Andrés Guilarte was sitting in a university lecture when a fellow student began crying and choking. Tear gas was seeping through a classroom window.

Police had targeted Guilarte’s school, the Central University of Venezuela, in response to student protests. Guilarte himself led a student group at his university, “Estudiantes por la Libertad,” or Students For Liberty Latin America. In early 2019, Guilarte left Venezuela to intern at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. 

After coming to the United States, Guilarte said he finds it difficult to listen to political candidates touting the same system of government he fled.

“When we hear some politicians and some people trying to sell this socialist dream — ‘everything for free’ we don’t think about how it’s going to be in the long run.”

Guilarte now travels the country with The Fund for American Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to leadership education, to speak about the Venezuelan political crisis. He delivered a presentation on N.C. State University’s campus Tuesday, Feb.18.

Danger in the streets

Guilarte grew up in Petare, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Caracas, which in 2019 was rated the third most violent city in the world.

The violence is in part caused by the so-called “colectivos” armed, pro-government civilians who frequently suppress protests against the regime.

During one such protest, colectivos opened fire on Guilarte and fellow activists. If they didn’t halt the protest, the colectivos would have burned the student building where he lived, Guilarte said. 

While hiding inside the building, Guilarte snapped a photo of one of the colectivos a man who sold vegetables on the same street every day.

“So every day, you can go out and buy onions from the guy, and at night he will shoot at you,” Guilarte said.

Guilarte had to change his route from the university to his house to avoid fatal encounters. And if he was attacked, there would be no police to help the colectivos operate as the government’s police force.

Economic turmoil 

In 1970, Venezuela was Latin America’s richest country, with a higher income per capita than Spain or Israel. While Guilarte grew up, his mother, who was born in the 1960s, was able to fully support her family, even though she never finished high school. 

By 2017, everything changed. Ninety percent of Venezuelans lived in poverty, and the average person lost 24 pounds due to malnourishment.

“When I see how it is today, I wonder what it would be like to be born in today’s Venezuela under the same circumstances without a father, and with a mom who had no formal education.”

Last year, a neglected electrical system threw 90% of the country into a blackout that lasted a week. All the food that Guilarte’s mother had gathered for weeks spoiled. Many Venezuelans use gas lamps, instead of regular electricity. 

“That’s going on only a few miles away from the U.S.,” Guilarte said.

Nearly 4 million Venezuelans had left the country by early 2019, the United Nations reported. It’s considered the biggest migration crisis in Latin American history.

Many of those who leave, including Guilarte, send money back to their families. It’s the only way many Venezuelans can survive.

How it all started

The crisis began in 1976, when the Venezuelan government seized the oil industry from American companies. Much of the oil revenue was used to create government jobs. Public debt increased while oil prices decreased, and as a result, the government began inflating the currency.

By the late 1980s, the public didn’t trust politicians anymore, but they still demanded social benefits, thanks to an established “culture of dependency,” Guilarte said. 

In 1989, the government tried to roll back spending. But one day after the legislation was enacted, riots broke out across Caracas.

During Hugo Chavez’s campaign for president, he promised to change the system.

“He never called himself a socialist or a capitalist. He just said he was a humanist and he cared about the poor people,” Guilarte said. 

But, in 2006, when the price of oil went up during the Iraq War, Chavez received billions of dollars in oil revenue, which he funneled toward social programs and foreign contracts.

Nicolas Maduro took over for Chavez in 2013, in what several experts label a sham election. Oil revenue had dropped, forcing Maduro to rely heavily on brute force to maintain control.

Culture shock

Guilarte remembers the first day he entered an American supermarket in 2019. Every shelf was stocked with multiple brands for each product. In Venezuela, a store might hold a single shelf of toilet paper, marked “uno por persona,” or “one per person,” per week.

Before Chavez took power, his friends and family would say they were “never going to be like Cuba,” Guilarte recalls. 

“And now we’ve reached the moment where we’re actually worse than Cuba. And now what are you going to say?”

Some U.S. politicians advocate for a type of socialism they say is more akin to the Nordic countries than to Venezuela. But those European countries still rely heavily on free markets while incorporating social safety nets, Guilarte said.

If any country adopts Venezuela’s policies implemented before either Chavez or Maduro took power they’ll end up the same way, he said. 

“This socialist dream that some people are trying to sell you is nothing more than a nightmare.”