With his arms covered in tattoos and a discourse of reconciliation, Miguel Pizarro has been a riveting presence on the front lines of anti-government protests, energizing the Venezuelan opposition – particularly young protestors and student activists.
Pizarro, who grew up in Caracas’ biggest slum, has been in politics since he was a college student. His commitment hasn’t wavered, but his views have changed over time. He used to identify with the extreme left, and started his career as a member of a party that supported late president Hugo Chávez. In 2006 the party began to distance itself from Chavismo; experience in real-life politics under the socialist regime also pushed Pizarro closer to the center. By sharing his shifting views and his fears for the future, he won the trust of the youngest protestors who admire his honesty and authenticity.
Now Pizarro, 29, is a legislator for the Primero Justicia party, which also includes Henrique Capriles, former presidential candidate and governor of Miranda state. His role in the opposition-led National Assembly was attacked in March, when the government-controlled Supreme Court passed a decree stripping the institution of its powers. The decree was then partly reversed, but it sparked the protests that have led to 60 deaths, more than 2,000 arrests, and at least 3,000 injured.
Pizarro and other young leaders have taken central roles in this wave of demonstrations, invigorating a coalition that had lost credibility over the years because of internal divisions and a failure to enact concrete changes in government.
On one of the few days when no nationwide protests were scheduled, Pizarro sat in Primero Justicia headquarters and shared his views. The hour-long interview has been translated and edited for clarity.
When did you start doing politics and why?
Politics came naturally at home. My grandfather was exiled from the Pinochet dictatorship because he was a member of the Chilean Socialist Party. My dad was an urban guerilla in the 1980s in Venezuela. He participated in the failed coup that Chávez led in 1992. My mom was then the secretary of the Communist Party in Congress, where I spent big part of my youth because there was no money for day-care services.
When I got to college at the Central University of Venezuela (the biggest public university in the country), I interned at ultra-left parties. When I was 18, I was elected representative of the student federation. Then I belonged to Podemos, a party that broke with Chavismo in 2006.
In 2007, Chávez called for a referendum to vote on a constitutional reform. Many in the opposition wanted to abstain like they did in legislative elections in 2005. They told us that it was suicidal for the student movement to defend participation. But we continued to defend the electoral route. The referendum became the first time Chavismo lost an election since its rise in 1999.
Beyond the partisan game, we young people understood that we’re in parties to debate, not to obey.
So when did your leftist views change?
I’m still a leftist, you know? But I’m part of a left that understands that the 21st century exists. Until I was 18 years old, I believed that private property was selfish. But during our campaign against the constitutional reform, we went to Petare, the slum where I grew up. The owner of a little food store said to us, “I’m not going to permit that reform to happen. They’re not going to take my store from me.” It was then that I said, no, I’m crazy. Private property is necessary.
If there’s something that unifies us all in the opposition, it is that we lean to the left but are also very close to the center.
You first became a legislator when you were just 21. What was that like?
In 2010 there were some cities where everyone said the opposition wouldn’t win. They sent me to one, with the excuse that I was very young. And I won! Other young legislators and I represented the return of the opposition to the National Assembly. We became a point of reference for a generation that grew up in a context where politicians were seen as dirty pigs. I mean, when I said in elementary school that I wanted to be a politician… man… the boy with chicken pox was cooler than me.
We grew up without figures in whom we saw ourselves represented. And now we, the young, are leading the 2017 protests.
Why do you think that’s happening?
I think that the older generations fight with a yearning for the country that they knew. But for us, this fight is much more existential. Young Venezuelans today understand that there’s no way we’ll own a home, or that our academic titles will mean anything other than wall decorations, unless this changes.
That’s why on the protests, you see the boy who bought his gas mask on Amazon and carries $400 to protect himself, standing right beside the guy who made his own improvised gas mask with a pan, a soft drink bottle, and two tissues soaked with vinegar.
The crisis has made us equals. We’re going to be the generation of “never again.” Never again will we let someone divide us, never again will we believe that there’s an absolute truth, never again will we think we’re superheroes.
What did the older ones do when a student was killed? Three hundred buses were burned and half a city was looted. Us? We cry, we get frustrated, but we convert it into action.
When you talk to the ones in the front lines of the protests, no one says they’re there because they want to see Chavistas tied up to cars and dragged through the avenues. They fight because they want a future.
You’re saying young people are more moderate now?
There are, of course, some who still believe that the solution is violence. But for the first time, they’re a minority.
Young people and student leaders now have the moral solvency to talk about forgiveness, reconciliation and the country that’s coming. We didn’t create this crisis, but we’re responsible for solving it.
What’s the opposition’s strategy to achieve that solution?
We visualized our non-violent struggle in four simultaneous phases. The first one was to build a critical mass. At the beginning of this year, the country was disillusioned. And now, a couple of months later, the country believes this can change and knows it’s not going to be easy.
The second phase was to build an awareness of who we are and what we’re against. We’re against backwardness, against violence, hate, and intolerance.
The third phase was the definition of clear objectives. That’s why we may seem like Jehovah’s Witnesses repeating that we want free and fair elections, respect for the National Assembly, admission of humanitarian aid, the liberation of political prisoners, and the demobilization of the paramilitary groups.
And then there’s the last phase, which is the escalation of the protests. This started with 30 legislators ripping apart the Supreme Court decree. Today, we’re able to make ourselves heard for 12 hours straight across the country.
Eventually, you know… there are people who are afraid of saying it, but there will need to be a negotiation, a transition. In transitions, there are guarantees and there is justice. There is judgment, and there is forgiveness.
People are asking themselves, until when will the fight go on?
If I knew, I would be in my boxers, celebrating, but since I don’t, I’m here, sober and serious. This is going to get uglier still. We haven’t seen the worse part. Politicians have made the mistake of speculating in the past. Not this time.
How do you feel about your role in this fight?
I’m a different person before and after the burial of the college student Juan Carlos Pernalete a month ago. At his burial, his mom held my hands and said: My kid made me listen to your speech the day before he died. He was inspired by you.
I’m not very emotional. I understand what it means to lead with the brain. But that day I cried. He died because he followed me.
But I feel good, and I sleep well at night. I know I’m doing the right thing. And I feel optimistic. I’ve been in this for 10 years and had never seen our society show this level of courageousness and conviction.
Krygier is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela