REVIEW: Article

A New Chapter in Venezuela

Venezuela’s August 15, 2004, referendum helped to dispel the uncertainty that existed regarding the Venezuelan democratic process. In a sense, it was the end of a phase, ushering in a new stage of Venezuelan democracy. The task ahead is marked by challenges stemming from Venezuela’s moving forward down the path of profound social transformation. The transformative changes underway are neither new nor exclusive to Venezuela. Rather, they are social imperatives, reforms that have been stalled for a long time throughout Latin America. The referendum provided Venezuela with a new point of reference as a nation, and a new perspective for the country vis-à-vis its bilateral relations with the United States.

Following his democratic election in 1998, President Chávez was resolute in his vision and commitment to lead a period of social reform in our nation. He fashioned a new political dynamic, one in which a new Constitution—debated both in the streets, and within a popularly-elected Constituent Assembly—came to be ratified by plebiscite in 1999. This gave us a glimpse of a process that, five years on, has shifted the foundations of political structures, which historically supported an unfair social order, and an economic policy that benefited a few, rather than extending its reach to benefit the majority of the country’s citizens. President Chávez, from the very beginning, upheld an alternative model for Venezuela’s development, which would respond, after generations of neglect, to the real needs and culturally distinct qualities of the country.

This upending of the status quo in Venezuela has been often met with fierce resistance from those sectors that had led the country in the past, and who had benefited from the contours of the old model. Since 1998, the country’s opposition has held as its central objective the recovery of power by any means necessary; these means have included a failed coup d’état in April 2002, and an effort to sabotage the nation’s oil industry in late 2002 and early 2003. Each of these was fomented without respect for Venezuela’s legitimate authorities or the rule of law, as set forth in the Constitution. Faced with the prospect of failure and waning support, those opposed to the Chávez government finally took a third route. This time, they availed themselves of a provision in the 1999 Constitution, which provides for a referendum on a President’s rule.

The referendum process not only produced a strong backing for President Chávez, who garnered the support of the vast majority of Venezuelans, it showed the popularity of his social reform. The electorate cast over two million more votes for the President than in the previous election. This was particularly impressive in light of the hostile and unremitting rhetorical assaults against the President broadcast by the nation’s private media. The political role that the private media have had in Venezuela has made it difficult to promote social unity in the country, as well as negatively influencing relations between Venezuela and the United States (US). Sadly, much of the US media limited itself to repeating what Venezuelan media have portrayed, which are not shy about their own bias. This has perpetuated a distorted version of Venezuela’s sociopolitical reality. Post- referendum, there appears to be greater interest on the part of the international media to be more responsible in its reporting, and better informed about our country.

The results of the referendum reflect the strong sense among the majority of our citizens that the government is on the right track. The policies of social inclusion and a new emphasis on local development, which are at the heart of the President’s reforms, have solidified the core of Venezuela’s “participatory democracy.” New social programs have been created in the areas of healthcare and education, which have allowed the Venezuelan government to begin repaying the social debt it holds with its citizens, through the creation of a more just and equitable society, measurable in the manifest commitment to the most marginalized sectors of the country.  Solving historical structural problems in the areas of social, economic, and cultural development has been a challenge for many Latin American countries. Venezuela is no exception, but we are moving forward with the backing of the people to effect social change. 

Indeed, the people voiced—at the ballot box—that Venezuela is on the right track to tackle the obstacles to the country’s sustainable development. Of course, it has not been an easy process for Venezuela, especially in a highly polarized climate in which some have subverted the needs of the majority of the country to their own political objectives. The country has a new opportunity for a country-wide dialogue focused on reaching common ground and continuing to move forward towards equitable, participatory and sustainable development.

The referendum opened up political space for greater civic understanding and dialogue in our country. It did so by legitimizing and solidifying the President’s governance. Today, the opposition must look forward, away from past attempts to bring about extra-constitutional power shifts, and instead look towards democratic and electoral means to achieve their objectives, such as preparing for upcoming elections. Although there is still polarization, there is consensus on the need to move away from confrontation, and toward dialogue. The government is eager to see this shift continue. Yet, we recognize that certain sectors of the opposition still refuse to accept the results of the referendum, even after The Carter Center, the Organization of American States, and other election observers certified the results as free and fair, which has inhibited—but not precluded— attempts for dialogue with important sectors of the country.

The Venezuelan democratic process has brought to light many issues that had long remained below the surface. While the domestic political impasse has been the most visible issue internationally, Venezuela addressed the issues that have persisted over time in Latin America, and which resolution requires a new urgency. As examples are the need to create alternative models of development from the bottom-up perspective, the necessity to continue strengthening our nations comparative advantages and prioritizing national needs as elements to foster international accords, increasing the priority placed on social inclusion in political life, and a shift in policy toward more equitable social, cultural and economic development, a commitment to the redistribution of our country’s wealth and the empowerment of civil society. 

The agenda of the Venezuelan process of social change (often referred to as the “Bolivarian Revolution,” after Simon Bolivar), and the priority that has been placed on social issues, have broken with the traditional framework for development put in place in Latin America in recent decades. The people of Venezuela, especially those sectors of society that have long been marginalized or excluded, are acutely aware that the country is undergoing a transformation, and there is an increased hopefulness that this time, the model of development will be for the benefit of all, rather than for the benefit of a few. 

It is within this new Venezuelan context that we must look to a new era of bilateral relations between the United States and Venezuela, based on greater mutual understanding. In the past we have had differences, but as we move into a new era of bilateral relations, we believe we can address those differences in a constructive manner. The triumph of President Chávez in the referendum has generated a renewed sense of mutual respect; it is our hope that within this framework of respect it will be possible to advance our work together on goals shared by our two nations. With a new US Ambassador in Caracas, who has manifested the will to engage in a constructive dialogue with us, we look forward to working together to stimulate more positive bilateral relations. With the referendum behind us, and a better understanding of Venezuela’s democratic reality, we trust that the path toward strengthening bilateral relations with the United States will be smoother than it has been recently.

Because Venezuela has undergone a transformation, we do not seek to re-initiate the bilateral relations of the past. We must pursue a new type of bilateral relations that, while recognizing that we are very different countries, seeks to affirm the ties that bind us, and the need to continue to work together. We are committed to working with the United States to continue to bolster our long-standing partnerships and cooperative initiatives in the area of regional security, seeking ways to strengthen our work in drug interdiction, securing our borders, and the fight against terrorism. 

Venezuela is at a turning point, not only in terms of bilateral relations with the United States, but also within our own national context. The referendum process not only re-legitimized the Chávez administration and its programs, it also showed the world that the Venezuelan people are committed to real participation in the processes of sustainable political and social development. The fundamental challenge that we face now is to fully realize a new covenant with our people, one marked by our decision to pursue the changes necessary to make our country one based on social justice and freedom from poverty. We will do so with the same commitment to participatory democracy that illuminated Venezuela as an example to the world on August 15, 2004, as Venezuelans went to the polls to decide the fate of our country through peaceful, electoral means. This commitment, like the commitment to governing on behalf of the Venezuelan people, is one that must be respected.

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Ambassador of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United States