary groups. They hit the cameraman with a steel bar and fractured his skull while military anti-riot officers stood and watched. My friend knows who they are. Everyone does. But the paramilitary groups are supported by the government: they’re untouchable. I watch for Tracy’s reaction to my story. I don’t think she believes me. She changes the subject.

I can’t stop thinking about the food. So much food sitting there. It will probably get thrown away.

My brother sends us a Whatsapp video of himself today at the protest. It captures the moment when the repression begins and people start running and screaming, fleeing the tear gas and pellets being shot. I see him running, nervously holding the camera. He wants to document this, he needs to show that security forces are attacking people who are peacefully protesting. It feels like someone is sitting on my chest, making it hard to breath. The feeling lingers for hours. It only truly dissipates at the end of the day, when I know for sure he is back home safe. The thought that the next one could be him stalks me.


I can’t sleep, so Facebook it is — hundredth time today. I read on someone’s wall that my friend, political activist Yon Goicochea, who’s been in jail for over 8 months now, managed to secretly slip a handwritten letter to his wife. The letter is posted on Facebook. I start to read it. He talks about being locked for days in a crowded and miniscule ‘punishment cell’ with feces on the ground. He says it feels like being ‘buried alive’. He says he has witnessed other prisoners, maybe less well-known than him, being tortured with electric shocks and other methods, several times a week. I get nauseous.

I remember him just a few years ago, a college student courageously leading the student movement against Chávez. At the time, I was helping him with the legal paperwork to incorporate the NGO that he was setting up: Futuro Presente. When we worked together I was constantly at awe at how determined he was to fight for democracy in the country while being very young.  He was also very warm and bright. I can’t bring myself to read the rest of the letter. Guilt engulfs me.

I bump into a Chilean who works at one of Stanford’s research centers. I get a sense that, having live under Pinochet, he will have a better understanding of what is happening in Venezuela. So when he jokes about the fact that he just saw a video of President Maduro talking to cows I venture into a longer explanation. I tell him that the fearsome political propaganda machine of the chavista revolution has entered a new phase in dehumanizing all opponents and striving to take away any ounce of hope from those who have not yet converted to their Socialism of the 21st century charade. I mention that every time a student is killed while protesting against the government, State-run television channel broadcasts videos of the dictator and the Chavista elite partying, being crazy and having fun. We see Maduro dancing salsa with his wife. Furiously jumping to rap music. Chilling and playing baseball in a beautiful garden. On the propaganda broadcasts, we see him laughing hysterically.

My mom, dad, brother, cousins and friends are there. I message them anxiously.

I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for the past five years for my Doctorate. My professors are some of the most prestigious experts on this topic in the world. I’ve spent countless hours reading about these regimes and understanding their communications strategies. And yet, my heart drops when I watch these videos. I have a hard time absorbing what I see. There is something different when the dictator goes out of his way to display his mirth at the despair of your people. You get a first row look into the phenomenon and experience fear and frustration in a way that could never be explained in a book. Again and again, I get that feeling that someone is sitting on my chest. It’s hard to breathe.

Venezuelans living abroad live in a dream, wherever we may be. None of us stand in line for hours to buy bread. None of us is afraid to criticize the government for fear of retaliation. None of us fear that we might die from a simple infection because of lack of basic medicine. None of us has to see how everyone around us is involuntarily losing weight because of the scarcity of food.

I take my daughter to the park. My neighbors, all incredibly smart and kind Stanford students, are passionately discussing the issue of ‘The Tree.’ We had this huge and stunning tree in the beautiful garden where our kids play, which provided great shade for our kids. The tree got some sort of infection and had to be trimmed for security reasons. The neighbors have organized and are demanding that the University plant a new tree as soon as possible, otherwise how do they expect our kids to go out and play? I too want to get back the shade at the park. And yet, I have trouble following the discussion. I politely excuse myself.

It’s not that much fun living in a dream, not when everyone you love back home is suffering. The sadness, isolation and guilt, they’re are uncontrollable and overwhelming. I even feel guilty about feeling guilty — the gall! I need to get off this ‘It’s a small world’ ride, grab all the food that was left from yesterday’s event and bring it to Venezuela. I won’t forget the pads for my friend. Maybe then the pain on my chest will go away.