Emerging Global Public Leader Award

“IF YOU’RE A POLITICIAN, you’re there more to listen than to speak,” says Juan Andrés Mejía MPA 2015, who was elected to Venezuela’s National Assembly the same year he graduated from HKS. Ever since he spent a few weeks living with an impoverished family in the countryside as part of his Jesuit high school education, he has known about the economic disparities among Venezuelans. “There’s no reason for anyone to be in that situation,” he says. “Everyone should have access to health and education.” Although he was in high school when Hugo Chávez was first elected president, Mejía already recognized a fundamental truth: “Chávez wasn’t the origin of the problem, but the consequence,” he says. “The problem—inequality—was already there, but nobody was addressing it.”

At Simón Bolívar University, where he majored in engineering, Mejía shared his classmates’ disdain for political parties. “I felt they were responsible for the crisis we were living,” he says. But Chávez’s termination of a broadcaster’s license after allegations of political interference pushed him toward politics. “I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the TV station, but it felt weird to us—the youth—that someone could decide to shut down a TV station that had been there for decades,” he says. “We decided to organize a protest—and it ended up being massive.” The students’ actions ignited a chain of demonstrations across the country, and a movement was born.

man kneeling surrounded by a group of smiling children

Mejía, with students (including Leopoldo López MPP 1996, who received the HKS Alumni Public Service Award in 2014) and others, forged a new political party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), that continues to be a force for change. 

After college, Mejía applied to the Kennedy School. “I was inspired by other Venezuelans I knew who had gone—and if you know someone who went to HKS, you think maybe you can do it too.” Once in Cambridge, he took a course with Ricardo Hausmann, the Rafik Hariri Professor of the Practice of International Political Economy and a fellow Venezuelan. Says Mejía, “In Venezuela, everyone is very good at the diagnosis, of knowing how things went bad—but nobody was telling us how to fix things. Ricardo helped open my mind to the possibilities of economic complexity.” He also studied with Kessely Hong MPA 2000, senior lecturer in public policy, who taught him negotiation—something he found especially helpful in his dealings with his Chavista colleagues.

“If you’re a politician, you’re there more to listen than to speak.”

Globe

Using what he learned at HKS, Mejía led the National Assembly’s Plan País Venezuela (A Plan for Venezuela), which provides a road map for national recovery. Mejía also wanted to have an immediate impact—so in 2017, he set up a nonprofit, Puntos Solidarios, which to date has provided more than 100,000 nutritious meals to poor children in Caracas. Mejía spent time each week serving food and listening to people’s concerns.

His work as a legislator, nonprofit leader, and activist came at great risk. His name was on a list of people alleged to have committed crimes such as “rebellion” and “usurpation.” Still, he fought for democracy for all Venezuelans. But in 2019, the Supreme Court of Venezuela—a body under the control of current president Nicolás Maduro—rescinded parliamentary immunity for legislators, and one of his colleagues in the National Assembly was arrested. Mejía decided to flee the country with his wife and toddler. 

Now living in exile, Mejía continues to advocate for democracy and equity in Venezuela. “I still do what I love most, working on recovery and reconstruction plans for the country and working with the diaspora,” he says. “I am hopeful we will be able to regain democracy in Venezuela.”

Photos courtesy of Juan Andres Mejia