The good, the bad, and the ugly are words used to describe the reign of Fidel Castro over Cuba. For Erik Suarez, the first two could be said of the late Hugo Chavez — and how he abused his powers during his 14-year presidency of Venezuela — too.
When Suarez, a Venezuelan student, arrived at Penn State University, he did not bank on seeing a quote by Castro plastered on a wall on campus. His reasons for fleeing the communist regime in his country were all coming back to haunt him.
One small action led to another and Suarez ended up leading a campaign to remove it. “I wasn’t expecting to see in Penn State a quote from this dictator that had been repressing the people of Cuba for more than six decades and who was the inspiration for the regime that is repressing my country right now,” he told Fox News.
Earlier this week I raised my concerns to @penn_state regarding a Fidel Castro quote on campus.
A group of campus leaders and I joined to make a formal request to take out this quote. Today I can happily say that there would be no more Fidel Castro at Penn State. Letter below. pic.twitter.com/6vgFzscVHC
— Erik Suarez Φ (@eriksuarezn) July 17, 2021
As a dedicated student, part-time opinion columnist, and a big part of the community, Suarez has a lot to share on standing up and speaking out. We talk to this Venezuelan about his interest in international politics and economics and his campaign below.
Where does your interest in international politics and economics stem from?
I was born in Venezuela in 1999 and I grew up watching my country collapse into a political crisis. This then developed into an economic and humanitarian crisis.
As I grew up and saw these problems deepening, I was curious to understand what the reasons behind them were. I believe, then, my curiosity developed into a passion for international politics and economics.
What made you choose to study international politics and economics at Penn State University?
Before coming to the US, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to study abroad but I didn’t feel like I knew how, where, and what I would get from it.
Through researching for unis online, I found Penn State and decided to look more into it. I immediately fell in love with the classic college experience just like I saw how typical college experiences were in movies.
I was also amazed by their vast alumni network. I also found out how big Penn State Football was as it has the third biggest stadium in the world.
I don’t know how to explain it but I just knew it was the right place for me. It was my first option so I’m glad that I got in.
Walk us through your campaign to remove the Fidel Castro quote from campus. Why is it important to speak out for what’s wrong?
As I mentioned before, I’m very passionate about international politics and economics which stems from my experience growing up in Venezuela and having to leave for Peru. To understand the crisis of Venezuela, you need to understand the role of Chavez — a former socialist dictator.
Chavez was a socialist leader that enacted a socialist government in Venezuela after being elected in 1998. After a few years in power, he changed the constitution; took full control of the electoral, judicial and legislative institutions; and remained in power to the day he died in 2013.
He was a totalitarian leader with no respect for personal property and liberty which created the foundation of collapse for Venezuela. He was inspired by Castro who was doing similar things in Cuba.
One day on campus, as I was walking in a busy area, I found a wall with several quotes from different people. I’ve always liked these kinds of memoir decorations so I decided to read some of them.
It was an unpleasant surprise when I read a quote by Castro. I decided to share this on Twitter and sent an open message to different campus groups. I told them about my plan to write a formal complaint to the uni regarding the spread of propaganda favouring a socialist murderous dictator like Castro.
Some people joined forces with me when I sent the letter to the uni and my Twitter post went viral. Many news sources took interest on a local and international level.
It’s important to also mention that, during this time, massive protests in Cuba were going on demanding freedom from a regime that has oppressed them for over 60 years. I then received a letter from the uni guaranteeing the removal of the quote — everyone involved was proud.
Walk us through your student involvement at Penn State and what you do to help welcome international students.
I was part of the student government at Penn State Abington — one of the commonwealth campuses where I first arrived. There, a plan to create a student senate was underway and the positions were already formed.
I noticed there was no representative for the international student community. In my opinion, representation is very important so I proposed the idea to create the position of senator for international students.
I was selected to be the senator and during my position, I passed successful legislation to designate an area on campus where the representation of international students was always present. So, in this area, flags from all around the world are displayed to show the diversity on campus.
Among other projects I had, creating relationships and a direct line of connection between the main presidents of international student organisations and myself, was one. Another one was starting the required international student teaching course for staff and professors with the aid of Global Programmes.
Sadly, COVID-19 cut our time short. Nevertheless, I’m glad I had the opportunity to create ideas which someone will take and develop now that I’m not there.
What’s been your favourite class so far?
The Geography of the Developing World in my second semester during my freshman year. Even though it wasn’t about economics or international politics, it touched base on a lot of the issues of development.
I got to learn about how governments struggle to aid their populations to develop and how people around the world struggle to survive. The professor was a former UN teacher who travelled to such areas to try and find solutions for the lack of education.
To further add, he was one of those teachers who made you not want to miss any of his classes. Always super happy and excited to teach and open to discussion on important topics.
Some of the activities in class included reading a book called “Born a Crime” which I loved. Additionally, every week we had to bring in a news article and explain why we chose it, what was happening in regards, and engage in discussion.
We also had case studies of several former crises (one included the Haiti earthquake in 2011) and tried to make decisions about how to spend a limited amount of funds to rebuild the country and develop it for the future.
From here, I realised I was interested in development economics.
What fond memories with teachers at your uni can you share with us? Are your lecturers supporting you in your studies thus far?
More than teachers, a member of staff is a big important part of my college experience. Her name is Olga Moskaleva, part of the office of Global Programmes at Penn State Abington.
She’s like a mentor on personal development and helped me trust myself while giving me strong emotional support while being away from home. She has a strong belief in how little actions and acts of support can have a huge impact on a person.
This was then transmitted to me. Also, she helped me gain character on certain things like standing up for my beliefs and not be afraid to raise my voice in the things I believe are fair and just.
I learned a lot from her and I’m grateful for having the pleasure of meeting a person such as her in my college experience.
What academic goals do you have and what skills have you gained thus far?
I wish to graduate next year and head straight into the workforce. In my college experience, I gained a lot of research and project development skills. Also, the analysis and tools I need to apply all of the previous in making a positive difference everywhere I go.
Do you plan to progress into further study?
I’m a senior now and will be graduating from my studies in international politics and economics next May. I’ll probably look for a job in the areas I previously mentioned. I’m excited to work in areas I’m passionate about.
Hopefully, I’ll further continue my studies with a master’s or a PhD. For now, I’m focusing on leaving a positive impact on campus with the little time I have left.
I’m working on some projects with the uni that I hope will leave a long-lasting mark and can continue to develop the stories of incoming international students.