Venezuela protest victim's parents speak of ordeal

By Vanessa Buschschlüter
BBC News, Caracas

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image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionJuan Pablo Pernalete

Juan Pablo Pernalete was one of dozens of people who have been killed in protest-related violence in Venezuela since a wave of anti-government marches started at the beginning of April. Here, his parents recall the day he died.

"He was always a dreamer," says Elvira Llovera of her son.

In his bedroom at the family home in Caracas, a list of his life goals is pinned to the inside of a closet where the 20 year old's basketball shirt still hangs.

Elvira reads it out: "I want to play for the NBA; I want to be successful and become a multi-millionaire; I want to be the best player in the whole world; I want world peace; I want to be tall; I want to grow to 1.96m; I want to get to know God well; I wish for my friends, and above all for my family, to be healthy."

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionHis father, José Gregorio, says his son's bedroom is as he left it

Juan Pablo had done well for himself, he had won a basketball scholarship to the prestigious private Unimet university in Caracas, where he was studying accountancy.

But he wanted everyone to have the same opportunity to do well for themselves, Elvira explains.

But as the economic and political crisis in Venezuela worsened, Juan Pablo saw a lot of his friends forced to leave for other countries, seeking opportunities abroad.

As the food shortages became more acute, he would pick the fruit from the large mango tree in his parents' courtyard.

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionThe family mango tree besides a full-size basketball hoop and a tiny one that Juan Pablo played with as a child

"He put them in carrier bags and left them in strategic places in the streets so that those going hungry could pick them up," Elvira recalls.

In the mornings, Juan Pablo would attend classes and train at the leafy and prosperous Unimet campus.

media captionAndres Toth speaks about his friend who died after attending one of Venezuela's protests

In the afternoons, he would go to play basketball in the "barrios", as the informal hillside neighbourhoods are known.

There, he saw for himself some of the extreme poverty in which people live.

Elvira was, therefore, not surprised when Juan Pablo told her he wanted to change things in Venezuela and started attending anti-government marches.

"I begged him not to go, I told him the security forces were cracking down on protesters, but he said he wanted an opportunity to express himself and to fight for his dreams," she says.

Juan Pablo's father, José Gregorio Pernalete, adds: "He didn't belong to any party, he just wanted a better country for all."

image copyrightCourtesy of Andrés Toth
image captionHis talent as a basketball player had won Juan Pablo (first from right) a scholarship to a private university

"He was an idealist, he set his dreams so high," Elvira says.

On 26 April, Juan Pablo attended an anti-government protest in the Altamira district of Caracas.

His friend Andrés Toth, with whom he had trained in the gym earlier in the day, was also there, as were many of their friends.

His parents had just returned home from hunting round pharmacies for José Gregorio's high-blood pressure medication when they got a call from a friend.

"'There's word on the streets that Juan Pablo has been injured, he's been taken to Salud Chacao hospital," the friend told Elvira.

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionJuan Pablo's dream was to play in the NBA

Elvira and José Gregorio jumped into their car, but the protest meant that roads on the way to the hospital were gridlocked.

Desperate, Elvira jumped out of the car and flagged down a young motorcyclist weaving through the traffic.

"I told him my son was injured and had been taken to Salud Chacao and if he could drop me somewhere nearby."

"He said 'No way, lady, I'm taking you all the way there!'"

At the hospital, the local mayor was waiting for Elvira. He told her: "You have to be strong, your son is dead."

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionElvira says she feels as if she has died inside since she heard the news

Elvira does not remember much about the minutes which followed.

Somehow, she called her husband and told him.

José Gregorio, still behind the wheel of his car, lost all control, he says.

"I couldn't see for the tears, I was screaming, I was banging my hands on the steering wheel."

A random passer-by got him out of the driving seat and into the passenger seat and took the keys off him.

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionJosé Gregorio and his wife were planning to sell their house and set up a business for their son once he graduated

"I remember he told me I was in no fit state to drive, and that he would drive me to Salud Chacao," says José Gregorio.

According to the forensic report, Juan Pablo died of cardiogenic shock caused by trauma to his chest.

Various people who attended the march said that the National Guard was firing tear gas canisters in the direction of the protesters, and that instead of aiming them high above the protesters' heads, they were shooting at them.

Juan Pablo may not have measured the 1.96m he had dreamed of, but at 1.86m, he was tall and he was hit by something which caused his heart to stop pumping enough blood needed to meet his body's needs.

image copyrightAlejandro Cegarra
image captionJuan Pablo had saved seven dogs off the streets but his latest rescue was a black cat he named Richard Parker

The official investigation into what happened that 26 April in Altamira is still under way.

At this point, José Gregorio and Elvira know only one thing for certain, and that is that they do not want any other family to have to live through what they experienced.

"When I see the lads in the barrios that he played basketball with, I see the same look in their eyes that I saw in my son, the same aspirations, there is so much talent here. Please don't let that be wasted like my son's was," Elvira says.

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