Venezuelan youth have a long-term strategy for building democracy. Biden should listen.
Daily life in Venezuela has long been bleak: Due to mismanagement and corruption, the administration of Nicolás Maduro fails to provide basic government services and continues to undermine the essence of democracy. Every day, citizens face uncertain access to wages, running water, medical supplies and a stable internet. Young students, in particular, lack educational and economic opportunities to improve their livelihoods.
An entire generation of Venezuelans has grown up in a failed state, and these citizens will be crucial to the country’s future democracy. But to revitalize it, they must unify a deeply divided country and political system.
In 2021, Venezuela placed dead last in the World Justice Project ranking Rule of Law Index. Unbridled propaganda spreads disinformation and conspiracy theories, harassment of journalists downplays government accountability, and arbitrary arrests by the political opposition stifle political pluralism.
Faced with more and more obstacles, the political opposition is struggling to consolidate its message and, frankly, the country. The interim government was weakened by internal fragmentation and repression, and while opposition parties managed to form a coalition to secure a majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2015, they have since lost direction and momentum. In 2017, Maduro undermined it by imposing a parallel National Constituent Assembly that illegally seized legislative powers. Since then, opposition leaders have failed to agree on strategies to achieve a government transition and continue boycotting the elections.
Debates over the opposition’s strategy will come to a head this week, as the National Assembly’s constitutional mandate is due to expire on January 5, meaning the interim government would be dissolved. The representatives are discuss a statute that would grant continuity to the interim government and to the legal mandate of Guaidó established in 2015. But opposition leaders are divided on the way forward by the interim government. At such a precarious time, they need a new approach to connect with citizens and respond to the crushing blows the country has suffered over the past eight years.
It also presents the perfect opportunity for US President Joe Biden to follow through on his plans to make democracies more “responsive and resilientAnnounced at the Democracy Summit last month, and provide meaningful support to a new generation of determined and democratic Venezuelans.
Unable to wait for increased international support, young Venezuelans meanwhile struggle against the insidious effects of Maduro’s administration by promoting key facets of democracy in their communities. From fighting digital autocracy by creating alternative information channels to facilitating political formations aimed at galvanizing greater youth participation in politics, the next generation of leaders in Venezuela are striving to build a society democratic more resilient.
I reached out to some of them to get a feel for the work they are doing on the ground, as well as how the United States can support them and the democratic revitalization of the country. They are fighting an uphill battle, but one in which the scales are likely to tip in their favor.
Venezuela’s current political crisis is precipitating future instability by destroying opportunities for the next generation. Between 2013 and 2021, the percentage of young Venezuelans aged fifteen to twenty-nine who were neither in school nor at work increases from 23 to 37 percent, and more than three-quarters of the Venezuelan population lives in extreme poverty. According to the head of the local community Ibsen Medina, of the Venezuelan nonprofit community organization Creemos Sugar, “There is not a sufficient and deeply rooted civic and institutional culture with regard to elections”.
In the face of such obstacles, political apathy would seem to be a reasonable response. The 2021 national survey on young people from the Andrés Bello Catholic University find that 27.5% of its beneficiaries said they had no preference between democracy and dictatorship, while 22.1% say they might even prefer an authoritarian regime. It is therefore not surprising that alone 42 percent of the total eligible voters voted in the regional elections in November. Although there is still no definitive data on voter turnout among young people, the non-governmental organization Voto Joven estimate that only 15 percent participated in this exercise.
Yet civil society groups across the country are working to tackle the roots of disinformation and mistrust of democracy within their communities. For example, the Confederación de Estudiantes de Venezuela (whose leaders I followed) mobilizes young people across the country to fight oppression and increase the visibility of human rights violations. An organization called Crea País increases political participation and combats polarization by educating young people about the political process, creating a coalition more resistant to fragmentation. Joven red Venezuela is working to improve access to voting across the country, and a new project called Voceros Insulares counteract disinformation by sharing verified information in community forums.
Each organization or project focuses on the education and empowerment of Venezuelan society, because as Medina notes: “[A] properly informed citizenship is a driving force that brings about transcendent changes in society.
But Medina also says civil society needs tangible resources to continue training future leaders, providing communities with accurate information and organizing events to build solidarity across the country. Simón Calderón, president of the student network Asociación Civil Juventud Insular, explained that grassroots organizations have strong community relationships and bold ideas, but need operational and methodological support to expand their work. By funding civil society efforts, the United States could move from short-term thinking to a more sustainable, long-term approach to Venezuela, with major benefits for democratic longevity and electoral stability in the country.
A way forward
The Biden administration should support those leaders of Venezuelan civil society who know best how to fortify their institutions against Maduro’s attack on democracy. The fragmentation of the Venezuelan political opposition underscores the need for sustained international support and presents the perfect opportunity for Biden to turn his plans into action.
The administration is committed to supporting global democratic renewal over the two-day Democracy Summit, and the next twelve months will provide the ultimate test. In conjunction with the summit, Biden announced the “Presidential initiative for democratic renewalWhich plans to provide $ 424.4 million to strengthen democracy and defend human rights around the world. The US State Department has promised to announce commitments towards upholding free and fair elections and civic capacity building, among other areas, and plans to report on progress at the upcoming Democracy Summit in 2022.
Supporting the work of these community organizations should be a central part of the United States’ commitments as it engages in the Year of action it’s supposed to follow the first peak. The Biden administration can do this by mobilizing funds through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Department of State, and multilateral financial institutions, and by strengthening existing funding mechanisms.
the Venezuela Business Unit State Department already offers hard-hitting public diplomacy grants, but is expected to expand its scope and eligibility criteria to include grassroots organizations with limited resources, especially those outside Caracas. USAID Powered by the people The initiative is expected to devote resources to Venezuela, and all new US government grants should be accompanied by a massive awareness campaign through social media and local universities so that opportunities reach isolated communities through young leaders. . Along with this process, the US Congress should work with the Biden administration to raise funds in the Presidential initiative for democratic renewal.
The next generation of Venezuelan leaders will not be able to run on steam, and failure to support these leaders would have catastrophic effects on Venezuela’s future. Venezuelan students who were in primary school when Maduro took power are now of voting age. But if the international community, led by the Biden administration, can rally to it, it could very well pull the country out of its crisis. Starting with local issues, they can build a national movement that reinforces the value of free speech, political pluralism and the rule of law. Following its Democracy Summit, the Biden administration has its year of action to implement its proclamations – and young Venezuelan leaders can guide the next steps.
Willow Fortunoff is Project Assistant at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.