Engaging Youth with Politics in Venezuela
The political climate in Venezuela is so polarized that many, despite rising inflation, electricity shortages, and increasing encroachment on freedoms of speech and press, are loath to get involved.
And yet getting involved is more important than ever. Young people especially (those under 25 make up half of the Venezuelan population) are essential to efforts to keep civil society strong. But how can youth activists convince their peers that politics are worth devoting time to?
In 2010, student activists in Venezuela uncovered a few tactics that took them closer to answering this question. Their lessons are applicable for organizers anywhere trying to mobilize the youth vote, especially in an environment where the mass media is mainly state controlled and political parties are polarizing forces.
Many groups coalesced in 2010, all with different short-term versus long-term goals. For example, a group called Defienda Tu Voto was aimed exclusively at capturing volunteers to help with registration and GOTV, while one called Voto Joven sees itself more as an full-fledged, permanent, movement aimed at increasing voter participation.
"In highschool I was not very into politics or activism," a member of Voto Joven told me. "I was really into hiking and mountain climbing and photography." But when he began seeing more and more rallies on the street, he started photographing them. And now, a little way than halfway through university (where he studies engineering), he devotes nearly all his free time to the student movement.
Anecdotally, young people involved in the student movement come from a variety of different backgrounds, in terms of socioeconomic status, region and interests.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
1. Be nonpartisan: Voto Joven encouraged activists around the country to work together, regardless of party affiliation - this allowed them to get more young people involved, and they were only able to do it by making sure that they were not perceived to be either for or against Chavez, but rather just for the incorporation of more young people into the political process.
"Even though they were from different parties, students approached us about issues like security, because we weren't partisan ... that's not to say it wasn't a problem, but in the end Voto Joven was a great way to make [young people] work together, because they weren't depending on their party leaders ... this allowed activists to build teams and learn strategies outside of the context of the different parties and the hierarchies within them. It was an opportunity for them to work for democracy without any [political] agenda."
A great example of this is the video that Voto Joven shot, which features Venezuelans that they brought from off of the street in Caracas into a rented studio. "I'm voting because I don't want the blue guy to hate me," says a Chavista wearing red; "I'm voting because I don't want the red guy to hate me," says an opponent wearing blue.
2. Different messages for different audiences: Thousands of young people from around the country volunteered in the months before 2010. What's the most effective message for a group of students in one state compared to another? Only the people from that state know, which is why the onus was put on small groups from within the communities being targeted to decide what the best tactics for getting their peers involved would be. Here's Roberto Patino:
"It was a very horizontal structure. We gave the big lines and rules of the movement, but then everyone in their own state had the chance to do things that they thought were important and to do it their way. So in some states we saw more activities related to sports, maybe in other states we saw more activities related to music, or we saw more campaigning activities giving flyers and stuff [with regionally attuned messages]."
As an example of this, an independent group of activists from Caracas' Catholic University targeted other students at the Catholic University. It wasn't a high-impact campaign, but it was important -- and making sure to follow this tack, no matter how small the audience, builds up.
3. Connect real-life problems to the vote: Voto Joven teams made a point to visit poorer neighborhoods and discuss day-to-day issues like rising crime, inflation and electricity shortages with residents. Their goal was to bring home the value of voting for these citizens, reminding them that voting is one of the biggest tools they have to improve these problems.
4. Combine voter outreach efforts with fundraising efforts. "A lot of the funding came from collecting activities we did in the streets, asking people for small amounts of money. Also, in every state the teams collect money to print flyers, etc.," a VotoJoven member says.
5. Links to check out:
- Voto Joven's YouTube Channel
- Get Out the Vote Videos (got a lot of distribution on cell phones)
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
A member of Voto Joven says:
"We could have opened up better, like if a couple of friends have an idea, or really know their university or school, and want to pick a very targeted campaign -- perhaps we could've let go of our logo, using some guidelines ... perhaps what we needed to do was to let go a little of the (Voto Joven) brand and release it ... nationwide to states ... in the future want to take a cue from open source projects: have a logo and say anyone can use it, letting people take ownership of the logo and brand."
Open up too much, however, and you run the risk of small groups within the movement stepping on each others' toes. The question of how to encourage targeted, independent campaigns within the larger campaign while making it as easy as possible to help people collaborate and share information about what they are up to is still not completely answered. Another challenge was coordinating the work of activist groups that might not have been sharing information sufficiently. Here's a Voto Joven team member on that topic:
"One of the challenges that we encoured in 2010 was working in a team better, especially to always know about the work of other people -- what they're doing, what we're doing -- try to unite ourselves, work on the same theme with the least amount of pride or other interpersonal problems -- since in the end we all have the same objective."
Indicative of this stumbling block was the more than 4 separate Ushahidi installations set up to observe and monitor the elections. The team behind each of these didn't know about the other ones until it was too late, or they couldn't reconcile their difference enough to pool their efforts.
The real challenge, then, lay in treading the right line between having a unified campaign and having many disparate groups throughout all Venezuelan states.
Voto Joven held 8 concerts with 50 different artists and 9,000 attendees, 53 sports tournaments in 14 different states, and distributed over 2 million flyers. They also had 2000 regular and 4000 occasional volunteers. 780,000 new voters were registered in 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined. In 72 days of voter registration directed at the 2010 elections, nearly the same number of new voters -- 750,000 -- were registered.
Activists were also able to pressure the National Election Committee into directing more of their resources towards the youth vote. In the months before the 2010 election, it became glaringly obvious that the committee had no campaign targeted at young people at all. After Venezuelans appeared at their offices and demanded them to make a campaign for young people (and most likely also due to the reach of the voter registration campaign that they had been carrying out) in the last 2 weeks before the election all their ads were targeted at young people.
What's next for Venezuelan civil society? The opposition gains in this election had a side effect which in some ways created more challenges for activists regardless of political leaning, and their work is cut out for them in 2011. Will they be able to better collaborate and share information? Stay tuned.