It was a Thursday. That might be the extent of the consensus about what happened on April 11, 2002. The split screen at 3:45pm, when the media aired images of what was happening in the streets directly alongside Hugo Chávez’s compulsory national broadcast, was a metaphor for the country. Chávez had become a key symbol, sparking extreme polarization that would define the next 20 years of Venezuelan history. Participation, sovereignty, and pluralism were sacrificed on the altar of this extreme polarization. Dissent became treason. Accountability gave way to automatic solidarity. Classism also found a home in this polarization and the brutal power struggle that it unleashed among elites. The presence of two opposing countries could be felt everywhere. We haven’t moved on.
Against this backdrop, it is extraordinary what feminist and LGBTI rights movements have achieved in Venezuela. Through activism and dialogue, they are the only ones that have managed to break through this ongoing conflict and raise their flags while standing shoulder to shoulder with people from the “other side.” With this context in mind, I spoke to Richelle Briceño, a trans activist, lawyer, member of the political party REDES, and former National Assembly candidate, and Yendri Velásquez, an LGBTI activist and Caracas coordinator for the organization SOMOS. What follows is the story of a collective struggle still far from reaching its goals. Our conversation, which took place over Zoom, has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Fermín: We’re about to hit 20 years since April 11. What memories do you have of that day?
Richelle Briceño: I was praying in a chapel in San Antonio de los Altos. Before I was a trans woman, back then, I was a seminary student at the Salesiana Don Bosco parish and was prohibited from talking about politics. The news was breaking, but we couldn’t follow what was happening.
Yendri Velásquez: I was 10 or 11 years old, and I didn’t understand what was happening. My dad was part of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), and growing up, I went to the MAS headquarters. I grew up around MAS leaders Teodoro Petkoff and Leopoldo Puchi. At that time, my dad opposed the Chávez government, which he had initially supported. I remember that there was a lot of tension in my grandmother’s house, because my mother’s family was very Chavista. It was all really uncomfortable. Sometimes, my dad didn’t even come into the dining room. He would stay outside with some of my uncles. I remember that very tense environment.
RB: My mom was very Chavista, too. And I called just to tease her a little. The next day, she called me back to make fun of me because Chávez was back in power.
DF: One sign of the times back then, and now as well, was precisely this intense divide that we have as a society, which affects families, the workplaces, relationships. How did this climate impact your activism and your social justice work?
RB: I got involved in activism after beginning my transition. I noticed a very important disconnect among activists identified as leftist or Chavista and activists identified with the opposition. Little by little, between 2015 and 2017, that struggle intensified and worsened among activists. Because they couldn’t see one another, let alone speak to one another.
I would tell them, “Compañeros, when people are going to discriminate against us, they don’t ask if we’re Chavistas, if we’re opposition, if we live in Country Club or in La Vega.” That’s not what matters. Because in the moment, they are going to discriminate against us based on our sexual orientation and our gender identity. And that’s what our struggle needs to focus on.
YV: Also, and I say this as part of the opposition, there was and still is this idea that we’re going to immediately replace the government and that these people aren’t going to be in power for much longer. And that makes you operate according to the logic that you don’t need them, because soon they won’t be there anymore. This idea happens a lot. One of the things that I have learned to accept is that although I don’t support Chavismo or those who are currently running the institutions, I know they’ll be there for a little while longer. And that makes me abandon the logic that we don’t need them. They control the institutions, and they exercise power. If, as an activist, I ignore who is in power, what am I doing? Because I can continue creating support groups and having a positive impact. But that’s 10 people per week, compared to the number of people in need in the entire country, even more so in a humanitarian and pandemic context.
This shift in logic forces us to recognize the existing political actors. We have to understand that the ones who are in these spaces are the ones who can create change, be it positive or negative. And ignoring them for personal reasons, not doing the necessary advocacy, would also betray any activist principle of seeking the well-being of the entire population.
The social fabric must be rebuilt. I have limits when it comes to sitting down with authoritarian figures. Not necessarily with those who are Chavistas. I have Chavista family members. I’m not going to say, “I’m never going to speak to them again.”
In the end, we have to evaluate which issues we can agree on and move forward, and which points of contention are irreconcilable. I think it’s essential to be clear. Because I can meet with a group of people today, but if they tell me, “Tomorrow you have to meet with Maduro,” then it’s a no. I can support the meeting between political actors. I can support building solutions. But I have my limits, especially if it’s someone accused of crimes against humanity. For me, that’s a line I don’t cross, and sadly, I’m convinced that under the PSUV government, there won’t be much progress.
DF: Richelle, would you sit down with Maduro to advance the community’s struggle?
RB: Yes, I would sit down with whoever I have to. Even the devil. If that somehow helps prevent the coming generations, when they are 14 or 15 years old, from saying “I’m going to kill myself because my family doesn’t love me, because my family doesn’t accept me, because I don’t have rights, because nobody understands me, nobody respects me,” then yes. If I have to sit down with Maduro or Diosdado Cabello, whoever I have to sit down with, I will do it. They’ll call me Chavista, but they can call me whatever they want. I have a priority: what I want is for Venezuela to make progress on human rights issues.
I sat in the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. Everyone talks about the illegitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. But if, as an activist, they call me and say, “Can you draft a comprehensive bill for the LBGTI community?” then why wouldn’t I do it? Now, in the National Assembly, there’s a subcommission on LGBTI within the commission for comprehensive social development, and the bill is being circulated because it is going to be introduced.
I also have a line I do not cross, and it’s meeting with anti-rights people, people who promote conversion therapy, people who say they are against marriage equality or who want to govern Venezuela based on the Bible or religion.
DF: Today, Chavistas, the opposition, and independent LGBTI activists manage to come together in some spaces. Has it been easy? How have you managed to break away from this polarization and what lessons do you think it offers for other movements?
YV: It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes you have to put up with a lot in order to build, to have a positive impact. Because in the end, it’s mostly about putting aside your personal convictions, without abandoning your principles, and understanding that this is bigger than you. Truthfully, would I like to sit down with people from the opposition party Primero Justicia? No. But could it be positive and necessary to advance human rights issues? Yes. So it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
I don’t want to minimize the political conflict that exists in the country. At times, the dehumanization of the other and othering has been encouraged to such an extent that it ends up dehumanizing people when we are essentially the same. In the end, between LGBTQI activists linked to Chavismo and those of us who are not linked to Chavismo, the only difference is that they place too much hope in Chavismo and we don’t. But in other respects, we are pretty much in agreement on the LGBTQI agenda. Obviously, always with some differences.
DF: How have you managed what unions, campesino associations, educators, and students have not been able to do? What do you think has been successful?
RB: Acknowledding one another. Has it been easy? No. They labeled me a Chavista for sitting in the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. And for participating in the parliamentary elections in 2020, the attacks were worse and stronger. Among those in the two extremes, there is no conception that some people are not polarized. They want you to be polarized. Are you with me or with them? We have been overcoming this by acknowledging one another, and that has allowed us to all gather in the same space.
DF: The positive aspects of this coming together also highlight the challenges that lie ahead for the movement. There is a significant lag in rights compared to other countries in the region. Why hasn't a socialist government legislated in favor of the demands of the LGBTI community? And why hasn't it been on the agenda of the opposition or oppositions?
YV: There’s a logic of staying in power that goes beyond any ideological commitment.
DF: Do you believe that advancing an inclusive agenda threatens their ability to stay in power?
YV: It doesn’t necessarily threaten, but it doesn’t help them stay in power. They have other priorities. Another factor is that the political and social costs of being homophobic are relatively new. There was a time when the LGBTI issue wasn’t discussed. Organizations that regained their strength in a much more polarized environment are adjusting to the polarization. This polarization has made it difficult to influence institutions. There are new organizations that have no idea what public advocacy is about. Their idea of advocacy is nothing more than protesting. There’s no work being done with decision makers.
Although Chavismo’s elites have or had a very socialist, leftist narrative, the truth is that the ideological rallying cries in the country feel very diffuse. There are no spaces for open discussion within parties. Despite the narrative and rhetoric of those in power, their commitment to causes like the LGBTI struggle and feminism isn’t real.
RB: I agree with Yendri. And I would add that the issue has not progressed with this government, but also not within the opposition. While the government focused on establishing itself in power, the opposition dedicated itself to searching for a way to overthrow it. They’ve been stuck in this dynamic for the last five years. Social issues, human rights for the LGBTI community and women, were pushed aside.
DF: In 2015, Tamara Adrían was elected to the National Assembly. She was the first trans legislator in Venezuela and the second in Latin America. During her stint in the legislature, why did Tamara not manage to move these issues forward?
RB: For five years, the legislature devoted itself to toppling the government. That’s the truth.
YV: This topic is a bit uncomfortable for me because Tamara Adrián and the activist Edgar Baptista taught me basically everything I know. The opposition and the government have not taken up LGBTI issues and this has a lot to due with the influence of the churches—the Catholic Church and the Evangelical churches. In addition, from the government side, there’s the issue of the military.
When I was still active in Voluntad Popular, I remember that when they ran Tamara as a candidate, Cardinal Urosa Savino (archbishop of Caracas) called Señora Anonieta (mother of the party’s national coordinator, Leopoldo López) to complain that Leopoldo’s party had put forward Tamara. Other figures and leaders in the Church called the party’s directors to apply pressure, and even during the campaign, Tomás Guanipa (general secretary of the conservative Primero Justicia and Tamara Adrían’s running mate) never took a photo with Tamara. And Primero Justicia’s line was to take less vocal stances on LGBTQI issues.
Why didn’t Tamara do more? I think there are various reasons. One is the logic under which the National Assembly was operating. As Richelle said, it devoted itself to changing the government and not to legislating. Those who became legislators never embraced that they were representatives with elected power, that they were a power of the state. And in doing so they put limitations on themselves. On the other hand, Tamara had a different agenda. I think she moved past an activist vision, a vision of organizing the social fabric.
Unfortunately, she did not have a vision of doing LGBTQI politics and rebuilding from within LGBTQI spaces. Why? I don’t know. Beyond laws, and understanding that there was conflict among different powers, I think that this was the most negative aspect of Tamara’s term. And of Rosmit Mantilla’s (LGBTQI activist and former legislator). Because although Rosmit was detained and obviously that is a considerable limitation, when he got out, he also did not devote himself to this work.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about them—not at all. But I am a citizen, I campaigned for them, I supported them, I made proposals. I wasn’t far removed from the National Assembly scene; I was actively participating. In the end, one of the things that Tamara’s term leaves us with is the sense that, among factions that claim to be democratic, support for LGBTQI issues is inexistent.
DF: What has changed in the last 20 years in terms of LGBTI activism? What hasn’t changed?
RB: The faces have changed. I think LGBTI activism has given way to new individuals and younger generations. The process of giving visibility to LGBTI rights and the spaces we once occupied have changed. There hadn’t been a trans representative in all of Latin America before Tamara Adrián was elected to the National Assembly in 2015.
There’s still resistance to change. We still have roadblocks to LGBTQI rights and the right of women to make decisions regarding their own bodies.
YV: There is something very important that I believe is perhaps a consequence of April 11 that has less to do with political parties than it has to do with civil society, social movements, and civic participation at the grassroots level. This is key for the redemocratization of Venezuelan society because it promotes the construction of networks and social fabric. Organizations like COFAVIC (a human rights organization) now have more capacity than ever and they are supporting other organizations to create greater capacity. And I think that that’s very powerful, and we’re not likely to see it right away, but it’s a critical wager for the future.
DF: What is the biggest debt the state has with the LGBTI community?
RB: The state needs to apologize to every member of the LGBTI community. We have been punished by an unequal and prejudiced legal system. During the 1980s, police harassment against the LGBTI community in the streets of Caracas was called homosexual prevention or prevention of gay cancer. Prevention against anyone who threatened morality and “good” social norms. The state needs to apologize for the historical abuses we’ve suffered, with human dignity in mind.
Now, there's also the discussion about our rights. Because although the right to non-discrimination has been reinforced throughout these past 20 years, we don’t have marriage equality, not even civil unions, nor the recognition of domestic partnerships. None of these three concepts exist in our legal system. On the other hand, there’s the issue of the recognition of families with same-sex parents, despite the existence of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. To date, the civil registry and the National Elections Council, which operates the registry, has refused to recognize the children born to same-sex couples. In this way, the historical debt continues. Also, the right to gender identity. Without our identities, we don’t exist. In the National Assembly’s gender subcommission, I have proposed that the first law we work on must be the gender identity law. There isn’t even a law to eradicate different forms of violence against LGBTI individuals.
YV: The state needs to recognize us as people with rights. Our sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are no reason to ignore our rights. It’s important that the state, its officials, and society understand that we’re all born with the same dignity and rights. We are in a state of total vulnerability. Although there are some elements in the law, there are no effective mechanisms to make them a reality, there are no public policies that are oriented towards the eradication of violence based on transphobia and homophobia. There is no policy that seeks to guarantee the lives, dignity, and human rights of LGBTQI people.
DF: Do you believe that democratic forces of the Left can collectively pressure for these demands from the LGBTI community and other vulnerable communities? And as a follow up: is there room for the Venezuelan Right to fight for the rights of the LGBTI community?
YV: I think to answer that question, you have to challenge parties not only on the left, but also on the right to reassess and make room for these agendas with a vision of the future. Today, there are no parties, but rather people who belong to parties. It seems like the same thing, but it’s not. There is no concept of institutionality.
The truth is that we don’t really have serious right-wing parties. There are parties that say they are and leaders who recognize themselves as right-wing, but only in a reactionary sense of not being Chavistas. Yes, there are reactionaries, but behind those positions, there’s nothing. We must make a call to rethink in a way that is not necessarily about the left-right divide, which obviously has a time and place. Instead, we also need to talk about ourselves in the sense of being democratic or not. How do we build democratic opposition forces and points of view that go beyond not being Chavista? Because “not being Chavista” means nothing. How do you identify? What are your ideals? What do you stand for and what are you against? You can see the contradiction within parties like Primero Justicia and politicians like Julio Borges, for example. They speak out against Chavismo because of human rights violations, but they also have an agenda that is anti-LGBTQI and anti-women.
RB: If there are any true leftist movements, it’s the feminist movement and the LGBTI movement in this country. We are trying to completely disrupt the status quo imposed by the patriarchal system, a system with machista and misogynistic values. So, when identifying leftist actors in Venezuela, we should be focused on women and the LGBTI community. It would be a contradiction to consider yourself a leftist and neglect those issues. You wouldn’t be a leftist at all. You’d be a leftist in name, but deep down you’re not a leftist, because you are rejecting part of what it means to be a leftist.
Daniel Fermín is a sociologist, PhD student at The New School, and activist with Soluciones para Venezuela.
Richelle Briceño is a trans activist, lawyer, educator, member of the REDES party, and a former National Assembly candidate.
Yendri Velásquez is the Caracas coordinator for the organization SOMOS and an LGBTI activist.
Translated from Spanish by NACLA.