Ana Maria Roa, a Toronto native of 22 years, came to Canada when she was 18 and makes regular visits to Venezuela. She recently returned from her hometown where she attended a family reunion.
“The whole city is paralyzed. While I was there, my family and I were [taking shelter] in the bathroom because nobody knew what was going on," Roa said. "All you can hear are gunshots, tear gas being fired, and screams.”
“It is out of control and I’m very afraid,” said Yorman Urdaneta, originally from the Zulia state of Venezuela, who has been living in Canada for four years. “Eventually there is going to be a social explosion in Venezuela, and I believe there is going to be a lot of blood on the streets. But the only way the people are going get their country back is to fight."
Roa participated in protests in her hometown of San Cristobal, one of the cities hardest hit by the violence. But her involvement in the protests didn't end when she returned to Canada — she is constantly checking online and relaying information back to her family and friends who have spotty access to information.
The protests were reportedly sparked by an alleged rape of a student on a university campus in San Cristobal in early February. Students fed up with deteriorating security, widespread food shortages and severe inflation took to the streets.
They were eventually joined by thousands of residents in the region and the protests spread like wildfire throughout the country.
In response, riot police and the Venezuelan National Guard have clamped down on the street protests. With the government also censoring media coverage, citizens have turned to social media to organize and inform the world about the extreme measures the government has taken.
It has been extremely difficult for Roa to watch the events unfold from Canada, with news of the violence in her hometown bombarding her through social media feeds.
Roa says there are daily attacks on protesters in her neighbourhood — an intimidation tactic by armed government-supporting militia, referred to as ‘colectivos,’ who ride along with the National Guard.
“I'm up all night tracking what is happening online, then messaging my friends and family,” Roa said.
Rallying on social media
In the past couple weeks the protests have taken a life of their own, with violent confrontations between protesters, the riot police, the National Guard and the colectivos.
The first deaths took place in Caracas, the city capital, on Feb.12, and to date 36 have reportedly been killed.
“NTN24, a Colombian news channel, was kicked out of Venezuela because they were going there working as reporters, something the government doesn’t want,” Urdaneta said.
In Toronto, there have been regular protests in sympathy with those in Venezuela.
One of the organizers is Mariangel Urdaneta, who immigrated to Toronto with her family six years ago. Since the first deaths were reported, she has teamed up with others across the country, from Calgary to Montreal, coordinating efforts to write letters to the Canadian government and getting petitions signed to increase awareness of the situation.
“We are creating flyers and informing people about what is happening,” Urdaneta said. “In the country a lot of the media have been shut out and foreign journalists are being told to leave, there is a media blackout.”
Zello app at forefront of action
With the lack of traditional media coverage from Venezuela, both Roa and Mariangel Urandeta are hooked into their social feeds monitoring the situation.
Social media has been critical for protesters in their attempts to organize and rally against the police and National Guard, but it's also heavily relied on by Venezuelans living abroad.
The big three, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, all have been flooded with pictures and video documenting the conflict in Venezuela, but one app has been in the forefront of the action. Zello, a walkie-talkie app developed in Austin, Texas, permits anonymous live public or private conversations with a group of people, allowing protesters to quickly communicate with each other. It has been one of the leading tools for protesters against National Guard crackdowns.
The CEO of Zello, Bill Moore, says there are more than a million registered users in Venezuela, emphasizing the importance of the app’s role as a communication tool used for good.
Venezuela's state-run telecoms company, CANTV, which controls the majority of the Internet service, has already attempted to block the application to prevent protesters from rallying against the colectivos and National Guard.
Moore says Zello was first blocked on Feb. 21, forcing the company to release a newer working version. Since then, there have been 23 attempts to block the app by CANTV.
"Tachira Fuerte is the name of the Zello channel I listen to every night,” Roa said.
She says it's the only reliable link she can use to keep up with what's happening in San Cristobal.
As for Mariangel Urdaneta, she says she'll continue to do her part from Canada to support the protestors.
"There are about one million Venezuelans living abroad, and as ambassadors of the country we are the ones who need to show the world what is happening."