Elmis Eduardo Sierrra from Caracas in Venezuela is a sport management master's student. Photo: Maxence Gueritot

“For us Venezuelans, we have our body in a place and our mind somewhere else”

Elmis Eduardo Sierra, (28) decided to leave Venezuela due to the extreme economic context in and the lack of opportunities attached to it. Now, he is studying sport management in Molde.

By MACENCE GUERITOT (text & photo)

As the situation in Venezuela has been making headlines worldwide for the past weeks, the current conflict in the South American country reflected by the opposition between Nicolas Maduro, re-elected president of Venezuela in 2018 after a controversial election, and Juan Guaido, President of the national Assembly who has recently been recognised by several countries around the world as the actual president in charge, is the illustration of the uncertainty hovering over the country.

For most people outside of Venezuela, it might seem slightly abstract to fully grasp the importance of the current events happening in the region and, for many, it might not even be a concern at all considering the distance they have with the situation. For others, every aspect of their life is affected by the latter.

It is the case for Elmis Eduardo Sierra, a 28-years old Venezuelan who decided to leave due to the extreme economic context in his home-country and the lack of opportunities attached to it : “I came to Norway last year, in 2017, trying to find a job in Oslo, specifically. After three months in Europe, I went to Venezuela again to spend Christmas with my family and then, I took a flight to Colombia in order to find any opportunity considering the situation  in my country. […] I am now a master student in sport management, here, at Molde University College”.

His perspective on the tough times his country is going through at the moment highlights the fact that a critical point has been reached: “What is happening right now is that the economy and all the system collapsed, and all of the society has been immersed in all this problem in a really big way. […] as you can see on the news, the situation is really complicated. The economy collapsed due to several mistakes from the government regarding social security and also due to economic decisions that have been taken for a long time. And, actually, living in Venezuela is a real challenge, particularly because it is not easy to have access to food and enjoy a proper life like other persons in most places around the world.

Asked to share his opinion in regard to the reasons why the situation escalated to such a deep level and if his youth in Venezuela had also been affected by the economic and political difficulties faced by his country, Elmis Sierra, in contrast, expressed a feeling of nostalgia when reminiscing about earlier days under a much more favourable context : “This is something that I always try to recall because things were very different back in the days. We had a really strong economic system due to the rate of the barrel of oil, which was at almost $100 per barrel, and the entire country benefited from it. I remember that my sister managed to buy a new car with her first salary for example.

Despite the tough situation in Venezuela, Elmis Sierra still manages to proudly represent his country. Photo: Maxence Guertitot

Explaining that : “Chavez ruled the government for fifteen years, which is a lot for a democratic country. In the beginning, he was trying to make a change in our country because we only had two main entities ruling the entire politics in Venezuela and he talked about implementing a better social perspective, with a kind of equilibrium. In that regard, he proposed certain changes but then, all of it disappeared and it became darker, something more… I don’t know, like an experiment for a new socialism in a way”.

This shift from one state to another under Chavez also remains fresh in his memory, validating the saying stating that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely : “He won the presidency in 1998, and then in 1999 he tried to have a referendum about the constitution and they changed it. Because, actually, the constitution in Venezuela is one of the strongest and one of the most, let’s say, quote Marx ‘perfect’ in Latin America. However, in 2001, he changed everything and he took all the power for himself. He started to change the parliament, the justice system… Basically, we have five different powers ; legislative, electoral, legal, the citizen and moral power. Those are the five main powers in Venezuela representing a separation between each for democratic purpose. But, he took the power from all these five institutions and started to change laws for his own interest. […] So, he started a process of corruption in order to serve his own beliefs and make Venezuela a total country for him”.

This concentration of power under Chavez set the foundations for the current state of Venezuela under Maduro, according to Elmis Sierra, who believes that the two leaders share a similar perception on how to rule a country, Maduro only being more radical and facing a worsened situation. More so, he perceives the current problems in his country as emanating from a more complex source than what most of the media often communicate, with a tendency to simplify the tensions in the region as a consequence of isolated political decisions or focusing on the oil resources in Venezuela.

For him, this issue is rooted in a more complex pattern : “the problem is not only because of the oil. In Venezuela, even if we have the biggest reserve of oil in the world, the problem with that oil is that it is too thick, making it difficult to process it. So, of course, there is an issue with all the economic power trying to take a piece of this big cake but we also have a big amount of gold in the Amazonia which is being illegally exploited right now. On top of that, there is a problem about corruption and about migration. That is why we see people going to all the nearby countries and basically to all of South America.”

Considering all of these components of the current state in Venezuela, he believes that the main focus of the media and the foreign states should be placed where it matters the most, not wasting more time trying to debate about the geopolitical interests of one or the other : “So far, we have three million people who are running from this collapse of the economy in Venezuela and all the problems that I mentioned. The biggest problem is to find a peaceful solution considering that the army is controlling all the commerce inside the country. They are handling the food, the exploitation of the gold, oil, they have the power in terms of transport and so on. […] So, it’s not about politics, it’s not about negotiations like we can see in developed countries such as Norway. It’s about people dying! It’s a really deep problem where you have people willing to kill and get killed to change the power system.

He goes on by stating that the 90 days period considered by the foreign powers to establish a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition might not be the best option in this regard considering the urgency of the situation and the recent history of Venezuela : “We have initiatives from several countries like Uruguay, Mexico, Norway, Japan, the EU and the UN. And they are talking about a dialogue, again. So , if they try to make it happen again, they are talking about 90 days. I really would like to ask someone with some knowledge about what’s happening in Venezuela, if we’re going to remain alive for 90 more days. […] It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the past.”

Continuing on this point with some historical context, he adds : “We had three dialogues during the recent years in which people were talking about two sides who are confronted. The first one was 2005, the second one 2014 and the last one 2017. So, when we’re talking about a dialogue, what happens is that a lot of people die from absence of medicine, starvation and several other reasons. So, I think that yes, of course, we need a peaceful solution, but in the same time they need to act. Because it’s not about politics, it’s not about two sides confronting, it’s about people who are dying and they are fighting to obtain their freedom. So, I understand that violence is not the solution, but we need to take actions to save 500 000 people who are dying because of the situation.”

In regard to communicating with his family and friends, and staying informed about the evolution of the situation in his home-country, Elmis Sierra once again has to adapt to the specificities of Venezuela and to a system which can appear, nowadays, archaic to the eye of the average citizen of most developed countries, and on which he is dependent : “The press is constrained by the government so traditional newspapers or television broadcasters are not allowed to transmit, for example, what happened with the president of the assembly [Juan Guaido, who declared himself as the President in charge of Venezuela and was recognised as such by more than forty countries worldwide, ]. That’s prohibited. So, I manage to read the news basically from twitter and of course some independent media company which are usually considered as free, as well as platforms like Youtube, Dailymotion and so on… Regarding the communication with my family and friends, it goes mainly through WhatsApp or social media. But, it’s really complex because the internet service in Venezuela is really bad. We are talking about 0.5 megabits per second which is crazy and it’s really hard at times because I cannot call to have a chat or anything when there are problems with the electricity system. If I am lucky I can communicate with my family once a week… if I am lucky.”

With two drastically different perspectives on his mind, the Venezuelan still manage to smile. Photo: Maxence Guertitot

Adding this element to the talks concerning a possible 90-days dialogue with the objective to improve the situation, his call for rapid actions with the aim to provide support for his compatriots is especially more understandable when we know that some of his relatives have to deal directly with the challenges associated with the current situation.

Others have, like many Venezuelans, left the country in search of a better tomorrow. They have done so in response to their present needs, but with the firm intention to see Venezuela flourish again in the future : “I have a cousin who lives in Columbia. He left the country two years ago and of course he was doing several jobs in Columbia, trying to survive in a way. Thankfully, he is doing great now. However, I think that most people who escape from Chavismo, they are willing to go back to Venezuela and try to rebuild the entire country. […] Of course, there are some particular occasion when you know that it’s not possible to come back. I have some friends who left Venezuela and started their own family with people from other nationalities. Ecuadorians, Columbians and so on…. For those people, it’s really hard to reconnect with Venezuela because they have another reality. But, there are also another group of Venezuelans and families who are willing to go back and  try to rebuild everything from scratch. They have a really strong national identity.”

A vision that he personally shares, with the hope to contribute in this rebuilding phase by possibly coming back to his country in the future, under a more favourable context. More so, and it being the reason why the twenty-eight years old manages to stay focused on his academic reality, he believes that his studies in sport management could help in that regard : “I think sport is one of the most interesting things in order to change the cultural side of a country and especially when it’s dealing with social and economic issues. I am hoping to work with some people who are trying to make a difference in my country, specially in my city, Caracas. […] I would like to make a change and this is something that my people will need in the future, so I would like to be the best on my field.”

Concluding this interview with a question related to the future of his people and of the current situation, Elmis Sierra shared a hopeful perspective through a final statement full of wisdom : “There is a quote which says that for us Venezuelans right now, we have our body in a place and our mind somewhere else. So, it’s all about being able to cease the moment, staying focused on what you’re doing and trying to understand where you can help. It’s all about ceasing the moment, and although we are learning a really hard lesson, I believe that we can make things better and that if something changes, we are going to have really good years.”

Through his studies at Molde University College, the 28-years old aspire to help his country. Photo: Maxence Guertitot