When Jorge Galicia was told that college students in the United States might benefit from his story, because many campuses are pro-socialism, he didn’t understand.
Galicia had not long ago spent months in isolation, off the grid, hiding from the state police in Venezuela because he had been involved in political demonstrations calling for liberty. In the United States, he’d sought asylum, knowing someone who is politically active as he is would only face persecution if he went back.
He saw socialist policies impinge on the quality of life back home year after year, and had been working very hard to protest against the flawed system.
“When I came [to the United States] at the beginning, I was really impressed. I saw a really functional, beautiful country. I had only been here two years and saw double the opportunities I had in my whole life in Venezuela,” Galicia said. Then he started telling people his story, and from their shocked responses, realized that many Americans have no understanding of what socialism is.
Since last fall, Galicia and a friend, Andrés Guilarte, have been telling their stories to students across the country, in 22 states so far. Their spring commitments are being postponed, but in the meantime, they have been doing online talks.
Dependency and Dignity
Guilarte was also involved in the student movement for liberty in Venezuela. Living under a socialist regime and seeing its policies deteriorate the quality of life around you, Guilarte said it was second nature for students to want to be involved in change, and many students were.
“I was really bold in the movement,” he said, getting heavily involved in all of organizations calling for liberty, and being elected student body president because of it. He’d started at university in 2014, and early last year, he went to Washington to intern for the Cato Institute. Then, things took a turn in Venezuela, and the situation went from bad to worse. Guilarte knew if he went back, it could cause problems for him and affect the safety of his family, so he decided to apply for asylum instead.
Guilarte says that people may have heard in general terms that Venezuela is in a bad place, but they seldom realize just how bad it is.
“Socialism invents new ways of miseries you cannot think about,” Guilarte said. For instance, people in a neighborhood know what time a local restaurant takes out the garbage.
“And when they do, you’ll see two or three families waiting to go through the garbage,” Guilarte said. He would see small children eating together out of the garbage, or people going behind garbage trucks to look for food. “That’s just one example.”
It sounds degrading, and that’s the crux of it: He wants people to know that the price of this system is “human dignity.”
Policies several decades ago expanded the national government’s power, creating social programs on top of social programs until everything became centralized. The result is the lack of spirit, individualism, or independence in the people across the country.
“The longer you are dependent, the harder to let go,” Guilarte said. “You reach a moment like right now, where people are down to their most primitive survival skills. We seek food, water, shelter—you have to. The people you see digging through the garbage, they are still dependent on the state.”
For Galicia, fear of persecution had been the new normal. He and his best friend had been heavily involved in the student movement and protesting Nicolás Maduro. Then, the police broke into his best friend’s home in the middle of the night and arrested and detained him, and Galicia knew he was next. He went into hiding and emerged months later, after his friend’s release, but said he’s now always looking over his shoulder and living in fear.
But frankly, so were many others who similarly protested.
“All of these things about political persecution and hiding and not having anything to eat, this was my normal,” he said. Not having reliable water, gas, or electricity was to be expected, and utilities failed more with every year. “When I started sharing my story, I started noticing everyone was shocked—that’s when I learned that everything I went through was not okay and was not normal at all.”
‘This Was Progressive’
Socialism doesn’t always happen overnight, with a dictator sweeping in and making violent changes. It happened progressively in Venezuela: industry by industry, not unlike what Galicia and Guilarte have noticed about the United States.
In the 1970s, an oil boom changed the economy of the previously stable Venezuela, and during that decade, the iron industry was nationalized, and then the oil industry was nationalized. More industries would soon follow, the start of what Guilarte and Galicia call a “snowball” that Venezuela never recovered from. Along with the nationalized industries came huge spending packages and social programs, which led to dependency on the government, and more spending and dependency, until eventual bankruptcy.
“That’s when Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro appeared on the scene, because they were the only ones promising to keep the spending going,” Galicia said. He often emphasizes this point, because he hears Americans say they support socialism but not the measures of Chavez and Maduro, without realizing that these dictators are not the ones who put socialism into action.
“They [the dictators] are a consequence of following the wrong ideas.”
“It sounds really good when politicians sell it to you,” Galicia said. “But when you try to implement it, it destroys lives.”
Regardless of how socialism is implemented, and to what degree, the end will always be centralized government, Guilarte said; history has shown that these centralized governments don’t work for the people.
The majority of their audiences are curious about what life in Venezuela is like but have little understanding of it, and Guilarte and Galicia are happy to continue their fight for freedom outside Venezuela by spreading the truth and help dispel misinformation.
Millions of people have fled Venezuela, Guilarte said, and they are all around the world, eager to tell their stories so that what happened to their own country won’t happen elsewhere.
“We don’t want any other society to go through what we have been through,” he said.
The current pandemic and the panic buying that ensued in some places has led to Americans sharing photos online of empty shelves in grocery stores with some kind of bewilderment.
“For them in the U.S., this is the first time; for us, it is normal,” Guilarte said. “This is because there is a crisis, but it is a temporary crisis. Socialism is an eternal crisis. The shelves will be replenished in a few days, because that’s what happens in a market economy. In Venezuela, they won’t be replenished, not for days, or weeks, or months.”