By Francesca Regalado
A group of civil and political leaders from Venezuela visited the School of Diplomacy on October 3 to discuss grassroots democracy and civic participation. Sponsored by the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and the Graduate Diplomacy Council, the four delegates were welcomed by Dr. Benjamin Goldfrank, the chairman of the School of Diplomacy faculty, who opened the event with a presentation on the rich history of civic participation in Venezuela and Latin America.
After Dr. Goldfrank’s presentation, the delegates delivered opening statements followed by a group discussion that spanned from electoral freedom and voter registration, to government accountability, the referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro, and the Venezuelan economy. Here are the highlights from the discussion and from the Envoy’s interviews with the delegates:
“The country is no longer paralyzed by partisanship, but united against the crisis and the oligarchy.”
Center for Political Studies at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello
“Most people think the way out of the crisis is voting,” said Mr. Fermin, whose research is on electoral integrity, transparency, corruption, and accountability. The problem, he says, is that the electoral council has given a lot of excuses not to hold regular elections, even though gubernatorial terms will end in December – for example, they have no budget because they are dedicating their resources to the recall referendum.
More so than in government institutions, there is “high public trust in university students,” Mr. Fermin said, citing local surveys. “The one time Chavez was defeated, students led the movement,” he said, referring to a 2007 referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela.
Because the government controls most of Venezuelan media, social media is not only a way for the youth to organize, but also virtually the only source of news. “Don’t disregard social media as something young people waste their time on,” Mr. Fermin said.
“No economic change is possible until there’s political change.”
Civilis Derechos Humanos
Ms. Soler’s non-profit organization, Civilis Derechos Humanos, defends the right of civilians to participate in reviews conducted by international organizations and to report human rights violations in Venezuela. Civilis also holds the government accountable to the international human rights conventions to which Venezuela is party. “International public shaming is a powerful thing,” Ms. Soler said.
Still, “institutions are not responding to the humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela,” Ms. Soler said, leaving Venezuelans to rely on aid from their relatives and countrymen who live overseas. One prominent expatriate who has been sending aid to Venezuela is Carlos Gonzalez, who plays professional baseball for the Colorado Rockies.
Learning that they can no longer depend on oil alone, Venezuelans are looking for ways to diversify their economy. Mr. Fermin said that tourism and mining were possibilities, but that public opinion has been pushing for the former because the latter would result in “ecocide and ethnocide.”
Although privatization is out of the question for the oil industry, through which the government is the primary employer, there is hope for agriculture and food production. Up to 70 percent of Venezuela’s farmland had been nationalized by the government, and privatization would only be a matter of returning the land to its original owners, Mr. Fermin said.
“Democracy does not consist simply of casting a ballot.”
Vicariate of Human Rights, Archdiocese of Caracas
A citizen’s responsibility does not end at the polling booth; rather, “civil society must also ensure that institutions have the independence to function,” said Mr. Castillo, a human rights lawyer who volunteers for the human rights arm of the Archdiocese of Caracas.
Civil responsibility does not end with one’s own country, either. Asked about the purpose of the delegation’s visit, Ms. Soler said, “We Venezuelans feel that we have a responsibility to warn the world,” about the actors and policies that plunged Venezuela into a political and economic crisis. Venezuelan expatriates in Spain have similarly spoken out against Podemos, a rising leftist political party that won an unexpected number of seats in the Spanish Parliament this year.
According to Ms. Soler, Hugo Chavez used oil revenues to finance leftist movements not only in Latin America, but also throughout the world, a practice carried on by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor. Pablo Iglesis and Inigo Errejon, the leaders of Podemos, were once advisers to Mr. Maduro’s government.
“Less than 0.1 percent of human rights cases go up to a judge.”
Committee of the Family Members of the Victims (COFAVIC)
Mr. Boquier is a lawyer for COFAVIC, a human rights organization founded by relatives and victims of “El Caracazo,” a series of protests in 1989 against the government’s economic measures that resulted in hundreds of deaths at the hands of security forces. Since 1992, his organization has worked on about 500 cases of human rights violations in Venezuela, but a paltry portion of human rights cases are ever heard in court.
The Venezuelan military was authorized by the Defense Ministry in 2015 to use force against demonstrators, according to Human Rights Watch. Additionally, in response to security concerns over the scarcity of products, President Maduro also deployed 80,000 security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation,” which has resulted in 245 deaths and even more detentions in 2016 alone, Mr. Boquier said.
Even immigrants have suffered human rights violations during the crisis. The government, according to Ms. Soler, has blamed the economic crisis on Colombian immigrants, and have since enforced a mass deportation of Colombians who had fled to Venezuela from the violence in their own country.
Photos courtesy of Lyndsey Cole.