De Mérida pa’ Montevideo: How the Little Human Rights NGO that Could Stunned the Regime’s Apologists

“We were sitting right next to them. The meeting took place in Uruguay’s Legislative Palace and half the room was occupied by Venezuelan government people, all wearing new shoes, some with the price tag still attached.”

Such was the scene last October, when the gochos landed at the 165° session of the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Montevideo. The chavista apparatchiks weren’t expecting Human Rights defenders from ULA’s Observatorio de Derechos Humanos (ODH-ULA) to make it all the way to Uruguay, but there they were, countering official lies with a good, andino dash of documentation.

ODH-ULA’s coordinator, Mayda Hocevar, got the right to speak at Uruguay’s Palacio Legislativo and took the meeting by storm, as she sat down next to bolichico fashion victims and introduced the results of Thought Under Threat. This report, made in a joint effort from several university-based Human Rights observatories, exposes all sorts of violations to academic freedom throughout the country. This was the first time that the issue was discussed at a IACHR hearing, and it was also the first time the IACHR heard the other side of the story.

With support from PROVEA, Civilis and UCAB’s Centro de Derechos Humanos, ODH-ULA published the First Report on Human Rights Violations in Mérida.

The hearing, requested by the government, was about educational rights in Venezuela. Having community representatives appear (ODH-ULA, Aula Abierta and La Universidad del Zulia’s Center of Human Rights) was a total shock to the regime, and their intervention was a huge victory for Human Rights advocates everywhere.

“In 2003,” professor Hocevar addressed the meeting in a kickass, assertive tone “a deliberate, systematic process of erosion to academic autonomy and freedom began, with the sole purpose of submitting higher education to an exclusive, sectarian political project (…) where discriminatory practices take place, based on political precepts and students are expelled simply for choosing to watch something other than government-run channels.”

Her voice took the meeting down a road the government wasn’t pleased with.

“They request a hearing only to speak wonders about the marvelous educational system Venezuela allegedly has,” professor Rojas, an investigator for ODH-ULA, said. “So they taketheir own civilian representatives, (eliminating the) risk of someone else going in the hearings and say what’s truly going on.”

This report is only a small part of ODH-ULA’s work. Putting up a fight since its creation in 2014 (driven by the Human Rights violations documented in the February protests), the organization works as a safe platform for victims to come forward with their complaints.

With support from PROVEACivilis and UCAB’s Centro de Derechos Humanos, ODH-ULA published the First Report on Human Rights Violations in Mérida. The report, based on interviews with victims, their friends, family, doctors and lawyers, documents violations from February to July of 2014.

We have jailed professors, like Santiago Guevara. His crime was writing an academic paper on economics during Chavéz’ period. He got charged with treason.

Right now, ODH-ULA’s main focus is the second report on Human Rights, titled “Mérida: Asalto a los Derechos Humanos 2017,” documenting violations from last year. “The report documents attacks to 33 residential areas, 12 cases of illegal intrusion into private homes, a systematic pattern of attacks to protesters by law enforcement and paramilitary forces, consisting of intentionally shooting at them with all sort of proyectiles (pieces of toggle, pellets, candles), the most serious attacks aimed at the protesters’ eyes: 22 people lost their sight (partially or totally) because of these systematic attacks.”

What ODH-ULA has accomplished in such little time is a reflection of its commitment towards university and academia.

To Rojas, academic freedom is under siege and there is a clear intention to silence all universities: “We have jailed professors, like Santiago Guevara, whose health has deteriorated, with no access to his lawyers or medical attention. His crime was writing an academic paper on economics during Chavéz’ period. He got charged with treason.”

When I asked Rojas why they feel so strongly about what ODH-ULA does, his answer is simple: “Autonomous universities are the last bastion of freedom in this country. We do these work for our university, and to make victims feel represented. That’s the most important reason behind what we do.”

ODH-ULA is located at a small venue in the heart of La Hechicera, one of many university complexes ULA built in Mérida. Their website is open for complaints and you can reach them here.

They make all of us Ulandinos so proud of our home.