How to Briefly Explain Venezuela to an American Audience

After going through several stages of migratory grief, I’ve learned some useful things during my experiences talking about my country

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

A couple of weeks ago, I was profoundly moved by a piece written by Nai Gonzalez in Caracas Chronicles. Nai described the dissonance and pain that she felt when she lost her uncle in Venezuela after a long battle with cancer, amid the difficulties that dealing with an oncology patient in Venezuela brings. This pain only increased when she saw a daycare in San Francisco that hailed the Bolivarian revolution as a noble cause rather than the movement responsible for the biggest crisis in Venezuelan history.

As I was sitting at my desk at my job, I found myself forwarding the story to my friends. To Venezuelans abroad because it captured a familiar feeling and to Americans because it illustrated a common yet devastating reality. The reality that Venezuelans abroad face when hearing others talking about our country in a way that dilutes the reality and pain of our crisis. 

It’s incredibly hard to realize that, for some people, the pain of the collapse of our country is just a tool that hides or exaggerates truths to serve other political purposes. Seeing this is incredibly isolating because it makes you feel that you’re seen as a cartoon inside of their caricature of Venezuela instead of a person that’s suffering through one of the most complicated political situations in the world. 

Venezuela is an incredibly complex topic so it’s important to embrace that complexity and to try to learn about the different vertices of the crisis. To do so, it’s important to recognize your own biases and distrust your assumptions, and humbly recognize that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. 

However, I’ve always been someone who likes to take complex feelings and turn them into action. So after realizing that this feeling is becoming an ubiquitous experience of being Venezuelan abroad, I think it’s time to reclaim our narrative and tell this story the best that we can. However, when doing so, we have to be very precise because we want to have meaningful conversations, conversations that transcend the noise of modern political discourse. Therefore, the way we talk about politics has to be very careful. These are some of the lessons that I learned that work best to approach this topic. 

First, Know Your Own History and Your Country

The first fundamental step in talking about Venezuelan politics is knowing the subject. This means reading and listening to good sources and voices with multiple backgrounds and perspectives. Venezuela is an incredibly complex topic so it’s important to embrace that complexity and to try to learn about the different vertices of the crisis. To do so, it’s important to recognize your own biases and distrust your assumptions, and humbly recognize that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. 

If you want to explain our situation to others, you also have to be proactively trying to learn what’s going on. The purpose of having these conversations should be trying to convey the truth of what’s happening in the country, not persuading chavistas and tankies and becoming another baseless voice raging on Twitter. So, you have to know your stuff and be open to constantly learning more. One place to start is this online course on Venezuelan history, prepared by the main historians from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. 

Second, Be Respectful and Polite

There are very important tips that work well in every political conversation: factual evidence, composed tone, staying focused on the topic at hand. However, I think that we have to also consider a different approach in order to truly have meaningful conversations about politics that go beyond screaming matches.

We have to understand that political conversations have different purposes and work in different settings. If we’re trying to build meaningful conversations to create understanding about the situation of Venezuela, I think that dialogue is the most appropriate. In a highly polarized world, debates only lead those involved into further entrenchment in their views. Furthermore, in the case of discussions, there’s a guarantee that all voices will be expressed but not that they will be listened to. Therefore, the best alternative is to engage in political dialogue, but how do we go about that? 

Third, Empathize with Your Audience

There’s no denying that Venezuela has entered the bloodstream of discussion abroad in places like Colombia, Spain, Ecuador, Peru, or even Florida during the 2020 election. It makes sense, as the crisis in Venezuela has become international in terms of the countries impacted by our massive migration. So, while Venezuela becomes a topic of conversation, be mindful of the depth of the perspective that others have about our country. It isn’t logical to expect everyone to be caught up in all of the nitty-gritty details of a country that isn’t theirs. Most people’s perception of what Venezuela is like comes from the information that’s been shared by people inside of their echo chambers or in the little representation of Venezuela in conventional media outlets and, because of the increasingly polarized nature of politics, the perspectives of people abroad tend to be more distorted than what’s really happening in Venezuela. 

If we want others to understand what’s going on, it’s best to give them as clear of a picture as possible, and facts are the building blocks of reality. Having high-quality factual evidence creates credibility and helps others understand.

Furthermore, remember that our country isn’t their complete reality but a star in a constellation of factors that make up their opinion on how the world works. Therefore, don’t assume that the people that you are talking to are inherently evil because they have misconceptions. Always empathize with your audience. Understand that, in the same way that we have stories with politics that are deeply personal and emotional, they also have stories that shape and inform their perspective. Instead of drifting away from them, embrace emotions and personal stories. Don’t be afraid to tell people how it feels to exist in the context in which we exist and don’t be afraid to share some of your experiences if you are comfortable doing so. For a lot of the people who are misguided about the situation in Venezuela, the crisis has never had a face, so adding the human component is very important and can help to conceptualize the extent of it. 

I know this is hard. I struggle with this myself, sometimes it seems like the right thing to do is to engage in a heated debate. There are indeed times to do so. However, if the goal is to make others understand the reality of our crisis and create a common sense of understanding of the crisis in Venezuela, it’s easier to do so on good terms rather than bad terms. So always be mindful and respectful of the humanity of the people you are talking to and invite them to see the world from our perspective without pushing any particular agenda. 

Fourth, Use Facts to Tell a Good Story

While we’ve talked about the importance of considering people’s stories, backgrounds and emotions, it’s still important to reiterate that we need to be precise and always use factual evidence and logical reasoning. If we want others to understand what’s going on, it’s best to give them as clear of a picture as possible, and facts are the building blocks of reality. Having high-quality factual evidence creates credibility and helps others understand. So, consider having multiple reputable and credible sources, like the reports by the UNHRC or the ICC. But, since not everyone has time or energy to read hundreds of pages of very technical jargon, you can trust reputable media outlets, like this one. These sites can help translate the technical terms and make sense of the relevance of any major development. 

However, in my experience, people understand and connect better with this narrative. I don’t mean narrative as in a “once upon a time” bedtime story, but rather a collection of facts organized and curated in a way that can present and explain a cohesive slice of the situation in Venezuela. Isolated facts can explain a portion of what is going on but interconnected facts can do that better. 

In addition, explaining all the layers of the crisis can be overwhelming for the speaker and the listener. So, consider using some of these archetypes to build evidence-based narratives to explain some of the facets of the crisis. 

  • Oil is the property of the State, not the people. In the past, the State was rich and unsustainable, now, after decades of mismanagement, it’s pauper and almost non-existent. The current crisis is the worst economic collapse in recent history, without a civil war.
  • Our democracy wasn’t a paradise. It wasn’t perfect, but deliberate actions by politicians, especially those involved in chavismo, eroded some of the improvements that had been achieved. 
  • The history of political power in Venezuela has, at its core, a tug-of-war between civilians and the military. The military traditionally held power and felt that they, instead of civilians, should rule the country. 
  • Venezuela was a country that became increasingly polarized to the point that we can’t understand each other. There’s violence at all levels, from language and families, to politics. State action and other structural factors render the prospect of public debate impossible. 

Remember that, while we can try to organize and build a cohesive perspective about what’s going on in Venezuela, our perspective is still limited by our own unconscious prejudices and biases. Therefore, our perspective on the issue might have some gaps. That doesn’t make it less valid. We are humans and humans have shortcomings. However, all of these perspectives and stories are part of the giant puzzle that we’re trying to understand. 

Reintroducing Nuance

By no means am I trying to say that dialogue is the one and only alternative to having political conversations about Venezuela, nor am I trying to say that it’s not okay to be angry or expressive while discussing Venezuelan politics. It’s an incredibly emotional and overwhelming topic. And, even if we try these tips, this doesn’t mean that the other person might listen or treat us respectfully. Sometimes, people are too deeply entrenched in their own misconceptions. Furthermore, the nature of our involvement in politics is an individual choice. However, in the political reality in which we exist, we need to try to conduct political conversations that reintroduce nuance and reality into the topic that, whether we like it or not, plays a key role in our life. 

Venezuelans abroad belong to two communities: the community of Venezuelans both at home and abroad, which is undergoing a process of trying to make sense of itself, and the community of the places where we live. As our conflict and crisis start playing a bigger role in the international discourse and our identity is becoming more prominent in the international scene, I think it’s important to break down the barriers that echo chambers and unhealthy political rhetoric have built to keep us trapped in the imagination of others. It’s essential for us to reclaim our story and start involving those abroad in the process of understanding what’s going on.

What can we expect from following these tips? Worst case scenario is people won’t listen and won’t care, it happens. Sometimes people aren’t interested in politics or are too entrenched in their views to consider other perspectives. If they become hostile, we don’t need to engage with them. It’s not worth it to talk in those settings. However, at best, and in my experience, most of the time, people will listen and care. If we engage in these conversations people will try to understand how complex navigating our reality is. People will care and will leave the conversation with a better sense of authentic understanding, not of political talking points, but of the nuance and reality of the crisis in Venezuela. By doing so, we’ll be able to build some bridges that might help us find answers and solutions to the crisis that we’re going through.