Search the keyword “Venezuela” online or check out news coverage of events in the South American country and you’re sure to be hit with headlines about a nation in the grips of a catastrophic crisis. Millions of stricken citizens without food, cash, or rights fleeing to the border or languishing in hopelessness at home.
This spotlight – highlighting stories of state repression, media censorship and attacks on human rights defenders – has shone on this oil-rich nation for years now, capturing the world’s attention.
Naturally, there is truth to this representation of the situation in Venezuela. But it’s far from the full picture. What’s missing are the many stories of remarkable acts of conviction and compassion – of ordinary Venezuelans donating food and medicine to those in more need than themselves; stories inspiring acts of solidarity, of people building support networks in the face of little and often polarized international support; uniting in defense of fundamental freedoms amid the turmoil.
Luis Carlos Diaz made the news for the same predicable reasons. The Venezuelan journalist and digital rights activist was arrested and detained by the authorities in early March while biking home in the capital, Caracas.
No-one knew what happened to him. Hours after his wife reported him missing, officers of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) brought him to his apartment in handcuffs at 2:30 am. During a raid of his home, Luis Carlos spoke briefly with wife Naky Soto while authorities seized electronic devices, money and other belongings. Then he was taken to the “Helicoide” political prison.
As the government continues to close spaces in an effort to inhibit the free flow of information, Luis Carlos and many others continue to push back – sharing tactics to bypass censorship and creating platforms to share critical information.
Luis Carlos is well known both in Venezuela and internationally for his work promoting and protecting freedom of speech and the use of digital networks. In a country where access to reliable information has become increasingly challenging, Luis Carlos and Naky have become the ‘go-to’ source of accurate and insightful information, for many people trying to understand what is happening in Venezuela and in the battle for access to reliable data.
As the government continues to close spaces in an effort to inhibit the free flow of information, Luis Carlos and many others continue to push back – sharing tactics to bypass censorship and creating platforms to share critical information, undeterred by restrictions and threats.
It was this work and the huge community he has developed, online and offline, that turned Luis Carlos Diaz’s story from a run-on-the-mill case of government repression to a surprising reminder of the power of the hashtag and collective action.
People mobilised the very digital tools and platforms that Luis Carlos had been working to keep free and powerful.
After the handcuffed Luis Carlos was taken from his raided home in the early hours, his whereabouts were unknown. Within hours, the hashtag #DondeestaLuisCarlos (#WhereIsLuisCarlos?) started trending on Twitter, generating around a flood of tweets and re-tweets. In the long-running pro-democracy campaign in Venezuela and the state campaign to repress it, it has not been uncommon for Venezuelan police to detain activists for days without disclosing their location or status or allowing access to them.
But the mystery around Luis Carlos’s whereabouts drew such massive attention, the authorities were forced to disclose that they had detained him. But the hashtag tsunami that had swelled up in Luis Carlos’s defence didn’t stop there.
Tens of thousands of online followers demanded his release – using the hashtag #LiberenaLuisCarlos (#FreeLuisCarlos), which was very soon trending on Venezuelan Twittersphere – urging several international and national organisations to join the campaign , including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and raise concern about Luis Carlos’s detention. In the streets, people gathered in front of the prosecutor’s office building in Caracas to denounce his arbitrary detention.
In an unprecedented turn of events, the journalist and activist, whom the authorities had clearly targeted to thwart his influential human rights work, was released approximately 24 hours later. Authorities had sought to fabricate criminal charges linking Luis Carlos to the collapse of the in the national electricity grid that left the country without power for five consecutive days.
Luis Carlos’ first words after his release celebrated and reinforced the “power of networks” as the cause for his freedom.
Afterwards, he tweeted:
“Finally, I already knew I had good friends, but my question now is: How can they connect with each other? I never imagined what this could achieve. It is incredible. I've been reading for hours and I haven't finished. Thank you.”
Luis Carlos’s tweet raises a fundamental question: in a repressive, challenging environment, where rights are constantly under threat, how can a network of people, such as the one that came together to successfully secure his release, connect with each other? How do we, as activists, build upon our successful stories of powerful collective action?
Next week, hundreds civil society leaders, activists and members of social movements from across the globe will seek to answer that question – contained in Luis Carlo’s tweet – when they meet in Belgrade for International Civil Society Week (ICSW), a global gathering for civil society to connect, debate and create shared solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Indeed, the conference’s theme, ‘The Power of Togetherness’, aims to unlock the potential of collective action of the kind that defended Luis Carlos’ right to freedom of speech.
A shocking 96 percent of the world’s population live in countries where the space for civil society is not open and where their fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not respected and protected.
A shocking 96 percent of the world’s population live in countries where the space for civil society is not open and where their fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not respected and protected, according to the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in all countries.
As the repression of peaceful activism continues to present a crisis for civil society across the globe, there is a need to recognise, celebrate and learn from the many breakthroughs and success stories of civil society and citizen action.
Amid news headlines and coverage of all the ways that people are being held down by government action in restrictive environments, there is a stream of stories of people being lifted up by others in a myriad of ways. The hope is that these narratives rise to the surface of public attention to, like a wave, connect us all, and inspire further acts of solidarity, compassion and mass action locally and globally. To answer Luis Carlos’ rhetorical question: how can good friends connect with each other?
This article is has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.