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“I say what nobody else says,” Tamara Adrián proclaims, gazing into the lake in New York's Central Park during an international tour. Elected as Venezuela’s first trans lawmaker in 2015, the lawyer and LGBTQI+ rights activist recently launched her bid to seek the opposition’s nomination to oppose President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela’s 2024 elections. She has been fighting against the Venezuelan state since 2004, when she filed a case with the country’s highest court petitioning to have her gender and name change legally recognized—a case still not admitted for review. Now, in campaigning for the October 22 opposition primary, she’s fighting to achieve the structural changes she sees as necessary for the country’s future.
The 2024 elections come after years of embattled opposition politics. It is no secret that Juan Guaidó’s interim government was a failure. Although his motto—“end to the usurpation, transitional government, and free elections”—had the support of most of Venezuela’s opposition when he entered the scene in 2019, and international actors including the United States and the European Union backed his claim to the presidency, Guaidó’s relevance progressively diminished in the face of opposition fractures and Maduro’s inflexibility. After the political inactivity brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the congresspeople that shared the streets and public administration with Guaidó dismissed him in December 2022. Currently, the opposition’s strategy is focused on presidential elections: if abstaining from voting in the 2018 presidential race did not challenge Chavismo’s legitimacy enough to foster change, then it seems that now is the time to vote.
In the opposition primary, Adrían is running against well-known political leaders: María Corina Machado, conservative head of the classical liberal party Vente Venezuela and perhaps the most radical voice against Chávez and Maduro since she was elected to congress in 2011; and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, Maduro’s main adversary and one of the faces of the Christian democratic Primero Justicia party.
Adrían is representing a recently formed political movement called Unidos por la Dignidad (United for Dignity). The movement became news when, in November 2022, many of its members chained themselves to benches near the Defensoría del Pueblo, Venezuela’s national human rights institution, to protest violence against LGBTQI+ people and demand adequate legal recognition. Adrían describes it as “a movement of movements, where everyone fits,” and highlights that many of its members are dissident Chavistas, people who once supported Chávez explicitly but are against Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian policies. It is a space for different communities—women, the elderly and disabled, and LGBTQI+ people, among others—to build solutions that correspond to their needs and insert them into what Adrián calls “a broader public policy.” After all, she says, “everything is interrelated and there are many intersectionalities.”
Leadership and Inclusion
Adrían does not want to be the boss of the opposition or even Unidos por la Dignidad; she wants to be a leader. “Bosses command, their subordinates obey, and everything more or less happens within a hierarchical structure: it is what you learn to do in Venezuela,” she says. A leader, on the other hand, “doesn’t give orders; the leader instructs. The leader guides an idea towards a particular goal, but a leader never, for example, becomes a funnel, which is what has happened in almost all of our countries,” she says. Part of her mission as the face of Unidos por la Dignidad and as a presidential precandidate is to “give as much freedom as possible to other leaders so their leadership can also be developed.”
A retired law professor from Andrés Bello Catholic University, Adrían sees education as key to Venezuela’s economic development. “What can we do in Venezuela, where 85 percent of the population lives in poverty? Where the labor force and education system are outdated?” she asks. “The few that finish high school and college graduate today with information that is not up to date to new realities, like artificial intelligence, technological development, and technical services.” She proposes a comprehensive educational plan that will build new businesses, retrain already educated individuals with updated skills and technologies, and form a more qualified labor force.
“We have to eliminate the barriers that disabled people, elderly people, LGBTQI+ people, and other minorities—who, if you add them up, make up a majority—face,” she adds, “[and] who have been excluded in one way or another from the workforce and the education system.” Her candidacy proposes inclusive teaching and training programs that also integrate the technical and technological knowledge that Venezuela has rejected after so many years of political isolation.
For Adrían, building up Venezuela’s workforce and educational reforms must expand beyond borders. As a result of mass out-migration, the country has lost the productive capacity of people between the ages of 20 and 45, leaving it “reduced to an unqualified labor force.” Although some Venezuelan migrants will return, Adrían argues: “That isn’t enough to regain our capacity to produce, so we have to open the doors again to immigration.” Some credit the immigration policies the country championed in the mid-20th century—pro-European during the Marcos Pérez Jiménez’ dictatorship in the 1950s, Pan-Americanist once democracy was installed in 1958—for Venezuela’s early economic development and cultural enrichment.
Chavismo and LGBTQI+ Rights
“If I were a homosexual, I would declare it with pride before the four winds!” Maduro exclaimed at Venezuela’s International Book Fair opening in 2013. He asked for forgiveness for referring to the followers of Henrique Capriles, a presidential candidate at the time, by a homophobic slur and reaffirmed his commitment to the sexually diverse people of his country. He also said, without specifying any details, that the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), had proposed an amendment to the constitution formally recognizing the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but the opposition had rejected the proposal. At the time, Chavismo held an absolute majority in the National Assembly since its foundation in 1999, after a Constituent Assembly that year renewed the country’s public powers. It still does today.
While the sincerity of his apologies may be in question, it would appear that Maduro’s government is willing to propose legislative advances regarding the LGBTQI+ community. This stands in contrast to Chávez, who, like the governments that preceded him, was publicly opposed to gay marriage. In 1998, the year Chávez was elected president, an Organic Code of Military Justice was enacted that penalized "unnatural sexual acts" within the armed forces with up to three years of imprisonment. It was not until March of this year that the article was annulled, in large part a result of the protests and demands made by Unidos por la Dignidad before the Ombuds Office last year.
Faced with this reality, Adrían has been frustrated with groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that express support for Maduro’s government and for LGBTQI+ rights while not denouncing the ruling party’s homophobia. She laments that the members of groups like DSA do not identify the contradictions between the PSUV’s actions and its rhetoric when they are so capable to do so in their own territory. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, “all of the left-wing parties are against Chavismo and Maduro,” she says. This includes the Communist Party, which recently withdrew its support for the government, as well as Movimiento Al Socialismo, Bandera Roja, and La Causa R. Even Voluntad Popular, Juan Guaidó’s party, which supported Adrán’s candidacy for the National Assembly, used to belong to the global organization Socialist International.
But Adrían is also clear that the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights goes beyond denouncing discrimination at the hands of Chavismo. In the United States, she points to the efforts of white supremacists and groups like the Family Policy Alliance, the Pentecostal alliance, and the more radical wing of the Republican Party to reverse sexual and reproductive rights, not only in the United States but around the world. “Their big issue is that people speak about an integral sexual education, [where] people are educated about sexuality, race, hate, [and] intersectionalities,” she says, which has influenced moves such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. She challenges ideas like “gender ideology,” popularized in the Spanish-speaking world among deeply conservative parties like the Partido Republicano in Chile and Vox in Spain. Noting the clear religious origins of the term, she asks: “Isn’t faith, religious ideas—aren’t they ideology too?”
The Role of the New Venezuelan State
Although Adrián’s platform is highly progressive in regards to social issues, her vision of the market vis-à-vis Venezuela’s state-owned enterprises, including the oil company PDVSA, is quite orthodox. “For me, PDVSA should be another actor in competition with private actors,” she says. “It shouldn’t have any special privileges as a state-owned company.” She does not see Venezuela progressing in the coming years without private investment and a free-market model. In her mind, the support of international institutions like the World Bank is necessary for rebuilding Venezuela’s crumbling public infrastructure, including the country’s failing electrical system.
Adrían is conscious that nouns like “privatization” and “opening” can spark fear in Venezuela’s popular imagination, recalling the ghosts of the historic Caracazo protests and Carlos Andrés Pérez’s doomed second government that still haunt the streets of Venezuela. To foster change within a mature economic and political crisis, explains Tamara, economic measures will need to include a coordinated program of social safety nets. “If not, they will be very traumatic for the people,” she says. “And you can’t run the risk of implementing traumatic measures for a population that is in such a painful situation today, that has experienced so much exclusion, such chaotic poverty.” It will be necessary, therefore, to have "guidelines as to where the new Venezuelan economy should go so that anarchy isn’t produced in the process."
“We have to go beyond politics to enter the realm of statesmanship,” Adrían says. “What Venezuela requires is statespeople, not politicians.” She insists that politicians and voters alike should view the race not as a competitive election, but as a collaborative process for building new leadership in a country that has not seen viable alternatives to the ruling party in nearly a quarter of a century. “If the process isn’t seen in a coordinated manner, in a broad coalition—both national and international—there is no way this awful situation can be improved in a reasonably short time,” she says.
Adrían recognizes that the political machinery of her movement cannot be compared to that of longstanding parties such as Acción Democrática, the center-left party founded in 1941 that played a central role in the country’s early democracy. “It is a stumbling block, but it doesn’t impede our victory,” she says. She highlights recent examples in the region like Colombia’s Vice President Francia Márquez and President Gabriel Boric in Chile as evidence that people with less electoral know-how can win the most important seats in government. “We have already won,” she adds with confidence, because other candidates “are talking about issues that otherwise would not have been part of mainstream [conversation].”
After our conversation, I walk with Adrían to 86th Street station on Lexington Avenue. She tells me enthusiastically about her meetings that week with members of the U.S. Senate and Ambassadors to the United Nations. We do not have much time to catch up on other subjects; she is on her way to see Leopoldstaat on Broadway. “I have a clear plan on how to achieve Venezuela’s structural change,” she says just before getting on the train. “Let’s see if they buy it!” The suspense of the coming months hangs in the air. But so too does the possibility that, even if the Venezuelans who vote in the primaries don’t buy her campaign, perhaps her ideas will be bought by the candidate who wins.
Carlos Egaña (Caracas, 1995) is a Spanglish teacher. He recently earned his MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University. He has also taught courses on Gender Studies and Modern North American Fiction at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. He has three books in Spanish in print: a novel titled Reggaetón (2022) and two poetry collections, hacer daño (2020) and Los Palos Grandes (2017). He has written about visual arts, Latin American politics and pop culture for various Venezuelan and American publications.