Photo: TVPeruPE retrieved

The first time I saw Villca Fernández was four years ago, before the first round of 2014’s guarimbas. We were in the middle of a Genetics class in the largest auditorium at Universidad de los Andes (ULA) Med School, and a group of kids from the local student movement asked the professor for a few minutes to speak. They introduced Villca, who looked visibly older than the rest, and was already notorious for sewing his mouth during a hunger strike the year before.

I was a third year medical student, and all I wanted was to understand how the hell restriction enzymes know where to cut DNA without messing up the whole genome. Instead, this guy was talking about how the university should go on another useless strike and halt all activities to pressure the government. We had just resumed activities after a six-month hiatus, and this was the last thing I wanted to hear about. I decided to ignore him, he finished his clichéed speech and I understood how restriction enzymes worked.

They introduced Villca, who looked visibly older than the rest, and was already notorious for sewing his mouth during a hunger strike the year before.

Villca Fernández and Movimiento 13, the student movement he presided at the time, represented all I believed wrong with the Venezuelan Public University System: he was, to me, a thirty-something who had been studying some random career at Social Sciences School for longer than I considered appropriate, taking advantage of the University’s limited budget and giving nothing in return. There he was, suggesting that I should halt my already belated career to try to topple an almighty government for the umptieth time. The strategy Movimiento 13 envisioned: Put some hoods and balaclavas on, burn a couple tires in front of a classroom, and get me and my friends out of it by throwing fireworks and glass bottles inside, while we tried to take an exam. I despised them almost as much as I despised the government they claimed to be fighting.

Four years later and a couple weeks before finishing my career, I have a different image of Villca Fernández.

He was detained on January 31, 2016, by intelligence officers after writing a tweet to Diosdado Cabello. He was accused of hate crimes and, after requesting a break on his trial, the judge in charge changed the initial sentence from house arrest to imprisonment.

He was held in the now infamous El Helicoide since then. According to Amnesty International, Fernández was tortured both physically and psychologically after engaging in protests; his jailers denied him proper medical care several times, even though a court in Caracas ordered them to move him to a hospital for examination. He only got the attention after engaging in a hunger strike this January, and remained in isolation since May, 2017.

Fernández was tortured both physically and psychologically after engaging in protests.

Yesterday, he was moved from El Helicoide to Maiquetía. Instead of flying to Mérida, his hometown, he was headed to Peru; Maduro’s government decided to “release” him, even though his audience had been delayed thirteen times. The only condition? He had to leave Venezuela immediately.

I still believe that Villca, Movimiento 13 and most student movements get universities and their true raison d’etre wrong, but when I saw Fernández boarding that plane, wearing his blue jacket with ULA’s coat of arms embroidered on it, I felt nothing but respect and pride for sharing the same alma mater with a man who sacrificed everything (even his homeland), fighting against a ruthless dictatorship.

Exile is not an actual sentence in Venezuela, so Villca Fernández’ punishment is just another reminder of the anarchy in Venezuela, and the first of probably many similar movements from a regime that, following Cuban example, understood that dissidents are much less dangerous when they are thousands of miles away. Still, Lima is infinitely better than the dungeons below the Tarpeian Rock, and I’m happy for Villca, even if it’s impossible to ignore how the country looks more and more like that Venezuela from 80 years ago.

Right before departing, Fernández thanked those who helped him leave the dungeons, saying he felt heartbroken with 30 million Venezuelans still behind the bars of Nicolás Maduro. La Rotunda may no longer exist, but its walls remain very real, stretching far beyond where they used to and leaving our borders behind.

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