What did the Venezuelan establishment do wrong in order to enable first Hugo Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro to come to power?
Complacency has to form part of the conversation when you’re talking about what happened in Venezuela but there is also a new and unprecedented phenomenon here – a militarism which gradually became embedded combined with new and very furtive forms of intervention.
Hugo Chávez was a charlatan and a snake-charmer who received two blank cheques – popularity with unrestricted support and the international oil market. The country then faced a leader with huge charisma, a great connection with the people and all the money in the world to spend without restrictions or accountability or regulations of any kind. And that he did – effectively enough for his own interests but leaving Venezuela on the path leading to the global tragedy which my country is today.
In 1993 you wrote Paper Tigers and Minotaurs, in which you explained your vision. Almost three decades have gone by since then. Did anything change in the lead-up to Maduro?
That book was almost an autopsy on the Carlos Andrés Pérez government. There was a coup bid to overthrow him and then a civilian coup which removed him from power. Pérez anticipated that this could happen and also the consequences which would follow.
My title has to do with the fact that when governments attempt very important structural reforms which alter deep-seated beliefs and threads of life in society, all kinds of resistance and rejection appear. The paper tigers are the trade unions, the private sector and civil society. And the minotaurs, to whom nobody in the government paid attention, were the military.
Leftists, rightists, politicians, intellectuals, journalists, businessmen and journalists, all assumed that in Venezuela the military would keep to their barracks because they were not political protagonists, because Venezuela had already had its experience of military regimes and had an entrenched democracy, one of the longest-running in Latin America. [It was] Very careless not to understand that there was a faction with Hugo Chávez, one of the leaders organising it and working to overthrow a democratically elected government. It was a big mistake not to see that, not to understand that the hidden minotaurs were the military.
In Argentina and Brazil there’s a new verb: “venezualizar,” to turn into Venezuela. What were the characteristics of democratic decay in your country which permitted it to turn into Venezuela, so to speak?
Oil, Cuba and Chávez. You cannot talk about Venezuela without talking about oil and its consequences for society, without talking about that charismatic charlatán Hugo Chávez and about Venezuela being occupied by Cuba, in large measure thanks to Hugo Chávez.
There was a very profound human bond between Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, of which the latter took advantage to loot Venezuela. In Venezuela there is no petrol because no oil is produced and because the refineries have been destroyed. What little is produced often goes to Cuba instead of satisfying local demand. You couldn’t find more evidence of a country occupied and looted by a foreign power.
When people say “like Venezuela,” they are alluding to a man-made catastrophe which did more damage than a war or a major natural disaster because neither of those tragedies can make a country much poorer. Venezuela and Argentina are two examples of prosperous countries transformed into misery.
Argentina is sometimes described as a “little Venezuela.” What points of comparison do you find between the Venezuelan and Argentine processes?
The hostility to politicians is very important as is the proliferation of charlatans, as well as the readiness to undermine democracy furtively. Limit, restrict, dilute and soften the checks and balances which democracy must have. Weaken, control and influence the media, buy votes and opinions in the Parliament and the courts. The foundations of democracy are undermined and corroded.
In Argentina an incipient emigration of youth and businesses can be observed. That was a mechanism used first by Cuba and then by Venezuela to export dissidents. Might that be another parallelism?
In many Latin American countries it is the middle class which is emigrating. They are professionals who want to progress in a country which allows them to because in their own country there is no social mobility. In Venezuela’s case five million people simply left, most of them walking with almost nothing – just a suitcase or a knapsack. People of all ages, pregnant women, invalids. They walked and walked until they reached Brazil or Colombia and from there to Ecuador and other countries. Very poor people with nothing who had to escape the hunger, death, violence and lack of public health and access to medicine.
Venezuela’s emigration is a human tragedy, a little-known situation poorly understood. Those are two different phenomena – the emigrants who seek their future in another country and those who emigrate from Venezuela. The former are driven by hopes of a better life while the latter by despair and fear, seeking protection and refuge in other countries. Instead of forming part of the solution, the state is the cause of death, hunger and pestilence.
How has the pandemic changed the situation of the Venezuelan resistance? They give a sensation of losing impetus.
I wouldn’t necessarily say impetus, what the pandemic has crushed is the hope of any higher expectations, which in turn leads to high frustration. There was the illusion that Juan Guaidó, elected legitimately as the interim president of Venezuela, would be able to engineer the exit of the régime of the usurper and dictator Nicolás Maduro. But he didn’t, it was extremely difficult and besides he could not do it alone. It’s a huge lie to say that Venezuela’s problems should be solved by Venezuelans. That’s a fallacy. The Venezuelan opposition out in the streets, unarmed and disorganised, are being suppressed, tortured, imprisoned and exiled by the dictatorship. They cannot make it alone against that. They need help of many kinds.
That was the appeal of Russian dissidents in the times of Nikita Krushchev or Leonid Brezhnev because they could never have toppled the Soviet Union régime. There is no equivalence. It’s not easy to take out an entrenched régime with a criminal dimension and important international support from foreign superpowers like, for example Russia, China and Cuba and with links with Iran and Turkey, among others.
Could United Nations reports have any influence?
They are rhetorical but rhetoric has its consequences. Firstly, let’s explain what we are talking about – there’s a very carefully drafted and very objective report under the direction of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who has no track record of any sympathies for or affinities with the Venezuelan opposition, whom she refused to receive when Chile’s president. Nevertheless, the report which she promoted so worthily and signed is a very definitive, severe and documented accusation of the atrocities committed by the murderous President Nicolás Maduro and his henchmen.
Let’s see what happens. I hope there’s a pronouncement from Pope Francis regarding the definitive documentation of the tortures and crimes against humanity being committed in Venezuela. We all want to know what the Church thinks of this report and how it’s going to react.
What’s your forecast as to Venezuela’s political future ahead of some very controversial elections?
In no country in the world would elections be accepted on Maduro’s conditions. At this time the opposition parties have been taken over and sabotaged with their main leaders imprisoned, disqualified, exiled or dead. The Armed Forces torture and repress the population with complete impunity. The media are completely dominated by the régime. There is no way an opposition leader or news items critical of the dictatorship can reach people. No country in the world would hold elections under these conditions.
Whether or not you should take part in elections is beyond debate, you should participate any time you can. But there must be conditions which permit a minimum of transparency and the possibility for free elections. That’s the first thing. The second is that Venezuela must cease to be a dictatorship. When that happens, maybe there will come a transitional government followed by free elections to pick a group of people or a president, leaders with a democratic temperament, so that with major international aid, Venezuela can be relaunched.
That is one of the most exciting, interesting and attractive projects in the world – the reconstruction of Venezuela, rethinking, redefining, remaking and relaunching an entire nation. That’s a marvellous project which all Venezuelans can join, both inside and outside the country, awaiting democratic leaders to take it in hand and move it forward.
What would be your message to Argentine society with respect to developing antibodies to avoid becoming Venezuela?
Two. One is to seek unity by finding consensus and convergence, not just between the political parties but in all society. And secondly, everybody should fight with all their might against political necrophilia, a term I’ve coined to refer to the propensity of certain governments and political regimes to produce and propose ideas which have been proven failures again and again but always come back into fashion. Argentina is a world champion in political necrophilia. As we know, necrophilia is a perversion of sick human beings with a love of corpses. There’s a political version of necrophilia which is a passionate love of dead ideas, ideas which end up in corruption and death, in looting, a loss of prosperity and hope. There is a need for inoculation against political necrophilia and not to fall for so many charlatans.
We live in a golden age for charlatans, demagogues and fraudsters, those who make promises they know they are not going to keep or which they know to be malignant. Countries have to create antibodies to detect charlatans, not recognising nor supporting political necrophilia and ideas which have only failed time and time again. And for that you need unity.