‘The most important thing is political change’ – Jorge Jraissati on activism and the Venezuelan Crisis

Democracy and radical economic change are key to reshaping Venezuela, according to Jraissati

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On Tuesday evening I spoke to Venezuelan political activist Jorge Jraissati before his speech at the Cambridge Union. As an outspoken critic of the Venezuelan regime, and founder of the NGO Venezuelan Alliance, Jraissati has dedicated his life to rectifying the situation in Venezuela, fighting for the establishment of democracy and economic prosperity for his native country. We began by talking about the situation in Venezuela today.

For Jraissati, the situation in the South American country constitutes nothing less than a humanitarian crisis. He describes it as the ‘the worst economic collapse in the history of the Western Hemisphere, with 5 million people having left Venezuela and 70% living in extreme poverty’. He cites a UN statistic: 7 million people need humanitarian aid such as antibiotics, water supplies and even shelter.

Economic freedoms are severely restricted, and the consequences resonate with him personally: ‘I have many friends in Venezuela who want to provide for their families, who want to start businesses, but they cannot because of a system that has taken away all our economic rights. In Venezuela you do not have access to private property, to foreign currency, to set prices’. Combine that with an ‘arbitrary and unpredictable’ judiciary system that is ‘completely biased in favour of the regime’ and it perhaps comes as no surprise that Jraissati is calling for radical change in the form of ‘a total rebuild and reshaping of our institutions.’

Twitter @JraissatiJorge

He sees the causes as two-fold, stemming from a dictatorship that ‘not only wants to control all political power but wants all economic power as well’ – and the solutions he envisages are directly proportional to these two factors. Throughout our discussion he stresses the importance of democracy: ‘the only way to change the economic model is to change the political system, to live in a democracy, giving the people the right to vote and decide on their future’.

Only then can the economic problem be addressed: ‘in democracy we will be able to debate and talk about the economic structures and reforms we need to implement in Venezuela’.

For his part, Jraissati is currently developing an NGO called Venezuelan Alliance, which aims to ‘gain an international platform for initiatives in Venezuela to improve human rights and promote freedom and economic developments’. Yet despite this work he stresses that ‘the most important thing remains political change’.

I ask him about the role of the International community in the crisis and he identifies two distinctive communities – whilst he asserts that, ‘international institutions could do more’ he is hugely grateful for ‘the people, the students from other places, political activists from other places’. He values the opportunity to speak at the Cambridge Union because, ‘it means that people of the world are paying attention and want to help us’.

In fact, for Jraissati, institutions like Cambridge are integral to change. I ask what place academic institutions have in activism: ‘Academia I think represents what I want for Venezuela: freedom, openness, debating issues and finding ways of reaching a middle ground. I think it cultivates a spirit of discussion about the issues and finding ways to coexist’.

Widespread protest against the government are commonplace in Venezuelan cities. Image from: Voice of America – http://www.glasamerike.net/a/maduro-optuzuje-sad-za-zaveru/3817299.html /

We talk about activism more broadly – I ask what the impact of social media has been on the work he does. The consequences have been personal: ‘In Venezuela we don’t have a free press so the only way I have to connect to my people is through social media’, but also much broader in scale. For Jraissati, the advent of social media has been crucial to ‘making us more connected and understanding of what is happening in real time, as well as being key to democratising speech’.

Whilst social media have broadened the discussion, Jraissati still identifies an element of privilege in activism work. When discussing climate change, he acknowledges the increased incentives for people in ‘countries that are economically sound and democratic' to ‘pay more attention to the climate, because otherwise you are only taking care of your primary needs, feeding your children and having a job’.

Overall, Jraissati is hopeful for the future of Venezuela. He sees enough ‘good people who believe in democracy, freedom and opportunities’ to create ‘a country in which everyone has the opportunity to study, to be someone, and to feel proud that they are Venezuelan’. He seems convinced that whilst the media are now ‘covering the horrible side of the Venezuelan crisis’, in ten years or less ‘they will be covering the great things that we will be doing’. Given his determination and dedication, it certainly seems possible.

Header image from: Twitter @JraissatiJorge