“Guaido or Maduro?” That’s the first question that Guillermo heard upon landing in Armenia. “Do you recognize the government of Guaido or Maduro?” The Armenian border agent clarified.
“Guaido,” Guillermo responded in equal parts defiance and nerves.
“Good. We support Guaido as well,” the Armenian border guard finally responded, much to the young Venezuelan’s surprise. “But our government still officially recognizes Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela,” he continued.
I met Guillermo in Yerevan back in May. The 21-year-old was still recovering from his harrowing escape from Venezuela. Nursing a pint of beer in a trendy Saryan Street café, he recounted one of the most daring, if not unbelievable, escape stories I’ve ever heard.
After working several odd construction jobs, the young Venezuelan had taken to the internet in search of hopefully-better-paying freelance commissions. This eventually led him to work with the libertarian-leaning Startup Societies Foundation. During that time, he also attended several meetings of Students For Liberty (SFL) in Caracas. Weeks later, Venezuelan security forces cracked down on SFL’s local chapter in a dramatic raid. Several organizers would be arrested, and some held without trial for years.
After the kidnapping and disappearance of lawyer-turned-activist Yon Goicoechea, Guillermo decided that it was time to leave. Unable to raise enough money for the escape, once again, he took to social media for help. Posting a picture of himself with a fist-full of bolivars (Venezuela’s totally devalued currency), he managed to raise the $500 to make the trip entirely in the form of Bitcoin donations. Venezuelans have become some of the world’s most prolific crypto-traders in recent years, following the total collapse of their currency, the bolivar.
After turning his digital funds into paper at a black market bitcoin exchange, taking with him only a copy of Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action (yes, seriously) he dashed for the Colombian border. His journey to freedom would take him 4,200 miles across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and half of Chile. He left behind almost his entire family, which he may never see again.
Now working for a Prague-based consultancy firm, he made his first visit to Armenia earlier this year, though he plans on making regular trips soon. “The number of business ventures starting up in Armenia is growing,” he tells me. “So more opportunities for us.”
The Venezuela he left behind conjures up images of Weimar Germany crossed with 1980s Soviet Union. Desperate families queue up for hours in front of stores carrying wads of worthless paper for essential goods which do not exist. Starving people eat zoo animals. Political dissidents feel the wrath of the government’s feared Colectivos, a motorbike-riding militia accused of extrajudicial killings and other atrocities. Inflation is expected to hit 10 million percent this year. The country’s economy has contracted by more than one quarter—the worst such performance by any country in over a decade. Meanwhile, unemployment has reached a staggering 44 percent.
Of course, Venezuela was not always like this. Bolstered by the presence of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, it was once South America’s wealthiest nation. In 2002, a charismatic socialist, Hugo Chavez, won a decisive election on the promise of reigning in the oligarchs who had dominated the country’s economic output since colonial days and sharing the wealth with the people.
For a time, things were great. Inequality took a nosedive, while the standard of living improved. Many received healthcare and education for the first time. Noam Chomsky praised Chavez’s reforms saying, “The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact if these projects are successfully carried out.” What could go wrong?
Chavez would die before his people suffered the real impact of his devastating economic policies. His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, would be left with the mess, and the blame. But this sort of chronic mismanagement by state planners is not, as foreign admirers of Venezuela remind us, the fault of “real socialism.”
Opposition to Socialist Party rule in Venezuela is as old as the party’s stint in government. In the early days, the disproportionate presence of members of the country’s old elite among its leadership kept most ordinary people away. However, in 2015, new faces have emerged from among the ranks of civil society to shape a fractured opposition movement into an effective force against an increasingly dictatorial regime.
Chief among these new leaders is Juan Guaido of the social-democratic Popular Will party. Unlike his predecessors, he did not come from inherited wealth. He took to activism as a student when the Chavez government revoked the broadcasting license of Venezuela’s last independent television station. He was elected to the National Assembly in 2010, and, after arrests and time in exile, eventually became its Speaker.
The ruling Socialists suffered a decisive defeat in the 2015 Venezuelan Parliamentary election, which saw a coalition of opposition parties in the majority for the first time since Chavez. Maduro countered this by attempting to push the Constitutional Court to de-legitimize the National Assembly and then simply decided to rule by decree.
As protests intensified, Guaido and Maduro came head to head during the 2019 Venezuelan Presidential crisis. At least 276 people have died in such protests since 2014. (A recent UN report suggests that government death squads may have covered up the murder of almost 8,000 people in the last two years alone.) The previous year’s presidential election, in which Maduro claimed victory, has been widely condemned by local and international observers. In line with Venezuela’s constitution, the National Assembly declared Maduro a usurper and proceeded with a protocol which saw Assembly Speaker Guaido get sworn in as interim President.
Guaido’s presidency has been recognized by the entire Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, Canada, the European Union and Australia. Communist China and Russia, however, have continued to support Maduro’s government, even bolstering his position with the introduction of sophisticated weaponry and deployment of boots on the ground.
Back in Yerevan, I asked Guillermo what he would tell Pashinyan about the crisis. Less than a year earlier, hundreds of thousands of Armenians gathered in Yerevan to peacefully overthrow an authoritarian government which shared many of the same foreign sponsors with Maduro. “I would tell him that the Maduro regime is openly a dictatorship which executes protesters and has thousands of political prisoners,” he answered. “He should support whoever wants to make a change in the country and wants to rebuild the institutions. The person who is making the biggest effort towards that goal right now is Juan Guaido and the National Assembly.”
Armenia has declared itself neutral in this crisis, with a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman expressing the country’s hope that the conflict would be resolved peacefully. Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution,’ it seems, will not be exported.
Editor’s Note: Guillermo did authorize the use of his full name, but for his safety, the author chose to withhold his surname. In full disclosure, the author is a founder and former National Coordinator at Students for Liberty’s Armenian chapter.