Ever since Donald Trump became a politician, I have felt trapped in a movie I have seen before.
I saw it in my home country of Venezuela as a child, where a populist leader fueled hyper-polarization and took advantage of an already divided nation to destroy democratic norms and institutions and cement his rule.
Yet my fellow Venezuelans are currently deeply divided on who reminds them more of our nation’s boogeyman, Hugo Chávez: Trump or Biden.
Because President Trump has made an exception in his isolationist foreign policy and has taken an interest in “freeing” Venezuela, many of my compatriots feel his re-election is crucial for the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Many – including millions stuck under Chavista rule – have come to believe, like Cubans decades before, that one day the Marines will show up on their coasts and remove the tyrant and his cronies from the throne.
And so they fight for Trump in any way they can, which is usually through social media, as the Venezuelan migration to the US is still recent and as a result, most Venezuelans here don’t yet have the right to vote.
The GOP has, nevertheless, tailored its campaigning round the small demographic of Venezuelan Americans who can turn up to the ballot box. You certainly wouldn’t know that there are only about 100,000 Venezuelan American voters in Florida from the way the Trump campaign has targeted them during this election season.
Because we can’t participate democratically in our country, many are fixated instead on the United States. And that’s what makes the Trump administration’s divisive tactics against my community so shameless: Our trauma has been weaponized against us.
This is why, as a Venezuelan American, being openly against President Trump is an act of treason for some and an act of bravery for others.
QAnon conspiracies have made their way into not only the Venezuelan community but also the Cuban, Colombian, Nicaraguan and other Hispanic communities, particularly in Florida. Venezuelan Americans who don’t support Trump are called all kinds of names – from communist to traitor to ‘pedozuelan’ – their retort to the ‘magazuelan’ term, and a slur based on baseless conspiracy theories about Democrats running child-trafficking rings.
A new Spanish-language conservative website linked to Dinesh D’Souza’s Venezuelan wife Debbie has even popped up — and its popularity seems testament to how much the US election has galvanized Venezuelans who support Trump. The editorial line is clear: Our way of life at home and abroad is under attack by the radical Democratic Party and only Trump can save us.
Unfortunately, even while Trump exhibits the classic authoritarian red flags, his exploitation of our trauma has been effective. Seven out of ten Venezuelan Americans plan to vote to re-elect the president, who has made gains with Hispanic voters since 2016 – especially in Florida, where most of the Latinos who have experienced leftist dictatorships live.
Fanaticism for Trump among the Venezuelan community is such that Venezuelans who openly support Biden have faced serious harassment, especially online. Even the most successful Venezuelan artists in the US, such as actor Édgar Ramírez and comedian Joanna Hausmann Jatar, have been subjected to hateful comments for publicly rejecting the US president.
Dilianna Bustillos, a Venezuelan-American who volunteers with the Biden campaign, has experienced this firsthand. Pictures of her and her relatives have been shared online, identifying them as ‘Chavistas’ because they support Biden.
“I’ve seen how extremes have tried to take over our narrative as Venezuelans, to take our story and make it into something that fits their agenda, both on the far-left and far-right,” she told The Independent. “I feel like I’m in the middle of that and I’m having not only to constantly explain what’s going on in Venezuela, but also here in the US.”
On Facebook, some even claim that Venezuelan Trump supporters have called their places of work after getting their identity from Facebook groups. And some Twitter accounts have published lists of Venezuelans in the US who support Biden, asking Trump to “investigate” them and even to deport them.
I was just as upset as other Venezuelans when Barack Obama was pictured at a baseball game with Raúl Castro in Havana back in 2016. But I refuse to let my personal experience blind me to reality.
Yes, President Trump took an interest in Venezuela, and for that I was grateful. However, not only is Maduro’s hold on Venezuela stronger than ever today, but thousands of Venezuelans are currently facing the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies, as the President and Senate Republicans refuse to grant them Temporary Protected Status. While Trump has been bragging about how much he has done for Venezuelans, his administration has been secretly deporting them to third countries, according to US Senator Bob Menendez.
President Trump’s words and actions have determined my vote in the 2020 election more than any Republican ad calling Joe Biden a socialist. Trump’s justification of a governor’s possible kidnapping, for example, is more similar to Chávez’s behavior than anything Biden has ever said or done. Using state resources for campaigning, demanding criminal investigations into political opponents, voter intimidation, constant attacks against the free press, disregard for science and separation of powers, and nepotism are all things I grew up seeing Chávez do.
And let me be clear: I am against socialism (as defined in the dictionary). I’m not naive enough to think the S-word and the leftist rhetoric that comes with it had nothing to do with my country’s demise. I’m against socialism as much as iconic Cuban freedom fighter and ex-political prisoner Carlos Alberto Montaner, who for the first time has appeared on a candidate’s ad to assure Cuban and Venezuelan exiles that Biden and Harris are not socialists.
His words have resonated with me and many other young Venezuelans who have chosen to look beyond our trauma and into the facts: Joe Biden is not a socialist. As he has repeatedly said in his campaign, there was a socialist in this race and he defeated him.
I saw my beautiful, once successful home country crumble at the hands of an authoritarian populist. I was too young to have a say when Hugo Chávez was elected. But this time, with my vote, I have said a loud “no” to the North American caudillo.