As the old saying has it, “all politics are local“. But for plenty of us, it’s just not true. As a Caraqueño in D.C., I’m political, but not local. And yet, what goes on back home affects me deeply for sure.
For many of us expats it’s difficult to feel like we are doing anything useful about the situation back home. Which is where groups like Lucha Democratica – the Venezuelan expat network here in DC. – really comes into its own.
I ran into the friend of a friend in a gym in the run-up to the primaries, and he turned me on to Lucha Democratica. I volunteered to help out on Primary Sunday and instantly felt right at home, even though my responsibility that day was to mind the door and control the flow of voters into the small voting area (or what I term lava perro duty). I enjoyed every minute of it, and stuck around until the votes were counted (Maria Corina gave Capriles a run for his money but faded in the back stretch to finish a distant second). Being around many fellow countrymen when you are in a foreign land transports you back, if only for a short time, and leaves you wishing it was Primary Day every day.
It left me with a strong taste to do more with the group, and learn how it came about.
Groups like Lucha Democrática fill a critical niche. Time was when Embassies and Consulates served as arbiters, able to channel the concerns of citizens living and working overseas. But with a government like ours, consulates and embassies are obstacles just as often as they are facilitators, layering ideology on top of their function at times to the point of becoming useless at handling the concerns of dissenting citizens.
This is where we expatriates see the need to take on some of the functions that in a “regular” situation are taken care of at the consular level. Calls to our diplomatic missions for information, when they are answered at all, are too often met with lackadaisical attitudes or downright hostility. “No sé nada de eso, miamol, infórmese en la pagina del CNE… click”.
The stonewalling and obstacles placed in the way of our right to vote together with the need to let our embassy in Washington know that they also serve folks who do not agree with the party line gave rise to Lucha Democratica.
Its roots go back to April 11, 2002: a chance encounter outside the Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown led to their founding. In the days, weeks and months that followed they realized that there was a need to defend the rights of their fellow countrymen in the face of a diplomatic representation that grew more and more hostile towards the “enemies of the process”.
Members are mostly long-time DCers, but the parties that make up the MUD have named their own reps to the area – mostly folks that are here to study and go home and who have established their credentials in the fight back home before coming north. So while the latter have “party legitimacy” and the ear of the MUD, the former are the ones that know “como se bate el cobre” locally, and have the local contacts in the press, know the permitting process for demonstrations and all the other things that can be the difference between success and failure when the time comes to protest. Local groups like Lucha Democratica are present in every election and are known to the other expats with roots in the area which also gives them a legitimacy earned over time.
But groups like Lucha Democrática do not operate in a vacuum either. They stay in dialogue with the MUD and follow the guidelines handed down from Caracas. This frustrates some members, who see this as an example that things are still done the “old fashioned way”. Centralized political decision making is a hallmark of the much reviled 4th Republic, and something most do not want. However, there is a feeling of not wanting to rock the boat this time around since many differences have been put aside in order to work towards a common goal.
Lucha Democrática might seem like purely an opposition creature, and it’s true that there are no Chavistas present. But we’re not just here to counter the Chavernment; we’re here to defend the rights of expats regardless of who’s on the hotseat in Miraflores. What will happen if Capriles wins and is perceived to be denying rights to expats is anyone’s guess, but some of us would surely take up the cause.
This time around we’re trying to raise money to help folks who live far from DC with gas money, securing discounted rates at local hotels or even putting up complete strangers in our own home for the weekend. On Election Day we’ll be in front of the Embassy helping direct the flow of voters, estimated to be close to 2000, as well as keeping them informed and directing any overflow to a nearby park. “Democratic” as Washington DC is, keeping our paisanos from bothering the neighbors will be a big part of what we do on the 7th of October.
I guess the residential neighbors of the Embassy are not thrilled with political events on Sunday mornings. In other words, we’ll be doing what the folks from the Embassy should be doing yet will refuse to do whether by design or because they don’t think they should.
If you look, you will find groups like Lucha Democratica in every major city and region where Venezuelans are. So as we get closer to the election, look around in your community: whether you are in London, Timbuktu or La Cochinchina and ask yourself if you can do just that bit more to help your fellow expats exercise their right to vote.