Venezuelan student: I know what real socialism is. I lived it. US colleges bury the truth.

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in May of 1999, just three months after Hugo Chavez became president and started what's known as his “revolution for 21st century socialism.”

At the beginning, Venezuela experienced an economic boom and funded many social programs. I saw Chavez go on live TV, receiving callers – like a talk show – and offering gifts like houses, cars and other goodies to the people. I remember Chavez’s multiple-hour speeches – which we were essentially forced to watch because the state blocked all other channels – announcing new nationalizations, new “missions,” or simply denouncing the press and political adversaries as traitors.

At the time, it was hard to imagine the dark future ahead for Venezuela, as money seemed never ending. But the country’s centralized control of the economy was heavily dependent on oil.

When the oil markets crashed in 2014, shrinking government revenue, these social programs became unsustainable, and Venezuela’s economy collapsed.

A rich country, wasted resources: Venezuela was my home, and socialism destroyed it. Slowly, it will destroy America, too.

Millions of Venezuelans plunged into extreme poverty, and violence spiked – murders, kidnappings and political violence on the street became normal.

American colleges celebrate dictators

In short, I know what real socialism is because I grew up in a country that was destroyed by the totalitarian rule of the Socialist Party.

Then this summer I saw a quote by the infamous Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, prominently displayed at my university, Penn State. I knew I had to act. Just as I took to social media to start my campaign to remove the quote, Cubans were pouring into the streets to demand freedom from that authoritarian regime.

A woman walks by a mural of the Cuban flag and an image of revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara in Havana.

Still, a fellow student reached out to me and recommended that I speak to an expert to help me get informed and understand the reality of Cuba. Maybe this was an opportunity to learn and understand rather than just vilify what I clearly didn't know, the student told me.

The Castro quote on the wall of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center read: “The equal right of all citizens to health, education, work, food, security, culture, science, and wellbeing – that is, the same rights we proclaimed when we began our struggle, in addition to those which emerge from our dreams of justice and equality for all inhabitants of our world – is what I wish for all.”

Eric Suarez in State College, Pittsburgh, in 2019.

Anyone who is aware that Castro is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Cuban people and other human rights abuses knows what this quote is: communist propaganda.

But the problem is, my generation doesn’t know – and posting the quote prominently in such a heavily trafficked area sends the message that the leader who spoke these words is someone worthy of the honor. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I’ve lived the horrors of totalitarianism.

Havana protests: I’m a Cuban dissident. We need America to stand with us against this communist regime.

But I’ve come to learn that U.S. campuses of higher education are part of the problem, and while I feel blessed to study at Penn State, I am distressed by the ignorance and misinformation circulating about socialism and communism, not just at my school but at college and university campuses across the United States.

Since I began my successful campaign to have the quote removed, I’ve come to learn how much higher education has contributed to the erroneous views of socialism and communism.

I’ve learned of many distressing examples of misinformation about my home country, including:

►Scripps College holding a lecture series on Venezuela, hosting multiple speakers supportive of current dictator Nicolás Maduro.

►A Marxist student club at Columbia University scoffing at "scare stories" about Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the socialist leader who assailed U.S. influence in Latin America in his campaign against capitalism and democratic freedoms, died in 2013. He was 58.

►And a human rights professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School who said poor Venezuelans are "better off" now than they were before the socialist coup.

Young people ignorant to evil of socialism

Trust me, Venezuelans are not better off under socialism. I didn’t study it; I lived it. So much of the American higher education system has been teaching a false, positive image of communism and socialism for decades, 40% of Americans now have a favorable view of socialism, according to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation – with 49% of Generation Z (my generation) viewing socialism favorably!

This isn’t surprising given the false impressions my peers have of top-down systems of government and their so-called heroes.

Eric Suarez with other Venezuelans in Orlando, Fla., in July 2021.

The University of California, San Diego, has housed a Che Cafe for more than 50 years as a “revolutionary” space for students. The cafe is registered as a student organization for the fall of 2021. Che Guevara oversaw firing squads and organized forced labor camps, so if that is the kind of revolutionary experimentation the university hopes to foster, the cafe picked the right namesake. If not, it needs to change the name and tell students why rather than perpetuate a false, dangerous narrative.

Gregg Doyel: Our community is out of control. Maybe gunshots at a local football game will open eyes.

It has become my personal mission to stop the spread of socialism by educating my peers about what it truly is through the narrative on my personal experience. I am dedicated to teaching anyone who will listen about the dangers of these regimes, and the effects they have on their people.

Through my story and the stories of other victims of totalitarian regimes, I will do everything I can to turn the tide when it comes to support for socialism.

Erik Suarez is a Campus Reform correspondent and student at Penn State University. Follow him on Twitter: @eriksuarezn

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Venezuelan student: Americans don't know the truth about socialism