A red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag stretches from one end of the wall to the other. Seven stars overlay the blue strip. On the left side is a skull-like depiction of current Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, while on the right side is the hashtag #FreeVenezuela.
Located in Wynwood at the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Northwest 1st Place, the mural that represents the pride and struggle of the Venezuelan people according to its creator.
But Claudio Roncoli, the man behind the mural, is Argentinian.
After having been up for a little over three months, the mural was recently defaced with graffiti, with the phrase “Operation Condor 2.0” and “Allende Lives 9/11/1973,” scrawled in red spray paint. Roncoli does not know who did it, but said he plans to repair the mural by Art Basel.
Operation Condor refers to a U.S.-backed series of military coups in South America to overthrow left-leaning or communist leaders. One of these was Salvador Allende, the president of Chile who was deposed on Nov. 11, 1973 and committed suicide later the same day.
Maduro recently made statements alluding to an “Operation Condor 2.0” aimed at overthrowing his presidency.
“The campaign against Venezuela is generating violence and chaos that is allowing an intervention by [the] United States government,” said Maduro at a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela in 2016.
Roncoli sees something very different in the defacement.
“I feel very worried that there are people that don’t desire democracy for their country,” he said in Spanish.
Venezuela is currently in the middle of a humanitarian crisis characterized by skyrocketing inflation, extreme violence and a population without access to their basic needs. Though the country is filled with vast oil reserves, about a third lives below the poverty line according to data from the World Bank.
The painting’s theme holds a special meaning for Roncoli, who experienced a similar situation in the 1970s as a young boy in Argentina. He said he remembers living under a dictatorial regime that resulted in suppressed expression and the disappearance of many. It is, he said, a picture that is all too similar to today’s Venezuela.
“When the moment came [to design the mural] I thought to myself, ‘What do I do?’ It occurred to me that since so many people pass through that neighborhood, everyone from the Orient all the way to Patagonia, I thought why not put something that’ll create a consciousness in people and will help?” said Roncoli.
Inspiration for the mural came after a four-month stint without a car when Roncoli took Ubers everywhere out of a desire to avoid driving. He learned of the Venezuelan crisis from his drivers.
”They would tell me their stories and it was incredible,” he said. “It’s one thing for the government to suppress expression but from there to be killing people, to not have hygiene products or food, that is a total extreme.”
After choosing his theme, Roncoli began investigating the country and was inspired by the iconography he saw on social media. He said he chose to depict Maduro as a skull to represent the people dying in the country.
“The skull [also] symbolizes that we are all equal. We can be presidents, missionaries, poor people but we are all equal,” said Roncoli.
One of his hopes is to spread awareness. He wants foreigners unfamiliar with Venezuela to see the hashtag and look it up on social media. Although he has received mostly positive reviews online, the mural seems to stir mixed emotions.
Some have enjoyed the painting.
“I see hope,” said Venezuelan-born FIU student, Edwin Salas. “The seven stars on the flag are the older version of it. It gives me hope that the people over there dying and protesting for their freedom will have it all pay off long term.”
In comparison, another FIU student, Oscar Hernandez, who has spent most of his life in Venezuela, has a different perspective.
“It’s upsetting, I’d rather see other images of the beautiful landscapes that Venezuela has,” he said. “Hell, even a burgundy wall with the national team logo would make me feel better, but the mural just focuses on the bad stuff.”
Roncoli is content with his work and wants to spread awareness of the Venezuelan crisis though his art.
“Un grano de arena para ayudarlos en algo,” he said.*
*[The mural] is a grain of sand on my behalf to help with something.