In Conversation With Venezuelan Deputy, Sandra Flores-Garzón
Sandra Flores de Garzón is from Barinas, Venezuela and a graduate in administration, lawyer, politician, and alternate deputy of the National Assembly for the state of Barinas. Her first career began in Business Administration from the Ezequiel Zamora National Experiment University of the Western Plains. She then studied law at the University of Santa Maria nucleus Barinas, where she graduated with an honorable mention, Summa Cum Laude. Flores de Garzón holds a Master’s Degree in Business Management from the Fermin Toro University and a Diploma in Advanced Studies in Business Management from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. In addition, she holds a doctorate in Engineering from the Alma Mater Organization, which she also obtained a high mention. Sandra Flores de Garzón further explains her journey and inspiration to get to where she is to Latina Republic in an exclusive interview all the way from Barinas, Venezuela.
“Thank you Vanessa, really, thank you for this space. Well, I started my political career as a student leader, when the university that was part of the humble community of the Barinas State was intervened by the Hugo Chávez regime. Basically what they were looking for was to change legitimately elected authorities. And not only that, but the university became for them a place where they imposed themselves by force, sheltering criminal groups called collectives in some spaces that exist in the university.
I started my career as a student leader opposing that intervention. In those university struggles I met my husband, Hernando Garzón and in those struggles, I understood that it was not enough to protest or to oppose. I understood that a political space would be required to have influence, to turn things around. As a student leader you can do great things, but if you want to influence one must get involved in politics. My vision was to obtain a degree in Administration. I graduated among the best academic indices. I did my master’s and doctorate, I obtained the Polytechnic University of Madrid degree at the age of 34 and I graduated with honors.
My vision was to be a prepared woman. I am a woman from the interior of the country in Venezuela. I am also from a rural area. I had the vision of being a woman prepared in politics and trained academically before formally entering a position. I had already been active in political parties, but I wanted to give priority to my academic training and my political training. However, after my husband and I were incarcerated, he aspired to be a deputy in the National Assembly and was leading the campaign of the presidential elections in my state. I also had a relevant role in that campaign.
We both worked in the llanero axis of the state of Barinas, the axis that includes Municipal Huerta, Modelo Correa, where Hugo Chávez was born and where the Chávez family comes from. That was what got us to prison and he was working toward a job as a senior deputy. I was also about to find myself in politics, however I wanted to finish my academic career, culminate with my doctorate. An electoral resolution came, which demanded the nomination of 40 percent of women and he told me, “Hey, you come from being imprisoned, you don’t have a doctorate yet, but this is an opportunity for you, too. I hope to be a deputy, you should pursue it as well. And indeed I aspired to the role and thus ended up being a deputy.
Sandra Flores de Garzón never had plans to become a lawyer. She aspired to be a University Professor but the Tascón List prevented her from doing so,
“I never thought of being a lawyer, but precisely because of the student struggles and then, the signing of a recall against Hugo Chávez in March I was listed along with millions of Venezuelans in the so-called Tascón List. That Tascón list prevented me from working as a university professor, which was something I also wanted to do. That is why it was so important for me to complete my doctorate to be a university professor and to dedicate myself to politics as well. Being on the Tascón List prevented me from holding public office. So I had to support myself. I had to find another option. And that’s why I studied Law, because I thought it was a career that I could combine with politics for its flexibility. Just like being a university professor. I could dedicate myself to politics, and to law. So, for me, being a lawyer was something that emerged as an alternative when I could not work as a university professor. So that’s how I became a lawyer and I graduated with honors. It wasn’t in my plans to become a lawyer, honestly. But when life brings you challenges, you have to be flexible.”
She is known for having been imprisoned with her husband Hernando Garzón for 99 days. They were the only married couple deprived of liberty during the demonstrations in Venezuela in 2014, accused of terrorism, financing of terrorism, criminal association, manufacture, commercialization and concealment of explosives and of having caused the fire of the headquarters in Barinas of the Ministry of Popular Power of the oil and mining. Days before the invasion of their home, people let them both know that this raid would occur in the next few days. Both of them remained calm. At dawn, officials from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service violently entered their home separating them from their then 2 year old son.
“It was an extremely hard experience, not only for us, but also for our son. And for us, we were celebrating ten years of marriage the day before. And the gift was being in prison the next morning. Our son was only two years old. At that time we were all three at home and it was very hard for our family.
The hardest thing was the uncertainty. Because when your life depends on external agents, you know that they have the power to do with you practically whatever they want. At first it was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear. And later when you are in prison you try to adapt your life to your life in prison. At first we were in a state prison. Later we were transferred to another prison in a rural municipality of the state. They moved us to a more distant municipality due to the protests that were taking place. It was a way of quelling the protests by taking us to a distant area.
In this second prison we were detained for 96 days and we tried to adapt as much as possible to our previous life. My husband, for example, studied history and sociology like some prisoners who were participating in classes as a procedural benefit mechanism. There was a law that said that if you study, they would reduce your sentence so some prisoners were participating and my husband shared the knowledge with some of the prisoners, to teach them some things because it was also a way to get out of the cell.
“My husband liked spending time with a small dog in the prison called, Martín. A very small dog. So Hernando taught the dog to howl so they would howl together. And even inside a jail, watching this for me, was a pleasant moment. He would ask permission to bathe the dog, take care of the dog and sometimes they gave him permission. I also tried to adapt to this second prison. We were 11 people and I was the only woman. I sometimes taught them math and I even made progress on my thesis. In the theoretical aspects, not great advances, but it was something. There was a member of the police who allowed me to use my laptop, and I was able to do some things there, despite the constant vigilance of the state political police. I was able to have my computer at times and do some things that made me forget that I was in prison.
I lived and understood the importance of the fight for human rights. So I am also part of the non-governmental organization called REDAC, the network of citizen activists for human rights, which is an ally of another organization called CEPAZ. I am part of this organization because from the time we were imprisoned, I understood the importance of raising my voice for something else. I focused on the incarceration of young people during the protests, and even the murders in Barinas where 7 young people were killed while participating in peaceful protests. On January 23, 2019, 3 more young people were murdered when President Juan Guaido called a peaceful protest throughout the country. I have dedicated myself to these cases because I understand that you have to dedicate your voice for others. Before my experiences I took human rights for granted. Then I came to understand that it is not like that, and unfortunately we have to live through some things to really understand.”
Sandra Flores de Garzón is also part of the women’s democratic movement in Venezuela. The Women for Democracy in Venezuela was formed under the premise that there is no democracy without women. Women’s participation is essential to the democratic movement.
“In Venezuela there are several initiatives that seek to empower women at this time. The initiative Women for Democracy arises from the initiative of Natalia Bandler, who is the director and leader of the Asociación Civil CAUCE (Venezuela). She summoned several of us, several deputies of the National Assembly and 15 activist ambassadors from this sector to train us on issues such as those related to the importance of political participation of women.
She told us, “ This shouldn’t end in a formation.” Not everything is supposed to be foundational, but some teachings are meant for action. Knowledge is important, but if you don’t apply it, it doesn’t make much sense, either. Then the initiative arose as a result of the formation by CAUCE that we received as a non-governmental organization and it has been very important for us, for the women who are part of it. And the idea is to include many more women, because women understand that precisely in order to break down barriers that prevent us from occupying space and power, in order to effectively access those spaces of power, we must unite and ally ourselves with other women. We can’t wait for others to fight for us, for our causes. So, if we want to achieve spaces, we have to break through. And to open the way we need to form alliances among ourselves within Venezuela, and outside of it, because this is an initiative that includes women who are outside the country.
Precisely one of the things that we talked about in our training workshops at CAUCE is that without the participation of women there is no democracy. Women represent 51 percent of the population in our country, we are the majority in Venezuela. And no, it does not make sense that women are not part of spaces of power. Of course, we have very different needs and different visions from men and that is why we must be trained with other women. Previous research and previous experiences show that the participation of women is key to achieving a peaceful transition and that the agreements reached are lasting over time.
Venezuela is apparently and I say apparently because we as a nation have had setbacks, but we are on a route to seek a peaceful transition in Venezuela so that this can be achieved. It’s fundamental. The participation of women is key. If women do not participate, there will not be a peaceful transition. So it is not only a matter that we are 51 percent of the population in Venezuela, that this is already important. We are also key to achieving that democracy and the institutionalization of the country. This calls us to be united and to fight together, because it is about the well-being of the country and it is about the well-being of Venezuelans and also of Latin America.
Because when one country does well, sister countries do well. Then women can contribute our sense of inclusion. Women are inclusive despite experiencing adverse situations and facing certain political adversaries. Women are willing to be inclusive. We women want even the children of our adversaries and those close to them to do well. We want our sons to do well, but we also want other people’s children to do well. So, that inclusion, that perception of laying down the life and well-being, the health and well-being of others, including our adversaries, is what makes us key women in these processes of transitions. It allows us to contribute so that the agreements reached in the middle of the transition are durable and that democracy is peaceful, stable, long-lasting and prosperous.”
Women have a long history of challenges fighting for equal rights and a desire to be recognized as capable of holding any position as a career. Each woman in a male dominated field has her own experience with oppression. Thankfully, Garzon grew up in a family that appreciated women and who were elated to have a girl. She grew up thinking, anyone can reach positions of power and understood that women’s participation would be fundamental.
“Well, I had the privilege of growing up in a family very dedicated to women, very dedicated to girls. Maybe machismo is not something I knew when I was young. There would probably be expressions of machismo, but I never noticed them because my family was very happy to have a girl. But as one grows up you begin to experience it. For me, as I entered politics, this is where machismo has affected me the most. I encountered many people along the way who questioned my choice. When are you going to stop studying? When will you dedicate yourself to your house? How do I deal with it? Some of these comments, I ignore and others I address, “Well, I do this because it is important that women achieve spaces of power, as that contributes to the well-being of the country.” These are things that I come across on a day-to-day basis. But there are bigger challenges that I have yet to overcome.
Sometimes it has not been easy for me and for other women and that is why I put so much effort in these coalitions such as the Women’s Alliance for Democracy or the support network because there are many challenges, there are barriers that we have yet to overcome and that is why we have to ally ourselves. From my personal point of view there are things that I have not been able to overcome and I am very aware of the importance of these coalitions, not only for me, but for other women and that we must necessarily advance as a mass, in a group, in order to achieve things otherwise, individually, there are challenges that will be very difficult to overcome, because as I go up I also find barriers and sometimes stronger ones. So it is important, it is essential that women continue to work together and find each other to generate more spaces of trust between us to be able to break down those barriers that I have not yet been able to break.”
As many may know, Venezuela is undergoing a socioeconomic and political crisis which started during the presidency of Hugo Chavez and has continued with Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela was dramatically impacted by the hyperinflation, which has intensified starvation, disease, crime, mortality rates, and massive emigration. It is even said to be the worst economic crisis in Venezuelan history and even worse than the U.S’s Great depression according to economists interviewed for the New York Times.
“At this moment the humanitarian crisis is so strong that it absorbs the common citizen. At this time the common citizen is working like a machine, hoping to obtain gas at home to be able to cook. One of my concerns, for example, during this interview is that the internet may go out, at any moment it could stop. Being able to fill your vehicle with gasoline. And in more extreme situations, the day to day of the Venezuelans is translated into thinking and trying to see how they will eat, how their children will eat, because of the crisis you stop thinking about big things.
At this moment, many people have stopped thinking, for example, about completing a master’s degree or a doctorate, or of having a prosperous business, because their mind is focused on meeting a basic need in their home, like how to get gas to cook for the next meal. How do I get some money to feed my children? What do I sell, what do I have in my house that I can auction off to buy food?
So that also leads to serious challenges. But the first challenge is precisely that the crisis consumes you and you stop thinking about big things because you dedicate yourself to small things. And the other challenge is that by living under a dictatorial or gang regime, you can end up in jail. Like in my case and my husband’s. Or unfortunately, on a more extreme step, like these young people who were killed on the 22nd and 23rd of May in 2017 or on January 23, 2019, when they were peacefully protesting changes in the country. So the challenges are from day to day to more extreme situations such as prison and even death.”
Latina Republic’s mission is to change stereotypes about Latin America and its people. Sandra Flores de Garzon explains stigmas about Venezuelans,
“There is a misconception that Venezuelans like things easy, free and fast, because we are an oil nation that experienced an oil boom and we have constantly depended on oil. So there is an internal conception that is perceived in some countries that Venezuelans do not like to make an effort, especially the poorest class. Well, I come from an extremely poor family. I am from the interior of the country, but I am not only from the interior of the country, I am from a rural area. I grew up like many Venezuelans, with countless economic limitations. It was marked by a lot of poverty, but Venezuelans are driven to move forward. This woman, I was a poor girl, but I was able to graduate with honors. In other words, it is because Venezuelans have a strong sense of work ethic, of effort. So I think that is one of the strongest stereotypes that there is about us, that we do not like to work and that we like things for free. So, if there is something that I could change, it is precisely that wrong mindset about us, because we really are very hard-working and very committed people.”
Despite the constant struggle Venezuela and its population experience on a daily basis, their love for their country never dies. The love and commitment the Venezuelan people have for their country is reflected in their constant fight for freedom, to see their country liberated.
“I think Venezuelans feel, not only me, but all of us, a strong love for our country. I know many people who are outside of Venezuela and they all want to return to Venezuela. I do not know anyone in my environment who wants to stay in another country. Venezuelans love Venezuela for the mere fact of being Venezuela. We identify with each other. We love our landscapes, we have deserts, the Andes, the plains. We have our very own culture among us. Our way of relating, interacting with each other. We are family oriented people, very attached to our relatives. We like that about us and it is like a magnet that attracts you. I have not left the country. I had opportunities to obtain asylum, however that magnet prevents both Hernando and I from leaving the country. We love Venezuela for the mere fact of being Venezuela.”
For the Spanish interview visit:
Vanessa Campa is a recent graduate from Florida International University holding a Bachelor of Arts in English on the Writing and Rhetoric track, and a minor in Psychology. Through working for the Latina Republic as a Latin Correspondent, Vanessa has gained a true love and passion for reporting underreported stories in the region. Discovering underreported stories that will inspire her readers, she has specialized in interviewing and writing articles on outstanding Latinx women who have made an impact in their communities, especially immigrants. As a Director of the Future Journalist Program for the Latina Republic, Vanessa will continue carrying the organizations’ mission in changing stereotypes that have negatively impacted the people within the region, and bringing light to another side of Latin America that is concealed.