Paper Aquarium | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
The campus of the Universidad de Oriente, in Cumaná, Venezuela, is built on a small hill with panoramic views of the Caribbean.
[Juan Savignac]: It was a jewel that shone with its own light. Whoever entered the university, even for a semester, never forgot it.
[Daniel]: This is Jean Savignac Chen. He is 69 years old and was born on the island of Margarita, in northwestern Venezuela. The first time he left the island was at age 17, when he went to study at the Universidad de Oriente.
The UDO, as it is also known, is one of the most important public universities in that country. It was founded in 1958 and has campuses in five cities in eastern Venezuela, including Cumaná.
When Juan came there to study in 1972, he found a brand-new campus and a small town centered around university life. Since its inception, the UDO has been an engine of economic growth for Cumaná and for the state of Sucre, one of the poorest in the country.
[Juan]: Here, the UDO came to represent the hen that laid the golden eggs.
[Daniel]: Because it offered many benefits: a dining room, transportation, store discounts… and above all, the promise of a better life for workers, teachers, neighbors, students… So much so that people came to work and study from all over Venezuela, from Mérida to Maracaibo.
[Juan]: We studied in the streets until daybreak. And crime was minimal. Students were respected.
[Daniel]: Being part of the UDO was a great source of pride, something that marked you for the rest of your life.
In 1984, the UDO gave Juan a job: a two-month internship in one of the university’s most important libraries: the Doctor Rafael A. Curra Library of the Oceanographic Institute of Venezuela.
Juan remembers it clearly. The entrance was a door with thick brown glass. After the door, to the right, was a counter and some wooden lockers for visitors to place their bags. The library was small, slightly less than a tennis court. But size didn’t matter.
[Juan]: That little holein the wall was the best. There was material there that couldn’t be found on the Internet.
[Daniel]: There was a reference room with tables for visitors. There were sections for trade magazines, serial publications, and, of course, books, some of them as much as 200 years old. All on their metal and wood shelves.
The library was a bit old-fashioned, to be sure, but mostly in its forms. Everything was so strict, so rigid and impenetrable… the people who worked there would not allow a single piece of furniture to be rearranged. The chairs and tables had pieces of paper marked with the researchers’ names for their exclusive use. And furthermore, it could be used only by graduate students and researchers.
[Juan]: Bottom-rank students, as I called them, the ones who were going for an undergraduate degree, did not have access.
[Daniel]: It seemed absurd to Juan that a place filled with so much information should be so restricted, almost hostile. This came from his student years, when libraries were too authoritarian for his liking. But now that Juan was part of that world, he dared to think about transforming it.
[Juan]: “We are going to change the character of this library.”
[Daniel]: At first, he followed all the rules to the letter, and with methodical and hard work he gradually became one of the top employees. When the two months of his internship were up, he asked his boss whether he could stay. The boss replied:
[Juan]: “I like your work. Leave when you feel like it.”
[Daniel]: So Juan stayed.
[Juan]: And that motivated me, and I worked and worked, like a little ant…
[Daniel]: Until he felt that he had found his place.
[Juan]: I was Juan in the library; it was my place, it was my world.
[Daniel]: A world that revolved around ocean science, so Juan called it his aquarium. A sea of papers, books, theses and magazines in which Juan immersed himself for more than 30 years. One he thought would always be there for future generations.
But… What happens when the now is so urgent that the future stops mattering? What are you willing to do to save a place other people have stopped believing in?
We’ll tell you after the break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. This story was produced by Venezuelan journalist Nayrobis Rodríguez and by our producer Pablo Argüelles. Here’s Pablo.
[Pablo Argüelles]: During the years spent in the library of the Oceanographic Institute of Venezuela, Juan Savignac lived for his work.
At first, he was motivated by a survival instinct, the desire to make himself indispensable and not lose his job. He was very young and lacked any practical knowledge.
But over time he also cultivated a spirit of service, a devotion and a vocation for the small library that began to absorb most of his days. Because Juan would arrive at the university at 5:30 a.m., and once in a while he even spent entire nights among its books.
[Juan]: I spent 45 days in a row…
[Pablo]: 45 days sleeping in the library. And during those long sleepless days and nights, Juan began to read.
[Juan]: Everything, just everything.
[Pablo]: From aisle to aisle, from shelf to shelf. Everything he could find about marine science, everything the researchers left behind in the library.
[Juan]: Every scrap of paper they threw away, I grabbed it, read it, processed it. And if there was something I didn’t know, I would write down the word, look it up, and wouldn’t take it out of my pocket until I had actually used it.
[Pablo]: And the more he read, the bigger and more precious the little library seemed to be. But Juan not only read, he also memorized—often out loud. Some of his colleagues told him he was crazy. But he says that thanks to this madness, he knew where to find 75% of the contents of the magazine section, and 100% of the book section. That is, some 5,757 books, 783 theses, 900 booklets. And a few million magazines, by his estimates. And so, when researchers came from all over the world…
[Juan]: Russians, Chinese, French, Italians…
[Pablo]: And Juan helped them out…
[Juan]: “What are you looking for?”
[Pablo]: And let’s say they asked him for information on the Cariaco trench, the second largest anoxic basin in the world; or on algae, shrimp, mussels, corals, marine fish or river fish, phytoplankton, zooplankton, ichthyoplankton, or perhaps Caribbean snails, also known as botutos…
[Juan]: “Oh, botuto! Here it is.”
[Pablo]: Juan already knew exactly where to look. And when his colleagues criticized him for breaking the rules…
[Juan]: “It can’t be! You’re doing the job wrong!”
[Pablo]: For having too direct a relationship with users, for not using the sacred system of bibliographic records, Juan would reply:
[Juan]: “The user’s time is precious. They do not have a full day to come in and consult. Let’s save them some time.“
[Pablo]: It seemed the most logical thing to make everything friendlier, more accessible. Over time, Juan gained more confidence, and one day he dared to tear off the pieces of paper with the names of the researchers that were on the chairs and tables in the reference area.
[Juan]: Because all of us are the university. It wasn’t an elite group, or a group like “Oh! They are the Ph.Ds.” No!
[Pablo]: Then he managed to get permission from his superiors to open the doors to undergraduate students. But since not many people knew that the library existed, he put a sign outside, with very large letters: Doctor Rafael A. Curra Library.
[Juan]: So we had students visiting from all over the campus.
[Pablo]: Juan wanted the library to be a small refuge in the heart of the Universidad de Oriente.
[Juan]: Because the library was even a place to cry. Because we had a small table—we had done this on purpose—a small, separate table. And for what? For those who want to come and vent their sorrows where no one will bother them.
[Pablo]: And so the library expanded, slowly, year after year. And that slow pace was okay. Because the library, and actually the entire university, was a very long-term project. It required patience and stability.
In 2017, over 30 years after he began his internship, Juan was finally appointed head of the library.
But by that time, patience and stability were running out across the country.
Here we have to go back in time a bit, and leave the university for a moment. Four years before Juan was appointed head, in 2013, when Nicolás Maduro came into power, Venezuela began to fall into an economic crisis that would only worsen in the following years.
And with that economic crisis, the situation of universities, which was already in decline, worsened.
Because almost a decade earlier, when Hugo Chávez was in power, the government had begun to reduce funding for the country’s public universities, including the UDO. That got worse under Nicolás Maduro, to the point that in 2014 the UDO received only 28% of the budget it requested. And since most of that money was used for expenses and salaries, those cuts meant that university workers began to earn less and less.
[Mayré Jiménez]: A university professor was upper middle class.
[Pablo]: This is Mayré Jiménez, director of the Oceanographic Institute of Venezuela.
[Mayré]: Not any more. Now we are lower class. The middle class here is gone.
[Pablo]: “Here,” at the university, and “here,” in the country.
By 2016, in the midst of the crisis and the continued budget cuts, the mechanisms that still supported the Universidad de Oriente began to fail. The dining room started serving one meal a day instead of three. University transportation came to a halt. Some teachers, whose salaries were barely enough to buy a bag of rice a month, began to retire or emigrate. And many students were faced with a dilemma: either eat or study.
And those weren’t their only problems. Muggings began to occur in the UDO campus.
[Mayré]: And it was unexpected. You would leave the class and suddenly you would find yourself with a thief, a gun, and “everyone stay still;” and they would take everyone’s wallets, backpacks, and cell phones.
[Pablo]: The university community reacted. Some student groups began to organize protests in Cumaná. And the university authorities also filed several complaints with the prosecutor’s office. But the answer they received was that the government could not send security forces inside the campus, because the Universidad de Oriente was autonomous.
[Mayré]: That university autonomy prevented the police or the national guard—unless it was a very big event—from having free access to enter the university.
[Pablo]: University autonomy is a concept that has a long history in Latin America. It emerged more than 100 years ago in various countries of the region, from Argentina to Mexico, as a mechanism of defense against the power and abuses of the States. Broadly speaking, autonomy allows public universities to choose their own authorities, define the best way to use their budgets, and enjoy freedom in their research and teaching. It also prevents outside security forces from entering their territories.
In Venezuela, university autonomy has existed by law since 1958, the year the Universidad de Oriente was founded. But in May 2016, overwhelmed by waves and waves of assaults, the UDO passed a resolution allowing State security forces to enter all its campuses, including Cumaná.
[Mayré]: They could patrol inside the university, because since there was no police, university guards could not be armed. All they had was a club in their hand as their sole protection.
[Pablo]: It was an extraordinary measure. It meant that the Universidad de Oriente was giving up part of its autonomy. But the authorities did not respond to this resolution except with symbolic acts.
[Mayré]: A patrol car would come in once in a while, drive around, but that was all.
[Pablo]: Without government support, the UDO was on its own. And the muggings went unpunished.
And then, in June 2016, Cumaná exploded.
[EuroNews]: More than 400 detainees in Venezuela during the looting of shops. The police have reinforced security in the city of Cumaná, where the looting took place amid a wave of riots…
[Pablo]: During two days, about a hundred businesses in the city were looted.
[APP]: Bakeries, supermarkets and hardware stores were leveled on Tuesday in what began as a protest demanding food.
[Pablo]: The riots began to be labeled as “Cumanazos” on social media. Shots were fired between the National Guard and civilians. One person died and twenty were injured. The violence reached neighborhoods near the Universidad de Oriente.
And the rumors didn’t take long. Around 2017, when Juan was head of the library and spent most of his time there, he began to hear something disturbing. He had coffee from time to time with the maintenance workers and the guards, and they started telling him that in a neighborhood adjacent to the UDO called Los Molinos, near where the Cumanazo had taken place, there was talk of looting the university.
[Juan]: “Juancito, we are hearing that they plan to attack the campus”… “Juancito, remember what I told you yesterday”… “Be careful, don’t stay. Hell, leave. The university will never pay you back!”
[Pablo]: But Juan told them:
[Juan]: I said, “It’s not the university. It’s me. If I get out of here, where would I go?”
[Pablo]: Leaving the UDO meant leaving everything that gave meaning to his life. The nights spent reading, the memorized books, visits from students and professors. His work. So he stayed in the library. But he also tried to sound the alarm with his superiors. And when he did, they told him:
[Juan]: “Those are passing rumors!” Really?! How can you get them to believe that the people lower down are hearing something when the higher-ups have their ears covered? Well… what you have to do is wait…
[Pablo]: We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. For over fifty years, the Universidad de Oriente, in Cumaná, was an engine of the middle class in the state of Sucre, in Venezuela. It was a peaceful, autonomous, almost sacred place… until… in 2013, the country started going into a very deep economic crisis.
Shortly afterwards, muggings began to occur on campus, and Juan was hearing some very disturbing rumors: that looting of the campus and all its treasures was imminent. And with no help from the State, all the university could do was wait…
Our producer, Pablo Argüelles, continues the story.
[Pablo]: The wait did not take long. While Juan and Mayré continued to go diligently to the Institute, the rumors came true in the Mathematics and Science buildings. That’s where the looting began.
[Alejandro Rincones]: These people used the Universidad de Oriente as a hardware store.
[Pablo]: This is Alejandro Rincones. He studied Chemistry at the UDO from 2015 to 2020.
[Alejandro]: If they were missing a door, they got it at the Universidad de Oriente. If they were missing a chair, they looked for one at the Universidad de Oriente. If they needed a table, they went to get it at the Universidad de Oriente.
[Pablo]: The theft of supplies and materials from the Science building began at least since 2014. But, according to Alejandro, starting in 2017, the problem worsened much more. Now it was not just a box of gloves here or a couple of chairs there that began to disappear, but also larger and more valuable things.
[Alejandro]: Scales, weights, computers.
[Pablo]: Alejandro was part of a student group called Conciencia Activa, and also of the association of chemistry students. At first they focused only on academic subjects.
But when things started to go wrong in the university, they became much more involved in defending it. Since the government was not responding to the call for help to protect them, they had to protect themselves.
[Alejandro]: Often we stayed there overnight at the request of some security guards in the building, and to support them.
[Pablo]: And that defense could sometimes become… radical. Alejandro remembers one day, when some of his colleagues from the Physics department found looters inside the building.
[Alejandro]: They tied them to a desk, they poured gasoline on them… without setting them on fire or anything. Just to threaten them and to sow fear in them so they would not do it again.
[Pablo]: And then they were taken to the prosecutor’s office, which is right across from the campus.
[Alejandro]: But the prosecutor’s office did nothing at all; they just released the… the detainees because it wasn’t up to the students to bring in the delinquents or even file the complaint.
[Pablo]: According to the police, the complaints had to come directly from the university authorities. Alejandro and his classmates spoke with the campus director about formally reporting the looting.
[Alejandro]: She was very afraid; she said she did not dare report them because they could take reprisals, uh, against her, who had already been threatened on many occasions by these delinquents.
[Pablo]: We contacted the director to talk about it, but she said that she preferred not to grant us the interview.
With no support from any quarter, the looting would inevitably continue. In May 2018, the Science building suffered another blow: the air conditioning in the Analytical Chemistry Lab was stolen, and some glass windows disappeared from the Physics department reading room. It was increasingly harder to continue studying.
[Alejandro]: The more we fell behind, the longer we spent in the university and that frustrated us more. It motivated us to go places where we might not normally go.
[Pablo]: It was then that Alejandro and some of his companions made a decision:
[Alejandro]: A group of students went to the neighborhood of Los Molinos.
[Pablo]: Los Molinos, the neighborhood where the looters were thought to be living.
[Alejandro]: More than fear, it was anger that motivated us to go there.
[Pablo]: Alejandro and the other students started walking down the small hill that separates the Science building from the neighborhood. It was very close, about 300 meters. And since they came from higher ground, it was easy to spot them from below.
[Alejandro]: I do remember some children, and when we were getting closer—there were about seven of us—they ran off as if to warn people there that someone was coming.
[Pablo]: The students reached the bottom of the slope. And there they saw everything…
[Alejandro]: We found a junkyard of stolen devices. There were some sort of bonfires with stone that we not only presumed, but we are certain, were to burn the copper that they extracted from the cables, from the equipment.
[Pablo]: They saw computer casings—about 40 of them. And also air conditioners. They all had the labels that identified them as “national assets”, that is, property of the UDO. The students continued walking towards the neighborhood. Doors closed in their path, and when they knocked, no one opened. Until a woman appeared…
[Alejandro]: She told us that we couldn’t go in there, just like that, that it was their territory.
[Pablo]: The woman started yelling at them.
[Alejandro]: Telling us to leave, go away, leave.
[Pablo]: Other people started coming out, too. Things got tense. One of the students started arguing with the people who surrounded them. But others preferred to return to the university. So… more frustrated than before and just as angry, they made a radical decision: they burnt the roads that connected the university to Los Molinos.
[Alejandro]: We burnt all the rubble. I mean, in our ignorance we thought that could stop them, but no way…
[Pablo]: They didn’t stop. In fact, from then on, everything got even worse, because the political situation in Venezuela and the day-to-day life of the UDO began to collide.
[Crowd yelling]: “Oath, oath, oath.”
[Pablo]: On January 23, 2019, in front of thousands of people in Caracas, the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, was sworn in as interim head of the executive branch…
[Juan Guaidó]: I swear!
[Pablo]: That is, as a substitute for Nicolás Maduro, who had been re-elected shortly before in elections boycotted by the opposition and unrecognized by most of the international community.
Those were very tense weeks. The country and the entire world mobilized for and against Guaidó and Maduro. And Venezuelan universities also began to take a stand.
In early February, the presidents of the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the Universidad Simón Bolívar met with Guaidó to express their support. Others, such as the university in Zulia, the one in Carabobo and the Andes University, also supported him.
And in the midst of this wave of recognition for Guaidó, on March 14 the Ministry of Higher Education of Venezuela froze the delivery of budgets to various autonomous universities in the country.
The reason was simple: Because they did not mention Nicolás Maduro in the budget request document as—and I quote here—“Constitutional President of the Republic,” the universities were left without money to cover the payroll of their workers.
Five days later, the president of the Universidad de Oriente, Milena Bravo, went to Caracas to meet with Guaidó and support his political plan. The consequences did not take long to reach the university.
[Toma Rectoría Archive]: At nine o’clock pm, in the Office of the President of the Universidad de Oriente…
[Pablo]: On April 30, 2019, a group of men affiliated with the Nicolás Maduro regime occupied the UDO Office of the President in Cumaná. This is the audio of a video that began to circulate in Venezuelan social media and broadcast channels a few days later. In the video, four men enter the empty offices of the President of the UDO, Milena Bravo.
[Toma Rectoría Archive]: Milena, your time is up. College Council, your time is up. The university will prosper. It will guarantee the right of students, the rights of workers, so that they will truly have a dignified university.
[Pablo]: The men do not identify themselves; they do not show proof of being students or UDO employees. They say only that they are under the orders of the Minister for University Education. And then they take down from the walls two portraits of the university President, a photograph and a painting. And in their stead…
[Toma Rectoría Archive]: Do me a favor. Pass me the only man who has vindicated the university’s historical process—Commander-in-Chief Hugo Chávez.
[Pablo]: The men hang a portrait of Hugo Chávez.
[Toma Rectoría Archive]: We march on toward victory, with Chávez and Maduro. Long live our country! Long live our country!
[Pablo]: The occupation of the Office of the university President lasted about three months. By then, looting at the university had spread to the heart of the campus. There was no electricity, the transformers had been dismantled, and night classes were canceled. Some teachers and students still went during the day but they had to move closer to the windows so they could work in the sunlight. And when evening came, the university became a no-man’s land. At dawn, the hammering and drilling of looters could be heard from the surrounding areas. Now they were dismantling the college infrastructure. Walls, ceilings, floors, stairs.
By then, the Math and Science buildings were no more than skeletons. Then it was the turn of the Basic Studies buildings, then the Professor’ Association, then the Auditorium.
[Mayré]: The only thing left was pretty much the IOV.
[Pablo]: The Oceanographic Institute where Mayré continued to work. During all these months, she, Juan and other members of the IOV community, despite everything, continued going up to the campus.
[Mayré]: And we saw that and said, “No, this is going to stop. This is not going to continue… it is not going to come this far.”
[Pablo]: They had barred the windows and secured the most valuable materials, such as an electron microscope. They thought that would be enough to stop the looters. They thought if they kept going to the campus, if they proved that the Institute had not been abandoned and that there was life within it, no one would come near.
But around September 2019, shortly before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Institute:
[Mayré]: We left on a Friday, and when we arrived on Monday, everything had been broken. They had broken bars, windows, doors and everything they could take…
[Pablo]: They took it all—computers, air conditioners, refrigerators. But Mayré and the others were not intimidated.
[Mayré]: We made new bars and made them stronger. And that lasted about a month. That was taken away.
[Pablo]: Collapse was imminent. And so the exodus from the Oceanographic Institute began. They began by removing the expensive equipment that still remained: magnifying glasses, scales, stoves, microscopes… Everything that could be used to continue doing research and teaching, wherever they ended up. During the day, the workers of the Institute took everything they could. And at night, looters would come in.
[Mayré]: Whatever they couldn’t take, they threw it on the floor and broke it.
[Pablo]: And the next day, the same thing. The workers would try again to continue rescuing whatever was left. Mayré recalls one day when she went into one of the labs and knew immediately what they had done the night before…
[Mayré]: They took the formaldehyde, which is what we used to preserve organisms, and they began spilling it all over the floors. That… that smell is horrible. That’s what is used to preserve the dead.
[Pablo]: The message was clear:
[Mayré]: I mean, the idea was to get us away from there.
[Pablo]: But the workers did not leave. A few months passed like this, playing cat and mouse. And during this time, there was another place where looters started coming: Juan’s Library.
[Juan]: They went for the glass windows, for the wood in the library.
[Pablo]: The wood of the shelves, the counter, the lockers. The wood that could be used for cooking in the middle of a gas shortage that was going on in Cumaná at the time. It was early 2020. To the Venezuelan economic crisis was added the pandemic. The few in-person classes at the UDO were canceled, and the campus ended up being a vacant lot.
Concerned about the thousands of books, magazines, theses and booklets contained in the library of the Institute, Mayré spoke with the university President and told her:
[Mayré]: “Professor, that library, which is the only one in the country for marine sciences, is a very valuable treasure. And we need to safeguard the books.”
[Pablo]: The university President offered them spaces in some of the university’s buildings in Cumaná. And so the library rescue missions began. In a couple of trucks, Juan, Mayré and a handful of teachers and students would go up to campus very early…
[Juan]: We started at seven in the morning, and it was two in the afternoon; and we were loading at seven and unloading at two… I mean!
[Pablo]: Loading and unloading books, magazines, booklets…
[Juan]: We were trying to get out everything we could.
[Pablo]: The missions couldn’t last more than four hours or so, because around 11 o’clock you would start to hear the drills and machines of the looters knocking down walls.
[Mayré]: When we heard the bang-bang: “Hey, time to pack up everything, let’s get out of here!”
[Pablo]: All this without any support other than from their own small community.
[Mayré]: We had a lot of support from teachers abroad.
[Pablo]: Professors from the Institute who had left Venezuela, who had emigrated to other universities, and who sent them money. Especially for the gasoline, that was in short supply, and whose distribution was controlled by the government and the army. Juan and Mayré had to wait in lines for hours to get it. And sometimes…
[Juan]: They wouldn’t sell us gas at the pump because we were from the Oceanographic Institute. And the university President would get out, “Please, look, we are not…” “No!” Sometimes they accused us: “They are the looters because, look, they are taking the books.”
[Mayré]: They even took pictures of us and said, “These are the thieves of the university.”
[Pablo]: But they persisted. They sought the support of some students. And in exchange for their help…
[Mayré]: “Hey, I’m inviting you to help me carry books.”
[Pablo]: Mayré offered them something to eat.
[Mayré]: A breakfast, a snack. And that made them more willing, because they did not have any breakfast at home.
[Pablo]: Now, the rescue process was… disorderly.
[Juan]: We didn’t have time to classify anything. We had to grab the ones that were in better condition. But since everything was mixed up because they had taken the shelves…
[Pablo]: The floor was covered with books and magazines. A chaos.
[Juan]: “Which one, Juan? These over here.”… “Three from a collection.”… “These?” “Yes, these are clean, these.”… “Three of another, four of this.”… “This one works.”
[Pablo]: As if that were not enough, the looters had stolen the skylights from the roofs. As the days went on, part of the collection was getting wet with the rain. Decades of classification and conservation turned into a sea of dirty paper.
One day, during the rescue, Juan found some copies of Science magazine, some of the most valuable in the collection, scattered on the ground.
[Juan]: They used them to relieve themselves. What were they telling me? “Mister, this turf belongs to us.”
[Pablo]: As if marking their own territory. Defecating, urinating. And also burning. One night toward the end of May 2020, Mayré began to receive messages:
[Mayré]: “They are burning, they are burning the campus center!”
[Pablo]: A fire in the central library of the Universidad de Oriente.
[Mayré]: That day I left very early. When I arrived, the firemen were still there and it was still fuming and a group of professors were there watching, many of them crying, “My God, what happened?”
[Pablo]: The fire consumed around 120,000 books from that library, which, together with the Oceanographic Institute, was one of the most important in the UDO.
The causes of the fire are unknown. Some versions suggest that it was an accident, that perhaps some looters were using torches to light up while they were robbing at night, and the fire got out of hand. But for the university authorities, firefighters and some members of the student movement, the fire was intentional.
In comments to the press, the President of the UDO said, and I quote here, “Only perverse minds can participate in something as diabolic as this. Burning a library is burning the culture, the academy, the fundamental bases of a country.”
The library’s collection had an estimated value of one million dollars. Its destruction was meaningless. So why burn it? Why not just steal whatever could be sold and then leave? These kinds of doubts made it difficult not to wonder who the people responsible were.
[Juan]: I don’t know how, how to classify them; I’m not one to classify anyone. I do classify a book. But not people.
[Pablo]: So far, we have talked about the people who destroyed the university as looters. But the word is imprecise. Because the looters weren’t all alike.
During the almost ten years that its fall lasted, the UDO became a kind of public quarry where different groups came in with different intentions: some, to steal what they could, out of necessity; others, more organized, to take advantage of the impunity that reigned on campus and do business with all its resources; and then others, the groups affiliated with the government, who came in to destroy for the sake of destroying, out of pure political revenge every time the university asserted its autonomy.
The looting of the UDO was a concrete example of the magnitude of the institutional and social deterioration that existed in Venezuela. The university was no longer a long-term project for the generations, but a scapegoat for the most immediate and fleeting needs.
With the destruction of the central library, much of the knowledge the UDO had produced since its inception was reduced to ashes.
[Mayré]: There, in that library, was stored the research of almost 60 years conducted by the university.
[Pablo]: And so, standing in front of the soot-blackened building, Mayré knew they had lost the campus.
And they had.
Shortly after the fire in the central library, while they were still trying to rescue the books from the Institute’s library, Mayré and Juan ran into some armed men.
[Juan]: He pointed the gun at me right here. I pulled my cap down, my head, like this. “And who are you?”
[Pablo]: Juan replied that he was the head of the library. And the men said to Mayré:
[Mayré]: “Don’t come back here because this is ours. This doesn’t belong to the university anymore. It belongs to us.”
[Pablo]: And, from that day on, the rescue mission was canceled.
[Mayré]: We are not coming back anymore because they will kill us. And once we are dead, what can we do?
[Pablo]: The only thing left of the university was its community, which began to disperse throughout the rest of Cumaná, looking for places to keep studying, teaching, and researching, to keep the university alive.
[Mayré]: Yes, yes. All over the city… We are here, we are here, we are there.
[Pablo]: Teaching classes in shopping malls, in teachers’ homes, and in borrowed rooms at other buildings in the city. And, although student drop-outs from the UDO were on the increase for several years, Mayré says that since 2022 some students have begun to return.
[Mayré]: Because they realized that their teachers kept going.
[Pablo]: And the teachers keep going, she says, out of a feeling of belonging… but it could also be from a sense of vocation, of gratitude, out of a desire to help young people to complete their studies, just as she received help from her teachers years ago.
[Mayré]: I experienced what we could call the golden age of the university, when we had everything. I lived it, I enjoyed it. And now that it is in ruins, am I going to leave? No.
[Pablo]: She and other professors stay on to continue this very long-term project called a public university. But…
[Juan]: But we cannot continue having classes without a library.
[Pablo]: There are parts of the university that may be irretrievable. Of the 21 million copies that Juan says were in the library of the Oceanographic Institute, some 16 thousand were rescued. In all, about 3 thousand books and about 13 thousand magazines. But today they are stacked, without shelves.
[Juan]: Books have a part called the foot. What are feet for? To walk or to stand. They have a foot. Books must be kept standing, because if they are lying down, they deteriorate.
[Pablo]: And they are also in rooms that were not made to be libraries.
In December 2022, Juan received a call. One of the managers of the buildings where the books are kept asked him to leave.
[Juan]: I went up to the first floor after greeting him.
[Pablo]: And he smelled something.
[Juan]: Foul, foul, foul, by the way.
[Pablo]: He entered the room where the books were… and saw that they were rotting from the humidity. And about a month later, in another building in Cumaná where most of the library’s books and magazines are kept—about 15,000 of them—Juan discovered bats on the roofs, and their droppings were infecting the books. The building manager told him:
[Juan]: “No… These books will have to be sacrificed.” And I said, “What?”
[Pablo]: For Juan, just the idea of having to sacrifice the books was a breaking point.
[Juan]: An incredible…! Aah! So much effort!
[Pablo]: Because, as time goes by, the hope of some day returning to the library fades.
[Juan]: I am the head of the library—but what library? One that exists only in my mind, in my heart, in my memories; in which every so often—look how a spark comes to me and I start to write things.
[Pablo]: Juan showed us some notebooks in which he has been writing lately: The Works of Grey Literature.
In the world of library science, grey literature is all material that is difficult to classify, and that is not meant to be published. Juan’s writings are like that, a mix between a library manifesto, a practical guide, a philosophical treatise… But also, more recently, they have become a very clear testimony of what Juan found and lost in his library.
[Juan]: My sadness is there; my pain is there.
[Pablo]: In one of the last fragments of Grey Literature that Juan shared with us, he wrote that the time is coming to hang up the books—that is, to retire. Close the door of his library. For now, we don’t know when or how long it will take to rebuild it. We just have to wait.
[Daniel]: This story was produced by Pablo Argüelles from Mexico City and by Nayrobis Rodríguez from Cumaná.
We want to thank Venezuelan photographer Fabiola Ferrero, who has documented the crisis in her country for years, for her great help. You can see her work on her Instagram account: Fabiola Ferrero.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán, with original music by Ana.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.