A Public Diplomacy Strategy: U.S. Embassy in Caracas

Executive Summary to Strengthen Democratic Institutions and Promote Civil Society Participation in Venezuela

For the last decade, U.S. policy members, members of Congress and the both Presidential administrations have been worried by the increasing disregard of democratic principals and deterioration of human rights in Venezuela. Diplomacy efforts have stalled as the bilateral relationship has deteriorated due to the anti-America rhetoric of both the Chavez and Maduro governments. Over the past year, the weakness of democratic institutions in Venezuela has become apparent on the world stage, as President Nicolas Maduro has stymied a national recall referendum put forth by the majority opposition National Assembly, undermining the democratic process outlined in the Venezuelan Constitution.

However, outside of the current political drama playing out in Venezuela, there is also a crippling economic recession due to historically low oil prices. Government imposed price controls are causing a nation wide shortage of food and medications which is increasing crime and protests against Maduro's administration. Venezuelans are angry because their "democracy" is not giving them a voice. However, with 40.4% of their population between the ages 25-54, there is hope that this rising generation can create lasting change.

In order to shape the next generation, the Embassy of the United States of America has created two Public Diplomacy programs set to educate the rising generation of political and civil society leaders and youth on how they can strengthen democratic institutions in Venezuela by promoting liberal education, youth empowerment, and greater participation of citizens in government.

First, the Embassy will create a Young Leaders Fellowship for rising political and civil society leaders (25-40) to educate them on best practices in democracy building and strengthening, with examples of civil rights movements internationally, how the U.S. government and other democratic governments work, and how to think openly and critically about promoting the rights of all citizens. Secondly, the Embassy will strengthen its English Language partnership to design and create a civics based English Language education curriculum to grow the knowledge of Venezuelan civil and human rights according to their own Constitution.

Under the current administration and political climate, many of these programs will face challenges, as they must be carried out in a highly partisan and volatile political environment, with strong opinions on both sides. These factors and traditional rhetoric in Venezuela accusing the U.S. as a being an imperialistic and intrusive force, means that any new programs with Embassy backing will face close scrutiny by the Maduro government. Leaders and participants must be mindful of these challenges and strive to keep these programs open-minded, inclusive, and nonpartisan to the greatest extent possible. Participation in both programs might be low the first few years of implementation due to fear of imprisonment or worry about personal security, but these bold choices are important to ensuring all Venezuelans human rights are protected in the future.

While success for these programs will show mostly in the long-term, there has already been progress toward strengthening and exercising democracy by the opposition party, which now has a super majority in the National Assembly. Gains in the political sphere are fragile, and now is the time to offer constructive avenues for dialog and political empowerment for frustrated youth in the country. Short, medium and long-term measures of success could be seen not only in the improvement of the lives of the more than 30 million Venezuelans but in improved bilateral ties between the U.S. and Venezuela though a U.S. Ambassador appointment and tenure.

What Needs to be Accomplished?

U.S. policymakers and Members of Congress have had concerns for more than a decade about the deterioration of human rights and democratic conditions in Venezuela and the government's lack of response to international criticism on these issues. As a result, the overarching objective of this public diplomacy strategy is to support human rights for all Venezuelans by:

  • Strengthening Democratic institutions in the country and
  • Promoting peaceful and productive civic participation

Through Public Diplomacy efforts the U. S. can work with youth across the country to harness and support their energy for a more democratic and inclusive future for Venezuela, encouraging them to learn about their constitutional and international rights and use that knowledge to create sustainable and long-lasting democratic change through political empowerment, smarter policy making, and community organizing activities. In time, restoring strong ties between the U.S. and Venezuela by creating a more hospitable environment for diplomacy and trade.

Demographics

Most of the population is concentrated in the northern and western highlands along an eastern spur at the northern end of the Andes, an area that includes the capital of Caracas

  • Population: 30,912,302
  • Life Expectancy: 74.2 years
  • Literacy: 95.5%
  • urban population: 89% of total population
  • rate of urbanization: 1.54% annual rate of change
  • Unemployment rate: 7.3%
  • Youth Unemployment (15-24): 14.7%
  • Median Age: 28

Age Breakdown

  • 0-14 years: 27.68%
  • 15-24 years: 17.27%
  • 25-54 years: 40.4%
  • 55-64 years: 7.84%
  • 65 years and over: 6.82%

Political Landscape

  • Legislature: National Assembly (unicameral), with 167 members

Two Major Parties

  • Democratic Unity Round table (MUD) which is made up of many smaller opposition parties who united into a catch-all electorate in 2008 in an effort to gain a majority in the legislature from the Chavez government
  • United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)

Venezuela, as it looks today, was shaped largely by Hugo Chávez's leadership from 1999 to 2003

  • For 14 years, Venezuela experienced enormous political and economic changes under the leftist populist rule of President Hugo Chávez.
  • Under Chávez, Venezuela adopted a new constitution and a new unicameral legislature and even a new name for the country, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
  • While he expanded social services, gaining years of loyal support for the PSUV from the poor, at the same time, democratic institutions deteriorated, threats to freedom of expression increased, and political polarization in the country also grew between Chávez supporters and opponents.
  • Relations with the United States also deteriorated considerably as the Chávez government often bolstered support with strong anti-American rhetoric.
  • Chávez passed in 2013 after a battle with cancer.

Post-Chávez (2013-present)

The post-Chávez era is marked with myriad of conflict between the PSUV and MUD, including protests, riots, the jailing of key opposition leaders. But, ultimately, popular support has shifted away from the PSUV, as MUD won a super-majority in the National Legislature in December 2015.

Current Political Climate

The democratic decline in Venezuela has continued to deteriorate with the Maduro government continuing its repression of the political opposition.

  • Since the National Assembly took office in January 2016, the PSUV dominant Supreme Court has blocked several laws and actions approved by the legislature
  • But, on May 2, 2016, the opposition delivered more than 1.95 million signatures from across the country to the National Electoral Council in support of a national referendum to recall President Maduro
  • Maduro has undemocratically stymied these efforts every step of the way
  • The Organization of American States (OAS), of which the United States and Venezuela are both member states, has recently gotten involved to attempt to mitigate the escalation of this situation and ensure the democratic principles of Venezuela are upheld, as democracy is a key requirement for membership
  • Currently, the Vatican is sponsoring peace talks between the Maduro government and the opposition in order to open dialog about the recall referendum
  • Venezuela has until January 10. 2017 for the recall to be approved in order for a presidential election to be held. If approved after that day, the Vice President will be appointed as interim president until the next general election in 2018

Economic Indicators

  • GDP Growth: -10% (2016)
  • Key Trading Partners: Exports—U.S. 32.9%, India 15.2%, China 13.4%. Imports—U.S. 29.4%, China, 13.5%, Brazil, 10.8% (2016)
  • Inflation Rate: 181%
  • Government Budget: -11.5% of GDP
  • The government subsidizes many products, like oil, rice and sugar, lower than the cost of production

Venezuela's economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, and with the price of crude dropping dramatically over the past few years, Venezuela is now in full economic crisis. The Guardian recently reported that 15% more of the population is in poverty in 2016 than in 1999 when Chávez was elected.

The economic deterioration has been the most significant catalyst to the strong political opposition President Maduro is facing and the shift of support away from PSUV to MUD. Demonstrations have rocked the capital of Caracas for the past few years and especially in 2016. In November 2016, Tom Shannon, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs stated the following about the current tensions in the country, "people here are angry about shortages of food and medicine, rampant inflation and rising crime. Tensions reached a boiling point last month when the government called off a recall referendum that could have cut short President Nicolas Maduro's term."

Media Penetration

Media ownership: TV and radio

  • Private stations: 70.36%
  • State-owned: 4.58%
  • Community-run: 25.05%

Internet and Cell Phone Usage

  • 95% have cell phones
  • 28.2 million mobile phone lines
  • 9.7 Million Internet Users
  • 326,000 new mobile phone lines added ever year
  • Venezuela ranks third globally in Internet users signing on to Twitter
  • Only 34% of Venezuelans are currently using Internet vía DSL, Cable or wireless connections.
  • Many use infocenters set up by the government (free computer centers with internet access in impoverished neighborhoods)

Venezuelans are among the keenest Twitter and Facebook users in South America. Politicians have made social media central to their campaign strategies. Social media has proven an effective tool to empowering the youth of Venezuela, as it remains largely unregulated. Widespread cell phone usage has also allowed youth to bypass traditional internet systems to connect and galvanize support for political and social causes.

Challenges

Cultural

  • Since 1999, the PSUV under Chávez and Maduro has promoted and enabled anti-American sentiment among the Venezuelan public. This sets Public Diplomacy efforts supported by the U.S. Embassy at a disadvantage given a high suspicion and negative perception of U.S.-led activities and programs in Venezuela, constructed by the Chávez government and continued under the Maduro government

Politics

  • Politics presents itself has the biggest challenge to constructive Public Diplomacy work in Venezuela. The Chávez and Maduro governments have taken a very anti-American view and that has made it impossible for the Embassy to secure an Ambassador for its post (i.e. kicking appointed US Ambassadors out of the country).
  • This diminishes the Embassy's legitimacy in the country and does not send a strong message to the host country government. It also makes it so that the State Department has more oversight of Embassy programs and actions, as the U.S. must act with extreme caution in order to not be scapegoated and open up our programs to accusations of foreign powers interfering in Venezuelan politics

Economy

  • Given the economic strains put on families already for basic necessities such as food and medicine, public diplomacy programs are currently a tough sell to participants because even if the U.S. can provide full financial support, many families cannot support the time lost when youth could be working to find scarce necessities.

Media

  • Anti-American rhetoric under the Chavez and now continued under the Maduro government have made many public diplomacy efforts reactive instead of proactive. Many false statements about American activity in Venezuela are promoted by the Venezuelan government to the public, which put the Embassy on the defensive creating a call and response media cycle

Target Audience

Raising Young Political Leaders

Given the current political and economic climate in Venezuela this public diplomacy program will look at ways to bolster and mature young rising political and civil society leaders, such as inviting Alcaldes, human rights activists and junior members of the National Assembly who are working to strengthen democratic institutions, human rights and promote civic participation in Venezuelan government, to become program participants.

These individuals already have the knowledge and political support as well a seat at the table, giving them an opportunity to become change makers through the continued education of public diplomacy programs such as this

Venezuelan Youth

The strategy will also reach Venezuelan youth interested in social justice, human rights and democracy building.

Public Diplomacy must support the next generation and plant seeds among youth to continue the work of their predecessors. Democracy building and promotion of civil society must be injected at the societal level to ensure its normalization in the future. Youth have the greatest capacity for change in this area. Not only are they the majority but they will infuse society with new ideas and perspectives, redefining Venezuela into a true democratic nation through the information they learn in this strategy

Venezuelan Young Leaders Fellowship

A year long in-country fellowship program offered to young political and civil society leaders (25-40), with a strong background and interest in strengthening democracy and enforcing human rights through cooperation between policy and civil society support. Through a series of bi-monthly workshops where fellows will meet virtually and in-person with distinguished leaders and change makers from the United States and Venezuela, fellows will

  • Foster their education in the practical aspects and nuances of democracy strengthening, community organizing, and social justice from a Venezuelan perspective
  • Learn about the Venezuelan Constitution and legal framework, including their enshrined rights of freedom of expression, assembly, political participation, and the press. Include civil rights lessons on the observation of human rights abuses, and how to bring legal challenges and engage international organizations
  • Learn about economics and public policy from experts in the field, and how strategic subsidization and government backed loans and insurance, interest rate adjustments can work where price controls, state takeovers, and currency manipulation fail
  • Give opportunities to practice public speaking, learn best practices in storytelling and journalism, videography and alternative medias, and principles in conflict resolution and negotiation
  • Generate an exchange of views across political parties, experience and socio-economic status
  • Enrich dialogues with cross-cultural perspectives for the benefit of all attendees and the future of Venezuela

At the end of the program, Fellows must design and implement one large scale project that either strengthens democratic institutions or supports civil society participation. Sample projects could include

  • Introduction of legislation with bipartisan support to release political prisoners
  • Creation of a community organization that offers after-school activities to at-risk youth to encourage them to become engaged in society through volunteerism
  • Develop a campaign to reform socialist curriculum in basic education and promote proper civic education for youth to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens of Venezuela

Eligibility

This fellowship would be open to all Venezuelan young political and civil society leaders (25-40) that have a strong background and interest in strengthening democracy and enforcing human rights through cooperation between policy and civil society support. The Fellowship would conduct targeted recruitment efforts to certify applicants meet this criteria and to encourage applications from leaders in both parties to apply to ensure the program is not an echo chamber for the opposition.

Participants would also be chosen from across the country to not only provide representation from across Venezuela, but to showcase the work of the fellowship in communities all over the country, not just in Caracas-increasing the multiplier effect and ensuring change is injected at the societal level.

How Would the Program Work?

As the Embassy through the U.S. State Dept. already has an established U.S. Speaker and Specialist program, this network of educators is well organized and ready to deploy. The Embassy would start to bring social science, economics, and public policy specialists into Venezuela through this program both virtually and in-person to conduct bi-monthly training and workshops for the Fellows.

This program would also partner with universities and think tanks in Venezuela, such as CEDICE Libertad, to provide a space for those individuals to share their work with the Fellows and for the Fellows to learn about the democracy building that is currently being conducted in Venezuela. Events for networking with speakers will help to create a larger network working toward democracy and civil society building.

Why is this program important?

For the participants, this program offers all of the benefits of a traditional exchange Fellowship, with the opportunity to stay in-country and engage with Embassy personal, U.S. specialists and fellow Venezuelans all while building skills and interest in critical U.S. Foreign Policy in Venezuela - strengthening democratic institutions and promotion of civil society.

For the Embassy, this program broadens the network of individuals in which the Embassy engages with on a daily basis, both Venezuelan and American. Due to the lack of an Ambassador, the Embassy lacks a presence in Venezuela, especially among politicians and other key officials and social movement leaders. This program would not only broaden that demographic base, by targeting leaders from both political parties, but engage and encourage them to learn more about U.S. policy and institutions.

By building this program around key U.S. foreign policy objectives and rising young leaders from across Venezuela this program is ultimately working to build up credible voices in Venezuela by empowering them with knowledge and linkages that would support their efforts to promote policy and practices that strengthen democratic institutions and economic stability in the future.

Challenges

This program would encounter many challenges under the Maduro government, as it could be portrayed as a heavy handed intervention to undermine his rule and turn over power to the opposition. Possible challenges for this program in the current political climate would include:

  • lack of applications due to worry over personal safety and family welfare, even imprisonment or worse for participating in the program
  • inability to obtain participation from rising leaders in the PSUV due to subject matter and U.S. Embassy sponsorship
  • imprisonment or threats from the government to the participants that do participate
  • Inability to institute large scale deliverable due to government opposition or fear of personal safety

However in the coming years as Venezuela will need to assess its democracy and gear up for the 2018 presidential election, this program is important to give voice to the rising leaders of Venezuela. Challenges can be mitigated with careful marketing, routing activities through local nonpartisan organizations, and holding to an open and Venezuela-centric curriculum

Civic Based English Education for Youth

Just as with the Young Leaders Fellowship, it is important for the Embassy to build desired skills and interest in U.S. policies among the next generation and that includes the youth of Venezuela. The Embassy currently supports English education through a partnership with eight Binational Centers across the country and Micro-access scholarships, which provides financial support for youth to participate. These current programs provide a platform for the Embassy to expand its programming to build an interest in democracy building, civil rights, and public service among the youth in Venezuela.

For this program, the Embassy will strengthen is partnership with the Binational Centers to create a civics based English Language education program that works to build youth understanding of democratic freedoms through English Language education.

In order to accomplish this the Embassy will:

  • Contract a U.S based organization that will be tasked to build a working group composed of U.S. and Venezuelan educators and specialists who will design a civics based English Language curriculum based on the Venezuelan Constitution to teach youth about their rights and responsibilities as Venezuelan citizens.
  • Create a pilot group to test out the curriculum and monitor and evaluate its success before fully implementing it across the eight Binational Centers
  • Roll out the successful curriculum to all eight Binational Centers
  • Build partnerships with local civil society organizations to implement monthly service projects to support and reinforce the curriculum by showcasing the benefits of civil society participation and volunteerism

In addition, the Embassy with strengthen its Education USA partnerships with the Binational Centers to broaden students understanding and increase highly valuable experiences of studying at U.S. institutions. By providing students the opportunity to expand their English language education in the U.S., the Embassy will provide students the opportunity to travel to the U.S., strengthen their perception of the U.S., and learn about democratic principles by seeing strong social institutions, stable economic outcomes, and civic participation first hand.

By setting bold goals, among a program that already captures large populations of Venezuelan youth and contributes to positive views of the U.S., the Embassy sets up continued success from these programs, while sowing seeds in the next generation about how to strengthen democratic institutions, foster productive bilateral relationships, and promote economic growth. And, with the growing support for the opposition, these bold goals could attract outside funding to provide more MicroAccess scholarships to embolden and empower Venezuelans from all socio-economic statuses.

Challenges

  • pushback from Binational Centers to creation of curriculum due to fear of government retaliation
  • students refusing to participate in the class due to the curriculum
  • lack of immediate measures of success
  • inability to get Venezuelan educators to participate in the curriculum working group

Measuring Success

Democracies are not built in a day, so it is important to acknowledge that the measures of success of these policy objectives will be long-term.

Venezuela has been under a socialist regime for 17 years, so it will take years and generations to strengthen democratic institutions and reverse public animosity and suspicion toward both democracy, as politicians and civil society leaders will have to learn how to work together under a democratic system and measure their own effectiveness in structured unbiased methods. In the meantime, the deep economic recession will provide minimal funding for politicians to effectively govern. The diplomatic environment is expected to be volatile for some time.

But there are some short, medium and long-term measures of effectiveness Public Diplomacy officers in Venezuela can use to measure how much their programs are working to strengthen democratic institutions and promote civil society in Venezuela and adjust as needed.

Short-term

  • The national recall referendum is approved
  • Fair and free elections are performed with the oversight of the OAS either in 2017 or 2018
  • The Vatican talks yield a measure of success in supporting communication between the opposition and the Maduro government with the help of U.S. Under Secretary of Political Affairs, Tom Shannon
  • Venezuelans continue to express interest in becoming more educated about their civil and human rights and continue to protest that they are protected
  • Civic based education is incorporated into half of the Binational Centers
  • The first cohort of Young Leaders Fellowship has 6 participants from across Venezuela and with at least one participant who in some way supports the PSUV
  • U.S. Ambassador is appointed to Venezuela and not removed by the government

Medium-term

  • Political prisoners are released
  • Fair and free elections are held with minimal oversight by the OAS
  • The economy starts to improve as innovation and diversification is brought in by the next generation who have benefits from public diplomacy programs such as Young Leaders Fellowship and Education USA partnerships.
  • Political parties become less polarized as they have grown to work together toward to greater good of democracy in Venezuela through public diplomacy programs like the Fellowship that improves dialogue between politicians from both parties.
  • Democratic institutions start to strengthen through increased knowledge of civic and human rights given and protected by the constitution.
  • Free speech and international journalism start to reenter the country as the country becomes more democratic
  • The number of civil society organizations starts to increase across the country to protect the civic and human rights of all Venezuelans and promote volunteerism across society
  • The Young Leaders Fellowship cohorts continue to increase in numbers and representation to increase cross political dialogue
  • All eight Binational Centers have Education USA advising centers in them and there is a 10% rise in students studying abroad
  • U.S. Ambassadors continue to get appointed to the post and continue to improve the bilateral relationship
  • Bilateral relationship improvement is seen in the decrease of anti-U.S. rhetoric by the government
  • Socialist curriculum is taken out of schools and replaced with a non-partisan curriculum

Long-term

  • Democratic institutions are strengthened to the point that fair and free elections are held across the country with no oversight from OAS
  • U.S. Ambassadors continue to be appointed and develop strong relationships with the ruling government leading to a strong diplomatic bilateral relationship
  • Civil Society begins to flourish and work with the government to establish ties between policy and practice to continue to build up strong democratic institutions and build networks for individuals to work with the government to better the future of all Venezuelans
  • The economy continues to diversify and become stronger through continued innovation by the next generation who have studied abroad and participated in public diplomacy programs that provided them a new prospective on U.S. policies and economy
  • Bilateral ties between the U.S. and Venezuela are strong due to lack of anti-American rhetoric due to years of successful PD programs that have created a positive view of U.S. policies

It is important to note that all of these measures of success are based on past and present U.S. policies. It is uncertain how the upcoming U.S. administration will view Venezuela and cooperate within the OAS.

Sources

  • US Embassy of Caracas Public Affairs Section, https://caracas.usembassy.gov/about-us/pas/cultural.html
  • US Department of State, Venezuela, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35766.htm
  • In Depth: Media in Venezuela. 3 October 2012. BBC Latin America and Caribbean. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19368807
  • Sullivan. M (2016) Venezuela: Background and U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Service
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Fact Book. Venezuela. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ve.html
  • Venezuela Demographics Profile 2016. IndexMudi. http://www.indexmundi.com/venezuela/demographics_profile.html
  • Venezuela. International Monetary Fund. 2016. http://www.imf.org/external/country/ven/
  • Venezuela. Trading Economies. 2016. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/venezuela/indicators
  • Watts, J. Venezuela on the brink: a journey through a country in crisis. 11 October 2016. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/11/venezuela-on-the-brink-a-journey-through-a-country-in-crisis
  • Internet Usage Advances in Venezuela. AVN. https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5596
  • Shannon, T (2016). Some Activists Skeptical Of Vatican-Led Venezeulan Peace Talks, NPR All Things Considered. http://www.npr.org/2016/11/07/501053259/some-activists-skeptical-of-vatican-led-venezeulan-peace-talks
  • Dreier, H. (2015). Venezuelan Textbooks Teacher Math, Science and Socialism. Associated Press. http://www.apnewsarchive.com/2015/In-Venezuela-state-issued-textbooks-boost-socialist-projects-while-teaching-math-and-history/id-ed750fbdc95f4e8994713e194dbf89a9
  • Chafuen, A. (2014). Fighting Socialism In Venezuela: The Work Of A Heroic Think Tank. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/alejandrochafuen/2014/04/30/fighting-socialism-in-venezuela-the-work-of-a-heroic-think-tank/#7b9aae6f17eb

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