ROLL CALL 03/24/10
By Michael Shank

Traveling recently on a Congressional staff delegation to Venezuela, my experience was not too dissimilar from my previous experiences in Syria and Iran.

This is not to say that I am aggregating these three states into some kind of axis-of-evil or rogue state conglomerate, because I am not. Assuredly, there are similarities between their governments’ pushback against American policy; this is consistent throughout all three nations. The messaging among many Venezuelans, Syrians and Iranians regarding American imperialism, perceived or real, is also commonplace.

What I am specifically referring to when I emphasize experienced commonality in Venezuela, Syria and Iran, is that within each country there are three very disconnected realities, with equally disconnected communication: the U.S. perspective, the country’s ruling government and the country’s population. This is hardly profound analysis, but the gap between all three continues to confound good relations, given that it would serve the interests of all three to close this gap.

Before I delve further into this, here’s a quick overview of our meetings in Caracas. The full spectrum of perspective was at our fingertips — from the U.S., Ecuadorean and El Salvadoran ambassadorial vantage point, to the Venezuelan parliamentary political perspective, international and opposition media, nongovernmental organizations, local think tanks and business executives, and President Hugo Chavez-funded farmers’ cooperatives, universities, community councils and health clinics.

We got an earful from each. Pervasive throughout Venezuela, Syria and Iran, at least in my experience, is an eagerness to educate the American. And in all three countries — as is typical throughout the world — opinions are shaped by a 500-year or more historical perspective. Politics are not predicated upon the last year’s reforms or changes, but rather forged on the back of several centuries and all that happened, including, in the case of Venezuela, U.S. involvement in Latin America, from coups to structural adjustment programs, military maneuvers and exhaustive natural resource extraction.

With many American perspectives, however, politics is dependent upon what is happening this year, or this month, and there is an assumption or at least hope that country X (Venezuela, Syria, Iran, etc.) appreciates the immediacy of that political nuance — for example, President Barack Obama’s initial about-face on Latin America, reversing the previous administration’s approach. The dissonance and contradiction between these two diverging world views is palpable in any conversation, whether in Caracas, Damascus or Tehran.

In Venezuela, what was most apparent in obfuscating improved U.S.-Venezuela relations was the polarized perspective between respective governments. The U.S. presence in Caracas borders on the patronizing, at least in private conversations. Even the term “boys and girls” was uttered in reference to local leaders. There is contempt for all things Chavez and it is evident. President Chavez is equally polemical as he leads the country’s latest revolution in a romantic throwback to the long lineage of preceding revolutionaries. Chavez dabbles with an odd mix of offensive and pedestrian name-calling toward the U.S., while citing classic revolutionary literature that eludes some of his less literate base.

What stands quietly amidst this cacophony, however, is the key to reform. And I found this not only in Venezuela but in Syria and Iran as well. It is the Venezuelan reformer — and in the case of Caracas it was university professors, private sector CEOs and think tank consultants — who sees the complexity of the conflict. For these reformers, nothing is black and white, there are no clear answers and it is in the gray space where the solution is found.

Despite the U.S. free-market inclination to completely write off Chavez’s social programs, Venezuelans will cite increased civic engagement and participatory democracy spurred by the locally elected community councils and will identify the real benefits of the free health clinics and agricultural cooperatives. Simultaneously, these same voices will air concern about Chavez’s recent expropriating of private assets, closure of private media and disdain for political opposition. They are quick to note that Chavez is not a dictator (I got pushback when I used the word autocratic), is quickly losing popular support and will likely deliver his own electoral doom provided the opposition — which continues to win elections in all major cities — speaks less about “freedom and democracy” and more to the everyday problems facing Venezuelans, which include electricity blackouts, water shortages and violent crime (some of the highest rates in the world).

Because a substantial majority of Venezuela is poor, the leader who is perceived to be addressing these economic woes will tend to win the popular vote. That Chavez reduced poverty rates (those living on less than $2 a day) from 48 percent to 28 percent from 2002 to 2007 and reduced extreme poverty rates (those living on less than $1 a day) from 22 percent to 8 percent in the same period positions him favorably among the poor. The drop in oil prices and the global economic recession undermines Chavez’s ability to continue funding programs at previous levels. But the lesson learned is not lost on opposition leaders who tend to be urban upper class with little presence in the poor urban/rural barrios: Policies that attend to the poor are popular.

The lessons learned for me were multifaceted and, frankly, a bit confusing. One leading Venezuelan think-tank type suggested that the best thing the U.S. could do is nothing at all, given that Chavez uses every political reprimand from the U.S. to rally his base. In contrast, one South American ambassador noted that the U.S. is missing multiple opportunities for diplomatic engagement — be it scientific, technological or artistic collaboration, all sectors in which Venezuela excels — and undermining the potential for improved relations by relying solely on political, and occasionally economic, engagement.

Contradicting advice, perhaps, but the underlying message is the same: the current approach is not working. Given that 11 percent of our oil comes from Venezuela and with this year’s discovery of oil deposits there rivaling Saudi Arabia’s, it is in our security interests to consider a more constructive tack toward this country. A start in this direction is to send additional Congressional delegations. The Venezuelan National Assembly chairman of the foreign affairs committee noted the rarity of our exchange and the infrequency of dialogue. This would be an easy and important remedy; commendations, then, to the Center for Democracy in the Americas for making this an organizational priority.

Michael Shank is communications director and policy adviser for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). This article reflects the author’s opinion and not the views of Honda’s office.