By Megan E. Davis
On Valentine’s Day in New York City, Tampa lawyer Jose Toledo was struck by a crowd gathered in Central Park to show sympathy for the plight of anti-government protesters in Venezuela.
“There were 50-plus people protesting in 10-degree weather,” said Toledo. “I help a lot of Hispanic people here, including a population of Venezuelans who are my friends. When I came home, it was really picking up and I thought, ‘You know what? I need to see what’s happening. I need to go see what’s going on.’”
A week after viewing the demonstration in New York, Toledo found himself with a friend on a flight to Venezuela.
“It was very impulsive,” he said.
There was much to take in — complete normalcy in areas right next to neighborhoods blockaded by military vehicles and filled with protesters who sometimes clashed with police in riot gear and soldiers.
“You’d have an area of town where poor people were supporting the government because they were benefitting from the government, and then other areas with a lot of strife,” Toledo said. “You’d drive five miles from that spot and couldn’t tell anything is going on. There’s this disconnect, which is weird.”
With just two full days in Venezuela, it wasn’t enough time to get a clear picture of the situation, he said.
“I have a good pulse of it, but I don’t have all the specifics,” Toledo said.
“I spoke with so many people — journalists and people like that. There were people completely against the government for political reasons, people who were not very political but wanted basic needs, supplies and stuff, for their areas and that wasn’t happening, and students with just a general feeling of discontent. The opposition movement has so many different layers to it.”
The opposing view was less complicated, consisting of either pro-government sentiments or indifference, he said.
“People are just trying to utilize free speech and constitutional guarantees we take for granted, and other folks who are benefitting from the opposing system don’t care about that,” Toledo said.
“I think it’s sinister that your brother is hurting and you turn your back on him because your needs are being met.”
While he was careful, Toledo said he wasn’t fearful.
“Maybe that’s the American in me,” he said. “It’s not that there wasn’t danger. I just wasn’t really worried about it. I kept my distance from the military personnel who were deployed all over the capital with assault weapons.”
In the few moments he had to watch Venezuelan television, Toledo said he was struck by the stark differences from news coverage in the United States.
“The only news source is state-run media,” he said. “Here in the U.S. there isn’t just Barrack Obama TV or United States TV.”
Toledo did return to Florida with a clear goal in mind — getting supplies and care packages to Venezuelan residents cut off from basic services by military and police blockades.
“A lot of people there gave us lists of things they need,” he said. “We’re in the process of gathering those things. We’re teaming up with some folks here to make sure we’re successful in getting it into the hands of the people who need it.”
A friend of Toledo’s who also attended Stetson University College of Law, Norma Reno, said she’s working to help Venezuelans in another way, by educating Americans about their plight.
“We’re trying to link Cuba and Venezuela with the United States,” she said. “The Cuban Castro brothers are occupying Venezuela. What’s happening there shouldn’t happen in a democratic country. They’re killing women and children.”
Reno’s daughter, Sandra Ponce, 40, lives in Venezuela and is part of the anti-government movement.
Reno said she tries to communicate with her daughter every night by either phone or Internet chat, but worries about her safety.
When she protests, Ponce carries a gas mask with her.
“She is fighting against the government. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do,” Reno said.
“I’m very much concerned, but she has to do it. That’s her country. The violation of human rights is terrible. I’m concerned about the gas because it can be very dangerous. She has a mask, but many people don’t.”