As the Americas’ biggest political and refugee crisis has mushroomed, Venezuela’s massive youth population faces an agonizing choice: to endure the conflict and the privations of a collapsed economy, or to seek economic survival and a better life abroad. With a recent surge of people fleeing the country, more than 4 million Venezuelans now are refugees, the United Nations reported last month. Still, a strong core of youth—nonviolent protest leaders, humanitarian workers and grassroots organizers—is working on peaceful ways to restore stability and democracy.

Venezuelans, most of them young, rally in April to demand a democratic transition for their country. Venezuela has a history of political protest movements led by youth. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)
Venezuelans, most of them young, rally in April to demand a democratic transition for their country. Venezuela has a history of political protest movements led by youth. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)

The stakes in the struggle are high, for Venezuela and for both American continents. Most Venezuelan refugees are sheltering in countries from Peru to Mexico and the Caribbean. The largest group, at least 1.3 million in Colombia, is multiplying that nation’s burdens as it tries to end its own armed rebellions and stabilize from civil war. Venezuela’s refugee flight is “one of the biggest and most rapid flows of vulnerable persons globally,” and has become “the second biggest … after the Syrian crisis,” according to Axel van Trotsenburg, the World Bank’s vice president for Latin America.

Youth Are Protesters, Humanitarians, Civic Leaders

The role of youth in Venezuela’s pro-democracy struggle is central—if only because half of Venezuelans are younger than 30, and a third less than 18. Overwhelmingly, news coverage shows young protesters at the fore of the recurring street battles with the police forces defending the authoritarian government headed by Nicolas Maduro. Less visible to the world are those youth committed to nonviolent campaigns. These include the courageous medical students who form a corps called the “White Helmets, Green Crosses” to rescue those wounded when fighting breaks out.

These young civic leaders include Dalia Marquez Añez, a 20-something human rights lawyer who leads Youth United in Action. Along the Colombia-Venezuela border, Marquez is helping organize dialogues between migrants and local communities to reduce tensions between them.

Lexys Rendón heads a civic organization based in Caracas called the Laboratory of Peace, which trains and coordinates citizens taking nonviolent action for democracy. Rendón aims to build a culture of peace in a society that she describes as militarized. “People go to the marches already with the expectation of being repressed,” she says, “and the repression is getting tougher by the day.”

Giannina Raffo came to the United States from Venezuela on a professional fellowship and now helps Venezuelan youth develop websites and smartphone apps that civic groups can use to discuss and develop their campaigns. “The way to change society is to change ideas,” Raffo said in an interview, and the tools she develops are vital in a country where “90 percent of the [mass] media is controlled by the government.” Raffo uses her digital tools to promote human rights, the inclusion of youth and dialogue to improve unity among the many communities trying to shape a more democratic, accountable government for their country.

Marquez and Raffo are fellows of USIP’s Generation Change Fellows Program, which trains and supports youth civic leaders in countries worldwide that are facing violent conflict. Generation Change fellows form a community pursuing grass-roots projects to promote peaceful transformations in their countries. This community in Venezuela will this year expand to include 28 members.

These women and their generation are heirs to earlier cohorts of youth, known in Venezuela as the “Generation of 1928” and the “Generation of 1958,” who led in overturning authoritarian regimes. According to Raffo, the time to achieve that kind of change now runs short. And again, she says, “the future of Venezuela lies in the hands of youth activists.”

Nilaya Knafo is a program assistant with the curriculum and training development team at USIP.

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