- Charles Shapiro, President, Institute of the Americas, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela
- Russell Dallen, President and Editor-in-Chief, Latin American Herald Tribune, Caracas
- Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
- Eric Farnsworth, Vice President, Americas Society/Council of the Americas (Moderator)
It has been over a month since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was last seen in public, just before embarking on a trip to Cuba for his latest round of cancer surgery in December 2012. Chávez’s conspicuous absence from public and his failure to attend his own inauguration on January 10 has prompted discussions on Venezuela’s political future. During this panel, participants provided a range of views on the stability of Chávez’s political movement, the strength and organization of the opposition, the economy, and the hemispheric implications of a democratic transition.
Venezuela’s Future: Elections and the Economy
In Shapiro’s view, the results of the October presidential elections and the December regional elections demonstrate the wide-ranging support that Chávez continues to garner. Yet the question remains as to the longevity of the Bolivarian revolution and the strength of Chávez’s political coalition. Dallen and Sabatini agreed that supporters of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are deeply entrenched in the fabric of Venezuela’s political institutions. But both panelists also pointed out that Chávez neglected to build the PSUV into a coherent and sustainable long-term force as Argentine leader Juan Perón did for the Justicialist Party.
Given the PSUV’s potential vulnerability, what does the future hold for the Venezuelan opposition? Shapiro explained his belief that the opposition—despite being the most organized in years—would be unable to organize itself quickly and effectively enough for an election should Chávez pass away. With the lack of political neutrality within the judicial and electoral systems, Dallen said the opposition would be unlikely to have a chance at free and fair elections.
All three panelists agreed that regardless of who leads Venezuela, something drastic must be done to address the economy. Sabatini discussed the need for the chavistas to take action on the economy in order to remain united, while Shapiro and Dallen considered the potential devaluation of the bolivar fuerte and a solution to the food shortages.
Venezuela’s Transition: Hemispheric Implications
The panelists debated how Venezuela’s Supreme Court handled the legal challenges to Chávez’s inauguration in absentia. Sabatini said the Organization of American States (OAS) should have condemned the erosion of democratic institutions and processes in Venezuela, contrasting how OAS member states reacted to the 2009 coup in Honduras to the reaction to Venezuela’s current political scenario. In Sabatini’s opinion, this reaction served as evidence of the increasing irrelevance of the OAS as a legitimate forum to discuss democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere.
Sabatini and Shapiro disagreed as to the ideal role for the United States to take when facing a potential transition of power in Venezuela. Shapiro believes that the United States should not comment on the transition and should continue to engage Venezuela in low-level conversations. “If the United States whispers something here, it becomes a roar in Venezuela and the government in Venezuela is what magnifies it,” he said. Sabatini, meanwhile, called for the United States to comment on the continued erosion of Venezuelan democracy. He explained that the Obama administration must not be afraid to speak out when democracy is threatened in the region.