Just two months ago, Carlos Vecchio was attending classes and becoming friends with the faculty and students on Yale University’s campus. Now, the former Yale World Fellow finds himself as the target of an arrest warrant in Venezuela — where violence between the government and opposition sympathizers has escalated over the past two weeks.
According to CNN, Venezuelans have recently voiced their dissatisfaction with the country’s poor security, shortages of goods, and lack of freedom of speech. Demonstrations — attended mostly by youths and opposition forces — have led to violent clashes between protesters and police.
In Boston this past weekend, at a United Nations simulation, The Politic spoke with numerous university students from Venezuela. Many of them wore black ribbons in solidarity with their friends protesting back home. Regarding the complaints about security, multiple students stated that they would never go out in Caracas alone at night. They feared falling victim to one of the kidnapping or murder incidents that they frequently hear about. As for concerns about freedom of speech, one university student bemoaned how some television channels played soap operas while protests raged outside. Another student noted how the Venezuelan government demanded that cable providers remove NTN24 — a Colombian news agency covering the situation — from their programming.
Juan Mejia, a spokesperson for Vecchio and Voluntad Popular, has provided The Politic with an update on the situation on the streets of Venezuela, where protest rages “all day long.” He reports that Venezuelan President Maduro makes a nationally televised speech every evening, so “the police and the other groups that have been harassing students go out and take advantage of the communication blackout.” According to Mejia, the government has detained over 200 individuals, and those it releases face restrictions on travel, talking to the media, and protesting. Mejia says that the government has gone so far as to force CNN reporters out of the country and ban the network from Venezuelan news stations.
Students and reporters are not the only ones suffering. Opposition leaders, particular those associated with Voluntad Popular (VP), are at even greater risk. These leaders, indeed, include Yale’s own Carlos Vecchio.
Vecchio was a Yale World Fellow who departed campus on December 12 to return to Venezuela. There, he serves as the National Political Coordinator of VP, a political group that promotes social action and has facilitated demonstrations against the government over the past few days. Yet since the government arrested VP’s head Leopoldo López — accusing him of terrorism and murder, and later dropping those charges in favor of arson and conspiracy counts — Vecchio has become VP’s de facto leader.
Now, the government has released a warrant for Vecchio’s arrest as well. “Carlos is being charged with all of the consequences that have happened after the protests began last Wednesday, when lots of people have died,” explained Mejia. He predicts that Vecchio could face up to two decades or more in prison.
Michael Cappello, Director of the Yale World Fellows initiative, wrote in a statement on behalf of the program on February 19, “We are deeply concerned for Carlos Vecchio’s safety: he is currently in hiding in Venezuela with limited access to communication.” In a follow-up phone conversation with The Politic, Cappello explained his motivation behind releasing this statement.
“It is evident of the program and by extension the University’s commitment to its fellows,” he said. “We have an explicit goal in this program to develop a network of people who are bound by their shared Yale experience and are committed to making the world a better place.” He has a commitment “to stand with our fellows when they face difficult challenges.”
Uma Ramiah, Director of Communications for the Yale World Fellows program, expressed to The Politic that it is vital for the international community to acknowledge Vecchio’s importance as a Venezuelan political figure. “The media has not picked up on the fact that Carlos is second in command of VP,” she stated. The fact that “the Venezuelan government sees Carlos as someone who the rest of the world doesn’t know exists” could lead it to act with less concern about a potential global outcry.
Mejia says that awareness of Vecchio’s situation within Venezuela is also vital to keeping the opposition leader out of jail. “If people keep protesting in the streets…it’s more likely that Carlos will be able to walk out,” he explains.
Vecchio’s wellbeing and the broader situation in Venezuela merit attention from American media and Yale in particular. Naturally, the Yale community has a connection to Venezuela not only from Vecchio but also from two previous Venezuelan World Fellows: Henrique S. Salas-Römer and Maria Corina Machado. Additionally, as Cappello noted, “This is a country in our region, in our hemisphere. We frequently tend to ignore what happens in Latin America in a way that’s not helpful to our national interests and to our human interests.”
Cappello also comments that drawing attention to Vecchio will draw attention to his cause: “This has been primarily a peaceful movement that has tried to work for reform through participation in the political system. I think that deserves to be acknowledged. I think it deserves to be celebrated.”
The World Fellows program has gone beyond mere rhetoric. Explained Ramiah, the program leaders sent a note to the 241 former Yale World Fellows explaining the situation and asking for their help. She said that the former Fellows have “been regularly in touch” with both her office and Vecchio in order “to express concerns for Carlos, to ask him how they can help.”
The Fellows form a deep bond during their time on campus. After undergoing a rigorous two-week orientation course to get to know the University’s layout and procedures, they learn leadership skills through the program’s core curriculum. They also hold eight to ten outreach events on campus and in the community. Finally, though discussions with one another, the fellows teach other to take a multidisciplinary approach to the issues they are tackling in their respective fields. Cappello reports that the program participants take their solidarity seriously. Fellows in the media, nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. government, and other entities are reaching out on Vecchio’s behalf.
Mejia calls for even more appeals on Mr. Vecchio’s behalf: “We would just ask everyone…if they know any Congressman or anyone working at an NGO, to reach to them and ask them to raise their voice.” In particular, supporters can use Twitter to publicize Vecchio’s cause. Nonetheless, Mejia does make clear that any solution must ultimately come from within Venezuela itself.
Cappello openly says that democratic reform is a “worthwhile pursuit,” acknowledging the clear political elements of Mr. Vecchio’s situation. Yet Ramiah stressed, “The most important thing to get across at this point is that we love Carlos…We want him to be safe…We’re not interested necessarily in the politics as a program.” Whether the Yale World Fellows take a political or a security-related approach, they have made their stance clear.
As Cappello neatly concluded, “When people need our support, we should never hesitate to support them.”