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President Carter's Trip Report on Venezuela

By Jimmy Carter

The Carter Center has been deeply involved in Venezuela during recent years, having monitored two national elections, the drafting of a new constitution, and the referendum for public approval. We also have attempted to reduce tension in this sharply divided country, with the charismatic and unorthodox President Hugo Chavez confronted by a phalanx of opposition forces concerned about his revolutionary policies. Following a general strike and protest march that turned violent, there was a coup in April during which some opposition elements joined with the military to remove Chavez from office, dissolve the National Assembly, and begin to arrest elected governors and representatives. When Organization of American States (OAS) leaders denounced the coup and public furor mounted in Venezuela, the military changed course and released Chavez from captivity after two days, returning him to power. He was sobered by these events and has taken some moderating steps since then, including calmer rhetoric, the appointment of more competent cabinet officers, and a willingness to address differences with opposition forces.

The self-identified opposition to Chavez includes all the major news media, labor, the business community, political parties, and many civil society groups. Their public goal is to remove Chavez from office. The massive march scheduled for July 11 was organized by all these groups, with ads branding Chavez guilty of felonies and calling on all citizens to marshal their efforts, march to the front steps of the presidential palace, and force the president to resign.

The Carter Center received an invitation from the government of Venezuela, dated June 4, 2002, requesting we visit the country and facilitate a process of dialogue. With the approval of the U.S. government, we accepted the request. Subsequently, we consulted with the OAS and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and received their encouragement and advice. We sent a small assessment team to Venezuela from June 24-29, headed by Dr. Leonel Fernandez, former president of the Dominican Republic; Dr. Jennifer McCoy, director of the Carter Center Americas Program; and Dr. Ben Hoffman, director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program. This team met with government and opposition leaders and reported that all were willing to meet with me to discuss a possible dialogue on controversial issues. Senior Americas Program Associate Laura Neuman and consultant Francisco Diez remained in Venezuela to make arrangements for my visit.

Dr. McCoy, former Ambassador Gordon Streeb, who heads our Peace Programs, and I arrived in Caracas on July 6 and began a series of meetings with President Hugo Chavez, Vice President Rangel, other cabinet ministers, news media executives, Catholic bishops, opposition political parties, civil society leaders, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, government political parties, Fedecámaras (business and financial leaders), National Assembly leaders, and other prominent individuals. We listened for many hours to a litany of complaints and discussed them all with Chavez and Rangel to understand the government's actual position on these issues. I made it clear to them I would report their responses to the public and the international community in a press conference before leaving the country.

With apparent interest from the opposition groups, I tabulated all the grievances and suggestions and began to arrange direct talks among the president and vice-president and opposition groups, to be conducted in a neutral location and with the agenda based on the most important issues raised by the opposition. I would preside, and representatives of the church, OAS, and UNDP would attend. A further proposal was that a group of distinguished Venezuelans would be included, all of whom would be mutually approved by all the participants in the dialogue. Two were to be bishops, and several other names were proposed. Their primary purpose would be to ensure all commitments made through a dialogue process were honored and to keep the public accurately informed.

On the evening of July 8, we were invited to MAS (one of the opposition political parties) party headquarters and informed none of the opposition groups would participate in the meeting scheduled for the next morning, and they would find other means to resolve controversial issues at a later date. I reminded them all arrangements had been made, that they could set the agenda, and that past experience had shown how difficult such a meeting was to arrange. I also reported that ambassadors from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, France, Great Britain had been informed about these plans, had given their support, and could observe the discussions.

I informed the group we would proceed with the planned meeting and invited them individually to reconsider their position and join us for the meeting. We then informed President Chavez and representatives of the church, OAS, and UNDP, and they all agreed to proceed.

On July 9 we met at our hotel with President Chavez, Vice-President Rangel, the foreign minister, UN, OAS, and church representatives, and three civil society leaders, who didn't consider themselves opposition representatives but were march organizers. We discussed some of the concerns that had been raised by opposition groups, debated each issue, clarified the government's position, and prepared the following summary, which I later read at a press conference:

1. Possible violence on July 11: Government leaders stated there would be no counter-marches or demonstrations by their supporters and the march by the opposition would be completely free and peaceful in accordance with the law. The president said he will call on all citizens to avoid violence and all steps would be taken to prevent possession of any weapons. It was suggested a small representative group of the marchers proceed all the way to Miraflores to present demands or requests.

2. News media: Threats had been rumored that the government would not renew television and radio licenses, and complaints were made that the government required these media to broadcast all statements by President Chavez. Government leaders responded no licenses would be withheld and that news media will be required to broadcast the president's speeches or statements only in matters of national importance. The government will consider establishing a cabinet position to assure proper treatment of the media and will work with television owners to evolve a "content" law to assure pornographic and excessively violent productions are not broadcast during hours when children are normal viewers.

3. Labor: CTV (trade union confederation) leaders requested their organization be recognized and the result of last October's election be resolved. Government leaders stated the CTV is recognized as the legitimate representative of organized labor in Venezuela and an official request will be made to the CNE (National Electoral Commission) and the courts that a final decision be made on the presidency of the CTV, without further delay.

4. Fedecámaras: Business and financial leaders stated they had difficulty organizing a sustained dialogue with the administration and some of the decree laws were inhibiting free enterprise. Government leaders claimed recent cabinet appointments and the selection of a new leader of the petroleum industry were designed to alleviate these concerns, a continuing dialogue was desired, and all decree laws were subject to reassessment and amendment. Seventeen of the 49 already are under consideration by the National Assembly.

5. President's language: Some of the president's statements have been confrontational and inflammatory. The president said he had made mistakes in the past, he had apologized to individuals privately and publicly, and was determined to avoid such mistakes in the future.

6. Role of the Bolivarian Circles: Several opposition groups expressed concern that the Bolivarian Circles (private community organizations) were armed, paramilitary in character, and being trained to act with violence in support of the government. Government leaders denied these claims and said any Circle members or any other citizen bearing illegal arms would be arrested and the law applied. There already is a plan proposed for universal disarmament, and additional efforts will be made to implement this plan, including an initiative for a draft law in the National Assembly.

7. New members in CNE: Government leaders and leaders of the National Assembly both assured us political parties are working in harmony to designate new members expeditiously.

8. President's term in office: All opposition groups expressed a desire for the president's term to be abbreviated, but in accordance with the constitution. The president stated he had no intention to resign but would comply with provisions of the constitution relating to a national referendum half way through his term or amendments to the constitution.

9. Selection of public officers: Opposition leaders expressed a desire for new officers to fill the role of attorney general, comptroller general, and ombudsman. Government leaders stated these officers had been elected legally and should serve out their terms, unless removed by the Supreme Court and National Assembly under existing laws.

10. Armed forces' role in government: Some opposition groups expressed concern about the politicization of the military. Government leaders said promotions were made on the basis of merit, but government policy is that the military will perform services for the public as is done in many other nations, including constructing roads, public buildings, and housing, and providing health and education services. This was an emergency plan and is being phased back but will continue. Government leaders also said they have no plan to politicize the armed forces in an ideological manner.

11. Truth commission: The investigation and findings about events of April 11-14 have not been concluded. Both opposition groups and government leaders expressed support for the National Assembly establishing an effective and unbiased commission, providing it does not usurp the legal functions of local police, the attorney general, and other constitutional officers.

12. Respect for Public Institutions: Opposition leaders expressed concerns that the president may not respect decisions of other powers. The president reiterated his commitment to respect decisions of the other powers, including the Supreme Court, and exhorts all citizens to do so also.

Fulfillment of these commitments and the resolution of other divisive issues will depend upon good faith on all sides and establishment of a system of dialogue that is mutually acceptable. It seems obvious the international community needs to be involved, and government leaders accepted the possibility of the OAS, UN, The Carter Center, Conferencia Episcopal, and perhaps former presidents in this hemisphere playing a role in this effort. In addition, a mutually acceptable small group of distinguished citizens could be helpful to ensure agreements reached in dialogue are honored by both sides and that the public is kept fully and accurately informed.

The opposition groups sent me a letter expressing their thanks for our efforts and their willingness to participate in a future dialogue. The rest of us returned home on July 10, but Ambassador Streeb and Francisco Diez stayed in Caracas to observe the march and to begin making plans for future dialogue. President Chavez met us at the airport before I departed and pledged he would make a public statement to all Venezuelans (not just to his supporters) to calm tensions and nothing would be done to organize counter-marches or permit violence. I pledged the continuing involvement of The Carter Center.

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