Outbound: Venezuela too rowdy for Christina Cox

When Christina Cox embarked on a year-long study abroad trip to Venezuela, she expected to improve her Spanish and enjoy the country's relaxed Caribbean culture. What she didn't anticipate were street protests and tear gas.

Cox, a junior at Charlottesville High School, left for Venezuela in September as part of an exchange program sponsored by the American Field Service, best known as AFS. Recent political demonstrations protesting the actions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have grown increasingly violent, halting oil shipments and bringing the country to a standstill.

"We were concerned about letting her go and thought about changing our minds," says her father, Kevin Cox, "but it meant a lot to her."

Young Cox says she never felt endangered during her stay in Venezuela. Living on the island of Margarita with the family of two professors, Cox says she was far from the political violence. In the capital city of Caracas, however, thing were considerably dicier, with violent protests and frequent shootings, including the recent death of a 17-year-old girl.

When Cox was given one day's notice of her departure, she was devastated. AFS sent her home in mid-December, shortly before the State Department issued a travel warning.

"I didn't want to leave," she says, adding that "Most of the really dangerous people had already gone to Caracas."

Cox, who says that her experience has changed the way she views the news media, is concerned about the way the oil crisis has been portrayed in America.

"A lot of Americans only care about oil prices," she says. "They don't realize that schools, doctor's offices, and grocery stores have been shut down in Venezuela and the influence this is having on the lives of everyday people. It's causing Venezuelans to kill each other."

Cox hopes that Chavez will be thrown out of office. The president, a leftist whose supporters see him as a champion of the country's poor, has been criticized for leading the nation into economic ruin by failing to deliver promised reforms.

She may have left Venezuela at the right time. Still in contact with her former host family through phone and email, she recently learned that the school she attended was tear-gassed. While she won't be able to return to her host family this year, she says she plans to go back "as soon as it's safe again."

In the meantime, AFS has given Cox the option of completing her year abroad in Ecuador. Cox, who hopes one day to study archaeology or international relations, says she is unsure if she will return to South America, citing the continent's overall volatile situation.

Father Kevin Cox isn't eager to ship his eldest child off again. "One close call," he says, "may be enough."