The Smith Fellowship, one of the hallmark programs of Atlas Leadership Academy, brings up-and-coming leaders from around the world to Washington, D.C., where they receive varied training in marketing, fundraising, management, and other relevant skills needed for getting nascent think tanks off the ground.
A recent alumnus of Atlas Network’s Smith Fellowship, Rafael Acevedo is director of Econintech, an Atlas Network partner organization in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Atlas Leadership Academy’s program manager, Tarun Vats, recently caught up with Rafael to discuss the challenges in Venezuela, how Econintech hopes to make a difference, and how the Smith Fellowship has created new opportunities to help Rafael in his mission to get his country back on track.
Tarun Vats: What are the biggest challenges that Venezuela is facing?
Rafael Acevedo: Venezuela has a government that is very hostile to freedom. So, the first challenge in my country is to work with a hostile government that jeopardizes the freedom movement with its policies and repressive actions against its own people.
Another challenge is a collaborationist opposition that just wants political power and economic control. Politicians have created a bias against freedom in Venezuelan society to maintain control. Many in society think that freedom encompasses only the right to vote – to be like the Venezuela that existed before Chavez. There are a lot of Venezuelans that support that opposition and its ideas.
How does Econintech’s work address those challenges?
Econintech promotes the ideas of liberty in Venezuelan society through direct contact and educational programs. We do not attack politicians directly, but our work is addressed to the roots of society in order to encourage and educate the next generation to adopt real ideas and conceptions of liberty. Educating people through our educational, social, and public policy programs all contribute to breaking the existing bias against freedom.
How has the Smith Fellowship helped you to address those challenges?
In my Smith Fellowship, I had the opportunity to develop and improve the projects of Econintech. The education, social, and public policy areas were strengthened with the experience, suggestions, and help of Atlas Network’s staff. The networking done during the fellowship was very useful because it allowed me to contact well-recognized people and start collaborating with them in new partnerships.
The recession and skyrocketed inflation have made fundraising almost impossible in Venezuela. Econintech is, as a result, experiencing difficulty in that area. We have to attract donors from outside Venezuela due to the widespread economic hardship. To face this challenge, and with the help of Atlas Network, I developed a possible project to register Econintech in the United States to have a presence in the American market to attract donors and collaborators.
What was the most impactful meeting you had while in Washington?
All meetings I had in Washington, D.C., were excellent and gave me the opportunity to meet people working to advance freedom, especially TechFreedom and R Street Institute, both of which will collaborate with us via videoconference for an Econintech event. I hope this will be the dawn of a good relationship.
Of course, one of the most productive meetings came when I met with Dr. Steve H. Hanke, widely regarded to be a world-class expert in monetary policy and who played an important role in establishing new currency regimes in Argentina, Estonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzeginova, Ecuador, Lithuania, and Montenegro.
Hanke was President Rafael Caldera’s adviser in 1995-96, and he has authored several books on Venezuela with Dr. Kurt Schuler. We discussed the current state of affairs in Venezuela, Econintech’s work, and Hanke’s draft dollarization law to stop Venezuela’s inflation and stabilize the economy. I described Econintech’s proposal for change:
- Economic Reform: Advocating for a long-term dollarization of Venezuela, Econintech promotes monetary freedom (the first step of dollarization), definition and protection of private property, free exchange, free trade, and entrepreneurial freedom.
- Political Reforms: Econintech wishes to see a federal and limited government, full autonomy to counties, and term limits for executive and legislative positions.
- Social Reforms: Econintech advocates giving Venezuelans part of all stated-owned companies (through stocks of a mutual fund), privatizing the other parts, and eliminating indirect subsidies.
The conclusion of our meeting resulted in the start of a new partnership, and Professor Hanke’s support is very important to our work in a country like Venezuela. Now, we can say that we have the support and advice of one of the most influential free-market economists in the world. Professor Hanke told me he is eager to speak with other Atlas Network partners and provide any support that he can to them.
Rafael Acevedo (left) and Dr. Steve H. Hanke.
Can you share a story of someone whose life has been improved as a result of your work?
Leónidas Rivero is a micro-entrepreneur in the manufacturing sector in Barquisimeto, capital of the state of Lara. He has a family-owned micro-business of chemises, t-shirts, embroidery, and point-of-purchase marketing material. He is a former socialist, and today he thinks that was because he really didn't understand what freedom truly meant. He said, “Taking the words of [Jesús] Huerta de Soto, I was a warm Social-Democrat ... I made a mistake [for which] I will never forgive myself. I voted for Chavez ... but I voted for him because the traditional parties [Democratic Action Party and the Social Christian Party] had defrauded me and, sadly, I voted for exchanging a light socialism for a hard socialism.”
Leónidas, or "The GrandPa" – as he likes for members of Econintech and Movimiento Libertad Venezuela to call him – has attended Econintech-organized lectures since 2015. In 2016, when Econintech promoted the foundation of a social movement to promote our proposals and do social work in favor of a free society and free-market ideas, "The GrandPa" was one of the leaders of this project. He was elected as the finance director (CFO) of the new [organization].
From the creation of Movimiento Libertad Venezuela, Leónidas has worked closely with students, young people, and the resistance. He has been threatened, as have other of our directors (of both Econintech and Movimiento Libertad Venezuela) by governmental organizations and radical followers of the Democratic Unity Roundtable group (the self-called opposition). His hard work in favor of Econintech and the Movimiento Libertad Venezuela made possible the financial support for the travel of Luis Cirocco and myself to the United States to attend Mises University and lecture about the Venezuela Libertaria project.
Currently "The GrandPa" is one of the bravest warriors of freedom. He was present when national guards were attacking students, helping young people to find a safe place. Teaching people what he knows about freedom, he is always looking for opportunities for Econintech to advance its work and events. He is spreading libertarian ideals and now, he says "thanks to Econintech, I am a new man.”
“I will never believe again in socialist politicians," said Leónidas. "Now I really understand freedom, and I am committed to demand, protect, and fight for real liberty. I am one of nine brothers, and at this moment just three are still in Venezuela. My only daughter wants to leave our country … However, I will continue fighting to achieve freedom in my country. Perhaps I will not live to see my dream come true, but someday my grandchildren or great-grandchildren could come to Venezuela and see a different country: a truly free country, one like what Movimiento Libertad Venezuela and Econintech are working to create."