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Clevelanders learn from young Venezuelan delegation

By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent


Cleveland Council on World Affairs hosted an eight-member delegation of young political leaders from Venezuela between Aug. 20 to 26, 2009, giving them a comprehensive view of life and politics in the United States.

The delegates are part of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program arranged by Academy for Educational Development.

José Güedez Yépez and Gabriel Alejandro Gallo Garrido with members of Young Democrats.

During their stay in Cleveland the delegation met with prominent political, nonprofit and advocacy organizations like The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and with leaders from the Latino—and greater—community.


On Friday Aug. 21, part of the delegation met at Mellroca Restaurant to network with Young Democrats and Young Republicans and mull over the differences in the political systems between their host and home countries.


Passionate discussions ensued over dinner and wine and two of the delegates described the evening as ‘the most fun they’ve had since arriving’ in the country.


Grassroots politicians


Gabriel Alejandro Gallo Garrido, Director and Coordinator of National Students’ Parliament, Capital District, enjoyed the personal interaction and said he’s surprised by the polarity of opinions among the representation of the two parties. Gallo Garrido described Republicans as more aggressive and passionate. He described himself as a centrist, who identified with elements from both parties.


He plans to share both views with his peers in Venezuela and critically access what does and does not work in U.S. politics to formulate a model of governance that will work for the Venezuelan people.


“We do not know how a democracy functions,” he said, adding President Hugo Chávez’s socialist model is a joke, especially his claim to provide healthcare for all citizens and Cubans. “These doctors are not specialists and they can only provide preventive care,” Gallo Garrido said.

Political apathy among young U.S.-Americans is astounding for Gallo Garrido, who was only 13 years old when Chávez took control. He said his parents’ generation was also politically apathetic; “They considered politics to be for the high society social people.”  Gallo Garrido said they now, as the economy plummets and Chávez tightens control, they see political advocacy as integral to securing their future.

Gallo Garrido said young U.S.-Americans need to complement their interest in pop culture and entertainment by becoming active in the political system before there is a generational void of good leaders. “I am only 23, but I feel old here,” he said; explaining his generation in Venezuela feels the pressure and responsibility of helping create a functional democracy and is stepping up to the challenge with passion and maturity.


José Ignacio Cayetaño Güedez Yépez, Vice President of Un Nuevo Tiempo political party in Lara state said the U.S. has the best functional model of democracy in the entire world. Even if it’s not perfect, “at least you have a system, remember that,” he said. Güedez Yépez said Venezuelan politics lacks structure; it’s driven by who you support or who you know.


“For someone like me, who opposes Chávez, there is nothing,” he said.  As a lawyer, Güedez Yépez said one of Venezuelans’ greatest challenges is creating a ‘checks and balances’ system.  However, one thing Venezuela is doing right that the U.S. can adopt are the multiple political parties that cater to the needs of a vast constituency. “Two parties can not represent all the views of the people,” he said.


Anaís De Los Angeles Plaza Izquierdo is Organization Coordinator for Un Tiempo Nuevo political party’s National Students Movement. She agrees with Güedez Yépez that adding Venezuelans more than 50 political movements [parties] provide room for vigorous debate, which often gets heated enough to tear apart families. Also a law student, she’s curious about the evolution of the two parties in the United States.


Racism in the United States


The delegates find the issue of racism to be surprising, saying ethnic and cultural diversity in Venezuela is not even a concern. Plaza Izquierdo said racism in the U.S. stems from the lack of education. “It all begins with the children, teaching them early on to respect each other and instilling good values in them,” she said. Plaza Izquierdo is most excited about meeting with host families for dinner saying she’s looking forward to the personal insights and sharing ideas, which will broaden her understanding of U.S. society.


Güedez Yépez said interacting with locals gave him a better appreciation of how values of democracy translate into personal lives and the program is giving him a very different perspective than he had as a tourist in Florida.

Cleveland’s Democrats and Republicans


Cuyahoga County Republican Party President Joe Amschlinger felt his defensive stance soften as he realized the delegates were more open to hearing his political views than most in Cleveland. “I was expecting hard core leftists because of Chávez but not everyone here is a supporter,” he said, adding it was a great reminder that people in Venezuela and Latin America do not subscribe to just one ideology.

José Güedez Yépez and Gabriel Alejandro Gallo Garrido with members of Young Republicans.


Amschlinger said the most exciting aspect of the delegates is that they are young leaders who have the opportunity to create change in Venezuela. “They can go back now and tell people what they’ve learned here and erase stereotypes of Americans by saying ‘Hey, look I’ve met them, they are decent and caring people,’” he said. Amschlingers said Pres. Barack Obama could have taken a lesson from this meeting—that engaging in debate and finding common ground produces more results than trying to ram initiatives through.


Thione Niang, president of Cuyahoga County Young Democrats, said the Council on World Affairs needs to take the program further and send Cleveland youth abroad to get the same enriching experiences and knowledge as the Venezuelan delegates are getting.


“What is the benefit of this to us in Cleveland? We need to invest in this city and not just bring speakers… speeches don’t cut it anymore,” he said. Niang said to be competitive in a global economy Clevelanders must have global exposure and the local leadership needs to shed its old models of thinking and embrace opportunities beyond county and country lines. “Northeast Ohio has a lot to offer,” he said, and the city’s economic vitality depends on innovative thinking.


Naing said his personal story of success speaks to U.S.-America’s image as of a land of opportunities. He came to Cleveland in 2000 from Senegal, barely speaking English, and through hard work and determination graduated from Myers University, with a degree in Public Administration. He now works with the U.S. Congress and is the Youth Liaison for Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge.





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