Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are a major source of wisdom, inspiration, and moral and financial support. Some, at their own peril, bravely fight against socialism and totalitarianism. Vanessa Porras is a political and human rights activist, representing Vente Venezuela in Washington, DC, a libertarian political party led by Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado. She is also a member of the Center for Global Progress, a think tank dedicated to individual liberty, free enterprise, global progress and capitalism. Currently, Vanessa works as a software engineer at the Organization of American States (OAS) and consults with the national security think tank Center for a Secure Free Society.
MM: You were born in Venezuela –– what was it like to grow up there?
VP: It was terrible. I was ten years old when Hugo Chavez became president in 1999, and life got very depressing. We were no longer free. There was no more respect for us as individuals. There was no more private property. There was no more free market. Most of the time we couldn’t even find food. We couldn’t get medicine when we were sick. Hospitals had no supplies, no resources.
If you look at America now, during the coronavirus, that is the norm under socialism. People are shocked here to go to the store and not find bread and toilet paper on the shelves, but in Venezuela the shelves were always empty. It was as if we were living permanently with the coronavirus.
There was almost nothing to buy, and we had no choice when it came to products that were available. Since there is no production in Venezuela, there was nothing like the variety of merchandise that we find on the shelves here. Little was imported into Venezuela either, except from other communist countries. We could buy products from Iran, Cuba, Russia, and China, but they were very poor quality.
MM: Where do you live now?
VP: I live in Washington, DC, but when I first came to America, three years ago, I lived in New York.
I was fortunate to have a mother who raised me differently, raised me to take initiative. I learned from her how to read and write and to speak several languages even before I went to school. I have been writing music since I was six years old. I joined the National Symphony Orchestra when I was six, but even though I joined that orchestra, the system doesn't give people a real opportunity to develop any talent.
Fortunately, my parents did not raise me with the kind of values that led the Venezuelan people to cheer for socialism. . . at first. They raised me to value work and independence. I started to work at 15, and I learned to support myself.
When I finally came to America, it was to escape socialist persecution. I was chased and beaten by thugs for supporting the only non-socialist political party in Venezuela. I joined that political party because I wasn’t willing to sit at home with my arms crossed watching TV and waiting for the government to fall. I wanted to do something to change my life and the downward trajectory of my country. I needed to do something. I considered it my job, and everyone’s job, to do something about the dictatorship in Venezuela.
MM: So a lot of people in Venezuela at least claim to support socialism. What influenced you to challenge the government in this way, to take such a risk?
VP: Honestly, even as a young girl, I was unhappy living in Venezuela. I did not want to be there. I wanted to live and to grow, but in Venezuela, I did not have what I needed to be who I wanted to be. Under Chavez, life got even worse. But I could still think for myself, and that is why I tried to do something. Of course, under a dictatorship, you are not supposed to want to be yourself, to be productive, to think for yourself. But that is not the right way to live. And there was no way that I was going to remain living under a system like that.
MM: Have you read Ayn Rand?
VP: Yes. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and The Virtue of Selfishness. As soon as I read her books, I thought, “This is me. This is exactly how I think and exactly how I feel.” I immediately identified with her personally too. I understood exactly what Ayn Rand wanted. She escaped from a totalitarian system, the way I eventually would. She came to the United States. She picked New York to call home. I did the same. I wanted to live in a capitalist system, in a place that completely represented capitalism. And that’s New York.
Now, I'm a software engineer for the Organization of American States, which is in DC. I like my job, but I miss New York.
MM: What is your favorite Ayn Rand book?
VP: Atlas Shrugged is my favorite, but when I read Anthem, I felt like I was living that exact life in Venezuela. Equality 7-2521 was a hero to me. I admired how he discovered things that weren’t supposed to be there, things the government forbid him to think about and study. And he realized that he was free, that it was a right, that freedom was always his.
In Venezuela, many people are not able to grasp that they are free. They don’t know that they have everything they need to grow and develop, because the government has taken that away from them. For example, In Venezuela, people don’t know that they used to have freedom of speech. The government denied that freedom, and after a while, people got used to it. They got used to injustice. They got used to not having rights. They have forgotten that they have the rights. They don’t understand what justice is anymore.
Obviously everyone wants to escape a country like that, but they are unable to imagine the possibility of living differently. That there is a different world outside Venezuela.
And it's crazy. It really is. Sometimes when I talk to people who are still living in Venezuela, and I tell them things that I’m doing, or if they tell me about a problem they are having and ask how I would solve it, when I tell them, they can’t even imagine being able to do that. They don’t recognize within themselves the ability, the tools, to accomplish things. For them, it is impossible. Socialism stole from the people of Venezuela not just wealth and opportunity –– but also ingenuity, imagination and self-esteem.
For so long there has not been a non-socialist party in power in Venezuela, and Venezuelans cannot conceive of supporting themselves independently without government. They don’t see themselves as self-sufficient. They are used to being given things, such as they are. They can’t conceive of earning a living in a free market. There isn’t even any private production any more, no place for people to work. The government confiscated everything. There is no incentive for anyone to be an entrepreneur, to open a business and make a go of it on their own.
Instead, it is common to see the most desperate or immoral people turn into smugglers. Most people can’t work or have miserable salaries, and to be able to eat, they resort to or are victims of violence as they struggle to feed themselves.
MM: Listening to you, hearing your stories, I’m wondering what you say to young people in the United States who are crying out for dictatorship.
VP: There's nothing good about socialism, period. People who support socialism –– real socialism –– haven't lived it. I would invite them all to go to Venezuela and see what socialism is like for real. They wouldn’t even have the internet. I can’t imagine Americans being ok with living without the internet, without being able to buy whatever food they want to eat, or getting sick and not being able to see a doctor, or check into a hospital, or fill a prescription. They cannot imagine what it is like to live there. In Venezuela, there is universal healthcare, but all that means is that no one gets any.
When Bernie Sanders says that Venezuela is not socialist, he is wrong. Venezuela is socialist. And when he says that America will be socialist like the Nordic countries, he is wrong, because those countries are not socialist. Either he has no idea, or he is lying. Still, many Democrats here in the United States are indistinguishable in their views from supporters of the government in Venezuela.
Venezuela is very far behind other developed countries. One of the main reasons I came to the United States was because I am ambitious, and in America, I can develop my talents. I can be someone.
MM: Thank you for your time.
VP: Thank you.