January 17, 2003
The Center for Latin American Issues
The Latin American Studies Program
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
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.
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,
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
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.
Shannon addresses the crowd at the panel discussion.
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.