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Common perceptions and public diplomacy: lessons from Venezuela

Wayne JumatWith the recent accession to power by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), through legislative elections, much has been said about Venezuela’s turn towards democracy and the overturn of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) control of the National Assembly, in the public and on social media. Therefore, it is crucial that democracy must be considered as a larger subset of governance systems, and the key desire of governance systems should be efficiency in service of its people regardless of political or ideological convictions. In other words, the debate should prioritise governance systems and their (in)efficiency in servicing the basic needs and dignity of their people instead of the common narrative of democracy versus the rest. This would allow for a more nuanced discussion that brings in issues of conflicting value-systems, misunderstanding of the application of law and rights and potentially forced cultural and systemic changes.

Another consideration is that the causes of failure of governments, in this case Venezuela, are too often caught in a dialectic discussion in the media and on public spheres. The tendency is then also to resort to very narrow discussions due to the dominant adoption of perspectives with a seeming unwillingness to nuance the discussion further. In this case, very rarely has the economic decline and political instability been discussed within the framework of western economic pressure (or counter-revolution) on Venezuela. Instead the common narrative has been to lay the blame solely on the inability of the PSUV to see to the needs of the Venezuelan population, as opposed to having critical and wholesome discussions that does not privilege the mainstream narratives. Understandably, the movement away from the ‘Left’ carries analytical value, however this analytical value is not supplemented in the mainstream narratives as Venezuela’s economic decline, the role of the Maduro administration and the legacy of Chavismo as a framework of development and critique are often neglected.

What these public debates indicate is the lack of information and use of research to properly inform public discussions, that could greatly sway political decision makers. Furthermore these debates also highlight the ability of the media to steer perspectives, in its desire to fulfil its survival within a capitalist system that has resulted in the dissemination of selected issues as they benefit the financial ambitions and status of the media outlet.

This implies the need for adopting a public diplomacy approach that will engage with the media on issues that it does not frequently cover, if at all, so as to inform the public about a wider variety of issues and depths. This is necessary as society’s understanding of and interaction with governance systems are particularly influential as these perspectives and influences, can and have been drivers of various foreign policies agendas and domestic considerations.

The need for increasing application of public diplomacy in foreign policy strategies applies as much to Venezuela as much as it does for South Africa. It is important that the public is engaged and informed as much as possible which will provide the South African government of the day with the opportunity to support and align their global engagement strategies with an informed public opinion and public consensus of various issues. These global engagement strategies, driven by institutions in South Africa such as Ubuntu Radio and the South African Council on International Relations (SACOIR) are not only examples of South Africa’s public diplomacy. These institutions possess the potential to integrate the linkage of the domestic factors and actors, within the realm of foreign policy decision-making as a State activity. This is then hoped to have the effect of informing the people and the non-governmental sector about the challenges that a State faces within the global system. In other words, the population of the select State are then able to understand certain processes and conditions that affect their lives and State institutions and efficiency.

Wayne J. Jumat is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with the University of South Africa. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD, Unisa.

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