By Vishakha Negi
“I just knew that two Venzuelans had done it eight years ago so I wanted to apply as well.”
Humble and enthusiastic, this is how Carlos Vecchio describes what compelled him to apply to become a Yale World Fellow. What he didn’t know, when he applied, was that it was highly selective, and that of the 2500 that had applied he was one of the only 16 that were accepted. Now part of a network of over 250 people from 81 nations working with one of the most prestigious leadership programs, Carlos has spent the past semester attending seminars, media training and coaching sessions, and three courses.
“I’m taking ‘American Presidency’, ‘Moral Foundations of Politics’, which has one of the best professors I have ever encountered, and ‘Debating Globalization,’ which is taught by the former president of Mexico.”
In return, Carlos seeks to bring a fresh perspective to the Yale community by sharing more about Venezuela through guest lectures and interacting with students on campus. In fact, he just gave a guest lecture to Latin American Studies students on the rise of Hugo Chavez and his impact on Venezuela.
“He rose to power after imposing a revolution, and then changed the constitution to ensure that he would be in office forever. What was supposed to be a five-year term has become a fifteen-year term. He has limited civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and he wants full control of the economy. The legacy is the fact that Venezuela now has the highest inflation in the continent, as well as the highest murder rate in all of Latin America… And because of his will, he has destroyed the capacity of the economy.”
The statistics Carlos provides are almost surreal. “The inflation rate in Colombia, as of September, was around 2.3%. It is around the same for Ecuador. In Venezuela, it is about 45%. This, the murder rate, the lack of basic needs like electricity and food – among all this, we must create the perfect storm for a change.”
A decade ago no one had foreseen Chavez’s usurpation of power or the devastating consequences of it. Carlos recalls how, in the early 2000s, he returned from America – having attended Georgetown Law School on a Fulbright Scholarship and receiving another scholarship to earn his MPA at Harvard – to become a professor at a local university in Venezuela.
It was in 2001 that Chavez rose to power, and when Carlos saw what was happening, he realized, “one could not ignore what was going on anymore. There were many factors that played into my getting involved with politics. First of all, my father was a politician, so it is in my blood. Also, I wanted to see a transformation – the people deserved more, and we had the tools that were needed to make a great country. And finally, with the situation that there was, I realized that we could accept an authoritative government. I realized that I need to be a part of the change that I wanted to see.”
Political parties in Venezuela are known for forming plutocracies that are disconnected from the voices of the people. So instead of joining a preexisting party, in 2010, Carlos decided to help start new grassroots political party called Voluntad Popular, or “Popular Will”. Unlike other Venezuelan political parties, Voluntad Popular holds open electoral processes from the local to the national level; encourages people to communicate with local chapters of the party to voice concerns; and invites any bright and motivated individual, regardless of background, to join the party. The result is positive: in the last election, over 200,000 people participated in Voluntad Popular’s election process.
“This went against the tradition of an elite ruling over the rest of the population,” Carlos smiled brightly, with the hopes of an entire nation in his eyes. “It created a popular network.”
This idea of a social network reverberates in Voluntad Popular’s setup. In each community, the party has set up an organization of five members. These members do not have to be members of the party – they are political and social leaders who can communicate with members of their town and report any issues to Voluntad Popular. In this sense, there is no obligation to a party, but a system of leadership and initiative-taking that the party can just help catalyze.
In addition to this, Voluntad Popular has joined a coalition with other opposition parties, which have united to ensure, at the next election, that Chavez is properly challenged and perhaps even defeated.
“As a result of our success and progress, I can guarantee that, at the next election, Voluntad Popular will sweep many seats in Congress. Our very own man, Leopoldo Lopez, has a great chance at the presidency,” Carlos beams.
Carlos will also be running for office in 2015, for a congressional seat in the metropolitan area. His platform will be not just that of Voluntad Popular – it will be inclusive of the concerns that the entire coalition of opposition parties has brought up. Mainly, these seek to address the violation of human rights and civil liberties in Venezuela under Chavez’s rule. As a part of the executive committee of this coalition, Carlos continues to work closely with the other parties on strategies to ensure that the voice of the Venezuelan people is restored to them.
Meanwhile, he continues to learn from and share experiences with World Fellow and Yale students alike.
“New Haven is a good environment to study in,” he says. “It is small, but at the same time, culturally speaking, there are many things to do. New York City is right next door. But the most important thing is the deep connection that students get to have with the university, and the amazing international network that we can build with other fellows. We are like ambassadors that get to share so much with one another.”
And one of the many things Carlos has discovered, in this process of cultural exchange, is the food in New Haven.
“Pepe’s and Modern pizza are really good. I also like Kitchen Zinc. My favorite kind of pizza is cheese pizza. Oh, and the tapas at Barcelona are amazing,” he laughs.
“Any words for current college students?” I ask him.
“Yes, certainly,” he pauses a bit before smiling. “This is what I learned throughout my life, what college students in Venezuela are pursuing, and what I envision for college students everywhere: if you want change, don’t just ask for it. Be a part of that change.”
Vishakha Negi is a freshman in Morse college. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.