Responding to growing tensions between the United States and Venezuela, we began our program in 2006, devoted to engagement between the two governments and our nations’ civil societies, and to understanding political changes in Venezuela.
Since that time, relations between Caracas and Washington have been up and down – mostly down. Too often each side seems more intent on caricaturing the other, instead of seeking common ground and understanding. For awhile, with the ascension of President Obama to office, it seemed that might change. President Obama promised to talk with leaders of nations regarded by the Bush administration as “enemies,” and President Chávez expressed hope for improved relations. At the April 2009 hemispheric summit in Trinidad, the two leaders seemed to get along in their brief encounter.
Since then, conditions deteriorated on both sides. U.S. policy makers have seemed to find the hidden hand of Hugo Chávez behind every crisis and disagreement that Latin America has with Washington’s policies. For his part, Chávez continues to warn of U.S. plans to intervene in Venezuela’s internal affairs, sometimes raising the specter of military intervention, especially after Colombia agreed to allow the United States to establish seven new military bases (“forward operating locations”) on its territory.
Since being re-elected in a landslide in December 2006, President Chávez has lost a close vote on a package of constitutional reforms, seen mixed results in local elections in early 2009, and won a second referendum that allows him to run for re-election in December 2012. Late 2010 will see elections for a new National Assembly amid signs of increased polarization. Ramped up tension between the United States and Venezuela can only intensify polarization and make the job of holding fairly contested elections more difficult.
CDA has led ten delegations to Venezuela since our program began. We have observed the last four elections in Venezuela. We have also focused on the important national security and economic issues affecting bilateral relations – considering the impact of world oil prices, the continuing availability of revenue for social projects, and the Chavez government’s pursuit of its foreign policy goals. We continue to follow Venezuela’s shifting economic fortunes and have reported the concerns discussed with us by some Venezuelans about government policies that put political spaces at risk. Our trips, research, and reports attempt to capture the Venezuelan reality as it is.
We continue to work with Venezuelans to introduce them to Members of Congress, their staffs, and other parts of the Washington policy community in order to broaden and deepen the conversation between them. We also seek opportunities to encourage exchange among members of civil society in both countries. Venezuelans have been experimenting with new forms of participatory democracy that have elicited both praise and criticism. We believe that citizens of both Venezuela and the United States can benefit from understanding and assessing their nation’s domestic and foreign policy goals.