Photo: FELAA retrieved
Between July 9 and 13, 2018, Barquisimeto hosted the 25th Latin American Student Forum of Anthropology and Archeology (FELAA), with 106 national and 40 international attendees. How did an international congress of such scale manage to succeed amidst the current Venezuelan crisis? How did the organizers find lodging, three meals a day and transport in a country overshadowed by the crisis? Seriously, how did they do it?
How did an international congress of such scale manage to succeed amidst the current Venezuelan crisis?
Rubia Vásquez, a 23-year-old Anthropology student at UCV, and one of the organizers, was the mediator between several institutions in Lara State and the FELAA-Venezuela 2018. She looked for spaces in which the academic and cultural activities of this congress could take place, aiming to include communities, students and professionals of the Lara region. Rubia explained that they received support from the Ministry of People’s Power for Youth and Sports, who were the main financiers of this student assembly. They provided food, lodging in the Villa Deportiva Bolivariana and transport to Barquisimeto (round trip) from Caracas, Táchira, Maracaibo and Maiquetía.
The event was also supported by the National Center of Historical Studies, which provided bibliographical material and prints, and the General Secretariat of Lara State, which facilitated transport within the state, while Civil Defense and police officers guaranteed security for the attendants. Some of the spaces used by FELAA were: the Juárez Theatre, Lara’s Governor’s Office, the Quibor Museum, the Hundición de Yay (Sanare) and El Maizal Commune (Sarare). Rubia says that this was possible thanks to “a joint effort between students and public institutions.”
The organizers were aware of the adversities that a Venezuelan university student has to face in order to travel.
I know, it sounds like a dream: State institutions that work and cooperate with the students’ cause. For us, the national attendees and speakers who went to Barquisimeto, it was a break from the reality that we live every day. The organizers were aware of the adversities that a Venezuelan university student has to face in order to travel; the lack of money to pay for a place to stay, transport and food for five days, so they sought to cover all of these expenses. Eulier González, speaker and collaborator for the FELAA, said that “without that financial aid, the event would’ve been shaped by foreign researchers, FELAA would’ve become anthropological tourism for foreigners.”
Diego Vargas, a 22-year-old Anthropology student and national speaker, said that the event surpassed his expectations, in regards to organization: “It’s fantastic how they managed to find the funds for lodging, food and transport for so many people.” For Diego, the FELAA was a bubble that protected him, for a week, from the anarchy that we’re used to.
However, the Venezuelan reality showed itself when several speakers got food poisoning, due to raw meat and unfiltered water. These issues were solved right away, and it didn’t taint the event nor the speakers’ performance.
Without that financial aid, the event would’ve been shaped by foreign researchers, FELAA would’ve become anthropological tourism for foreigners.
FELAA’s planners assembled 40 foreign participants from Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru and Chile. What did they see during their stay? What difficulties did they face in a Venezuela increasingly isolated by the government, economic hardships and crime? Rubia Vásquez says that one of the organizers’ main concerns was regarding security. And it wasn’t in vain, because a couple of foreign attendees who visited Caracas after the congress were robbed.
Most international participants who attended the FELAA-Venezuela 2018 were interested in the event, but were also driven by the curiosity they felt for Venezuela’s current situation. This was Armando Hernández’s case, a student from El Salvador University. Julio Alfonso Ruíz, ninth-semester Anthropology student from Mexico’s University of Veracruz, also said he was curious about military road checkpoints and shortages in supermarkets.
Julio had an unpleasant experience in Venezuelan soil, near Portuguesa State. Military officers checked his bus and found that he had dollars, “They treated me like a drug trafficker and they checked every bill. I didn’t know it was forbidden to carry foreign currency, which I think is a rather drastic measure.” Julio had to pay them off with a $5 bill.
Most international participants were driven by the curiosity they felt for Venezuela’s current situation.
Israel Quiros, a Master’s student in Anthropology from the University of Costa Rica, was puzzled by Barquisimeto’s lack of public transport, the absence of police officers in the streets, the anarchy of drivers and the total incoherence between the minimum wage, the price of products and how Venezuelans manage to spend more than they earn while shopping. According to Israel, the crisis was evident when he visited a pharmacy and saw the empty shelves.
Israel also visited the Barquisimeto Zoo along with two Mexican and Venezuelan friends. They tore grass from the ground to feed the sick, hungry and sad animals. “This zoo is a reflection of this society: Venezuelans are locked down in this country, because they lack the means to leave, but at the same time, they’re sick, hungry and sad.” Israel says that upon returning to the hotel, he told the receptionist what he’d seen; she told him that the zoo’s veterinarian had been imprisoned for reporting the animals’ conditions.
Visitors were also shocked by how lonely and dark nights are in Barquisimeto and Caracas, Israel said. Armando Hernández from El Salvador, says that they experienced incidents with crime in both cities, although he felt more exposed in Caracas. In Barquisimeto, says Armando, “Someone tried to steal a girl’s cellphone, they pointed a gun at her, but she managed to run away”. During their stay in Caracas, “Two friends were assaulted, and the robbers choked them until they fell, unconscious, and robbed them.”
However, Armando and most of the students who came, say that their stay in Venezuela was pleasant. Despite the crisis, they felt welcomed by the nationals. Several foreigners, especially those who visited Caracas, noted the monumental architecture and how evident it was that at some point, this city’s lifestyle exceeded the current situation. For them, the City of Fury, our concrete jungle, is a memory of past glories, an inhabited ruin where every day of survival is a victory.
The City of Fury, our concrete jungle, is a memory of past glories.
It’s indeed complicated to think about academia when you’re busy dealing with hunger, crime, the country’s constant instability and the systematic attacks against the economy. The crisis diminishes our intellectual capacity. We must appreciate events like the FELAA, which offer a space for critique and thought.