Breaking Through for LGBTQI Rights

It was a Thursday. That might be the extent of the consensus about what happened on April 11, 2002. The split screen at 3:45pm, when the media aired images of what was happening in the streets directly alongside Hugo Chávez’s compulsory national broadcast, was a metaphor for the country. Chávez had become a key symbol, sparking extreme polarization that would define the next 20 years of Venezuelan history. Participation, sovereignty, and pluralism were sacrificed on the altar of this extreme polarization. Dissent became treason. Accountability gave way to automatic solidarity. Classism also found a home in this polarization and the brutal power struggle that it unleashed among elites. The presence of two opposing countries could be felt everywhere. We haven’t moved on. 

Against this backdrop, it is extraordinary what feminist and LGBTI rights movements have achieved in Venezuela. Through activism and dialogue, they are the only ones that have managed to break through this ongoing conflict and raise their flags while standing shoulder to shoulder with people from the “other side.” With this context in mind, I spoke to Richelle Briceño, a trans activist, lawyer, member of the political party REDES, and former National Assembly candidate, and Yendri Velásquez, an LGBTI activist and Caracas coordinator for the organization SOMOS. What follows is the story of a collective struggle still far from reaching its goals. Our conversation, which took place over Zoom, has been edited for length and clarity.


Daniel Fermín: We’re about to hit 20 years since April 11. What memories do you have of that day?

Richelle Briceño: I was praying in a chapel in San Antonio de los Altos. Before I was a trans woman, back then, I was a seminary student at the Salesiana Don Bosco parish and was prohibited from talking about politics. The news was breaking, but we couldn’t follow what was happening.

Yendri Velásquez: I was 10 or 11 years old, and I didn’t understand what was happening. My dad was part of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), and growing up, I went to the MAS headquarters. I grew up around MAS leaders Teodoro Petkoff and Leopoldo Puchi. At that time, my dad opposed the Chávez government, which he had initially supported. I remember that there was a lot of tension in my grandmother’s house, because my mother’s family was very Chavista. It was all really uncomfortable. Sometimes, my dad didn’t even come into the dining room. He would stay outside with some of my uncles. I remember that very tense environment.

RB: My mom was very Chavista, too. And I called just to tease her a little. The next day, she called me back to make fun of me because Chávez was back in power.

DF: One sign of the times back then, and now as well, was precisely this intense divide that we have as a society, which affects families, the workplaces, relationships. How did this climate impact your activism and your social justice work?

RB: I got involved in activism after beginning my transition. I noticed a very important disconnect among activists identified as leftist or Chavista and activists identified with the opposition. Little by little, between 2015 and 2017, that struggle intensified and worsened among activists. Because they couldn’t see one another, let alone speak to one another.

I would tell them, “Compañeros, when people are going to discriminate against us, they don’t ask if we’re Chavistas, if we’re opposition, if we live in Country Club or in La Vega.” That’s not what matters. Because in the moment, they are going to discriminate against us based on our sexual orientation and our gender identity. And that’s what our struggle needs to focus on.

YV: Also, and I say this as part of the opposition, there was and still is this idea that we’re going to immediately replace the government and that these people aren’t going to be in power for much longer. And that makes you operate according to the logic that you don’t need them, because soon they won’t be there anymore. This idea happens a lot. One of the things that I have learned to accept is that although I don’t support Chavismo or those who are currently running the institutions, I know they’ll be there for a little while longer. And that makes me abandon the logic that we don’t need them. They control the institutions, and they exercise power. If, as an activist, I ignore who is in power, what am I doing? Because I can continue creating support groups and having a positive impact. But that’s 10 people per week, compared to the number of people in need in the entire country, even more so in a humanitarian and pandemic context.

This shift in logic forces us to recognize the existing political actors. We have to understand that the ones who are in these spaces are the ones who can create change, be it positive or negative. And ignoring them for personal reasons, not doing the necessary advocacy, would also betray any activist principle of seeking the well-being of the entire population.

The social fabric must be rebuilt. I have limits when it comes to sitting down with authoritarian figures. Not necessarily with those who are Chavistas. I have Chavista family members. I’m not going to say, “I’m never going to speak to them again.”

In the end, we have to evaluate which issues we can agree on and move forward, and which points of contention are irreconcilable. I think it’s essential to be clear. Because I can meet with a group of people today, but if they tell me, “Tomorrow you have to meet with Maduro,” then it’s a no. I can support the meeting between political actors. I can support building solutions. But I have my limits, especially if it’s someone accused of crimes against humanity. For me, that’s a line I don’t cross, and sadly, I’m convinced that under the PSUV government, there won’t be much progress.

DF: Richelle, would you sit down with Maduro to advance the community’s struggle?

RB: Yes, I would sit down with whoever I have to. Even the devil. If that somehow helps prevent the coming generations, when they are 14 or 15 years old, from saying “I’m going to kill myself because my family doesn’t love me, because my family doesn’t accept me, because I don’t have rights, because nobody understands me, nobody respects me,” then yes. If I have to sit down with Maduro or Diosdado Cabello, whoever I have to sit down with, I will do it. They’ll call me Chavista, but they can call me whatever they want. I have a priority: what I want is for Venezuela to make progress on human rights issues.

I sat in the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. Everyone talks about the illegitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. But if, as an activist, they call me and say, “Can you draft a comprehensive bill for the LBGTI community?” then why wouldn’t I do it? Now, in the National Assembly, there’s a subcommission on LGBTI within the commission for comprehensive social development, and the bill is being circulated because it is going to be introduced.

I also have a line I do not cross, and it’s meeting with anti-rights people, people who promote conversion therapy, people who say they are against marriage equality or who want to govern Venezuela based on the Bible or religion.

DF: Today, Chavistas, the opposition, and independent LGBTI activists manage to come together in some spaces. Has it been easy? How have you managed to break away from this polarization and what lessons do you think it offers for other movements?

YV: It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes you have to put up with a lot in order to build, to have a positive impact. Because in the end, it’s mostly about putting aside your personal convictions, without abandoning your principles, and understanding that this is bigger than you. Truthfully, would I like to sit down with people from the opposition party Primero Justicia? No. But could it be positive and necessary to advance human rights issues? Yes. So it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

I don’t want to minimize the political conflict that exists in the country. At times, the dehumanization of the other and othering has been encouraged to such an extent that it ends up dehumanizing people when we are essentially the same. In the end, between LGBTQI activists linked to Chavismo and those of us who are not linked to Chavismo, the only difference is that they place too much hope in Chavismo and we don’t. But in other respects, we are pretty much in agreement on the LGBTQI agenda. Obviously, always with some differences.

DF: How have you managed what unions, campesino associations, educators, and students have not been able to do? What do you think has been successful?

RB: Acknowledding one another. Has it been easy? No. They labeled me a Chavista for sitting in the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. And for participating in the parliamentary elections in 2020, the attacks were worse and stronger. Among those in the two extremes, there is no conception that some people are not polarized. They want you to be polarized. Are you with me or with them? We have been overcoming this by acknowledging one another, and that has allowed us to all gather in the same space. 

DF: The positive aspects of this coming together also highlight the challenges that lie ahead for the movement. There is a significant lag in rights compared to other countries in the region. Why hasn’t a socialist government legislated in favor of the demands of the LGBTI community? And why hasn’t it been on the agenda of the opposition or oppositions?

YV: There’s a logic of staying in power that goes beyond any ideological commitment.

DF: Do you believe that advancing an inclusive agenda threatens their ability to stay in power?

YV: It doesn’t necessarily threaten, but it doesn’t help them stay in power. They have other priorities. Another factor is that the political and social costs of being homophobic are relatively new. There was a time when the LGBTI issue wasn’t discussed. Organizations that regained their strength in a much more polarized environment are adjusting to the polarization. This polarization has made it difficult to influence institutions. There are new organizations that have no idea what public advocacy is about. Their idea of advocacy is nothing more than protesting. There’s no work being done with decision makers.

Although Chavismo’s elites have or had a very socialist, leftist narrative, the truth is that the ideological rallying cries in the country feel very diffuse. There are no spaces for open discussion within parties. Despite the narrative and rhetoric of those in power, their commitment to causes like the LGBTI struggle and feminism isn’t real.

RB: I agree with Yendri. And I would add that the issue has not progressed with this government, but also not within the opposition. While the government focused on establishing itself in power, the opposition dedicated itself to searching for a way to overthrow it. They’ve been stuck in this dynamic for the last five years. Social issues, human rights for the LGBTI community and women, were pushed aside.

DF: In 2015, Tamara Adrían was elected to the National Assembly. She was the first trans legislator in Venezuela and the second in Latin America. During her stint in the legislature, why did Tamara not manage to move these issues forward?

RB: For five years, the legislature devoted itself to toppling the government. That’s the truth.

YV: This topic is a bit uncomfortable for me because Tamara Adrián and the activist Edgar Baptista taught me basically everything I know. The opposition and the government have not taken up LGBTI issues and this has a lot to due with the influence of the churches—the Catholic Church and the Evangelical churches. In addition, from the government side, there’s the issue of the military.

When I was still active in Voluntad Popular, I remember that when they ran Tamara as a candidate, Cardinal Urosa Savino (archbishop of Caracas) called Señora Anonieta (mother of the party’s national coordinator, Leopoldo López) to complain that Leopoldo’s party had put forward Tamara. Other figures and leaders in the Church called the party’s directors to apply pressure, and even during the campaign, Tomás Guanipa (general secretary of the conservative Primero Justicia and Tamara Adrían’s running mate) never took a photo with Tamara. And Primero Justicia’s line was to take less vocal stances on LGBTQI issues.

Why didn’t Tamara do more? I think there are various reasons. One is the logic under which the National Assembly was operating. As Richelle said, it devoted itself to changing the government and not to legislating. Those who became legislators never embraced that they were representatives with elected power, that they were a power of the state. And in doing so they put limitations on themselves. On the other hand, Tamara had a different agenda. I think she moved past an activist vision, a vision of organizing the social fabric.

Unfortunately, she did not have a vision of doing LGBTQI politics and rebuilding from within LGBTQI spaces. Why? I don’t know. Beyond laws, and understanding that there was conflict among different powers, I think that this was the most negative aspect of Tamara’s term. And of Rosmit Mantilla’s (LGBTQI activist and former legislator). Because although Rosmit was detained and obviously that is a considerable limitation, when he got out, he also did not devote himself to this work.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about them—not at all. But I am a citizen, I campaigned for them, I supported them, I made proposals. I wasn’t far removed from the National Assembly scene; I was actively participating. In the end, one of the things that Tamara’s term leaves us with is the sense that, among factions that claim to be democratic, support for LGBTQI issues is inexistent.

DF: What has changed in the last 20 years in terms of LGBTI activism? What hasn’t changed?

RB: The faces have changed. I think LGBTI activism has given way to new individuals and younger generations. The process of giving visibility to LGBTI rights and the spaces we once occupied have changed. There hadn’t been a trans representative in all of Latin America before Tamara Adrián was elected to the National Assembly in 2015. 

There’s still resistance to change. We still have roadblocks to LGBTQI rights and the right of women to make decisions regarding their own bodies.

YV: There is something very important that I believe is perhaps a consequence of April 11 that has less to do with political parties than it has to do with civil society, social movements, and civic participation at the grassroots level. This is key for the redemocratization of Venezuelan society because it promotes the construction of networks and social fabric. Organizations like COFAVIC (a human rights organization) now have more capacity than ever and they are supporting other organizations to create greater capacity. And I think that that’s very powerful, and we’re not likely to see it right away, but it’s a critical wager for the future.

DF: What is the biggest debt the state has with the LGBTI community?

RB: The state needs to apologize to every member of the LGBTI community. We have been punished by an unequal and prejudiced legal system. During the 1980s, police harassment against the LGBTI community in the streets of Caracas was called homosexual prevention or prevention of gay cancer. Prevention against anyone who threatened morality and “good” social norms. The state needs to apologize for the historical abuses we’ve suffered, with human dignity in mind.

Now, there’s also the discussion about our rights. Because although the right to non-discrimination has been reinforced throughout these past 20 years, we don’t have marriage equality, not even civil unions, nor the recognition of domestic partnerships. None of these three concepts exist in our legal system. On the other hand, there’s the issue of the recognition of families with same-sex parents, despite the existence of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. To date, the civil registry and the National Elections Council, which operates the registry, has refused to recognize the children born to same-sex couples. In this way, the historical debt continues. Also, the right to gender identity. Without our identities, we don’t exist. In the National Assembly’s gender subcommission, I have proposed that the first law we work on must be the gender identity law. There isn’t even a law to eradicate different forms of violence against LGBTI individuals.

YV: The state needs to recognize us as people with rights. Our sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are no reason to ignore our rights. It’s important that the state, its officials, and society understand that we’re all born with the same dignity and rights. We are in a state of total vulnerability. Although there are some elements in the law, there are no effective mechanisms to make them a reality, there are no public policies that are oriented towards the eradication of violence based on transphobia and homophobia. There is no policy that seeks to guarantee the lives, dignity, and human rights of LGBTQI people.

DF: Do you believe that democratic forces of the Left can collectively pressure for these demands from the LGBTI community and other vulnerable communities? And as a follow up: is there room for the Venezuelan Right to fight for the rights of the LGBTI community?

YV: I think to answer that question, you have to challenge parties not only on the left, but also on the right to reassess and make room for these agendas with a vision of the future. Today, there are no parties, but rather people who belong to parties. It seems like the same thing, but it’s not. There is no concept of institutionality.

The truth is that we don’t really have serious right-wing parties. There are parties that say they are and leaders who recognize themselves as right-wing, but only in a reactionary sense of not being Chavistas. Yes, there are reactionaries, but behind those positions, there’s nothing. We must make a call to rethink in a way that is not necessarily about the left-right divide, which obviously has a time and place. Instead, we also need to talk about ourselves in the sense of being democratic or not. How do we build democratic opposition forces and points of view that go beyond not being Chavista? Because “not being Chavista” means nothing. How do you identify? What are your ideals? What do you stand for and what are you against? You can see the contradiction within parties like Primero Justicia and politicians like Julio Borges, for example. They speak out against Chavismo because of human rights violations, but they also have an agenda that is anti-LGBTQI and anti-women.

RB: If there are any true leftist movements, it’s the feminist movement and the LGBTI movement in this country. We are trying to completely disrupt the status quo imposed by the patriarchal system, a system with machista and misogynistic values. So, when identifying leftist actors in Venezuela, we should be focused on women and the LGBTI community. It would be a contradiction to consider yourself a leftist and neglect those issues. You wouldn’t be a leftist at all. You’d be a leftist in name, but deep down you’re not a leftist, because you are rejecting part of what it means to be a leftist.


Daniel Fermín is a sociologist, Ph.D. student at The New School for Social Research, and activist with Soluciones para Venezuela.

Richelle Briceño is a trans activist, lawyer, educator, member of the REDES party, and a former National Assembly candidate.

Yendri Velásquez is the Caracas coordinator for the organization SOMOS and an LGBTI activist.

This essay was first published in and translated from Spanish by NACLA on March 11, 2022. 

Photo: At an LGBTQI rights demonstration in Caracas, a protest sign made to look like an ID card reads: «I have rights like you» and «single (because of discrimination),» November 28, 2021. (Egloris Marys / Shutterstock)

Civic Imaginaries Study: Re-Imagining Caracas

RECCS

As Caracas turns 451 years old, an in the middle of a horrid hyperinflation that reaches over 13,000%, Venezuela’s capital city faces significant challenges. Beyond declining infrastructure, a symptom of the nation’s general and profound crisis, caraqueños are having a hard time enjoying and living their city.

Santiago de León de Caracas, -just Caracas, for short- is Venezuela’s most populated city, with approximately 3 million people living in the Metropolitan Area. It is the country’s epicenter: From power to entertainment, and bureaucracy to shops, everything that happens starts and ends in Caracas. The city is privileged with tropical weather year-round, and the Avila mountain that serves as a gorgeous backdrop is also all that separates the urban metropolis from peaceful, relaxing Caribbean beaches.

So, what’s wrong with Caracas? The rapid transformations that took place in the twentieth century stimulated modernity and growth, as well as social mobility. But institutions couldn’t catch up, and poverty soon rose despite the advancements. In Venezuela’s transit from rural activity to an urban, oil-based economy, Venezuelans left the fields and took to the big cities. In these, and Caracas is the prime example, a “poverty belt” was formed, and constituted the slums Venezuelans call “barrios”. These barrios are generally located on the hills and mountains that surround the valley of Caracas. They consist mostly of illegal invasions on private and public lands and have precarious architecture and services. Informality abounds. So does crime. Even in this precariousness, Caracas’ poor live significantly better than the poor in the provinces, and they’ve lived there, in the barrio, for generations. The other side of the coin are called “urbanizaciones”, urbanizations, consolidated, middle class neighborhoods that, unlike many other countries in Latin America and the world, stand not isolated from the barrios, but in close proximity to these. Both in barrios and urbanizaciones alike, an old saying keeps a strong sense of city pride, while infuriating Venezuelans from other cities and towns: “Caracas es Caracas y lo demás es monte y culebra”, Caracas is Caracas and the rest is just woods and snakes. Naturally, it’s not true, but it serves to illustrate the pride that the inhabitants of Caracas take in being number one, even if that number one is also in violent deaths and crime.

Caracas is lacking in public spaces and an invisible wall separates East from West, although there are both barrios and urbanizaciones in the east and in the west. Crime has crippled civic activity, as people attempt to hide in private spaces. Talking on the phone in the streets? Driving with the windows down? Nearly impossible, proceed at your own risk. By sundown, Latin America’s once most promising modern city turns into a ghost town as Caracas takes the dubious distinction of being the second most dangerous city in the world, with a murder rate of 111.33 per 100,000 inhabitants.

In 33 minutes, we explore the different opportunities for reimagining Caracas as a city for encounter with the other, a city for life, fulfillment and opportunity. Beyond its problems, there is opportunity for Caracas: Unlike other societies, Venezuela does not face significant ethnic or racial divides, providing a natural opportunity for this encounter. The few spaces that the city has to offer show a democratizing force and potential. A few examples emerge: The Avila mountain, a national park since the 1950’s, has several trekking and hiking trails where social and class distinctions seem to disappear.  The baseball stadium is another prime example. Unlike most of Latin America, Venezuela’s national sport is not soccer, but baseball, joining other Latin American Caribbean nations such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, eastern Mexico and northern Colombia. In University Stadium, caraqueños’ can seat in cheap and not-so-cheap seats, but the only distinction that matters is the team name on your shirt. And because baseball is different from soccer, where violent outbursts are common and fans sit in different bleachers, according to their team, people here sit side by side with their sports rivals, all in good fun. The days after big baseball games often follows a clear path: if your team lost, get ready for some ribbing and have your comebacks ready. It doesn’t matter if you’re the boss or the janitor.

I believe there is ample opportunity for reimagining Caracas. Venezuelans carry solidarity and humor in their veins, we are a united people beyond our social and political differences.

We heard from five caraqueños: The student activist, who lives way out west, the one who came back, who lives on the other side of town, the two that left, one now living in Mexico and the other in New York, and the expert, the only one who got to see with her own eyes the former splendor of the city.

For the rest of them, of us, there’s a disconnect: it’s not the city our parents knew.

I must confess that at first I expected a wider-range imagination in this reimagining Caracas exercise. I was expecting to hear about all the parks the city needs and the new and shiny spaces that would make Caracas more democratic, more livable, just a nicer city.

But in order for caraqueños to let their imaginations run wild, they have to be able to re-imagine the basics: «I WANT TO BE ABLE TO WALK!» is almost a scream yelled out in unison. Yes, caraqueños imagine, but it’s not about the sparkle, it’s about the struggle for a city free from an all-encompassing FEAR, a city for LIFE, and not for death, for peace, and not for crime, for being out, instead of hidden in. We want to walk, but we don’t want to walk divided, alone. We want to walk together toward the future.

Caracas will fly only when it can once again walk, when caraqueños of all classes can soar in the city they love: the city of the green Ávila, of the yellow Araguaney trees, of the constant chirping of tropical birds and ubiquitous night sounds of little frogs and crickets. The city of solidarity, of humor and loud laughs. The city of friends, of family, of love.

I’m sure better days are ahead for Caracas, and until then, we shall all keep in our minds, in our imagination, the city we dream of, the one we know we can make possible. In reimagining Caracas, we, the caraqueños, also vow to rebuild it.


Re-Imagining Caracas is a project for the Civic Imaginaries in the Urban Commons class at The New School. I want to thank Eduardo Staszowski and Nidhi Srinivas for their great input and ideas, and for all the amazing content we read and discussed in class. I also want to thank my classmates, who contributed a lot to this project.

Huge thanks to Daniel Tortoledo, not only for the interview, but also for helping me through what was, for me at least, a pretty hard editing process.

And thanks to Carmen, María Estela, Carlos and Augusto for their time and great conversations.

Understanding Activism Release

Big thanks to Rhize for organizing a great panel on Understanding Activism. Facebook Live recording here. Full report here 

From Rhize.org:

Activism is under attack, and Rhize’s groundbreaking report, Understanding Activism, has the data proving that civil society is part of the problem but can also be a part of the solution. Download the report.

Five ways in which this wave of demonstrations in Venezuela is different

May 25 at 7:00 AM
Protesters clashed with security forces in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 18, in the latest demonstration during weeks of anti-government unrest. (Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — For nearly two months, Venezuelans have been holding almost-daily demonstrations against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, demanding early elections, more democratic rights and the release of political prisoners. At least 55 people have died in the protests, which come amid a severe economic crisis in the oil-producing country.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Venezuelans have launched protest movements against Maduro. In 2014 and 2016, demonstrators held a series of marches, but they died down after a few weeks.

Will this time be different? Here are five reasons this wave of protests could achieve more results:

1. The demonstrations are more widespread and have continued for longer than in previous periods.

Never before have so many people taken to the streets for so long in so many states across the country, according to PROVEA, a nonprofit Venezuelan group that monitors human rights issues. Another organization that tracks social conflict, the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, said that from April 1 to May 17, there were 1,208 protests across the nation. Dozens more have occurred since then, even though security forces have tried to discourage the marches by deploying tanks and using rubber bullets and tear gas.

2. The demonstrations are drawing people from a variety of economic classes.

The economy has sharply contracted, and the inflation is among the highest in the world because of low oil prices and ineffective policies implemented by the socialist-oriented government. Venezuelans are suffering from a severe scarcity of food and medicine. The government’s popularity has fallen to less than 15 percent, according to a recent poll from the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis, or IVAD.

Clashes broke out during an anti-government march led by thousands of elderly Venezuelans when police tried to block them from advancing in the capital city of Caracas. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Low-income residents in areas that had been strongholds of the ruling party have started to join the protests. In the past, many working-class Venezuelans supported the system put in place by late president Hugo Chávez in the early part of this century — and maintained by Maduro — because they received benefits such as cheap groceries and free medical care and housing. But many “Chavistas” have become disillusioned with the government. “The difference this time,” said Nicmer Evans, a member of Marea Socialista, one of the Chavista movements that is critical of Maduro, “is that they have reasons to protest.”

3. There are open divisions in Maduro’s party.

There are clear signs of fissures within the ruling party. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a longtime Chavista, condemned a decision by the supreme court in March to strip the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers. She also has denounced the use of military law to judge detained protesters and criticized Maduro’s recent call for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. “Her statements, I think, make change a probable scenario,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis polling firm.

Two supreme court magistrates declared this week that they’re also against Maduro’s push for a constituent national assembly. Although they’re not members of the constitutional court, which decides if the assembly is legal, their dissent was highly unusual, because the government exercises great influence over the judiciary.

Henrique Capriles, opposition leader and governor of the state of Miranda, said such actions could have a “snowball effect” in the near future. “They set a precedent for others to do it tomorrow.”

4. Maduro’s government is more isolated internationally.

Many countries and international bodies have become more critical of the government and supportive of the opposition. Members of the Organization of American States, for example, voted last month to call an emergency meeting to discuss the humanitarian crisis and political violence in Venezuela. The country reacted by announcing it would withdraw from the entity. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights recently sought to meet with Capriles, but the politician reported that his passport was annulled as he tried to leave Venezuela to travel to New York.

The U.S. Treasury Department last week announced sanctionsagainst eight magistrates of Venezuela’s supreme court because of its decision to strip power from the opposition-controlled congress.

5. Opposition parties are unified, and the coalition is evolving.

Unlike in past protest movements, the opposition coalition (MUD) has a clear and unified message and agenda, said Daniel Fermín, a sociologist who specializes in nonviolent conflicts.

Leaders of different parties have joined the marches. Young leaders are emerging and taking a central role, giving fresh energy to an opposition whose main figures have been in politics since the early years of the Chávez presidency.

Some opposition leaders have hinted that mid- and low-ranking members of the military are becoming more sympathetic to anti-government protesters. Freddy Guevara, vice president of the National Assembly, tweeted recently that lawmakers were starting to work on amnesty measures that would apply to some government officials and members of the military in the event of a transition, with the goal of making it easier for them to change sides now.

Despite these differences with past protest movements, there is no guarantee that the demonstrators will achieve their aims. The government has cracked down fiercely on the protests, using force and making over 2,600 arrests. And the opposition could lose its ability to mobilize people if it can’t prevent more radical demonstrators from resorting to violence, Fermin said.

Still, there are signs that Venezuela is living a new chapter of its history.


Published in The Washington Post May 25, 2017.

World Insight: What is behind Venezuela turnmoil

By CGTN’s Ding Dai
The divisions among Venezuelans and between the government and the opposition are not new. And protests have been going on since the economy went bad.
Prices rose by 800 percent in 2016, with the IMF predicting inflation could hit 2,200 percent by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the economy shrunk by 18.6 percent last year, according to Reuters.
CGTN Photo
“Venezuela has been a very polarized society in the last 20 years,” Daniel Fermin, researcher for the Center of Political Studies at the Andres Bello Catholic University, told CGTN’s World Insight.
Some 86 percent of the population now have different views on the country’s future or the political system, he said. This includes Chavistas – supporters of former president Hugo Chavez – and even current Chavistas that don’t identify with President Nicolas Maduro.
For Maricruz Magowan, vice president of the National Economists Club, simply removing Maduro will not solve the problem inside Venezuela. That might take years. 
“We haven’t heard of these kinds of protests for 15-16 years. Why? Because they were receiving things for free. That is not sustainable,” she noted. 
CGTN Photo
Venezuela’s four-year economic recession has caused shortages of food and medicine. Polls suggest Maduro’s party will have difficulty winning another presidential election.
Maduro says opponents are seeking a coup with US support and harbor «terrorists» and «murderers» in their ranks.

The 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez is setting up a super body known as a «constituent assembly» with powers to rewrite the constitution, shake up public powers, and potentially replace the legislature. But Maduro insists he’s open for dialogue with his opponents and is willing to end the violence.


Interview for CGTN, published on May 9, 2017

Why Protesters in Venezuela Today Should Resist Responding to Violence with Violence

Peaceful protests almost always work better than violent ones – even against repressive governments.      

Most Venezuelans taking part in today’s “mother of all marches” against President Nicolás Maduro are planning to do so peacefully. Even the country’s most outspoken opposition leaders are using the language of nonviolent resistance.

Not everyone is on board. Government security forces have cracked down violently on dissent; regime-backed paramilitary groups attacked marchers and have killed five demonstrators in protests since April 1, leading the UN High Commission for Human Rights and regional leaders to call on Maduro to respect the people’s right to assemble peacefully. As recent incidents of rock-throwing, setting fire to government buildings and sporadic looting suggest, however, some demonstrators feel compelled to respond in kind to the regime’s aggression.

A portion of the violence during recent protests can be attributed to regime forces, often police or intelligence officers, who have infiltrated demonstrations with the intent of tainting the opposition and justifying further repression. But there are indeed many in Venezuela today who believe that responding to Maduro with violence is the only way to force a change in government. I’ve written extensively on the disadvantages of this line of thinking, and the response on Twitter has been telling:  “You mean to tell me that we should just march to Altamira (an upper-middle class neighborhood in Caracas) with our little flags or wherever the regime lets us?! I don’t agree with you, brother,” one person responded to me last week. Another told me that I “live in a poem” and that “every rebellion has a degree of violence in order to face the violent ones.”

Well, recent global experience – and Venezuela’s own history – show why they’re wrong. What’s more, the conditions in Venezuela today, more so than at any time in recent years, suggest that a nonviolent response to Maduro’s aggression stands the best chance of ultimately forcing a change in government.

Part of the reason for this is that the demands protesters are making of the government are more concrete than ever. In today’s march under the banner of “Elections now!” Venezuelan citizens are calling for: free and fair elections, respect for the democratically-elected National Assembly, and acceptance of humanitarian aid, which the government has systematically refused, dismissing it as an excuse for a foreign invasion. For an opposition too often attached to the “Maduro out!” call to action, a clear set of goals pointing forward is new and inspiring.

On a global level, nonviolent action has been successful against precisely the type of cruel leader that Maduro has become. From post-Soviet countries to South Africa and from the Philippines to Serbia, nonviolent action has led to regime change and democratization, even in the face of horrid repression. The Tunisian revolution has become a vivid, current example of the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle.

And historically, nonviolence has been shown to be more effective than violence in increasing costs for the regime and effecting change. The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) has compiled a complete resource library that provides clear evidence for the advantages of nonviolent action over violent campaigns. The work of two ICNC researchers, Erika Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, shows that 61 percent of violent campaigns fail in regime change, while nonviolent action fails 17 percent of the time. Moreover, transitions carried out by nonviolent means lead to more stable, lasting and peaceful democracies than those achieved through violence. On average, nonviolent campaigns attract 150,000 more members than violent ones, since violence increases the barriers for participation.

This last point is especially important in the Venezuelan case, where popular anger against the regime is now being expressed across all segments of society, even among lower-income groups that have long provided the bulwark of support for chavismo. Today’s protesters aim to promote democratic transition, and in doing so, they recognize a crucial element of nonviolent theory: that transitions are do not only a concern of political or economic elites.

In nonviolent struggle, repression often backfires on the regime, causing cracks in their ranks. Nonviolent action is particularly effective in gaining international support and causing shifts in the regime’s international support base. Far from achieving its goals, when demonstrations turn violent they: 1) significantly raise the costs of participation, decreasing the number of people willing to join; 2) stimulate greater cohesion in pro-government groups; 3) lower the costs of repression, which is then seen by police and military forces as necessary and justified; and 4) delegitimize the protest in the eyes of the international community. All of this can happen –and has happened in the past– in Venezuela.

Caveat lector, nonviolence isn’t magic. It can fail. It needs discipline, organization, clear goals, and unity of purpose. The change it achieves can be undone, as the current state of Egypt shows. However, when Venezuelans are placed at the crossroads of violence and nonviolence, they should know that the latter is by far the more likely force to usher in lasting democracy in a country in dire need of reconciliation and rebuilding.

Fermín is a sociologist and researcher at UCAB in Caracas.


Published in Americas Quarterly on April 19, 2017.

Luchando por Venezuela / Fighting for Venezuela

For the second time this week, hundreds of thousands of people will protest in the streets of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. They demand the impeachment of President Nicolás Maduro who’s been in charge of the country since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013.


The reason: the deepest crisis the country has ever faced.


Maduro is accused of throwing Venezuelans into poverty, due to poor economical choices and corruption. The opposition accuses him and the current administration of not diversifying the economic resources of Venezuela, of human rights violations, of censorship and lack of free media, and of massive shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.


Violence has risen to astronomical heights and Caracas is now the number one most dangerous city in the world with 119.87 murders per 100,000 people (According to World Atlas)


Adding to this disastrous economic and social situation is a regime crisis. While the opposition has a large majority of seats in the Parliament, Maduro still controls the economy, the media and the military forces.

The best illustration of this political stalemate is the annulment by Maduro of the dismissal referendum scheduled for January 10. In this context, strikes and protest marches have taken center stage, although the tone of what will come next is still uncertain.


On September 1st hundreds of thousands of opposition members protested in the streets to call for Maduro’s departure and an organization of a referendum.


A national march took place this past Wednesday and a strike is currently underway today. The opposition also plans to march peacefully on the presidential palace on November 3rd , which hasn’t been done since 2002.

On Sunday there are planned peace talks between opposition leaders and the government, to be facilitated by the Vatican.

VENEZUELAN ACTIVISTS VISIT SAN DIEGO

In the midst of crisis, four Venezuelan activists and human rights defenders made their way to San Diego in early October for a visit administered by the San Diego Diplomacy Council and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

During their visit to San Diego, the group met with NGOs, government officials and activists who work to increase civic engagement and reform the electoral process.

The San Diego Diplomacy Council partnered with LIVE A GREAT STORY to elevate the voice of Daniel Fermin, a bright, brave and influential leader. Daniel Fermin is an activist and sociology professor, working and living in Caracas.

As LIVE seeks to inspire individuals to craft their own journey and make an impact, the vision complements the mission of the Council well. For the 37 years of the Council’s existence, powerful stories of emerging leaders living their great story have passed through the region. Now, through the power of new media and the LIVE team, these stories have the ability to be shared on a much wider platform.


Fighting for Venezuela es un trabajo de LIVE A GREAT STORY, publicado el 28 de Octubre de 2016.