January 2020: Venezuela after Chávez

January 30, 2020

Panelists: David Smolansky and Michael Shifter

   About the Speakers:   

Mr. Smolanksy began his career as a politician when he co-founded the Venezuelan Student Movement in 2007, leading non-violent protests against Hugo Chavez, as well as Voluntad Popular, one of the main opposition parties in Venezuela, becoming Deputy Secretary General of that organization. In 2013, Smolansky was elected mayor of El Hatillo in Caracas, at age 28. Security and transparency became the priorities of his administration. The regime under Nicolás Maduro ordered his arrest and removed him from office in 2017, forcing him to clandestinely flee to Brazil. He made Washington D.C. his exile., and with a B.A in journalism and M.A in political science, he is now a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University, while advocating for the Venezuelan cause. Americas Quarterly magazine chose him as one of the top ten people who will rebuild Venezuela.

Mr. Shifter writes and talks widely on US-Latin American relations and hemispheric affairs, and has lectured about hemispheric policy at leading universities in Latin America and Europe. He has testified regularly before the US Congress about US policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean. Former positions include Director of the Latin American and Caribbean program at the National Endowment for Democracy and, before that, the Ford Foundation’s governance and human rights program in the Andean region and Southern Cone. Since 1993, Michael Shifter has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Latin American Studies Association. Mr. Shifter holds a MA in sociology from Harvard University, where he taught Latin American development and politics.

   Program Recording:   

A video recording of the program is available here.

   Event Review:    

by Olivia Goodman

“Venezuela is where it is for a reason”

A long time ago, Venezuela used to be one of the most stable countries in the region. It used to be a reference for democracy in the region. And it used to have a booming economy. However, once the economy was no longer diversified, the aspirations Venezuela had to be a model nation came crashing down. 

At the time, when the old political parties did not renew their leadership, people were hopeful about Hugo Chavez. Mayor of El Hatillo David Smolanksy says at this point in Venezuela’s increasing disparity Chavez became a savior. 

In the midst of Venezuela’s economic crisis in the 1980s and 1990s it lost 40% of its national income. Venezuela had already been victim to corruption and mismanagement and was in desperate need of a new leader. And as Venezuela had one of the largest oil reserves in the world, it seemed other nations would be interested in being a trade partner and the economy would prosper. 

Shifter explains that once Chavez came into power in 1999 his hopeful vision was proven to be fake as he slowly began to systematically dismante every democratic constitution the country had. Chavez raised the prices of oil barrels from $10 a barrel to $140 a barrel.  

Taking a larger perspective, Shifter was able to explain the overall history of how Chavez got into power, what changes he made to the government, and what happened next. But as a refugee from Venezuela, David Smolansky was able to give a detailed first-hand perspective of the Venezuelan people’s suffering. 

When David Smolansky was 13 years old a soldier won an election for president in his country. This soldier was Hugo Chavez. Smolanksy explains how his country was no longer safe, and freedom and democracy had been thrown away. Families were being separated and people had no choice but to flee. He hid out in the jungle for 35 days and saw so many people fleeing right beside him. As of early 2020, the number of Venezuelans who have fled  is around 5 million.

Smolansky remembers the Venezuelan refugees he has spoken to since becoming Commissioner of the Secretary General of the OAS for the Venezuelan Migration and Refugee Crisis. A Venezuelan man he met said his 8 children had passed away due to lack of medicine. Smolansky saw students being brutally abused. He saw women give birth on the border of Venezuela. And he saw innocent people get wounded or killed. 

Chavez died in 2013 due to heart complications. Nicolas Maduro took over. Both Shifter and Smolansky point out the pattern that continues in the Venezuelan government of corrupt men being elected for president. However, Smolansky points out that many people consider Maduro’s 2018 election a fraud. As the numbers show, almost 70% of Venezuelans didn’t even vote. 

Smolansky says, “we are facing a criminal regime that goes beyond a dictatorship…. We are one of the best examples of how democracy is used to destroy democracy. The tools that democracy gives to leaders and society are what destroyed democracy.” 

For a room full of Americans believing democracy is what gives us our freedom and rights, we now understand the very harsh dangers that are quietly attached to democracy. It is this paradox that shows how fragile a country can be and how the one thing protecting its citizens can end up being the trigger for its dimise. 

Smolansky is angry. “I shouldn’t be here, I should be in my country,” he told the audience.

Hearing Shifter and Smolansky talk on this Thursday evening was eye opening for the whole audience. Venezuela isn’t on the news as often as North Korea, Russia, Ukraine and China are. But its effect on the future of the United States is real and inevitable. Perhaps Venezuela doesn’t have breaking news of the Coronavirus spreading to it, or perhaps it hasn’t colluded with our president to win our 2016 elections, but if there’s one thing that current events can be make us sure of, is that history repeats itself. 

Smolansky and Shifter caution us to learn how careful a country must be to protect democracy from itself. And how even a promising country like Venezuela can crumble with just one wrong person in power.



  Further Resources:    

News article on our Program, published in Capitol News Services:  Exiled Venezuelan mayor visits Richmond to discuss humanitarian crisis.

Our intern’s blog post: A Deeper Look into the Inter-American Dialogue: How Can They Help?

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