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John Walsh's Observations

What were your expectations before the trip?

Although I knew the trip would be short, I was expecting that we would be able to meet with a wide range of people with distinct interpretations and perspectives on Venezuelan politics, society, foreign policy, and relations with the United States.  It was an especially interesting moment for the visit, given the opposition gains in the September 2010 legislative elections, renewed attention to the National Assembly, and the looming 2012 presidential elections.  Apart from being unable to meet with high-level government officials as planned, my expectations for the visit were met.

What is the main thing or things that you have learned during the trip that you did not know before?

I was struck by the sense of optimism within some sectors of the opposition about the prospects for winning the 2012 elections.  On the one hand, this is a very positive sign that the disastrous mistakes of the recent past – including the 2005 election boycott – are not to be repeated.  On the other hand, the idea that at least some members of the old guard party system foresee a victory in 2012 that would return them to power – without requiring any substantial change from their pre-Chavez habits – strikes me as a major misreading of the changes that have taken place in Venezuela during the past decade.

Could you describe one moment that was eye-opening for you?

The idea that a military officer can even hint that an opposition victory in 2012 would be unacceptable should be out of bounds everywhere in this hemisphere.  But, far from being disciplined by his superiors or reprimanded by Chavez, the officer appears to have been celebrated.  At the same time, the political composition of the national electoral council (CNE) makes its bias toward Chavez even more pronounced.  Campaign abuses in 2012 seem likely to eclipse those of previous elections, even as the CNE's interest and ability to curb abuses by the government seems to be diminishing further.  Despite deserved criticisms over the way he governs, Chavez has so far been able to claim democratic electoral legitimacy.  The likelihood of a close vote in 2012 is ratcheting up the stakes.

Now that you have visited the country, what do you see as being the biggest misunderstanding/misperception between your country and the country you visited? What do you believe to be the source of this misunderstanding/misperception?

The major misperception about Venezuela in the United States seems to be the idea that Chavez is not a legitimate leader and that the system is by now so constrained that opposition views cannot be expressed and opposition politicians cannot hope to win elections.  At the same time, some in Venezuela seem to believe that U.S. government motives are by definition nefarious, and that the U.S. government is prepared to invade Venezuela, to topple Chavez and take control of the country's oil production.  The distorted U.S. views of Venezuela overlook Chavez's genuine support and sources of legitimacy, and the distorted Venezuelan views of the U.S. government fail to draw distinctions among very different political actors and fail to appreciate how inconceivable the notion of invading Venezuela sounds to the mainstream in the United States.  These misunderstandings are fed by extremes in each country who find that polarization works well for them politically.

Now that you have visited the country, do you have any thoughts on what is the most important change in policy that is needed between your country and the country you visited?

Chavez has made a point of defining Venezuela's foreign policy in terms of opposing and countering the U.S. government, even as oil sales to the United States are the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy.  Given the importance of a stable oil relationship for both countries, each government can somewhat discount the rhetoric.

In your opinion, what are the main unrealized opportunities for engagement between your country and the country you visited?

The relationship between Venezuela and Colombia is being repaired since the arrival in office of new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.  These repairs offer a chance to tone down the rhetoric coming from Caracas and from Washington.

Following this trip, have you gotten any more ideas on how the Dialogue Forum can contribute to in order to build a positive common agenda between the Andean countries and the U.S.?

In the near term, the political calculus in Venezuela and in the United States works against any big breakthrough to improved relations, and differences rather than commonalities will continue to be accentuated on both sides.  But considering Venezuela's interest in cooperative relations with its Andean neighbors – as the Dialogue Forum does explicitly – helps broaden the view and deemphasize the antagonistic bilateral Venezuela-U.S. relationship.

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