Dear Codepink Activist, You’re Right

An open, respectful letter to those people who decided it was right to occupy the Venezuelan embassy in Washington D.C. to avoid National Assembly-appointed representatives to work there, by one Venezuelan who’s sincerely making the effort of understanding your point of view.

Photo: The Real News, retrieved

I feel for you, I really do. In the last few days, following your action to protect the Venezuelan embassy in Washington from opposition-supporting expats, you’ve become the focal point of a hugely visceral campaign of abuse by hundreds of thousands of people you don’t even know.

Your embassy sit-ins touched a raw nerve in the Venezuelan diaspora. You’ve become a kind of alternate focal point of a startling hatred built out of the raw, unprocessed pain of Venezuelans who’ve had to leave our country because the revolution you support made it impossible for us to survive there. I get it how staggering that must be, and I accept that, in your own way, you’re trying to stand up for a vision of social justice and the radical transformation of an unjust system.

In the testy exchanges you’ve kept having with your diaspora tormentors this week, one trope shows up again and again: the people it comes from don’t look like everyday Venezuelans. Their skin is lighter than most Venezuelans, their English better, their clothes more expensive looking. Real Venezuelans, you keep telling us, are nothing like the elites hurling abuse at you for protecting the Venezuelan embassy on behalf of the socialist revolution.

And, you know what? You’re right.

Real Venezuelans, you keep telling us, are nothing like the elites hurling abuse at you for protecting the Venezuelan embassy on behalf of the socialist revolution. And, you know what? You’re right.

The Venezuelan diaspora really does look pretty different from the people back home. In fact, over the last 20 years, you can build a pretty reliable gauge of a diaspora Venezuelan’s privilege just by asking what year they left the country. The genuinely privileged left early. Because we could see the way the wind was blowing, and we had the capital, both financial and cultural, to get out.

Take me. I learned English as a kid, speak it mostly without an accent. By the time Chávez took power, I had degrees from elite universities in the U.S. and the UK. It was no trouble at all to get out, which I did, all the way back in 2003—running off to a PhD program in Europe. Back then, pretty much all the rich people in Venezuela were already working on their Plan B.

And the process moved progressively down the socio-economic scale. As the oughts wore on, more and more middle-class people, grasping the authoritarian heart of the Chávez project, worked out their exit strategies. They were often university educated, but they weren’t as well off as those who’d gone before; maybe their English wasn’t great, or it wasn’t there at all, but they figured it out. Some dug up long lost relatives’ birth certificates in hopes of claiming European passports, others lined up jobs in Panama, Peru, Argentina. They’d pieced together they wouldn’t be able to offer their kids a decent future in Venezuela, and they’d taken precautions.

By the time the bottom really fell out of the Venezuelan economy, in 2014, nearly everyone with the resources to get out relatively easily had done so. Music videos chronicled the heartbreak of the holdouts. As one grim joke making the rounds put it, “damn it, the friends I made after all my friends left the country, are leaving the country now.”

So you’re right: the people hurling abuse at you in English right now are, by and large, not quite like the Venezuelans left behind. Their relative privilege allowed them to get out before 2016, when the real humanitarian crisis set in and people started to flee, rather than emigrate. And even then, those who fled on foot to Colombia—many now darker skinned—have been the relatively better off: younger, working-age people hoping to land work abroad to send money back. Behind, they left young kids, often in the care of elderly relatives: the absolute most vulnerable people in Venezuela.

For most of those who’ve fled, it’s been an enormous struggle to rebuild something like a stable life in cities from Guayaquil to Santiago de Chile. They’ve suffered enormously to flee. But compared to those they left behind, they’re privileged.

Because the people truly brutalized by the Maduro regime are those who haven’t left, because they can’t. Too poor, too old, too young, too isolated: the people the revolution claimed to champion are the ones who’ve suffered the most from the society-wide collapse the revolution wrought. A study last year showed fewer than one in ten of the people who remain in Venezuela can afford enough food to eat, two-thirds are actively losing body weight due to hunger.

The people living with no power, no water, no health care, no communications and no hope for a decent future are not, by and large, on Twitter.

You’re right, though, they’re not the ones yelling at you for squatting at the embassy in D.C. The people living with no power, no water, no health care, no communications and no hope for a decent future are not, by and large, on Twitter. The people now struggling to survive on a minimum wage that works out to about a penny an hour don’t speak English as well as we do. The people facing simultaneous outbreaks of malaria, diphtheria, tuberculosis and AIDS don’t live in Washington, or Miami, or Buenos Aires.

Those of us who’ve left, though, feel a special duty to speak up for them, because they can’t. Facing a government that jails dissidents, steals elections, silences speech and prosecutes dissent at every turn, we know we have a responsibility to speak up.

Because you’re absolutely right: those of us abroad, we’re not quite like the Venezuelans whose lives have been torn apart by the regime you support.

We’re infinitely luckier.