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Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez hijacked the country’s democratic institutions to maintain his hold on power.
Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez hijacked the country’s democratic institutions to maintain his hold on power. AP

From President Trump’s risky outing from his hospital bed and the lack of information about his illness, to the government’s use of military force against protesters, to the president sowing doubt over mail-in ballots, there’s a growing distrust in our electoral system. It’s a coffin for democracy.

Having seen my home country, Venezuela, go from a free and prosperous nation to a totalitarian regime, there are clear parallels between the days that haunted me as a college student in Caracas and the fears that keep me up at night now, as I witness what’s happening in the United States.

I lived through Hugo Chávez, then Nicolás Maduro, and learned the lessons of Venezuela’s demise first-hand. Things took a turn when Chávez started changing the Constitution in 2009 to stay on as president and shattered the credibility of the ballot box.

Between 1998 and 2018, there were nine electoral processes: four presidential elections, three constitutional referendums and two recall referendums. There were multiple coup attempts, general strikes and pro-democracy student protests, many of which I participated in.

We could trace the roots of Chávez’s autocratic rise to the fact that many people didn’t vote, some didn’t care and many underestimated him. The resulting low voter turnout handed him his first victories. After that, it was too late.

For years, my right to vote was taken from me. That’s why after becoming a U.S. citizen this year — a process 11 years in the making — I’ll be heading to the polls to reclaim that sacred right. As a journalist, I’ve partnered with Voto Latino as part of its Impact Council to motivate our community to vote.

Every second counts. Literally. Every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible, that’s about 800,000 new Hispanic voters every year. The Latino community surpassed 60 million in 2020; we are more than 18 percent of the U.S. population.

I worry polarization will discourage people from voting, as I saw in Venezuela. It renders us unable to see the other side and understand how it’s tearing up the fabric of our country.

To be fair, Trump is not the cause of our deep political division. Nonetheless, he’s an accelerator. In the first debate, he urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” and suggested the vote would be “fraudulent,” without any actual proof.

This divisive agenda has reached far and wide thanks to his ability to use mass media, particularly social platforms. He has also taken a page out of Latin American populists’ playbook with his attacks against traditional outlets and his use of “fake news” as a shield any time he wants to avoid accountability.

It’s important to address the obvious fact that the United States is not like Venezuela or any other Latin American country. America’s socio-political conditions and the country’s capitalist and democratic institutions are exceptional by any standard. Yet we should recognize the effect that Trump already has had on one of the nation’s oldest democratic institutions: the GOP. Historian Robert Caro, who delved into the inner workings of power in his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, discovered the late president’s favorite motto “Power is where power goes.” From the Oval Office, Trump has quickly learned where the levers of power are and how to use them.

This is ultimately Trump’s most devastating weapon. If I had to point to one thing that made Venezuela collapse, it was the destruction of the country’s institutions, especially the electoral system. Albeit flawed, they were the only protection standing between us and the whims of dangerously misguided rulers.

History has proven that for them, there’s nothing as exhilarating as power. The power of our vote is the only thing that stands in their way.

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