He’s an elected member of the National Assembly, arrested despite his parliamentary immunity. Jailed without charges for 121 days, then taken to a military court (even though he’s a civilian), Gilber was charged with treason. According to the authorities (who are also holding his girlfriend, Steyci Escalona, as a way to force a “confession”), he drove through the country with a stolen assault rifle in the backseat of his car, planning to murder opposition leaders and sow chaos.
That’s the information on the public record, the rest of his case is confidential.
His sister, who has visited him at the Tocuyito prison in Carabobo State, says he has lost a great deal of weight, even before this hunger strike. His family has tried to give him food and things to lighten his burden, but they’ve not been allowed by prison guards.
I met Gilber in 2009, when I asked him to give a talk to the Under-20 National Football team that made it to the World Cup. I was taken aback by his story of recovery from a life of crime into a social and political activist. Through that first collaboration, we became friends and I helped him write his autobiography. We reflected on his violent past, his years in jail, his spiritual transformation and his reform. He’s an example of what our country should strive for in the battle against street violence. Twenty years ago, depressed, he turned to religion and began a stunning personal journey that I had the privilege to hear first hand.
I understand chavismo, because that’s where I come from… I understand, but I don’t believe in answering with hate. … it didn’t get me anywhere.
The guy has gone from the darkest corners of Venezuela, to simple but incredibly meaningful work in projects like Techo, where he worked with homeless adults in Chacao, Liberados en Marcha, where he helped build a halfway house for ex-convicts, and Santa va a las Cárceles, which helps the families of prisoners. These initiatives took him into political activism in Voluntad Popular and studies in Law. The circle was complete when he won the representation of Miranda’s Circuit 4 as substitute legislator for Rafael Guzmán in 2015.
In our conversations, I repeatedly challenged Gilber on his thoughts about his previous lifestyle, looking for insight on how he dealt with guilt. Finishing the book, he reflected on the threats chavismo began directing at him; “Why do they see me as an enemy, knowing that what I’m doing is for a good cause?” he wondered. “I understand chavismo, because that’s where I come from. I know what it is like to feel hate and anger, to live in poverty. I understand, but I don’t believe in answering with hate. I did that already, and it didn’t get me anywhere.”
Gilber’s story demonstrates how a life of violence can bloom into something positive. He has endured the many versions of cruelty our country can offer. He’s much braver than his jailers and now his life is in danger. After Carlos Andrés García’s infamous and cruel passing, there’s little doubt that the government will let him die if we allow it.
Let’s raise our voices. He has been strong enough to beat his limitations, but this time he needs us.
It’s on us to not fail him.