A Political Prisoner in Venezuela

A decade ago, Kenther Ramos ’14 was a first-year university student protesting in Venezuela, when he was kidnapped by Hugo Chávez’s regime.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) When you were 16, chances are you were most concerned about flunking an algebra test, missing curfew, or scoring a Friday-night date.

When Kenther Ramos ’14 was 16—a decade ago in Venezuela—he was a university student government president in Caracas, leading protests against the Chávez government’s plans to limit what the country’s universities could teach.

And then, Ramos was kidnapped. He was in a car heading back to the capital from Maracay, a coastal city 127 kilometers west, when two cars intercepted, and four men with machine guns jumped out, grabbed him, blindfolded him, stuffed him in the back of a car, and drove for hours on end. At one point, Ramos says, a kidnapper’s phone rang. The voice on the other end belonged to a small child. “Go to sleep. Daddy’s working,” the man replied.

The kidnappers told him they knew where his mother and then-girlfriend lived, and if he didn’t stop his political activities, they would rape and kill them. “You’re too young for this kind of crap,” they said.

Finally, Ramos arrived at a place that seemed like a prison. All he remembers is “the smell of pee and sulfur.” He would later learn that he was in the basement of the Venezuelan government’s intelligence agency, held as a hostage for more than 20 hours before his friends and political allies learned of his abduction and pressured the government into releasing him.

But the government got what it wanted: His days as a rabble-rouser were over. Less than two weeks later, on September 24, 2004, Ramos was in Miami, having sought and received political asylum. The U.S. government set him up with a job as a landscaper. 

If you think that’s a lot for the average 16-year-old to handle—student leader, political leader, political prisoner, and refugee in a foreign land—there’s also the fact that Ramos was born into poverty, to a teenage mother and an absentee father. But he was smart and ambitious. He graduated from high school by the age of 15 (a rare but not unheard of accomplishment in his native country, considering that kids start school at the age of 3) and moved to the capital to begin studying law at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, a large, private university in the heart of Caracas, which was then in a state of political turmoil.

Just two years earlier, President Hugo Chávez had been ousted in a coup, only to be returned to office 47 hours later. He had already brought the country’s oil revenue under government control and was enacting socialist policies. By the fall of 2004, he sought to exert more control over the country’s universities and prohibit the teaching of pro-capitalist and pro-Western democracy curricula.

Ramos was a college freshman, but he’d rallied his classmates to make him student body president, a position of some prestige in Caracas. And as he began uniting hundreds of students against Chávez’s proposed reforms, leaders of the opposition Only One People Party, a center-right organization enlisted him.

With the party’s backing, his influence grew. He began leading rallies not only in Caracas, where he was likely to be teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets, but elsewhere in the country too, which ultimately led to the regime’s interest in his activities.

You wouldn’t know all this to look at Ramos, though. He is short and thin, energetic and well-spoken, with closely trimmed black hair and a clean-shaven, almost boyish face. After he arrived in the U.S., he spent years working relatively menial jobs, trying to survive and determine his future. He wanted to go back to school, hopefully transferring the credits he’d accumulated in Caracas. Unfortunately, he says, the Chávez regime erased his transcripts, which meant he had to start from scratch. In 2009 he enrolled at Valencia Community College, where he graduated with an honors degree. And with help from scholarships from the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Fund of Metro Orlando and Epoch Properties, Inc., he went on to Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School, where he’s studying international affairs with a minor in business.

When he graduates next year, Ramos says he wants to focus his career on human rights—not just the kinds of abuses he saw in Venezuela, but also the issues he sees closer to home: abused women and children, kids who drop out of school and turn to drugs, and especially education, which he considers “the only way in the fight against oppression.”

“That is the fight I want to get on,” he says, “as a way of paying back this country.”

One day, he may take his leadership talents back to Venezuela, if the political climate there changes. But for now, he says, he’s appreciative of not just what he’s learning at Rollins, but also the atmosphere in which he’s doing it. A decade ago, he was fighting for the right to learn in an oppressive, controlled environment. Now, he’s at a place where opposing views are cherished—something that many of his fellow students take for granted.

“I see something here,” Ramos says of the country that took him in, “the inspiration of competition. The magic of free enterprise, of capitalism.”

While his career as a teenage politico in Caracas may have been short-lived, it did make a difference. In 2007, three years after he left, the student group he helped found led the successful fight against Chávez’s proposal to abolish Venezuela’s presidential term limits.

“The work that I did worked out for something,” Ramos says.

UPDATE: This story was originally published on October 31, 2013. In May, Kenther Ramos graduated from Rollins College's Hamilton Holt School, and he continues to fight for causes close to him. As a Walt Disney Co. employee and union committee member, he helped with worker contract negotiations. It resulted in a 25 percent pay increase for more than 10,000 cast members. Ramos will apply to the University of Cambridge, in England, for a highly competitive scholarship for a master’s degree in international relations with an emphasis in human rights.  If accepted, he will complete the one-year program and return to his work in human rights in Central Florida.