Venezuela’s youth have a long-term strategy for building democracy. Biden should listen.

Daily life in Venezuela has long been grim: Through mismanagement and corruption, Nicolás Maduro’s administration 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 stable internet. Young students, in particular, lack the 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 future of the country’s democracy. But to revitalize it, they must unify a deeply divided country and political system.

In 2021, Venezuela ranked dead last in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. Rampant propaganda spreads disinformation and conspiracy theories, journalist harassment minimizes government accountability, and arbitrary arrests of the political opposition stifle political pluralism.

In the face of ever-mounting obstacles, the political opposition struggles to consolidate its message and, frankly, the country. The interim government has been weakened by internal fragmentation and repression, and while opposition parties successfully built a coalition to gain a majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2015, they’ve since lost direction and momentum. In 2017, Maduro undermined it by imposing a parallel National Constituent Assembly that unlawfully took over legislative powers. Since then, opposition leaders have failed to agree on strategies for achieving a government transition and continuing to boycott elections. 

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan population is losing hope in the opposition, as leader Juan Guaidó’s approval rating hovers at 16 percentnearly the same as Maduro’s approval rating.

Debates over opposition strategy will come to a head this week, as the National Assembly’s constitutional term is set to expire on January 5—meaning that the interim government would dissolve. Representatives are debating a statute that would grant continuity to the interim government and Guaidó’s legal mandate established in 2015. But opposition leaders are divided on the interim government’s path forward. In such a precarious moment, they need a new approach to connect with citizens and respond to the crushing blows the country has been dealt over the past eight years.

This also presents the perfect opportunity for US President Joe Biden to follow through on his plans for making democracies more “responsive and resilient,” announced during last month’s Summit for Democracy, and lend meaningful support to a new crop of determined and democratic-minded Venezuelans.

Potential power 

Unable to wait for increased international support, young Venezuelans in the meantime are combating the insidious effects of Maduro’s administration by promoting key facets of democracy in their communities. From combating digital autocracy by creating alternative information channels to leading political trainings aimed at galvanizing greater youth participation in politics, the next generation of leaders in Venezuela is working to build a more resilient democratic society.

I reached out to some of them to get a sense of the work they’re doing on the ground, as well as how the United States can support them and the country’s democratic revitalization. They’re fighting an uphill battle, but one in which the balance can be conceivably tipped in their favor.

Venezuela’s current political crisis precipitates future instability by destroying opportunities for the next generation. Between 2013 and 2021, the percentage of young Venezuelans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine who were neither in school nor working increased from 23 to 37 percent, and over three-quarters of the Venezuelan population now lives in extreme poverty. According to local community leader Ibsen Medina, of the Venezuelan nonprofit community organization Creemos Sucre, “there is not a sufficient and deeply rooted civic and institutional culture towards elections.”

In the face of such obstacles, political apathy would seem like a reasonable response. The 2021 National Survey on Youth from Andrés Bello Catholic University found that 27.5 percent of its recipients said they had no preference between democracy and dictatorship, while 22.1 percent say they might even prefer an authoritarian regime. So it’s no surprise that only 42 percent of total eligible voters cast their ballots during regional elections in November. While there still is no definitive data on youth voter turnout, the nongovernmental organization Voto Joven estimates that a mere 15 percent participated in that exercise.

Still, civil-society groups across the country are working to tackle the roots of disinformation and distrust in democracy within their communities. For example, the Confederación de Estudiantes de Venezuela (whose leaders I’ve followed) mobilizes young people across the country to fight against 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, building a coalition that’s more resistant to fragmentation. Red Joven Venezuela works to improve voting access around the country, and a new project called Voceros Insulares counteracts disinformation by sharing verified information in community forums. 

Each organization or project focuses on educating and empowering Venezuelan society, because as Medina notes: “[A] correctly informed citizenship is a driving force that makes transcendental changes in society.”

But Medina also says civil society needs tangible resources to continue cultivating future leaders, equipping communities with accurate information, and organizing events to build solidarity across the country. Simón Calderón, president of student network Asociación Civil Juventud Insular, explained that grassroots organizations possess strong community relationships and bold ideas but require operative 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 and long-term approach to Venezuela, with major payoffs for democratic longevity and electoral stability in the country. 

A path forward

The Biden administration should support these leaders in 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 pledged to support global democratic renewal during the two-day Summit for Democracy, and the next twelve months will provide the ultimate litmus test. In conjunction with the Summit, Biden announced the “Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal” which plans to provide $424.4 million to bolster democracy and defend human rights globally. The US Department of State promised to announce commitments toward defending free and fair elections and strengthening civic capacity, among other areas, and plans to report back on progress at the next Summit for Democracy in 2022. 

Supporting the work of these community organizations should be a core component of the United States’ commitments as it embarks upon the Year of Action that’s meant to follow the first summit. The Biden administration can do so by mobilizing funding through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Department of State, and multilateral financial institutions, and by strengthening existing funding mechanisms.

The Venezuela Affairs Unit of the US Department of State already provides impactful public diplomacy grants but should expand its outreach and eligibility criteria to include grassroots organizations with reduced resources, particularly those outside Caracas. USAID’s Powered by the People initiative should devote resources to Venezuela, and all new grants from the US government should be accompanied with an extensive outreach campaign through social media and local universities so that the opportunities reach isolated communities through young leaders. Alongside this process, the US Congress should work with the Biden administration to mobilize funds in the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal

The next generation of Venezuelan leaders will not be able to run on fumes, and failure to support these leaders would have calamitous effects on Venezuela’s future. Venezuelan students who were in elementary school when Maduro took power are now old enough to vote. But if the international community—spearheaded by the Biden administration—can rally behind them, they may very well lead the country out of its crisis. By starting with local issues, they can build a national movement that reinforces the value of the freedom of speech, political pluralism, and the rule of law. Following its Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration has its Year of Action to make good on its proclamations—and Venezuelan young leaders can guide the next steps.

Willow Fortunoff is a project assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Image: Venezuelan students stage a protest in Caracas on February 27, 2020. Photo by Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Latin America News Agency/REUTERS