FAU student political activist fights back against Venezuelan government

Jorge Jraissati protests the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship, all while taking 12 credits.


Student political activist Jorge Jraissati. Alexander Rodriguez | Photo Editor

Nate Nkumbu, Staff Writer

It was a warm February day in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Jorge A. Jraissati had plans to protest alongside his friends, but the group ended up facing more than they bargained for.

In every protest in Venezuela, you suffer police and military brutality,” he said. “So when we were protesting that day, we were attacked by the police and the military.

A former youth political coordinator in his native country of Venezuela, Jorge saw some of his friends and even his political boss shot at and arrested for protesting President Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship as the country fell into chaos and disarray.       

While speaking at conferences in Washington D.C and the United Nations in New York and meeting with current and former world leaders, the 21-year-old economics and business management major becomes a political activist, a hero, a champion for human rights — some would say a troublemaker.

Protesters march through the streets of Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Jamez42

Now at FAU, he continues his fight against the Venezuelan government while juggling 12 credits at the Jupiter campus honors college.

Jorge was born in Barquisimeto, the fourth largest city in Venezuela. He said that as a child, he watched as former President Hugo Chavez failed to uphold his promises to better the country.

“There were many people where I lived that were not able to get the bare necessities and they were suffering,” the lanky, curly haired econ student said.

It was his need to help people that led him to join the party, Voluntad Popular or “Popular Will” as the youth political coordinator. The social-democratic party champions for social involvement and challenges oppressive and authoritarian ideals.

“I have been involved in politics since a young age for a very simple reason, politics is the way to change lives,” he said.

Jorge’s job consists of registering new supporters, keeping young members informed about events happening within the party, and working with the party on youth issues.

“In a country as poor as Venezuela, when I was a youth political coordinator, I felt I was been able to change lives, to give hope, and to inspire a future in every single one of the kids I was helping,” he said.

It wasn’t until the death of former President Chavez that things went south for Jorge, Voluntad Popular, and Venezuela.

After Chavez’s death in 2013, his second-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, took power. Shortly after, prices for food and basic goods started to skyrocket.

Inflation in the country has risen to above 800 percent, driving up the price of items that were once inexpensive, FAU political science professor Timothy Steigenga said.

“For example, if a gallon of milk cost a dollar, it would be $800 after inflation,” he said.

Steigenga added that the increasing costs of goods was caused by the economic policies of the  Chavez/Maduro regime.

A protestor waves the Venezuelan flag. Photo courtesy of Efecto Eco

“You have an economy where 95 percent of its export earnings was from oil. So when the oil prices drop and the reserves that the government holds goes, you get hyperinflation and that’s now complicated the issue in Venezuela,” the professor added.

Jorge said that he knew many people who lost everything under Maduro.

“There are farmers that have been working and owning land for all their lives and one day the government comes in, takes your farm, and says that it is the state’s. It’s frustrating for many of them,” he said.

For the economics major, those issues came to a head in February 2014 during a protest with his friends and the political boss for Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo Lopez.

“I was with Leopoldo four days before he was arrested, so we decided to protest in my city about him being unfairly taken into custody and then a bunch of Bolivarian police [the Venezuelan National Guard] came to us and started harassing us,” Jorge said.

Protesters run from a Venezuelan National Guard armored vehicle that has been hit by a Molotov cocktail. Photo courtesy of Jorge A. Jraissati

He added: “They started telling everyone that they were going to be arrested. To be honest, it was like any protest where police and military come and they see someone exposed, they get arrested.”

Jorge said that while he and his friends weren’t arrested that day, thousands of other Venezuelans were.

According to Venezuela expert Dany Bahar from the D.C. think tank group the Brooking Institute, over 15,000 people in 2017 alone were arrested and detained by police and military forces.

“It’s a dictatorship so these people that were protesting in the streets many of them were tried by military tribunal on the spot as opposed to civilian tribunal,” he said.

Bahar added that there was no legal due process and that often the government bypasses the existing law, arresting people just for political affiliation.

“They were sent to military tribunal, some were sent to jail. There’s around 600 plus political prisoners in Venezuela right now,” he added.

As the situation in Venezuela worsens, the White House and President Donald Trump have been vocal about a potential military intervention.

But Jorge seeks a more peaceful way to end the conflict. He currently works with leaders in the the political discussion forum, Organization of the American States in Washington D.C.

“I agree with a diplomatic intervention with the support of the OAS, the European parliament,and the governments in the region. We’re not looking for a military, but a diplomatic intervention,” he said.

For Jorge, his fight for his country’s freedom isn’t just for his fellow Venezuelans.

His younger sister is in high school and hasn’t been able to attend her campus after the government closed down schools. She meets with her teachers online and hasn’t been in a classroom since February.

“She can’t meet with her school friends in the classroom and hang out with her friends,” Jorge said. “She’s lucky, not many students can even attend school because they now have to take care of the family.”

With this in mind, he decided to come to the U.S to continue his education with the support of his family, who wanted to see him happy and far from danger.    

“I came to study, of course my family wanted me to be safe but coming to the United States and [having] been able to have a quality education is priceless and I am sure all the knowledge I have acquired at FAU will help me serve my country in the future,” he said.

While working through his bachelor’s degree, he continued his fight online on Twitter where he has over 102,000 followers. Jorge said that while he’s mostly seen online support, he has received threats from Maduro regime supporters.

“Just as an example this month (September)  I have received in social media threats by a few users that Maduro needed to incarcerate me because of my pro-free speech comments. In Venezuela there are hundreds of student political prisoners in jail simply for expressing their political opinions,” Jorge said via email.

In his fight with the Maduro government, he’s had help from other FAU students that are sympathetic to his cause.

Student Government graduate assistant Robert Marriaga attends events with Jorge like those put on by the Organization of the American States. The two also met with former world leaders like Jose Maria Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain from 1996-2004, and OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro.

Robert Marriaga stands next to the former Prime Minister of Spain Jose Maria Aznar. Photo courtesy of Robert Marriaga.

As political activists, they both face a large age gap with their colleagues, who are often twice their age. Robert recalled that during a meeting, there were doubts about the pair due to their age.

“At first when some activists from Cuba and Venezuela saw us, they didn’t take us seriously because of our age. They were asking, ‘What are these kids doing here?’” he said.

Robert added: “Eventually we won them over and they were impressed by the fact that we knew what was going on in Venezuela and we knew what we were talking about.”

The Student Government grad student said that they have support and encouragement from FAU professors and even from politicians far from the U.S. Following a conference in D.C., Robert and Jorge met Dutch right wing politician Thierry Baudet.

“After the conference, we were talking to Baudet and he asked us what were our ages. I told him that I was 23 and that Jorge was 20. He was really impressed and called us heroes for taking this challenge while we both young,” Robert said.   

For Jorge, he’s run into difficulties balancing his activism with his schoolwork but has had help from a professor at the honors college, thesis professor Keith Jakee.

“It’s very difficult between the honors college and other pressures all the time,” Jorge said. “But at the same time, you cannot abandon your activism. Sometimes I have to travel during the week, sometimes the weekend.”

Jorge added: “He (Jakee) has been great with me in the fact that he has helping me with my time management and he understands how difficult it is but at the same time he wants me to have a great thesis and a great political activism as well.”

The honors college student said that his work for both school and his home country adds up to almost 90 hours a week.

“I used to have time to go out, to have fun, now I can’t but I think it’s part of the process, Jorge said. “If you really believe in what you’re doing and really believe in fighting for your rights, you’ll do it.”

While Jorge and Robert each balance their activism alongside their classes, Robert said that the reward they get from talking and connecting with these politicians is worth it.

“Nobody would think that talking to these activists, they would hear our case but getting to know them and them knowing us, we’ve been able to form friendships with many of these people,” he said.

Robert added: “It’s really awesome and rewarding, not many expect some students from FAU to be that involved in international politics like that.”        

When asked about working with Jorge and the everyday struggles of fighting a dictatorship and the nerves that may come along with it, Robert said that they aren’t apprehensive anymore and have embraced their roles.

“We’ve talked about this before, when someone is made for this you can’t be nervous, you can’t be afraid, this is what you were born for,” Robert said.

“Once you’re in this, once you’re in the political arena, you have to leave the arena walking. You have to show up. It’s like a boxing match, you can’t back down,” Robert said.

He said, “Even if you feel bad and someone came up and said, ‘Hey, don’t say that because that could be life-threatening,’ you have to do it.”

Robert said that he’s asked Jorge in the past whether or not he fears for his family back in Venezuela. The grad student said that while he thinks Jorge does worry, he isn’t alone in his fear.

“It’s not only just his family, all Venezuelan citizen have felt or are feeling that fear in moment in their life. Everyone has experienced something during those protests,” Robert said.

A protestor stands in the streets of Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Carlos Díaz

“Tear gas has been thrown that reaches everyone or you can’t cross the street because there are burning tires,” Robert said. “Everyone has felt the fear and the pressure. That’s what we’re scared about, how others are going to feel.”

In an effort to help with some of that fear, on Jorge’s birthday, he raised around $7,000 online, with all of the proceedings going to buy basic amenities for people back in his native country.

“We collected the money and sent it through churches and the money isn’t that much as to raise alarms back in Venezuela,” Robert said.    

But Robert said that he and Jorge aren’t afraid of their fight. He added that right now, it’s the duty of every young Venezuelan to fight for their country, otherwise they might lose out their freedoms forever.

“It’s difficult to be on the frontlines but if they don’t it, nobody else will,” Robert said. “I’m actually proud that he [Jorge] is speaking out. It would be easier for him to take the route and say, “No I’m going to stay here and live comfortably.”

As for Jorge, he plans to return to Venezuela after he’s finished with his schooling.

“I will graduate on Economics and Business Management from the Honors College, then do my masters in Economics or Public Policy, and then come back to Venezuela to serve my country.”

Nate Nkumbu is a staff writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @FoureyedNate.