State affiliated think tanks often shape foreign policy in Washington.
This article was originally published in Orinoco Tribune.
The recent teachers’ protests in Venezuela took place in a climate where, along with the inflationary pressure of the beginning of 2023, they seem to be linked to a type of mobilization that has been gradually getting expressed, at the national level, with unions and other ”visible” platforms of “civil society,” in the background of the advances and tensions around the government-opposition dialogue process in Mexico.
In the midst of this, the definitive collapse of the “Guaidó project,” the reckoning of Voluntad Popular with the G3 [other main parties of the opposition], and the loss of initiative of the opposition in general, seem to force a correction of Washington’s approach to Venezuela. This time, the attempted correction does not come from the traditional decision-making circles of the White House or the State Department, but rather from well-engaged intellectual apparatuses in the corridors of power in Washington, such as the influential think tank Wilson Center.
Official consolidation of the strategy?
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, commonly referred to as the Wilson Center, published in December 2022 its report ” Venezuela in 2023 and Beyond: Charting a New Course .”
Produced by the Working Group for Venezuela within the Center’s Latin American Program and written by the US academic Abraham F. Loewenthal, the report is a result, as he states, of “virtual group discussions, interviews the whole group or individual members conducted with Venezuelan and international actors and experts, a number of previous VWG papers, and the extensive exchanges of views among us” (pp.3-4).
Co-signed by 19 signatories (including its author), the report consists of 28 pages and 17 sections outlining what, strictly speaking, is the vision of the Washington DC-based think tank on establishing a strategy and path of actions to follow for the resolution of the “Venezuelan conflict.”
The Wilson Center is funded by the US Congress and is an integral member of the complex educational system and network of government study centers named in honor of former US President Woodrow Wilson.
This think-tank also receives extensive funding from Fortune 500 corporations. Its list of donors is made up of individuals (such as the godmother of the R2P doctrine, Anne Marie Slaughter), institutions of the Executive Branch (the US State Department), embassies (such as that of Qatar), to business empires such as Amazon, Chevron, PepsiCo, Northop Grumman, ExxonMobil or JP Morgan Chase, according to their 2021 sponsorship registry.
The data itself already tells us conclusively what is the scheme of interests around the alleged “resolution” of the “Venezuelan conflict.” But something could give the entity even more political value and operational weight. In the absence of a delineated or specific policy in official terms of the United States with respect to Venezuela, this document seems to come closer, more than anything else, to that: an official document on the possible steps actually conceived by Washington and existing with respect to Venezuela.
Another element to highlight, which establishes another signifier in relation to the language around the report itself and what it says itself, is the main author. Abraham Loewenthal is a political-academic animal deeply embedded in the think tank -academic establishment and political-corporations system.
His profuse resume includes practically all the “heavyweight” universities within the system (Harvard, Oxford, Brown, Princeton), as well as the network of think tanks (CFR, Brookings Institution, Inter-American Dialogue). He is also a member of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). He specializes, among other fields, in globalization, governance, Latin America and, with particular emphasis, in transitions from authoritarian governments to democracy.
In this way, through the main speaker (but not the only one), the political language and its signal system is clearly established. And, indirectly, the document can achieve a rank of official status that other working papers would hardly do.
Bonus fact: Antony Blinken is also a member of the Wilson Center.
The essential premise of the work is that there is no other way to get out of the “stalemate” of the Venezuelan question other than through a negotiation process, one that would “craft agreements that address the interests of both the Venezuelan government and the democratic opposition” (p.4), noting that these are not magic formulas that will resolve the “deep resentments among Venezuelans” or that guarantee “an immediate economic recovery” (p.5).
On the other hand, the working paper indicates that the new objective of the opposition is no longer to seek accelerated regime change but rather, under the tutelage of the United States, it presents itself as an opposition that seeks to address and resolve “humanitarian relief,” “human rights,” “economic rceovery,” “re-institutionalization,” and, especially, an aspired framework of governability and consensus towards elections (presidential, regional and municipal, in 2024 and 2025) that are “free and fair” with “international supervision.” The think tank refers exclusively to the Unitary Platform as “the opposition.”
To that extent, Loewenthal et al. assert that any escalation of “harsh coercive measures” is not only not justifiable, but rather “would only harden hostilities” (p. 11). They also advise the United States on the need to create bipartisan support to transition away from “maximum pressure” to, instead, “encouraging negotiations, building coexistence, protecting human rights, facilitating effective democratic governance, and promoting economic recovery.” (p.15).
Already at this point, if we also add the definitive implosion of the Guaidó strategy, the United States seems to have formalized, in terms of form, the end of the operational logic that marked the years of direct confrontation of the Trump administration.
It can be considered as an indirect recognition of a succession of failures that force the US recognition of the Bolivarian government, and President Nicolás Maduro, as undeniable actors and impossible to avoid. However, up to here the more or less friendly premises or “humanization” of the adversary could be identified. Yet, despite the mitigations, it can be detected that the semantic field of the regime change logic remains.
This can be clearly seen in two elements: the first is the characterization of “the crisis” and the government, and secondly, the final objective of the negotiations.
“The crisis,” according to the paper, is a stagnation whose sole responsibility is of the Chavista governments, where the role of a “robust civil society” that participates in the process at different levels and the supervision of the “international community” is urgent for a “reinstitutionalization” (p.6) of the disorder of a government and an “entrenched” power group (p.11), which to this day, according to the report, shuts down media outlets, commits environmental destruction, violates human rights, etc.
As for the objectives of the negotiations in Mexico, the working paper fails to completely hide that the fundamental objective is a “political transition” (p.5) with a “transfer of power away from Nicolás Maduro and his entourage” (p.5), and “reconstructing effective democratic governance” (p.14 ), in the search to overcome a “traumatic period that has badly damaged Venezuela, destabilized the region, and harmed millions of their compatriots” (p.20), the usual canons of the liberal catechism, codified in the ideological framework of the US Democratic Party.
Thus, the report not only recommends, but also sees fit that as long as the process of dialogue and negotiation continues, the “sanctions” should be gradually relaxed and that, if progress is not made, they can be quickly reinstituted (“snap back sanctions”) at the time of any intransigence, but not before recommending through the international actors around the dialogue an apparent relaxation as an “incentive.”
By this point, it can be stated that the report abandons what could be “new” to repeat the usual commonplaces, since what is apparently strategic once again becomes simply a series of open pressure tactical resources.
Anyone more or less familiar with conflict resolution methods understands that an essential premise is that no one “wins,” and this is decidedly not the case: at least as an aspiration there is a clear desire for one of the parties to be victorious.
It is, then, a discussion of method and format, and not a paradigm shift in relationships.
Beneath the apparent humanitarian concerns and societal well-being, the central political objective, regime change, continues to operate, manifestly using its central lever: elections. For this, it will be necessary to counterpoint part of the content with other visible elements expressed at other instances.
The ‘roadmap’ without conciliatory packaging
The change in approach and form in the United States-Venezuela relationship and, within that, the elements of form that have effectively been modified, could be said to precede the Wilson Center report to a certain extent, which, despite being more eloquent, descriptive, and intellectually “finished” as it may be, it cannot be assumed as the alpha and omega of the “plan” of the US-supervised Venezuelan opposition.
The notion of the elections, first of all, the presidential ones of 2024 and, at least in principle, the regional ones of 2025 as the turning point and the overton window to—now yes—achieve regime change can also be seen in other places in matters of opinion as well as in policies of institutions of the United States, with greater continuity or not subject to contingencies, which could affect the presidency at times.
On September 15, 2022, Marcela Escobari, USAID Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, offered testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Venezuelan “case.”
After describing the same old picture about the “Venezuelan crisis” where “mass migration,” “authoritarianism,” little freedom of the press, corruption, ineptitude and repression stand out without a doubt, she ended her testimony with the way in which USAID will back the “democratic transition” in Venezuela.
It is worth saying that the picture presented (and the sources) by both Escobari and the Wilson Center report are essentially the same, with the same level of data to establish the discourse and justify the actions to be taken. However, it is not the only thing in which they agree, apart from the fact that Escobari’s intemperate and apocalyptic style marks a considerable difference from Loewenthal’s in the document reviewed here.
Escobari confirmed that there are three areas from which USAID is trying to work towards the “democratic transition” in Venezuela. USAID too has as its center of attention the elections of 2024 and 2025. Following the exact same path, where the improvement of electoral conditions is a governing principle, USAID makes it clear, above all, that it will support the opposition.
According to Escobari, the “subnational” (sic) elections, that is, the regional elections of 2021, demonstrated that it is possible to use the electoral system, despite it not being free and fair according to her, to show that objectives can be achieved by electoral means.
She also amusingly claimed that the opposition won a landslide victory in the January 2022 elections in Barinas state, but that was just an ornament.
What does matter about her statement is certifying that for the United States and the Biden administration, the electoral defeat of chavismo in Barinas is the definitive and clear demonstration of the model to follow. This, in terms of opinion, has been more or less a constant that can be found, for example, at the level of opinion from the US mainstream media.
This is the central point, which must be complemented with the other two that also establishes bridges with the Wilson document. Support for “independent media,” “democratic civil society,” and “human rights defenders who document the repression” as the way to keep branding the Venezuelan government “authoritarian” and harassing it.
The Wilson Center recommends, varying the focus a little, the importance that in principle the government and the Unitary Platform “design and agree on processes that document systematic violations of human rights, the suppression of democratic freedoms, and gross corruption,” something that should be done ” in consultation with activists and human rights defenders, both Venezuelan and international, as well as victims,” laying the groundwork for an alleged reparatory justice (p.17).
For USAID, which since 2018, the year in which the floodgates were opened through the UN to different modalities of “humanitarian aid” as a mechanism primarily for political decompression, by September 2022 had announced having allocated $367 million in “additional humanitarian assistance.” In the same vein, the NED declared, according to its last rendering of accounts (2021, in February they will publish the one of 2022) to have publicly allocated under its standards the bulky figure of $4,324,293, an increase of approximately $1 million from the previous year.
What could establish to what extent, in reality, these presumed dividends are actually being destined to assist people in extreme precariousness, in poverty or despair (which has a lot to do with the also well-known situation of economic decimation, a product of the “sanctions”) and how much, in reality, is being allocated to the “strengthening” of that “democratic civil society,” “human rights defenders” or “independent media?”
And here we come, at this moment of comparative analysis, to what is perhaps one of the essential premises of the Wilson document, which we will quote in extenso:
Part of this effort [to build consensus and move towards a “democratic transition”] should be public diplomacy – not opening confidential talks to public view, but providing periodic reports that build trust in the negotiators and their work. The democratic opposition should not lose sight of the likely utility of organizing occasional street demonstrations, not to overthrow the government, but to increase opposition leverage. Combining pressure and concessions, in different ways and at different times, is often a valuable strategy for negotiations. (p.19).
This affirmation, naturally, forces us to contrast the recent events organized by the teachers’ unions and other sectors of the Venezuelan civil society, offering a depth of field to said movements and actions.
Actions that, yes, are based on concrete and tangible elements of reality, such as the low salaries and the consequent economic difficulties, in an international framework where many possible steps have been announced in terms of progress from the dialogue in Mexico, among them the release of a significant amount of blocked funds that should be allocated, in a coordinated manner, to alleviate the difficulties in education, healthcare and public services.
Already at this point, the preliminary conclusion can be established that it is not the humanitarian situation that is mobilizes all this, but political calculations based on a tactical logic of smart power that combines real concessions with pressure mechanisms within the framework of the pre-existing electoral context, at a time when the conventional partisan instances of the opposition are frankly in crisis, incapable of directly building an agenda and a political climate.
The creation of a non-organic political climate needs a period of maturation, and the dispersion due to internal disputes and other current implosion factors does not seem to facilitate unity of command, the construction of agreements or the harmonization in the execution of a specific agenda, as it was possible to carve, for example, throughout 2016 and the first half of 2017, the climax of which was the insurrectionary guarimbas.
The analyses of the situation made by some opposition firms themselves admit in broader terms a general climate of demobilization, something that according to the political scientist Ricardo Sucre Heredia, for example, permeates the entire national scene, even if it is expressed in different ways, and Chavismo demonstrates more mobilized or mobilizing elements.
Sucre Heredia based his opinion on the latest polls by Delphos and Datanálisis carried out at the end of last year. With all the biases to consider in this kind of study, however, he admits to passages like these, taken from his latest report on January 16:
Another result is that the willingness to protest against the government and for public services decreased. In the first, from 41% to 21% between July and November 2022, and in the second, it went from 55% to 37% respectively, which would explain why the protests over the services went off the news. They don’t make much noise anymore. In general, people don’t want to go out and protest.
In the light of this sample, both from Sucre Heredia’s analysis and the Delphos study, the question can be raised as to where the promoters of heating up the streets are in recent days.
Since the middle of last year, with the reactions and protests against the “Budget Office (ONAPRE) instructions,” there has been evidence of a unionization of the conflicts. Structures that, for the most part, have historically been controlled by parties or elements of the opposition, today, at least in theory, exist outside the partisan structures of the dispersed opposition.
The year 2014 began with a scenario that resonates in this particular aspect: the opposition parties, in general terms, in frank withdrawal after the electoral defeat of the municipal elections at the end of 2013, but that by the railing well-known anti-political actors, along with structures prepared and trained for the occasion, such as the “student movement,” managed to establish the well-known agenda of violence and conflict.
Although the discourse around the “what to do” of the opposition and of the United States at this moment, in general lines, focuses on the negotiations for the elections of 2024 and 2025, the union demonstrations (today teachers), at least in principle and in their organizational nucleus, seem to have a degree of organization and method that goes beyond the framework of spontaneous actions.
In some regions of the country, where they seemed to have a greater mobilizing effect, these action programs were scheduled throughout the week, in several municipalities, with different degrees of intensity and scope, and in search of the constitution of conflict committees, on this occasion “in all educational institutions,” looking to accumulate strength and channel discontent with broader perspectives.
At these three levels studied: the think tank, the US state organization, and an incipient and still somewhat disintegrated street demonstrations, it seems that the opposition is between the doctrinal level and direct action, the political level or rather gearing up pressure mechanisms, or, perhaps, with non-manifest objectives and purposes, but not ruling out any terms of conflict, all with the “higher” purpose of changing the government and, more broadly, the historical and sociopolitical regime.
“No path is without risk in such highly conflictual circumstances,” the Wilson Center document emphasizes (p.23). “Yet the risks of fully exploring a negotiated road to genuine democratic governance, respectful coexistence, and economic recovery in Venezuela should now be taken by all relevant actors – after so many years of polarization, repression, and deprivation. The time for an all-out effort to negotiate solutions to Venezuela’s multiple crises is now. That is our central message.”
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