Venezuelan student at USF escapes from violent protests to quiet classrooms

At age 13, Clarissa H. Arriaga went to her first political protest in the streets of Venezuela. She and her classmates placed their desks to stop traffic in an attempt to protest against the government. She did not know why she was protesting, but her life would change drastically.

This was the beginning of Arriaga’s mission to bring justice to her home country.

Arriaga is a 21-year-old USF sophomore. She grew up in a middle-income family with two younger sisters in Venezuela. Arriaga was the only one in her family who protested and continued to do so while she was attending Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, Venezuela.

In 1999, Hugo Chávez became president being a crucial point of change for the country. Chávez spent his time as president transitioning Venezuela into a communist country. With Chávez’s death in 2013, Vice President Nicolás Maduro assumed the powers and responsibilities as president.

Arriaga was involved in her second protest while she was a student in Venezuela. She was 20 years old when she took the streets in a peaceful protest with her friends and classmates. Arriaga explained that people the government paid and gave guns to, named colectivos, arrived at the protest shooting and killing a student. From that day on, Arriaga saw it as her duty to go out and protest every day.

“I felt like I needed to do something for my country,” Arriaga said. “I needed to feel justice because we didn’t deserve this.”

Arriaga and her friends had to wear gas masks during protests to breathe and protect themselves from gas bombs that were being thrown. She would not tell her mother about all the protests she attended because her mom would cry begging her to stay home.

While Arriaga was protesting, many students were being arrested or killed. However, Arriaga did not realize how severe it was until the day she took a phone call from her mother. She never used to answer her phone during protests because it would be stolen from her, but something made her answer her mother’s call this time. She ran behind a building to hide and told her mother she was fine. When she hid her phone and returned to the protest, her friends were gone. They had been arrested, and they had to spend the night in jail.

“If I did not take that call I could have went to jail as well,” Arriaga said. “This is when the danger of the protests really hit me.”

Even though Arriaga was scared, she still went out every day to fight for peace and hope for her country. This took a toll on her parents. Her mother cried all the time out of fear of losing her child. Both her parents begged her to apply to a school abroad to escape the terror that Venezuela had become. Arriaga decided to leave to end her mother’s misery.

Before Arriaga left to attend school at USF, she was driving home when four motorcycles pulled up around her car. The young boys driving ordered her to give up her phone. Arriaga refused to give it to them. She was lucky that they did not kill her, she explained. When she arrived home, her father was so happy that she would be leaving the country because he was sure that Arriaga’s bravery would get her killed.

“She is so brave and amazing,” said Alejandra Gotera, Arriaga’s Venezuelan friend. “I don’t know if I could have done what she did.”

Arriaga has been in USF for two semesters. She says that even though she is happy to be out of danger, she is constantly worried about her parents and sisters. Arriaga keeps herself busy while she is away from her family with a full load of six engineering courses. She is also involved in sports at USF by participating and playing club soccer.

“If Venezuela does not change by the time I graduate, I will have to look for a job here in America,” Arriaga said. “I can’t go back to that.”