The Venezuelan needle: Popping the purple bubble

Ethan Lopes

News travels fast around the College.

Allow me to qualify this statement: food-related news travels fast around Williams. However, the purple bubble that encloses this campus is a powerful, almost fantastical force. Within the bubble, the day-to-day academic life supersedes “real-world” influences. Although comforting at times, the bubble has limited our scope as politically active citizens. Many of us are unaware of the extent of tragedies occurring all around the world, since the campus selectively chooses the topics of discourse. Particularly, students are unaware as to the extent of the Venezuelan crisis.

The country of Venezuela was once regarded as a world model for democracy. This might be a bit shocking now, considering how the current Nicolás Maduro-led Venezuela is teetering near a failing state threshold. Last year alone, the average Venezuelan lost 19 pounds, an effect known as the “Maduro diet.” By the end of the year, the Venezuelan currency will have faced severe devaluation, as the economy suffers from hyperinflation. The harsh conditions have consequently forced approximately 7-12 percent of Venezuelans to neighboring countries. This means that the Venezuelan crisis is burdening countries who themselves are struggling economically. This situation is somewhat ironic, considering Venezuela’s past.

In the ’70s, people throughout Latin America immigrated to Venezuela in search of opportunity, which unfortunately did not last very long due to the socialist uprising of Hugo Chavez. His populist ideology appealed to a strong, largely uneducated base angered by the nation’s economic inequality. This was sufficient for keeping Chavez in power. Over time, the Chavista government began to reward apathy over hard work and critical thinking. Despite occurring approximately 20 years ago on a different continent, the Venezuelan political situation is eerily similar to our own.

Last week, I had the privilege of conversing with climate physicist Marcos A. Peñazola-Murillo, a proud Venezuelan and researcher in the College’s astronomy department. Marcos is in every respect an extremely accomplished man. A Fulbright scholar, tenured in Venezuela since his 20s, Peñazola-Murillo has studied most major solar eclipse effects. This Friday, he will be the featured speaker at an MIT colloquium.

Talking to Marcos has confirmed and expanded my perception of the Venezuelan crisis. Through kind words and expressive gestures, he recalled the change in his university education, claiming it to be a microscale representation of his country’s deterioration. Since educated individuals threaten the power of autocratic governments, funding for their universities had continually decreased.

Incoming students increasingly became more unprepared throughout the years. Eventually, as he put it, “it got to the point where a degree from a Venezuelan university didn’t mean anything.” Students coming out of the universities are comparable to the Arrested Development character Buster, where their “scholarly pursuits” are nothing more than a joke. Unfortunately, their elections are no better. Modern-day Venezuelan education is merely a form of distraction from governmental oppression.

I also got around to asking Marcos how much he makes as a professor in Venezuela at an institution that finds printer ink to be a luxury. He immediately face-palmed. Marcos, the tenured professor, Fulbright scholar and climate physicist, makes the equivalent of $35 a month. He lamented the fact that he will soon have to go back to his home country. Almost in resigned exasperation, he reflected on the incredible fact that just an airplane flight will drastically change his economic situation. When one of Venezuela’s hardest-working intellectuals struggles to survive, it shows how Venezuelans are more than just immigrants; they are refugees.

After learning about Venezuela, I feel emboldened to speak up. We the students need positive, all-encompassing dialogue throughout campus, such that everyone is educated and understanding of worldly issues. I fear that through passivity, we enable the formation of autocracies and the disregard of human rights. I challenge students to pop the purple bubble, to wake up and remember that there are issues other than finishing papers and problem sets.

Tonight, Mission Dining Hall will be holding a Latinx dinner, with an emphasis on Venezuelan culture. Come celebrate Venezuelan culture by eating delicious traditional foods. There will be a live music performance by the student group ¡Vive!. Swipe donations for the event will go towards Venezuelan immigration efforts and medication.

Ethan Lopes ’20 is an astrophysics and geosciences double major from Carson City, Nev.