“An attack on academic freedom means an attack on democracy itself.” – Shelter City guest David Gómez Gamboa on the crisis in Venezuela and the importance of academic freedom
Meet David Gómez Gamboa from Venezuela; a university professor and human rights activist in the context of academic freedom and university autonomy. David is the current Shelter City guest in Utrecht. With his NGO, Aula Abierta, he denounces human rights violations in the university context that are happening in Latin America. This however, is not an easy task. Academic freedom is a human right that unfortunately does not receive a lot of attention, and David receives a lot of threats because of his work. David’s stay in Utrecht provides him with a temporary safe space to continue his work and to increase awareness on the importance of academic freedom in other parts of the world, something that is now perhaps even more relevant than ever during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in 2013, David came to the decision to start his own NGO ‘Aula Abierta’ (Open class NGO). In the same year, Nicolás Maduro was proclaimed president of Venezuela, sparking a general environment of unrest and repression in the country. Even in the University of Zulia where David works, he could notice this repression with policemen entering the university buildings, extensive budget cuts that made it very difficult to teach, the ability to be able to do independent research and heavy criminalisation of student protests.
“At that time, my students were demonstrating in the streets. I was very concerned because some of them were victims of torture, cruel treatment and arbitrary detentions. It made me decide to organise a group of professors and students in order to register and document all the human rights violations that were going on.”
Soon after that, David started a broadcast radio programme at the university. The radio show offered a possibility for professors and students to discuss the human rights situation in Venezuela and gave them the possibility to let their voices be heard. This was the seed that helped form what NGO Aula Abierta is now. Opening the NGO and to make the general public and human rights bodies listen to the reports that were collected about violations of academic freedom in Venezuela was and still is, however, not easy. After years of trying, David managed to participate in a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2017. After that, many more hearings followed including at the United Nations, where David was the voice of many professors, researchers and students whose human rights were violated.
Over time, the economic and humanitarian situation was further deteriorating in Venezuela. In 2017, a second wave of protests erupted that was responded to with violence and repression by the government. A report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mentioned the extensive human rights violations and abuses that were committed in the context of the anti-government protests in Venezuela and pointed to “the existence of a policy to repress political dissent and instill fear in the population to curb demonstrations”.
With the increase of violations, David’s vision of reporting these and raising awareness to the importance of academic freedom became stronger. The Venezuelan government stopped publishing education statistics in 2014, but from David’s own experience as a university professor, he explains that nearly half of all teachers and more than half of the students have left the country. So much loss of human capital makes it impossible to cope with the economic, political and humanitarian crisis now and in the future. Hereby, David underlines the importance of scientific knowledge:
“Scientific knowledge is important in many ways; from understanding history, the environment, political systems, economic development to developing a corona vaccine.”
The importance of academic freedom
This brings us to the current situation of the Corona pandemic. David noticed that with this outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, academic freedom is receiving more attention since it clearly demonstrates the danger of violations to this human right. A good example of this is the case of a professor in medicine of the University of Zulia, Freddy Pachano. He expressed his concerns on the possible outbreak of the Corona virus and wanted to do further research on this. Soon after, the governor of Zulia State came with a public statement in which he threatened Pachano to be detained under the claim that he is a ‘threat to the national security’. David explains:
“Let me try to describe what this means. I am talking about a doctor, the head of the postgraduate studies in the second biggest university in the country. He, who is an expert and in the context of a pandemic situation cannot say anything about the Corona virus and the situation in our country. What does that mean? That a person who studied for maybe 20 years cannot say anything about his expertise? And so this is very concerning these people cannot publish, give a conference, or even write a simple tweet about their concerns that involves the safety of millions of people.”
Another example of limitations of the academic freedom that David gives are professors in engineering who cannot do research and publish information on the power failures in the country. David comes from Maracaibo, the second biggest city in Venezuela, that currently suffers power cuts from around 15 to 16 hours a day. This means that during these hours, every single day, there is no electricity for lights, no possibility to preserve the (already scarce) food in the fridge and no internet. Meanwhile, the experts are afraid to talk openly about solutions. After all, this puts the state in a bad light, something that they do not accept.
This makes the core of what universities do – stimulating critical thinking – also a threat to authoritarian regimes since they want as much control as possible and so this does not include any critical debate of its citizens. This is not only of concern in Venezuela, but in many more countries in the world. This is also why David expanded the research and reporting on violations of academic freedom to many more countries in Latin America such as in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Hereby, scientific knowledge is often consciously questioned by governments, no matter if they are left or right. David explains the gravity of this:
“An attack to the academic freedom means an attack on democracy itself. The consequence of this attack is the undermining of the development of societies.”
Threats, hacks of the website, eavesdropping on phones and the tracking of employees of Aula Abierta by the secret service as well as the challenging humanitarian situation in Venezuela put a heavy pressure on David. Taking the opportunity of the Shelter City programme, David was hosted by Shelter City Utrecht* where he can continue to work as the director of Aula Abierta, and where he is also able to obtain some necessary rest, receive training on digital, physical and organisational security and can participate in awareness raising activities and lobbying. David shares:
“Every person working at Shelter City has been very kind to me. They take care of even the smallest details to support me and to make me feel welcome” .
So even from abroad and in these strange times of the Corona pandemic, David is continuing his fight to gain awareness on academic freedom and for universities to be officially recognised as a vulnerable institutions that need extra protection because of the value of scientific knowledge and the safe space it should be.
Shelter City is a movement of safe spaces in the Netherlands and worldwide that provide human rights defenders like David with the opportunity to rest and re-energise, and strengthen their knowledge and skills through a variety of trainings on security, wellbeing, and other capacity-building tools. Next to this, the defenders can expand their network connections with civil society organisations in the Netherlands and in Europe, and can contribute to raising awareness about human rights among the local citizens of the Shelter Cities.
If you are human rights defender at risk, you are eligible to apply for a three-month temporary stay with the Shelter City Network. Read more about the eligibility criteria here.