The slush-filled streets of Cambridge are more than 2,000 miles away from the protest-filled streets of Caracas, and no one feels that distance more acutely than Harvard graduate students Juan Andrés Mejía and Roberto Patiño — two of eight young Venezuelan opposition leaders studying at the Kennedy School of Government.
From the hallowed halls of academia, the Venezuelan students keep one eye on the future and the other on the worsening economic and political crisis back home. Had they been in Venezuela this week, some of them would likely have been on the front lines of the anti-government protests that have rocked their country, claiming four lives amid violent clashes with police and government-affiliated paramilitary groups. Instead, the Harvard students have followed the protests from afar on Twitter and Facebook, while hurrying between classes.
“It’s absolutely frustrating; I feel I could be more useful there than I am here right now,” says Mejía, a 27-year-old candidate for a Master in Public Administration and leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, whose founder Leopoldo López was arrested and charged this week with arson and conspiracy (prosecutors later dropped additional charges of murder and terrorism).
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, always on the careful lookout for foreign conspiracies, has accused Mejía’s center-left party of plotting with outside agitators to orchestrate a “right-wing fascist” coup. The arrest of López, who turned himself in on Tuesday, coincided with Maduro’s decision to expel three U.S. diplomats for allegedly conspiring to topple his government.
Mejía, despite the frustration of distance, says returning home is a risky move. And the Harvard affiliation doesn’t exactly reduced the bull’s eye painted on his back; both López and fellow Voluntad Popular leader Carlos Vecchio, who’s also wanted by police, graduated from Harvard Kennedy School of Government in the 1990s.
“That’s two Kennedy alumni they are trying to jail,” says Mejía. He doesn’t want to be the third.
Neither does Kennedy School classmate Roberto Patiño, the former national youth director for the 2012 presidential campaign of Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by the twiggy margin of one percentage point.
“It’s frustrating to be this far away; I feel powerless and it’s painful to see young people die,” Patiño told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “That could have been me, or my sister, or my friends; I’ve protested many times before in Venezuela.”
Patiño, who led a nationwide youth network of 25,000 members, says he’s very plugged in to what’s happening back home. He says it’s not only opposition leaders who are at risk, but “anyone who demonstrates right now in Venezuela has a chance of being arrested.” The candidate for a Master in Public Policy says he’s playing the long game; he’s studying at Harvard today in hopes of affecting change in his country tomorrow.
“It’s difficult to be far removed from your country when it’s suffering, but I hope that in the long run it was worth it to be able to help build a new Venezuela,” Patiño says. “All the venezuelans who are studying here are thinking everyday about how the knowledge we are learning here at Harvard can be applied in Venezuela.”
The region’s leading basket case
Less than a year after Nicolás Maduro took the reins of Hugo Chávez’s aging revolutionary project, Venezuela has quickly become South America’s leading economic and political basket case, with nearly 60% inflation, rampant violence, an under-performing oil industry, an uncontrollable black-market, and shortages of basic goods. The Maduro administration blames its ruinous situation on right-wing conspirators — a theory that echoed enthusiastically by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Ortega this week referred to the 10 day old street protests in Venezuela as a “brutal terrorist offensive” orchestrated by the United States in an alleged attempt to quash regional integration efforts, which he believes are happening under the auspicious of the Bolivarian Alliance for our Americas (ALBA).
Members of the Sandinista Youth movement mobilized in Managua this week to celebrate Chávez’s lingering cult of personality and deter a scheduled opposition march in solidarity with Venezuela.
The Nicaraguan government also gave echo to Venezuela’s allegations before the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, where Venezuelan ambassador Roy Chaderton banged on for 20 minutes about an international imperialist conspiracy to destabilize his country and “cover the streets with fire and blood.”
Indeed, some members of Venezuela’s opposition have called for the removal of Maduro by “any means possible.” But both López and Capriles, who did not participate in the protests, have made recent public calls for peace and democracy — similar to the language used by the government.
Mejía and Patiño say the struggle for change in Venezuela must be done democratically and within the framework of the constitution. The youth activists downplay the alleged opposition split between López and Capriles, saying the later’s refusal to join the former’s protest this week is merely an indication of “two paths towards the same goal.”
“I don’t think anyone in the opposition wants a coup,” Patiño says.
Adds Mejía, “I believe there is a democratic solution; but whether or not that happens is the government’s call.”