Venezuela: is a different conversation possible?
Dramatic news from Venezuela have reached even the northern corner of Europe – Norway – more intensely this summer than before. Even in far-away Norway we have had polarized and harsh debates over Venezuela for years, and even seen from here a real dialogue between the parties in the conflict seems like pure utopia. Yet less so after NorLARNet's recent events. Here is an attempted summary of points that came up during those events that may serve as ideas for further conversations.
The event at the Nobel Peace Center. From the left: Alfredo Zamudio, Leiv Marsteintredet, Benedicte Bull, Edgardo Lander, Iselin Strønen.
Recently, the Norwegian Latin America Research Network (NorLARNet) organized a series of meetings – an open lecture, a public debate, a roundtable, and a research-meeting – on Venezuela; with Venezuelans and Norwegian academics, NGOs, officials, concerned citizens, experts on peace and economic development, the Nobel Peace Center and many more. The focus was on how researchers and other civil society groups abroad may contribute to a peaceful solution in Venezuela, keeping in mind that external initiatives also have the potential of aggravating the conflict and hinder rather than facilitate dialogue. Current official US rhetoric is a case in point.
The main guest was Professor Edgardo Lander, one of Latin American sociology’s veterans with a long trajectory of research and publication on de-colonialization, social movements and the left in Latin America. More recently he has published some of the most profound and critical analysis of the evolution of Venezuela under Chavism.
Edgardo Lander did not express great optimism. He considered deepening of authoritarianism, civil war and military coup all as likely scenarios. Nevertheless, that does not mean that all peaceful paths out of the crisis are blocked. Here is an attempt at summing up some of the main points raised by him and others during the days of dialogue on how we as foreign academics and activists can talk about Venezuelan issues.
1. What Venezuela is experiencing is a new phase in the terminal crisis of the petro state. Any government that does not face up to and handle this crisis is doomed to fail.
The current crisis is partly the making of the chavismo and the Maduro government, and the destructive interaction between chavismo and the opposition, but it is partly also a result of the failure to reduce the extreme oil-dependency, and the clientelism and corruption that has gone along with it throughout Venezuela’s history. Chavisms tragedy was that in spite of initial discussions of overcoming the curse of clientilism and “sowing the oil” – meaning investing oil money into other sectors – oil-dependency increased while production in other sectors was in effect discouraged. The current crisis is likely to increase oil-dependency further because oil-income is the only viable way to make down payment on loans in the short term. The pressure is even stronger now as the US has prevented Venezuela from refinancing its debt.
2. Sixty percent of the population does not identify with either the government or the opposition. Giving them a voice in the dialogue is as difficult as it is necessary.
At present, the government’s legitimacy rests on claiming that it represents the only anti-imperialist political force in Venezuela and the only one that will take the popular classes into account. This prevents the emergence of any alternative forces to emerge, and seeks to identify all opposition with the “extreme right wing” and agents of the United States. The legitimacy of the opposition as represented by the MUD rests on claiming it is the only force that can oppose the government. Both sides need confrontation in order to preserve their own legitimacy. However, polls show that while the opposition against the government is overwhelming, this is not necessarily reflected in support for the MUD. At the same time, at both sides there are groups that will not be happy with just replacing the other side in power. They will want to extinguish the other side. This leaves very narrow space for negotiations. Any dialogue must acknowledge the asymmetry between on the one hand, the government which controls all state institutions and funds, and, on the other, different opposition groups, and ensure that the legitimacy of representatives of opposing groups is respected. Attempts should be made to open up new spaces and arenas for dialogue including a broader spectrum of social and political actors. Such dialogues should be focused on finding inroads to break with the logic of polarization, and rather to craft a common national political vision aimed at reducing social inequalities, promoting political dialogue across social groups, and the crafting of a new and more sustainable economic model.
3. One should distinguish between humanitarian issues and other issues. Humanitarian dialogue has its own language
Currently, both sides have political stakes in humanitarian issues. The opposition has long made a “humanitarian channel” a requirement for political dialogue. For the government, allowing humanitarian aid would mean admitting total failure. However, as emphasized by the director of the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, Alfredo Zamudio, humanitarian issues should be discussed separately from the political dialogue. It needs a different language, one of urgency and action. As the adviser to Caritas, Venezuela, Susanna Raffali showed us: There has been a drastic increase in the registered number of infant and maternal deaths (33 and 65 % increase respectively from 2015 – 2016). There are severe shortages of baby formula and basic life-saving medications. 15% of children under 5 in Venezuela are diagnosed with “Global Acute Malnutrition”, and 44% of Venezuelans say they have gone days without eating at all. While there is no consensus on how to define the situation, Caritas has upgraded the severity from “humanitarian crisis” to “complex humanitarian emergency”. Also the number of asylum seekers and refugees from Venezuela, particularly to Colombia is becoming critical. They need urgent attention and protection. This requires willingness by all parties to set aside political issues and focus on resolving the acute crisis. It has been done before in extremely complex situations including in Darfur and the Balkans, and it is possible to do it again.
4. One should bring in issues of key national interest that must be discussed irrespective of the color of the government
Over the last ten years at least, the polarized conflict in the country has overshadowed any other political debate. Every issue has been cast in political terms as government versus opposition. That means that there are many issues that have not been dealt with in the failed attempts at negotiations that have taken place over the last years. One such issue is the environment. Extractivism is a major threat to Latin American environments, and to rural and indigenous populations, and has been pursued by governments as different as those of Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Michel Temer I Brazil and Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia. Currently the exploration of an area of 122.000 square kilometer, with enormous mineral resources is underway, to the detriment of local environments and indigenous peoples in the so called Orinoco Mining Arch, with minimal local discussion. This may be an environmental catastrophe not only for Venezuela, and the surrounding areas, but with global repercussions as it will increase deforestation in the Amazon.
5. We need to stop talking about the conflict in left-right terms
While there are obvious real conflicts between different social classes underlying the current crisis, there are many other dimensions of the conflict in Venezuela, and talking about it only in left-right terms will disguise realities more than they will reveal them. It is an equally banal analysis to say that it was too much socialism that destroyed Venezuela, as it is arguing that the main problem was that too much was left to capitalist dynamics. Talking about the conflict in those terms have hindered an open and constructive rethink of the possibilities that Venezuela has. The international community – including activists and academic has a great responsibility to avoid reinforcing the tendency at dichotomizing, polarizing and politicizing the opportunities and obstacles in Venezuela.
6. Violence and discourse that potentially may instigate it, must be denounced and rejected – irrespective of who is behind
The violence that took place this summer were initiated and fueled by groups on both sides. There are violent groups within the opposition, although there can be little doubt that the National Guard and other official forces are superior in terms of access to means of oppression. The government has a particular responsibility to end all human rights abuses as documented by the United Nations and take actions in line with their recommendations. Any discussion, nationally and internationally, should avoid using a language that may justify and arouse the use of violent means.
7. Institutions must be respected
Currently, the Constituent Assembly creates a lot of uncertainty about schedules for elections and what rules will be guiding those since the assembly has absolute powers. The Chavista constitution of 1999 has – in spite of having been controversial at its establishment – provided a certain minimum of rules of the game. Without this, Venezuela is in a political state of emergency that makes dialogue extremely difficult. A fixed schedule for elections was crucial to the opposition as their only real resource is their numbers. Without a set schedule for free and fair elections, one side of the conflict will possess all capabilities and dialogue is doomed to be highly biased.