Venezuela is stuck in political, economic, social and humanitarian crises as the country awaits the 2024 elections — elections that many hope will be an inflection point in this stalemate. And with roughly 41 percent of the population under the age of 25, young Venezuelans can — and must — participate in decision-making spaces in the lead up to 2024 and beyond. We’re the ones who will inherit the country’s future, so we should have a say in articulating a new vision for Venezuela.
The Intertwined Issues Facing Venezuelan Youth
Venezuelans of all ages are facing a network of systemic challenges. However, these issues have an immense impact on youth, and that represents a danger for the future of the country.
First, the humanitarian crisis impedes the economic and professional development of youth. As living conditions deteriorate in Venezuela, the ability for youth to stay in school has been hampered, with the school dropout rate skyrocketing to over 50 percent during the COVID pandemic. And this says nothing of opportunities for young people to earn advanced degrees, find meaningful work and contribute to a functioning society — all of which have been decimated due to a lack of fundamental resources, creating critical gaps for vulnerable populations.
Ninety-four percent of the population has been pushed below the poverty line in Venezuela, which in turn has worsened the country’s political crisis as the number of democratic and decision-making spaces where youth can fully participate declines.
Second, Venezuela’s migration crisis — instigated, in part, by the devastating humanitarian situation — has led more than six million Venezuelans to flee the country in search of a better future. Since the crisis started five years ago, ENJUVE 2021 estimates that 51 percent of the migrants are between the ages of 15 to 29. This outflow of young people creates a critical gap for the next generation of Venezuelans, as there are fewer young people that can actively contribute to a social and political vision for the future.
Young people are leaving Venezuela in large part due to the economic crisis that has limited their purchasing power. The minimum wage in Venezuela was increased last year from $1.62/month to $28/month. And while this is a 1,700 percent increase, even the current minimum wage cannot keep up with the cost of living in Venezuela, leaving youth unable to afford financial independence.
Collectively, these issues have created a deep-rooted social crisis. Young people in Venezuela are losing national and societal values, such as a sense of national identity, as the economic and humanitarian crises are accompanied by moral and physical repression from government forces.
Hurdles to Future Participation
Understanding how Venezuelan youth perceive the current political, social and economic climate is vital to project where the next generation of leaders will take the country. My generation, one might say, is facing three hurdles: stagnant political systems, “parentification,” and a lack of alternative visions for the future.
Nearly all political parties in the country have some form of youth organization attached to them. For example, Juventud AD from Acción Democrática, Justicia Juvenil from Primero Justicia, or Juventudes VP from Voluntad Popular.
Nominally, these spaces are intended to get youth involved in political decision-making early on and allow them to exchange thoughts, debate and create new strategies. However, these youth organizations still must stay within their associated party’s narrative and platform, which are designed by older politicians.
This creates stagnation, where youth feel compelled to settle for political strategies and beliefs that they may not believe are the most efficient way forward. Rather than providing fertile ground for the next generation of young leaders to grow, these youth organizations confine participants into limited, already-established systems — and many young people are left no option but to engage, or else they risk being excluded from the political process entirely. Just participating in roundtables or recognition from the international community suffices their expectations, and challenging what political leaders say may jeopardize their hard-earned positions.
Next, “parentification” refers to when the parent-child role is reversed, and parents require the support of their children. For Venezuela, this concept applies to the younger generations who are finding alternatives to counteract the failures of current leaders. Excluded or limited politically, youth still become responsible for the future, but have limited resources to carry on their vision. Under the current system, youth will spend more time fixing their seniors’ mistakes and setbacks than designing a new Venezuela.
Lastly, there is no long-term vision for Venezuela among the few active young politicians and social leaders with platforms to instigate change. Many of them might agree with the concerns of people like myself, some may even be distraught over the challenges facing the country — but, for the most part, they hesitate when asked for an alternative to the existing structure.
I have met young leaders that do indeed want to change the status quo, but many have become frustrated and left the country to find other ways to contribute, be it through education, research or lobbying. This leakage of human capital leaves a shortage of young leaders and peacebuilders.
Engage Youth — Not as the Future, but as Partners in the Present
In Venezuela, and across the world, it is necessary to have intergenerational conversations about youth. Youth understand that hierarchies exist — but those systems cannot be used to exile us from our future.
Policymakers both inside and outside Venezuela should prioritize youth in all possible spaces, from political parties and local schools to civil society organizations and research institutions. They must also push for a National Youth Plan that is designed by and for youth.
Youth has valuable characteristics such as drive, empathy, adaptability and vision that are useful in decision-making and politics.
Likewise, young Venezuelans need to understand our role in the peacebuilding process. Youth has valuable characteristics such as drive, empathy, adaptability and vision that are useful in decision-making and politics. Therefore, we demand that older generations not just see us as the future, but as a very important part of the present.
Finally, those young leaders that have managed to reach a position of power in nonprofits, political parties, academia or student councils should also focus on engaging with youth and support their peers to promote a unified and modern vision of Venezuela’s future.
The complex and intertwined crises in Venezuela have left many young people disconnected from current events — and from each other. Young people need to know one another, so that when we are older we can avoid the mistakes of our predecessors. If we manage to have a clear picture of what our democracy and our values look like, we can show unity as the future of Venezuela.
Sophia Santi is a USIP Generation Change Fellow and co-chair of the USIP Youth Advisory Council. She previously worked as a technical coordinator at Foro Permanente de Juventudes, the largest youth political innovation platform in Venezuela.