The One Venezuelan Student in Linfield University

Studying Political Science in the U.S. was my way of coping with the pain of being a hapless spectator to my country’s tragedy. It was an intense ride

I have to admit that defending a thesis on Zoom is a bit of an awkward experience. The room never feels quite full nor completely empty. It’s strange, the interactions over the screen don’t even feel human. And the thesis I was defending, about a month ago, focused on an emotional subject to me: a study of democratic backsliding in Venezuela from 1958 to 1994, which marked the culmination of my time at Linfield University, Oregon, where I just graduated as a political science and music double major. 

Five years ago, I wandered around multiple career paths: from engineering to industrial design and from economics to finally going with political science, which I chose because it seemed like the right thing to do. To be honest, looking back, the answer seemed obvious. Ever since I was a kid I loved political history. I would carry around the children’s history books distributed with El Nacional newspapers. I would excitedly break the plastic wrappers and quickly browse through the newspaper to take a glance at what was going on before diving deep into stories of caudillos and civilians. I cannot say that I understood everything, but I became addicted to political developments, even with all the sorrow that came with following closely the news in Venezuela while opposing the regime.

Politics felt like the most important and interesting thing ever, albeit being heartbreaking as well. As time went on and the crisis became increasingly complex and the regime more violent in 2017, I grew restless and felt the need to do something, but the distance, I’ve been away from Venezuela since 2014, made me feel like I had to endure watching the country succumb silently. 

I remember crying in my therapist’s chair because I felt that being abroad rendered me useless to contribute meaningfully, that I had become a hapless spectator and that I had let my country down. 

Studying political science changed that. I started at Linfield University in 2017, the same year so many young people in Venezuela were killed during the summer protests. I was eager to learn and to find a way to contribute to the solution of the crisis. Yet, I was in a bit of a unique situation because I was the only Venezuelan in my graduating class and, to my understanding, I’m the only Venezuelan that graduated from Linfield in recent history.

The story of an entire nation over my shoulders

This uniqueness placed me in the role of “spokesperson” for Venezuelan issues. Nobody was unkind about it, and I would frequently receive questions after introducing myself and my country of origin. Answering those questions, at least in the beginning, made me happy. I loved working closely with faculty because they found the crisis as compelling and complex as I did and discussing with peers in seminars about political theory and comparative politics always proved to be an exciting experience.

Pedro with Aspen Brooks, Brandon Turner, and Sharika Thiranagama at 2018 panel on civility and protests

Photo: Pedro Graterol

When I started learning about politics academically, the crisis in Venezuela stopped being an ambiguous blob known as the crisis. I was able to discern the multiple components: the deterioration of democracy, the economic crisis, and the military vs. civilian tension. Venezuela never stopped hurting in my heart, and it certainly was constantly in my thoughts, but it was empowering to understand the complexity and the multiple variables involved in exactly what was going on. 

I was lucky enough to surround myself with peers, faculty, and friends that understood what it was like to experience the crisis in Venezuela. While nobody else could feel the pain that I felt, I was never alone when, in the middle of a sunny day, I would become overwhelmed by seeing the images of the National Guard charging against demonstrators in my Twitter feed. 

However, it was impossible to run away from questions that were prejudiced by the political persuasions that are often immersed in the discussions about Venezuela or just because of downright ignorance. In some instances, very few thankfully, I had to explain that Venezuela was, in fact, a country, or that we had roads and restaurants, or that we had schools. This was more common with people who were not very familiar with politics. On the other hand, at times, while discussing with peers, I would find myself in hostile interrogatories that questioned the existence of the crisis or that followed the tropes of portraying Venezuela as a utopian achievement of the left. Furthermore, I would encounter resistance when my opinions about the economy clashed with colleagues who had more right-leaning thoughts.

For the most time, this was not the case. The questions were usually benign and with genuine curiosity on what was happening and how that affected me, my family, or global politics at large. Yet, at times, I felt a lot of pressure, because I thought I had to speak for all 30 million Venezuelans. There wasn’t any other student around with the specifics and I felt that I had to seek the answers to the questions as they emerged, which was fast. 

Overwhelmed

Nevertheless, seeking the right answers, while learning about the complexity of politics, really changes your perspective, especially when talking about Venezuela. When I started, I knew the basics. There was a regime. There was the opposition. There were colectivos and questionable elections. I learned, however, about comparative politics and political theory and I was able to develop a technical lens to understand the crisis in Venezuela. Perez Jimenez was not only a big 20th-century bad guy, he was also a modernizing authoritarian; CAP’s economic reform was not just a political miscalculation, but a response to the IMF’s support of neoliberalism to get a loan and help with the financial issues of the time.

Venezuela quickly became not only a part of who I was, but also a part of what I studied and, as the crisis in January 2019 intensified, I was given the opportunity to give a speech with the International Programs Office at my University. Usually, presentations were about the culture, traditions, and an overview of what the country was like. I felt that, however, that with the ever-spinning crisis, the right thing to do wasn’t to talk about arepas and perinolas, but rather to bring attention to the crisis. This was my first experience looking in-depth at Venezuelan history with an academic lens and it was fascinating. The presentation, named Labyrinth, was a success and I was very proud of the outcome.

But much like looking directly at the sun, looking at Venezuela for too long became hurtful.

The pain of seeing the crisis escalate was matched with an increasing pressure to communicate what was going on. Meals in the dining hall and conversations before class all became permeated with questions about what was happening, why that was happening, and what came next. Every interaction became overwhelming, especially when none of the answers seemed clear. I was emotionally exhausted, while also feeling that I had an obligation to talk about it. I remember muttering to myself when I thought about stopping: “If I don’t do it, nobody else will.” My part had become to help tell that story, but it had become just too much to handle and I felt weak because the burden I had to carry was smaller than that of young people protesting on the ground and facing repression first-hand.

Again, none of my faculty were rude to me, nor were my friends. My professors would change the topic if I really wasn’t feeling up to discussing the situation and my friends would be supportive. But dealing with a crisis like Venezuela’s can feel incredibly exhausting regardless of where you are and who you are with. So I ran away from the topic. I stopped following Venezuelan journalists and news sources. I was tired of feeling the stormy world inside of me while the day outside was sunny. I didn’t want to hear from it again. 

Back to my purpose

I continued studying political science, but I drifted away from the topic of Venezuela completely. I didn’t know where to land, but topics like NATO and the politicization of memes became my everyday life as I tried to make sense of the political world. I had hated being the “spokesperson for Venezuela” but doing anything else didn’t feel fulfilling. 

It was during this time that I fell into depression. I felt that I had become hollow and that everything I did, from playing music to reading the news felt meaningless. It felt as if I was just playing a part and living my life away from its purpose, because to an extent I was; before, I had felt a sense of purpose when I shared the stories of what it was like during the 2014 protests or when Chavez started seizing property. I had felt part of something bigger when I would read about the October Revolution of 1945 or the events of January 23th of 1958. Now that I was not doing that, something was missing.

My calling was to tell this story, the right way.

It was guiding others through our labyrinth, not only because I felt that there were lessons for everyone to learn in each of the multiple components of our complex country and that what happened to us was not unique and that many countries were facing similar risks. I felt that I was helping my country by letting others know what was happening and that made me feel less alone. By rejecting to study and to tell this story, I was rejecting who I was and ended in pain and loneliness. That was just not sustainable.

A couple of months later, in the middle of quarantine in March 2020, I faced a blank screen in a Google Doc. I had to complete an assignment of looking at a community and assess the health of different components of political communication. I didn’t know what to write about. Nothing seemed THAT interesting. I took a hard gulp and started looking at the sun again. I realized that I was working with topics that I was not passionate about and I had left behind what had inspired me to study political science to begin with. So, I started to look at the history of the media in Venezuela, of political campaigns and of the different protest movements and I found that I loved it as much as I did before. I had become a bit more careful around handling my mental health and I had developed tools to be able to handle the pain of the crisis in Venezuela, but I found a spark again in my studies. So I continued to look at the sun and write and went back to telling the story. 

I continued telling the story of what was happening with the academic rigor that the faculty was helping me develop. I continued researching and writing and built my thesis around democratic backsliding in 20th century Venezuela, because I wanted to explore the existing systemic issues in our institutions before chavismo and their influence on the contemporary situation. 

When the Zoom call ended after my thesis had been defended and the virtual presences faded away into the empty conference room, some of my friends that had gathered to listen to the defense on the other side of the door entered to congratulate me. I felt happy that I continued telling this story because I continued doing something that was worth it and that I loved. 

I know that studying political science as a Venezuelan is a difficult thing. I cannot say that it is easy to intellectually analyze the problems that our country has to navigate. However, I want to continue doing it. 

I want to continue researching Venezuela’s institutions and their history to understand what is going on because the story of our country is a story worth telling.

Pedro Graterol

Violist raised in El Sistema, political science and music major at Linfield University