'I won't let fear stop me': A Venezuelan opposition leader fights on against an embattled president

Hasler Iglesias clearly remembers the day he became a student militant, when at age 15 he joined a demonstration at his Caracas high school against the closing of RCTV, one of the last independent broadcast stations in Venezuela. In an increasingly repressive climate, antigovernment opinions could still be aired there.

But the protests at his school and in streets across Venezuela didn’t have much effect. Then-President Hugo Chavez denied the station a broadcast license and it went dark for good in 2010. But the experience left an indelible mark on Iglesias, proving that a little leadership could galvanize a group to action.

“In my high school, we organized protests because we weren’t in agreement with what the government was doing,” said Iglesias in an interview this week. “It was the first time I felt that the government was interfering in the lives of Venezuelans by punishing for political reasons a TV channel known for entertainment, news and humor.”

A decade later, Iglesias is recognized nationally as an effective critic of the embattled federal government. Until February he led the largest university student organization in Venezuela as president of the 60,000-strong Federation of University Centers of the University of Central Venezuela.

As youth leader at the Popular Will political party, his objectives have grown beyond whether a TV station stays open. By organizing regular youth protests, he and his followers are pressuring Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, to resign.

“Youths want a change in government,” said the slightly built Iglesias, who is a deeply religious chemical engineering student who teaches catechism at his Roman Catholic parish church. “There are too many living conditions we consider to be unsatisfactory.”

Iglesias and thousands of other university students will take part in Wednesday’s march celebrating the date April 19, 1810, commonly recognized as the start of Venezuela’s independence movement from Spain. The day may see the biggest turnout yet in the month-long series of opposition marches against the government. Violent clashes with Maduro supporters are expected.

Nationwide demonstrations this month have already led to violent confrontations with police. So far the toll is up to six deaths, 200 injuries and 538 arrests, and Iglesias blames strong-arm repressive tactics of police and the national guard for the violence. Like many protesters, he’s felt the sting of tear gas.

“Demonstrations of force is how the government tells us they know where we live, that they are capable of coming to our houses, attacking what is most sacred to us, hoping that we give up and end our struggle,” Iglesias said.

Iglesias, the 25-year-old son of immigrants — a Spanish father and Colombian mother — advocates peaceful protest. But like other opposition leaders, he said he has received death threats for daring to oppose Maduro.

“It’s not that I’m unafraid, it’s that I won’t let fear stop me,” said Iglesias, who says he uses social media to get the word out about marches. He has 48,900 followers on Twitter and 11,300 followers on Instagram. He uses WhatsApp to keep in constant touch with student leaders at 30 other public universities across the country.

On Monday he denounced via Twitter the “latest savage action by the dictatorship against the students and universities,” and urged Venezuelans to demonstrate for change on Wednesday.

The students and many of the other marchers will protest against deteriorating living conditions — food scarcities, rising violent crime and rampant inflation — that have devastated Venezuelans’ purchasing power. The increasingly embattled Maduro has been condemned across the country and internationally for what critics call bald-faced attempts to increase his power and silence opposition.

Iglesias, an only child, has experienced the consequences of public disorder. His father was killed in a 2002 robbery at the family-owned clothing store in downtown Caracas.

He said he was radicalized in 2014 when he participated in nationwide demonstrations that started as protests against rising crime on university campuses. He witnessed the beatings that many fellow students suffered in clashes that left 46 dead and more than 600 injured across Venezuela.

After the 2014 demonstrations resulted in many opposition leaders being jailed, Iglesias decided to take time off from politics, doing an internship with the Procter & Gamble consumer products conglomerate and teaching citizenship ethics classes at a high school.

But on his return to university in 2015 to seek a graduate engineering degree, he couldn’t ignore the political foment around him and decided to run for the student group’s presidency, successfully as it turned out. As president of the “union,” as it’s known, he spent much of his time trying to rebuild a movement that was decimated in the aftermath of the violence in 2014.

Iglesias said his primary obstacle is apathy on the part of students who have either curtailed their political activities for fear of repression or have left the country altogether.

“If your vision is to leave the country because of the situation, you aren’t going to fight for [improving conditions] to stay here,” Iglesias said. Fear and apathy “have weakened the student movement today, which is nothing like it was in 2007 or 2014,” he said.

Iglesias said he is confident that Venezuelans soon will see “a general change.”

“We all know we’re struggling against a government that generates fear but this fear is a small thing compared with the prospect of continuing to live the way we are,” Iglesias said. “We are taking small steps in the larger process of building a new country. “

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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