'Soy Venezuela': Inside the Fight to Bring Down a Narco-Dictatorship

A leader of the opposition party, now living in exile, describes how Venezuela melted down and what to do going forward.

In 1998, the people of Venezuela elected Hugo Chávez as their president, who brought a vision of a new socialist regime for the country. His speech captivated the people and they trusted him to carry out a vision. But his rousing speeches masked what he actually planned on doing.

Now, they are dealing with the fallout.

Nearly 20 years after Chávez’s election, Venezuela, which was once one of the richest Latin American countries, containing the largest oil reserves in the world, is in chaos. About 85 percent of its people live in poverty. Anyone who opposes the regime of Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's successor, risks being put in prison. Publicly criticizing the regime for food and supply shortages can land you in prison. Hardly any nation in recent memory has fallen as quickly as Venezuela.

Some of the opposition has been able to escape. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a major opposition figure, lives as an exile after escaping from house arrest in November 2017. He sat down with American Enterprise Institute Latin American policy fellow Roger Noriega, the former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, to give an inside look into what's happening. The picture he painted is dark, but he offers elements of hope despite the dire situation.

[W]hat is happening in Venezuela is a consequence of the application of anachronistic government schemes. The recipes that Chávez applied are anachronistic and tied to fateful populism. It is the curse of populism which has made it possible to raze a prodigious land with as many human and natural resources as Venezuela.

Another cause of this disaster is impunity. Where there is no justice there is no peace. And the impunity works for the government because the government controls the courts in Venezuela. Where the constitution is not respected, of course there cannot be progress. There is no governance because there is no separation of powers.

One of the most important aspects of the crisis in Venezuela is the fact that it turned into a narco-dictatorship, where major international criminal networks actively support the government. So do allies from less savory governments around the globe.

The opposition leader says Venezuela didn't fall apart on its own. It had help.

It’s very important for the world to understand that you cannot defeat a regime that has international support from criminal networks directly involved in drug trafficking, and has allies like Russia, China, and Cuba. Such a conspiracy cannot be defeated without international support.

The crisis in Venezuela not only affects Venezuelans who suffer firsthand the havoc of a narco-dictatorship, but that this narco-dictatorship is a threat to hemispheric peace because we are talking about a group that is evidently connected to narco-trafficking and terrorism and with scandalous corruption.

In response to the narco-dictatorship, Ledezma and other opposition members founded the organization "Soy Venezuela" ("I am Venezuela"). Its purpose is to organize those who oppose the regime’s tyrannical and lawless rule, and to solicit international support for a new Venezuelan government that will replace the current regime.

My message to those people is that we all need to recognize each other as Venezuelans who have rights. That whatever government replaces this narco-tyranny should also work for them. That political persecution cannot be repeated, that freedom of thought and opinion cannot be punished, and they have a right to belong to whichever political party they want to, because that is something that is intrinsic to democracy.

In spite of the damage that the government has caused, Ledezma is hopeful for the future of his people. Their current situation is a crisis, but one which offers the people a chance to make the change that is needed in their government to restore the rule of law and take back what is rightfully theirs.

We should see the crisis as an opportunity because crises end up being either an opportunity or perdition. We see the crisis as an opportunity, not to search for a hero, not to search for a savior or false messiah, but instead to search for Venezuelans with talent and unite their efforts and creativity to create plans to rebuild the Venezuelan economy and the social fabric in the short and medium term. Well, it’s really a marvelous message not only for your country but for the whole world.

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