A Response to ‘The Venezuelan Youth Movement Opposing Democracy’

In a recent piece for Caracas Chronicles, Carlos Rodríguez López links the rise of what he calls an authoritarian nationalism to an artificial nostalgia. For me, this phenomenon is about political exclusion

Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

“How does it feel? How does it feel? 
To be without a home? Like a complete unknown? 
Like a rolling stone?”
Bob Dylan

Carlos Rodríguez’s main argument to understand Venezuelan youth’s disappointment in democracy centers on the origins of their ideology. He states in his piece: “In order to understand them, we have to understand where they’re coming from.” I propose a different approach: understanding the economic and social causes that brought them to this place. 

Bias is a human trait. It’s not uncommon to see people who believe in things that make no logical sense and act in consequence. So faulty logic, in itself, doesn’t seem to be an argument powerful enough to make sense of the rise of anti-democratic ideologies. In contrast, by understanding their causes, we can propose alternatives to promote the rise of more democratic generations. 

Inequalities and the experience of social exclusion are important explanatory factors in the rise of anti-democratic ideologies. This is an argument as old as Plato’s Republic, where he warns that democracies under the guidance of corrupt leaders will eventually motivate societies to resort to tyranny. Also, contemporary research has found similar results. Economists in the U.S found evidence that connects the increase of income inequality with the elections of more radical politicians at a state level. Colombia experts explain that the rising inequality is one of the main drivers of the protests in the country. 

But how does this connect to the Venezuelan case? My argument is that Venezuelan youth suffers from a two-level inequality: socio-economic and representational. On one hand, according to ENCOVI, Venezuela ranked as the second most unequal country in the region in terms of income. In Venezuela, it’s palpable that a few people accumulate what’s left of wealth in the country. To a system that says over and over their main concern is the wellbeing of the poor but acts in the exact opposite way, the natural response is distrust. Under a system that dwells into chaos with no clear paths for economic mobility, future generations appeal to tyranny as an attempt to recover a lost sense of order. 

Simultaneously, the political references in the country have systematically ignored young Venezuelans and, by way of example, show them that democracy isn’t a successful route to lead the country. I once asked a group of women from different barrios in Caracas what was the government’s offer to the youth in their communities. One of them answered: “The only thing that they offer is the FAES.” That spontaneous comment isn’t so far from the truth. Programs like Chamba Juvenil or the cash transfers are precarious and unstable. The only constant policy targeted at this demographic under Maduro’s administration is police brutality. Since the creation of the OLPs, police killings have dramatically increased and almost 80% of victims of such executions are young men from low-income neighborhoods. 

On the other hand, the opposition doesn’t seem to have a clear alternative or message to the youth. They like to talk about children, mothers, and the elderly, but youth is often absent in their speeches. 

The political references in the country have systematically ignored young Venezuelans and, by way of example, show them that democracy isn’t a successful route to lead the country.

In addition to ignoring the youth, political referents have abandoned democracy. Venezuelan political actors behave under the assumption that democracy is the goal and not the medium to get out of the crisis. Chavismo blames the crisis on U.S sanctions but refuses to hold free and fair elections that would result in lifting them. The opposition says the crisis is because of dictatorial incompetence, but doesn’t offer democratic strategies to respond to authoritarianism. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson argues that young people seek familiar referents to create the first version of their identities as adults. The example they’re getting is that democracy is an abstract word that doesn’t materialize in reality. If we want to ensure future democratic generations, those who claim to be leaders need to start acting democratically. 

That said, why resort to the images of Pérez Jiménez, Renny Ottolina and alt-right movements? Because they offer a narrative that’s in tune with the political climate they’ve been exposed to since childhood. 

Inequality remains a polarized topic in Venezuela and in different parts of the world, associated with left-wing ideologies. For example, Madrid’s conservative governor, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, said in a recent speech at the Spanish Congress that “inequality isn’t the problem, it’s poverty, criticizing the argument of left-wing politicians. Societies that are too unequal, economically and in terms of representations, can’t survive as democracies. Low levels of economic inequality may be a driving force for growth in a country. But like a dish ruined with too much salt, too much-unaddressed inequality brings the rise of anti-democratic movements that appeal to youth and provides them with the promise of participating in a society that has excluded them. So inequality shouldn’t be a partisan topic, it must be an indicator of how well democracies are functioning. 

That an entire generation has been forced to leave their country or condemned to poverty and violence, is something that older Venezuelans didn’t experience at their age. When I think about the kind of questions we should be asking our youth to ensure more democratic generations, I believe we should start by asking how they feel about their country and what they feel their place is. Ask them how this political orphanhood feels… before questioning their beliefs.