Georgetown University Panel: The Challenges for Venezuelan Society

[On Friday, February 23 I participated in the “Venezuela: Charting the Future” symposium at Georgetown University. Below are my comments from the third panel which was called “The Challenges for Venezuelan Society.”]

I would like to thank Father Matthew Carnes, Regina Trigo and Angelo Rivera for making this symposium happen. I was happy to accept the invitation when I received it, but even happier when I saw the questions they sent me. I am a sociologist by trade, in fact I am an ethnographer, specializing in micro-sociology. But the nature of the crisis has obliged me to comment mainly on issues of party politics and international relations. So I am going to stick fairly close to the questions that the organizers sent to me.

  1. How are Venezuelan youth, in particular, impacted by the current crisis?

Venezuela’s youth are impacted perhaps more than any other segment of society because they face a bleak future within Venezuela. Indeed, when my family and I are in Venezuela, one of the most common activities that my daughters participate in is going away parties for classmates and friends that are leaving. This was long a ritual among the upper-middle classes where many if not most of the graduates of some high schools would go abroad to study. What has changed is the sheer degree of people leaving and their class distribution. Now Venezuela’s upper classes account for only about 1/3rd of the migrants leaving Venezuela.

The ENCOVI survey this week, which released the results from its August 2017 fieldwork, showed that poverty, in the way they are measuring it, has increased from 48.4% 2014 to 87% 2017, which is astounding. 80% of respondents said they have eaten less because can’t get enough food. 60% said they had gone to bed hungry at some point because they did not enough food. In December, Datanalisis showed that 90% of their respondents evaluated the situation of the country (Omnibus Dec 2017)

But there are a number of things that affect young people in particular. The unemployment rate is around 9% overall, but 19% of people from age 15-24 are unemployed. In just one year, the percentage of 18-24 year olds that are enrolled in higher education has dropped from 48 to 38%. Among the upper and upper-middle classes, attendance in private universities has dropped. And among the popular classes, coverage of Misión Ribas and Misión Sucre has been reduced. This is probably why Maduro has his lowest evaluation among those under 40 (Datanálisis Omnibus Dec 2017).

Currently in Venezuela, fully a 3rd of all economically active people work in public sector. Around half of all formal sector jobs. That means that unless they are from revolutionary families, for most Venezuelan young people, it has become hard to imagine a future in Venezuela. Virtually everyone has plans to leave, or some concrete reason for staying. 80% of the emigration occurring in past 5 years has happened in the past 2. Two thirds of this emigration is motivated by a search for work. It should be remembered that this data is from August. All indications are that these processes have increased dramatically in the past six months.

This exodus of young people, of course, has a significant impact on street mobilization. The protest cycles of 2017 and 2014 were built primarily on the energies of young people—energies that are now being channeled into migrating and starting a new life in another country.

To end on a less pessimistic note, one result of the protest cycles and repression of protest in the past several years, as well as the decline in opportunities, has been the proliferation of small human rights NGOs across Venezuela’s geography, often working on basic issues of democracy and human rights.

  1. How has the Bolivarian Revolution altered the reality and expectations of all actors in Venezuelan society?

I would love to say that the pain and suffering that Venezuelan society has been through has been a learning process and could lead to a new consensus. But it would be hard to currently make that case. There was a time, five to ten years ago, that one could say Chavismo had forced the opposition to think in more inclusive terms and address the needs and hopes and dreams of the masses of excluded Venezuelans. However, the vulgar, obscene decline of Venezuela and cruel deterioration of governance during the government of Nicolás Maduro has made Chavismo into a caricature and largely discredited, at least in public discourse, whatever achievements it once was perceived to have made.

But not only has Venezuela’s left and their international supporters discredited themselves for the foreseeable future, moderate opposition has come on hard times as well. The destruction of Venezuelan society at the hands of Madurismo has strengthened the radical right and that reduces the likelihood of positive outcomes. If one looks around social media and traditional media, there is a constant effort to read Maduro back into Chávez, in other words an effort to show that all that is happening is a natural, teleological outflow from Chavismo.

Furthermore, the inevitable efforts to portray Venezuela as a “rogue state” that is not worth negotiating with have gained strength. Currently the key metaphor among the international far-right is that it is a “narco-state” that should be treated in criminal instead of diplomatic terms. Last year it was a supposed network of Venezuelan passports going to terrorists that was supposed to make Venezuela into a global threat. Years before that it was fictitious reports of Iranian misiles on the Paraguaná peninsula. All of these claims aim to make a tragic situation into a global threat and thereby motivate international intervention. [As Michael Shifter pointed out in the Q&A of an earlier panel, the narcotics argument was also used to claim that the FARC would never negotiate in Colombia. But lo and behold, they did.] The point here is that the strengthening of this narrative over the past six months makes any kind of reconciliation less likely.

As well, the US government’s financial sanctions rolled out in August, and statements that these have “worked” because they have caused Venezuela to fall into default, have undermined whatever processes of reflection and revision that were occurring within Chavismo and its international support networks. Now they have very tangible evidence to argue that Venezuela’s economic collapse is the result of an international economic war against Venezuela’s revolution, not any inherent flaw within it.

The result of this hardening of positions is that Venezuela’s popular classes are more abandoned than ever. While the Maduro government still prioritizes their needs in rhetoric and policy, they have fewer resources and ever less ability to do so. The opposition, moving from one crisis to another–some induced by the government, some of their own making–has largely given up on trying to reach beyond its base in the urban, middle classes. As a result, representation of Venezuela’s popular classes is more distant and abstract than ever.

  1. How have the Church, labor unions, and other important social groups reacted to the crisis?

I am going to focus my comments on the Church. The Catholic Church has been one of the strongest critics of the Chávez government virtually from 1999. But one fact that is not often appreciated is that Hugo Chávez passed away the same month that Pope Francis was elected. This has provoked a realignment in relations between the Chavismo and the Church, and the latter’s role in the Venezuela conflict. The Church is still a leading critic of the government. But it is also one of the leading promoters of dialogue. The Vatican especially, has sought to facilitate conflict resolution.

The Church’s work in 2017 was exemplary. From the beginning, they criticized the government’s unconstitutional calling of a Constitutional Assembly, and urged the government to cancel it. Throughout the four month protest drive from April to July, they called on the government to respect the right to protest. They also called on protestors to protest peacefully. No other domestic actor had this profile.

One can add the presence of Padre Jose Virtuoso as Rector of the UCAB. In Venezuela, being Rector of the UCAB makes you one of the ten or so most respected voices in the country. Under Virtuoso’s administration the UCAB has become Venezuela’s premier center of research, discussion and reconciliation.

One result of all of this is that the Catholic Church has the highest approval ratings in the country. It is perhaps the only institution in Venezuela whose approval has increased over the past year. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any sort of negotiated solution in Venezuela without an important role for the Church.

  1. Looking forward, what are the prospects for social peace and reconciliation?

Let me suggest that I don’t think this is actually the right question. I’m sure this was not the intention but these are actually the terms that the government uses frequently. It says it wants: dialogue, peace and reconciliation. It contrasts itself to the opposition, which it says wants chaos and violence. I think it is quite possible that the government will be able to achieve this pacification. If they can get through this difficult period, gain hegemonic control over all institutions, cause the exodus of all of those who are not willing to submit or who are simply not viable, they could end up with a population that is either clearly connected into the powers that be or, because they have no real alternative, reconcile themselves to their lot, and become passive and dependent.

I think such a social peace would be quite undesirable. I think of democracy as institutionalized conflict and without that debate and conflict, it is quite difficult to have a thriving state or society.

If there were to be a transition and the opposition were to take over, I think there would be a highly conflictive period much like when the Sandinistas gave up power in 1990 but remained perhaps the most articulated political force in the country. Chavismo would remain articulated and would likely do what they could to make life difficult for the opposition—much as the opposition has done for them.

The question, then, is whether Venezuela can get to that democratic sweet spot in which the inevitable conflicts between social groups can occur but be channeled through institutions. Polls of the existing Venezuelan population show that the great majority is tolerant, democratic, basically supports liberal values, and simply wants to live better.

The problem is not so much social consensus as much as a political leadership on both sides of the spectrum that are completely disconnected from the larger population. For many years it was the opposition that was consistently distanced from Venezuela’s majorities and Chavismo that had significant connection. Now both opposition and government have little exchange with the larger population and these latter are the ones who are truly paying the price.

Whatever happens, the opposition needs to at some point develop a serious outreach and start to build a base. There have been important efforts at this. Voluntad Popular did quite a bit of grassroots fieldwork at one time, that was successful but did not have the cross-class nature that is needed. Primero Justicia did as well, under the leadership of Carlos Ocariz in Petare. But much of that has been set aside as a priority and has been made more difficult by the level of conflict. Whatever the reason, there still is not an opposition movement that reflects the outlooks of the country, instead of just the outlooks of the urban middle classes.

To end, let me just work through a couple of statistics from Datanalisis’ December fieldwork which show how poorly we understand average Venezuelans, or at lease how different their thoughts are from the people in this room.

  • Fully 50% of the population still have a positive evaluation of Hugo Chavez’s presidency. That is dramatically lower than just after he died, but remarkably high, given what has happened since.
  • While 74% of respondents negatively evaluate the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), 49% agreed with the opposition governors who were elected in October swearing in before ANC, including 43.4% of opposition supporters. Similar percentages opposed Juan Pablo Guanipa’s refusal to do so. This particular move received howls from many of us observers. But to many Venezuelans, the priority was simply a change in governance.
  • 57% favored dialogue, a clear majority.

All of this is to point out that Venezuelan citizens are not peer reviewers for the Journal of Democracy nor are they policy makers with masters degrees. They are a population that still remembers Hugo Chávez in positive terms, wants political reconciliation, and simply wants to live well.

Thank you.