January 17, 2003

The Center for Latin American Issues
The Latin American Studies Program

"Venezuela: Is There a Constitutional Solution?

      The economic and political hardships of Venezuela have been growing steadily for some time, and the national strike has sharpened the crisis. As the nation becomes more polarized, pressure increases for reconciliation and national dialogue between the administration of President Chavez and his opponents. On Friday, January 17, the Center for Latin American Issues (CLAI) and the Latin American Studies Program (LASP) of the George Washington University hosted a panel discussion to examine the current conditions in Venezuela and to look ahead in an attempt to figure out how to create a united rather than divided people, with economic prosperity and democratic political stability. The distinguished panel of discussants included Jorge Valero, the Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the OAS; Thomas A. Shannon, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; Omar García-Bolívar, a Director of the Coordinadora Internacional Venezolana; and Sonia Schott, international correspondent for Globovision Venezuela. Dr. James Ferrer, Jr., Director of both CLAI and the LASP, moderated the discussion.
The panelists articulated several points of conflict, primarily centered on the quality of democratic governing institutions. Ambassador Valero contrasted the Chavez government with preceding governments of Venezuela. (For the text of Amb. Valero’s prepared remarks, click here.) Before Chavez came to power, political organizations (particularly political parties) had heavily concentrated power and did not represent the nation as a whole. Under that decaying political system, everyday life was miserable in spite of overall economic prosperity. The Venezuelan people elected Chavez with the understanding that he would represent the interests of all the Venezuelan people rather than just the political and economic elite. He fulfilled their expectations by creating a Constituent National Assembly, which ratified a new constitution in 1999. The new constitution recognized, for the first time, the multiethnic, pluricultural nature of Venezuelan society, and acknowledged the state’s obligation to every individual. In particular, the Chavez administration prides itself on allowing freedom of expression: there are no political prisoners in Venezuela, nor has the government taken actions against the media outlets which are extremely critical of its activities. It has allowed this freedom of expression in spite of what it views as the media’s attempt, at the expense of journalistic ethics, to defame the administration. Ambassador Valero noted that Jimmy Carter has commented on the “full development” of freedom of expression in Venezuela, while Human Rights Watch has criticized the media for its one-sided reporting.
The opposition, while acknowledging that President Chavez came to power through democratic means, asserts that his administration has not performed democratically. Dr. García said the violence by the government, its use of the military as a de facto political party, rampant corruption in government agencies, and the impunity of government crimes have eroded the Chavez administration’s credibility and given the lie to its claims to be a representative democratic government. (For the text of Dr. García’s presentation, click here.) Citing numerous executive orders, he claimed that President Chavez does not respect the checks and balances of power included in his own constitution. And, in spite of his considerable executive power, President Chavez has proven incapable of managing the economy, as evidenced by the depreciation of the currency, increasing fiscal deficits, and declining social conditions. Dr. Garcia believes President Chavez’ actions have weakened institutions, undermined the rule of law, and worsened living conditions.

Sonia Schott listens as Ambassador Jorge Valero makes a point. Dr. Omar García-Bolívar presents the case of the Venezuelan opposition.

Initially, said Dr. García, the opposition took legal actions against the government; when these efforts failed, a diverse and spontaneous movement to protest the government through peaceful demonstrations emerged. These protests also failed and were met with violence from the government on several occasions. These efforts have culminated in the current national strike, which has greatly debilitated the national economy. The government asserts that the strike is organized largely by the same political and economic elite that, for forty years, abused and misused the national resources to the detriment of the nation. In the administration’s view, the strikes, media attacks, and other such subversive activities either abuse democratic freedoms or are not democratic. These efforts to discredit the Chavez administration, they assert, will do great damage to the country by damaging the most viable part of the economy (oil production). From this perspective, Ambassador Valero maintained, the national strike is an act of terrorism.
Ms. Schott acknowledged that political institutions have never been strong in Venezuela, and that political stability has traditionally been created through prosperity. The decline of political stability, then, has been a result of weak economic conditions rather than an active effort by President Chavez to deinstitutionalize the political process. She asserts that demonstrating Venezuelans are seeking a constitutional solution to the present crisis, and that if such a solution is not found soon, violence will be the only possible recourse that emerges. In light of this trend, negotiations are critical and both sides must agree to discuss a solution. (For the text of Ms. Schott’s prepared remarks, in Spanish, click here.)

The audience considers the arguments of the panelists.

In sum, the Chavez administration and the opposition focus on separate issues when they view the current political situation. Ironically, both are correct: the Chavez administration is, in several important ways, the most democratic administration Venezuela has had. Yet, as the opposition argues, its ability to govern effectively and democratically is open to question.
So, is there a constitutional solution to this crisis? Both sides agree that there is a deep rift in the national polity, and that the solution must be true to the ideals of democracy by following the Constitution, which demands elections to bring about a change in leadership. The primary dispute seems to be over a timetable for elections: the opposition calls for an immediate referendum, while the government argues that, constitutionally, elections must wait until the midpoint of the presidential term, which is several months away.

Dr. Thomas Shannon addresses the crowd at the panel discussion. The panel listens to a question from the audience.

Many have questioned the U.S. role in the Venezuelan crisis. Dr. Shannon noted that Venezuela is in the process of a long-term political transformation from a narrow, clientelistic and corrupt system to one that is more truly representative and democratic. What’s more, Venezuela is attempting to do so within a constitutional, democratic process, which is a laudable effort. Venezuela’s success or failure is likely to have broad implications for the region, since many Latin American governments are dealing with the issue of how democratic institutions can evolve over time. So, while the U.S. has a direct economic interest in stability because of Venezuelan energy production, the U.S. recognizes also the importance of Venezuela as a model of political development. The U.S. supports a peaceful, democratic, electoral, constitutional solution as the ultimate goal, and is actively working to reach these goals, primarily through the OAS. In fact, a Group of Friends of Venezuela is being formed to support Secretary General Gaviria’s efforts to resolve the impasse. The group includes Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States. Although the international community can support a peaceful, democratic resolution to the political crisis, there is no way an outside force can impose a solution on Venezuela. Only Venezuelans themselves will be able to produce a truly effective, durable outcome to the present political crisis.
* This summary has not been reviewed by the speakers.