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On June 21, 2016, the World Affairs Council – Washington, DC hosted Ambassador Patrick Duddy, Dr. Michael McCarthy, and Eric Farnsworth for a Foreign Policy Panel Series: “Of Referendums and Recalls: Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela”. Patrick Duddy served as the Ambassador to the Bolivar Republic of Venezuela from 2007 to 2010 and is one of the State Department’smost senior Latin American Specialists. Dr. Michael McCarthy wrote his dissertation on Venezuela, supported by Fulbright and Inter-American Foundation scholarships and is currently a Research Fellow at American University. Eric Farnsworth moderated the discussion held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. He is currently serving as Vice President of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, DC.

WAC-DC President and CEO Tony Culley-Foster provided introductory remarks regarding Venezuela’s history. Venezuela emerged from the collapse of Bolivar’s Columbia in 1830 and has been a democracy since 1958. It has a population of thirty million people and is approximately two times the size of California. Hugo Chavez became the founder of the socialist party in 2007 and increased authoritarian control. His presidency strained relations with the US, and shortly thereafter, he ousted Ambassador Duddy in 2008, although both the US and Venezuelan Embassies have remained open in the absence of Ambassadors. In 2015, Obama imposed sanctions against people responsible for breeches in human rights; and US Secretary of State John Kerry recently made a speech at the Organization of American States to support a Recall and Referendum to end seventeen years of socialist rule and release of political prisoners. Chavez also increased the country’s dependency on oil. As a result, the price of oil has plummeted and so too have exports and imports of basic goods. The government has instituted rolling blackouts to help conserve energy including instituting a two-day work week to save energy.

To provide further context, Farnsworth called Venezuela “a country on the ropes” and claimed he only saw a dire and worsening internal situation. Ambassador Duddy supported that, noting there are two crises in Venezuela: political and humanitarian. The political crisis revolves around countries, like the US, respecting the Venezuelan constitution while calling for Recall and Referendum. The humanitarian crisis affects the every-day citizen with shortages in medication, basic needs and electricity.  He asserted that the economic difficulties in Venezuela are more severe than the same trends in Latin America because Chavez’s economic model, that has been sustained by Maduro. The country is suffering extraordinary inflation with 180% last year, causing the currency to collapse and as a result exports have stopped flowing into the country.

Dr. McCarthy explained that Bolivarian model is high risk and dependent upon high petroleum production. Thus, the drop in oil production has caused the economy to follow its downward turn. In addition, the panelists spoke about the last of farming in the country, because the Venezuelan government focused its resources on petroleum, instead of agriculture. The Maduro government has dropped in popularity as humanitarian issues are on the rise, which is likely a direct result from the oil crisis and which drives everyday life for most of the country’s population. The authoritarian government and the Chavismo model of economics have gone unchecked since the beginning of Chavez’s rule. The Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon’s presence in Caracas could make legitimate inroads to better diplomatic relations, a sign that the anti-Americanism in the Venezuelan administration may be coming to an end. OAS Secretary General deserves credit as a “watchdog for democracy,” said Mr. McCarthy.

Ambassador Duddy claimed that Recall and Referendum is an indication that the US government wants to make sure to focus on what can be done between and among the Venezuelan government and people. The US is still Venezuela’s largest trading partner, thus committed to helping Venezuela, especially with the humanitarian crisis.

The audience was comprised of WAC-DC members, correspondents of the press, representatives of diplomatic delegations, and members of the general public. The event was recorded for broadcast on our television program World Affairs TODAY.