The Venezuelan Youth Movement Opposing Democracy

A mix of inherited nostalgia for an era they didn’t experience and the ability of the alt-right produced a noisy tribe of young advocates for conservative authoritarianism

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

“I don’t believe in democracy, I don’t believe in globalism, I don’t believe in multiculturalism, I don’t believe in equality, I don’t believe in debauchery, and I don’t believe in multilateral organizations like the U.N. I’m a nationalist statist, and I’m proud to be one.” These are the words of John Patrick Acquaviva, a freestyle footballer turned political commentator with thousands of young followers on social media. 

Acquaviva can be considered one of the major exponents of a seemingly disorganized trend of young Venezuelan nationalists who long for former authoritarian leaders they never knew. This kind of nationalism is now resurfacing after struggling historically for the last five decades. 

Defining it is quite difficult, as some advocates hide their identity and there’s so much one can understand from reading a Twitter profile. 

However, a common motivator among these folks is the belief that Venezuelan patriotic values are disappearing and must be recovered at any cost. They often advocate for the use of military force in their causes, particularly the Essequibo topic, and while they live under a dictatorship, they’re quite supportive of strongmen like El Salvador’s Bukele or Russia’s Putin.

Watching Venezuelans support authoritarian leaders is nothing new. What’s eye-catching is that this nationalist movement on social media openly advocating against a liberal democracy seems mostly composed of young people, particularly students; the same kind of people that were deeply involved (in the frontline) of the 2014 and 2017 protests against Maduro’s dictatorship.

It’s reasonable to ask how this trend became a thing or if we should fear that the next political generation of Venezuelans will be anti-democratic. However, first we must try to understand the context behind this movement. 

As a young political science student who’s had to deal with many of these individuals, let me tell you that the more you try to understand them from a simplistic point of view, the more confused you’ll be. This is why in order to understand them, we have to understand where they’re coming from. 

The History Behind Venezuelan Nationalism

Most Venezuelan “nationalists” base their ideology on a mix of three pillars: the Nuevo Ideal Nacional principles from the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1950-1958), the doctrines of the late Venezuelan TV host and aspiring politician Renny Ottolina, and a touch of the conservative values of the American alt-right.

Defining where these pillars fall within the political spectrum is quite difficult, as the ideological contradictions of the principles themselves are the quintessence of what Venezuelans call an arroz con mango. 

The first and main ideological pillar of this new nationalist movement is the Nuevo Ideal Nacional, the political dogma of the Pérez Jiménez regime. Its ideological composition has been the subject of several publications by university professors for many years. Nevertheless, it’s been regarded as an attempt to introduce Franco-like militaristic behavior into Venezuelan society. According to a sketchy website made by a nationalist youth organization called Orden, its main goals were to achieve the “integral moral, intellectual, and material betterment of the Venezuelan citizen” and the “transformation of the Venezuelan physical medium.” To translate that piece of perezjimenista propaganda: the goal was to build lavish and ambitious infrastructure projects in the hope that this would improve the way of life and people would ignore the fact that they were living under a ruthless dictatorship. Needless to say, it didn’t work..

After the fall of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship in 1958, nationalist tendencies in Venezuela decayed in popularity due to the foundation of a modern liberal democracy and the rise of democratic political parties like AD, COPEI, and URD. Nevertheless, it was during this democratic period where the second pillar of modern Venezuelan nationalist thought came into play. Renny Ottolina is probably considered the best TV host Venezuela has ever seen, he was the most prominent celebrity in the country and his show had the best ratings for many years. During his television career, Ottolina would showcase the beauties of the Venezuelan territory and culture in an exuberant patriotic fashion that made him famous. However, his relationship with the political status quo turned sour. Ottolina would often criticize the administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez, condemn several government programs, and dedicate entire segments to making controversial nationalist opinions. This behavior got him ousted from Venezuelan television. However, it boosted him into a career in politics where he founded the party MIN-UNIDAD (that got hijacked by chavismo six years ago) which stood for nationalist and conservative values. He used this party as a platform to run for the presidency in the 1978 elections. Notwithstanding, his political career was short, as he died in a plane crash. According to conspiracy theorists, his death was caused by the political establishment to prevent him from reaching the presidency; his death has elevated his figure to a messiah status which still holds today in nationalist groups.

Lastly, the third pillar is a recent one: the American alt-right. The alt-right in the United States is characterized for showing their rebelliousness against establishment politics and their proposition for a more “pure” type of right-wing politics free from special interests. Venezuelan nationalists identify with this movement. For example, there’s a claim that there’s never been a true right-wing leader in Venezuela, and while that’s debatable, nationalists use this idea to reject traditional politics and embrace authoritarian behaviors that align with their conservative views, much like it happened in the U.S. in 2016. Just like their American counterparts, social media plays a pivotal role in spreading false information and anti-democratic views.

Democracy As a Liability

Before we continue with the politics, it’s important to remember the fact that this movement is mainly composed of young people. These are young Venezuelans who have never seen a healthy democracy in our country, many of them had to struggle to find food at supermarkets or have electricity at home, it’s very likely that many of them had a friend or family member killed by the violence the country has seen in the last two decades, and just like many Venezuelans, they probably grew tired of waiting for the opposition to make a significant advance in the fight against the dictatorship. 

Many nationalists have witnessed chavismo’s destruction of Venezuela under the pretext of “21st century socialism.” Only through stories and deep internet searches looking into Venezuela’s past, could they get a glimpse of the “best kept secret in the Caribbean” their grandparents told them about. They look at the ambitious infrastructure achievements of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship as the apogee of Venezuelan progress, disregarding the destruction of democratic institutions and torture of political activists because according to them “those were the predecessors of modern chavismo.” 

Living under probably the worst government Venezuela has seen, has led them to believe that progress can only be achieved under a government that upholds order above anything else, and that “meritocracy” should be above democratic principles, as it was democracy that took Chávez to power.

It’s imperative that we understand that this young nationalist movement doesn’t hold democracy in high regard. In fact, they actually understand democracy as a dangerous obstacle to the vision they have for a prosperous Venezuela. This is why authoritarians such as Pinochet, Franco, Putin, or Bolsonaro are role models for them. They think that they’re fighting the global spheres of influence of communist thought and their reputation is tarnished by communist agents like the Sao Paulo Forum through violent protests. Their only interpretation of progress is through the aforementioned “transformation of the physical medium.” As long as a leader performs ambitious projects worthy of admiration, democracy is needless. This is why they have a fascination over characters like Pérez Jiménez, because they’re willing to give up their already deteriorated political rights in exchange for what they consider progress.

‘La sangre no ha llegado al río’ 

In Venezuela, when a problem hasn’t reached the point of no return where immediate action is needed, we usually say the phrase “la sangre no ha llegado al río” (the blood still hasn’t reached the river). That phrase would perfectly describe the level of reach that nationalism has on the Venezuelan youth. While these young democracy skeptics are very loud, they usually move through their own Twitter and YouTube echo chambers. Apart from the aforementioned Acquaviva, very few platforms or personalities have the same reach as he does. It’s true that there are a lot of young radical conservatives that support Trump or anything that has the word “right-wing” in their name. But this is a natural reaction in the political pendulum from a youth that has lived under chavismo for 22 years. If anything, these new generation right-wingers support a more traditional conservative platform like Reagan’s but still defend democracy.

Additionally, Venezuelan nationalists struggle to find an ideological platform themselves. Yes, they like conservative authoritarian regimes and all, but you often see them calling for a liberal capitalist market in one tweet and in the next tweet you see them praising the economic policies of Pérez Jiménez, who practiced state capitalism to the point that a 1954 pro-regime column compared his policies to Lenin’s. They usually pick fights with other right-wing people, and most of their discussions are monothematic as they always end up talking about how great Pérez Jiménez was, the charisma of Renny Ottolina, or how damaging the democratic period was to Venezuela. 

Fortunately, while nationalism is still a minor force, there are people working to protect the principles of democracy in Venezuelan society from being threatened. NGOs like Proyecto Base, are aiming to preserve democratic values in the youth through education. They bring academic experts to teach classes about history, Venezuelan political culture, and democratic concepts through extensive and detailed courses.

Nationalism is still a fairly new and struggling current that’s embraced in certain political social bubbles. However, what’s notable about the rise of this movement is that they’re stuck in a past they never saw, and the reason they’re stuck in that past is the damage chavismo has inflicted upon Venezuelan youth. A damage so profound that led some people to be willing to give up their rights in exchange for a sign of a prosperous future.