Is the US Going the Way of Venezuela?

Elizabeth Rogliani, who grew up under Chavez’s rule, warns about the parallels she’s been seeing
September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

When Elizabeth Rogliani opened a TikTok account to share her thoughts on recent protests and the toppling of statues, she thought of it as a blank slate, somewhere to air her thoughts without offending or getting into a debate with sensitive moderate-liberal friends who’d taken issue with her posts on other social media. She talked about how what was happening across the United States was an eerie mirror image of what had taken place back in Venezuela, and then one of her videos went viral.

What was happening outside in real time was what she’d seen back home. Statues of Christopher Columbus came down, street names were changed, and the removal of other figures of Western civilization followed. As she thought about it, there were other ongoing similarities, from left-leaning demonstrators being used as political pawns, to a growing welfare state that caused quality of life to deteriorate. And when she pointed this out, it struck a chord with people who had also seen their home countries crumble under the weight of socialist politics.

“There were a lot of people who’ve seen this in their own country. I’ve talked to people from Hungary, Greece, people whose grandparents had left China, they felt I was speaking to them as well,” Rogliani said. “And then there were a lot of Americans who knew about the situation in Venezuela, and so I think when I drew that parallel, it confirmed something they had in their minds but couldn’t articulate.

“I think I just confirmed what a lot of people were thinking.”

Growing up under Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Rogliani has seen her fair share of protests. So much so that when she left the country for boarding school at age 15 and eventually made the United States her home, she tried to disengage from politics.

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Elizabeth Rogliani as a young child in Venezuela. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Rogliani)

“I remember telling my friends that I thought American politics were boring, and that was a good thing, because Venezuelan politics were a circus,” said Rogliani, who is now in her late 20s. She laughed at the irony when she remembered how the media would prove her wrong in only a few years.

‘What Happened in Cuba Cannot Possibly Happen Here’

For many in Venezuela, change felt gradual, Rogliani said. From conversations with people from older generations, she can understand why that was, why changes for the worse would become the new normal as everyone went on with their daily lives, until the next new normal took over.

“I was just a kid when Chavez was elected so I was shielded from a lot of the things that were going on, but I would still hear whispers from parents, adults. It became a really big thing that was going on,” Rogliani said. Her parents, who had been relatively apolitical, started getting involved in monthly marches and organizing in their neighborhood against Hugo Chavez’s policies. Her friends whose parents worked in the oil industry lost their jobs shortly after Chavez took office, and upheavals in other industries soon followed, prompting many to start leaving the country.

She remembers discussing politics with her friends at age 9 or 10—that was the topic dominating daily life—but still with a rosy, optimistic outlook.

“It was always with the sense of, what happened in Cuba cannot possibly happen here,” she said. Those unfamiliar with Venezuela’s history might just remember images of the chaos and protests from 2014, and the wild inflation and recession after. Only a few decades ago, Venezuela was a very prosperous country, before the nationalization of its industries led to a gradual leeching of the nation’s wealth.

Rogliani points out that Venezuela has a history of valuing freedom; the country led the way in the Spanish-American wars of independence. “We believed that was in our culture, the idea of freedom,” Rogliani said. “Obviously, we were naive.”

Chaos went from economic instability to rampant crime, and more and more people saw no reason to stay. “Everyone I know knows someone who has been killed or kidnapped, and that’s across all socioeconomic classes,” she said.

“Slowly but surely, my family started spreading out across the world,” said Rogliani, who is now based in Miami. Hers is a large extended family and a very close one, so parting ways across the world, from Australia to Spain, felt like a great loss.

Rogliani herself left to go to boarding school abroad but came home at least once a year to see her family, and maybe because of that, she was able to see the disaster taking place there more clearly than the people who had been surviving day to day in Venezuela. She held onto hope and was still involved in Venezuelan politics throughout her college years in Boston, until the 2014 protests against Nicolás Maduro. There was such an uprising that she had hope for change.

“And then it stopped. Complacency set in, and it was again the new normal; people can get used to anything,” she said. “And I don’t blame them, because that would have been hard to sustain.

“2014 was the year I thought, ‘I can’t imagine a future for Venezuela.'”

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A file photo from March 8, 2014, shows a father and daughter resting while someone holds their place before sunrise in a long line to buy food at a supermarket in San Cristobal, Venezuela. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Growing Similarities

By 2008, Rogliani had already grown a bit cynical of politics. Though she didn’t keep up with American politics, she saw growing support for Barack Obama’s platform for hope and change and couldn’t help but think of how similar it sounded to Chavez’s campaign promises. It would be almost 10 years before she realized her gut feeling was correct—there were growing similarities between American politics and what Venezuela had gone through.

“I started to pay attention in 2018, when the caravan was coming through the southern [U.S.–Mexico] border,” Rogliani said. She was against illegal immigration, because Venezuela similarly had influxes of people entering decades ago in search of a better quality of life, and the country’s public services collapsed as a result. But what really stuck with her was how people expected her to support illegal immigrants because she was Venezuelan and a woman.

“That’s when I thought, maybe there’s something going on in the culture that I’m not paying attention to,” she said. She scrutinized the media, read about politics and culture, and the more she learned, the more solid her convictions became.

The past few months have shown starker parallels than ever. Calls and even city council resolutions to “defund the police” are reminiscent of what happened in Venezuela when Chavez replaced the existing police force. The statues being toppled didn’t follow any rational criteria but were instead an attack on and attempt to break from history.

“And Chavez used these people as political pawns,” Rogliani said. Many protests today might look like grassroots organizing rather than one coordinated political move, but even truly grassroots efforts can be co-opted by a political party, as Venezuelans learned. “When I look back at everything, that’s when I could put it all together.”

So despite not having any inclination to become a political activist, she wanted to address what was going on, and where American culture was headed.

“What happens here … also impacts all of Western society, and not for the better,” she said.

Compared to Venezuela, the United States is a bigger country and in many ways has stronger institutions and traditional culture, Rogliani said, but that doesn’t mean it is immune to collapse.

“There’s always ways to destroy a country, it happens all over the world and historically it has always happened,” she said. More and more, she thinks about the Reagan quote about how freedom is always just one generation away from extinction, and how true it is.

“As much as I want to believe that the institutions are strong and the Constitution is hard to change, there might be people that come in and don’t care what is law, and put people in place who also don’t care, and ignore the law even if they don’t change it. That’s what happened in Venezuela, we had a constitution that was just ignored for a long time until they were able to change [the constitution].”

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A boy carries a drum with water as he walks past a graffiti reading “Is Normality a Privilege?” during a new power outage in Venezuela, at Fuerzas Armadas Avenue in Caracas on March 31, 2019. (FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Culture and Family First

Rogliani remembers the last time she returned to Venezuela, she spent New Year’s on the beach. Her relatives had all gone upstairs to change and get ready for the party, and all of a sudden the power everywhere went out.

“This was a typical thing, not having utilities or electricity or whatnot. And I went up on the balcony and people were screaming, but they were yelling out jokes about how Maduro sucks or just joking around and laughing. There’s a spirit about Venezuelans, you know?” she said.

The culture of Venezuela is joyful and the people can joke about anything, she said. Rogliani is from the country’s capital, Caracas, a city surrounded by scenic mountains and regularly covered with a veil of fog; it’s the country where magical realism in literature began.

“There’s just something mystical in the air that I can’t explain; it’s tropical and magical and I remember the stories we all tell about the magical beings,” she said.

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Elizabeth Rogliani is now based in Miami; as socialism took over her home country of Venezuela, her relatives starting leaving, spreading all over the world, from Australia to Spain. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Rogliani)

Rogliani studied international relations before dabbling in acting, but says her main passion is traveling and culture.

She sees that many people don’t make the connection between what is happening in culture and politics, but there is a clear relationship.

Take for instance how extreme a topic racism has become in the United States and how often one sees the term white supremacy used here, when there was nothing like this when Rogliani first came to the country. Race has been treated with such extremism that it is only creating more bigotry, she said, with people treated automatically as either guilty or victims because of something as immutable as skin color. There’s an attack on traditional masculinity and femininity that’s harmful as well, she said, because being equal under the eyes of the law doesn’t mean we should give up our cultural values.

She also hears protesters conflating all of these issues; the same people fighting racism with racism say they want to destroy the ideas of masculinity and femininity, and destroy the idea of the nuclear family.

“I would say I’m old-fashioned in some ways and open-mindedly modern in other ways, but I have to say I appreciate when things work and family works,” Rogliani said. Her parents who remember her as a rebellious teen might laugh, but she says she credits them for teaching her perspective and instilling good values. “A lot of times when I have been wrong my parents have been there to correct me; even when it comes to history, my dad has come around and said no, actually you’re wrong here, and I listen to him.

“Culture for me is the main thing, culture in many ways is even more important than politics, and culture ends up influencing politics in a few years’ time. I think I need to be involved in that in some way.”