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Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an english-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York. Since returning to the U.S. he has been working as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.The narrow win by Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela has left the country still very tense. Has the opposition finally accepted the results, or are they still contending it? And what is the mood, given all the food shortages?Now just recently back from Venezuela is Gregory Wilpert, who now joins us from New York. Greg is the founder of the website Venezuelanalysis.com and author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government.Thanks for joining us again, Greg.GREGORY WILPERT, ADJ. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, BROOKLYN COLLEGE: Hi. Thanks for inviting me again.JAY: So, first of all, where are we at now with the debate about the election results? There's been a certain amount of--I don't know about recounting, but more of the election was audited, if I have it correctly. Explain where we're at with this. And then, where's the opposition with it?WILPERT: Well, basically, the opposition contested the results, didn't accept the results when they were announced the night of the election, and said that they were going to challenge them, both with the National Electoral Commission and then with the Supreme Court. With the National Electoral Commission they requested a in-depth audit of all of the ballot boxes. That is, normally 53 percent of the ballot boxes are counted manually to compare the results with the electronic vote count, and they're basically requesting that all of the ballot boxes be opened and counted and compared to the electronic result. That process was accepted by the electoral council, and they've almost completed that manual count now, and there's absolutely no discrepancy between that result and the official result that had been announced the night of April 14.JAY: So how is that different from what the opposition was asking for?WILPERT: So, however, the problem is that the opposition changed their position, actually, and said that, well, actually, we don't really think that the audit is so important of the paper ballots, but what's more important to them is the counting or the verification that is of the voter registry to make sure that nobody voted who is dead, according to the--who's deceased according to the official records, that in other words they wanted to make sure that the people who voted are actually real Venezuelans by checking the entire registry.The thing is, the registry is normally already audited before the election. So they wanted to check also the fingerprints that people leave when they sign their name next to the registry. The Electoral Council, however, said that that's impossible, that there's--you know, we're talking about millions of signatures that--sorry, fingerprints that would have to be checked. They just can't do that. So that was denied. And so the opposition as a result has continued to refuse to recognize the result. In the meantime, of course, the international community, except for the United States, has accepted the result, pretty much every country in South America and the Western Hemisphere. The United States is the only exception in terms of accepting the result. So it's giving the opposition a lot of cover and--to continue to contest the result.JAY: And what's the mood? And you just got back on Saturday. What is the mood there in terms of if they don't accept the result does that paralyze the political process? I saw a week or two ago there was, like, a fistfight in the National Assembly.WILPERT: Yes. For a long time after the election, there was a lot of tension, especially the day after the election, of course, which we talked about before, in which fires were started in various party--offices of--that is, the opposition supporters started fires in the offices of the governing party, and also in various clinics that have been set up by the government. In the meantime, though, things have calmed down. Then there are--fistfight broke out that you mentioned in the National Assembly, because the president of the National Assembly, who is a Maduro supporter, belongs to his party, refused to allow opposition members to speak if they did not recognize the elected president, Nicolas Maduro. And so, anyway, that caused a lot of tensions.JAY: Isn't that a little--I mean, how can he do that? Don't people have a right, if they're elected members of the National Assembly, to speak, whether they recognize the president or not? I mean, how can he just make up a rule like that?WILPERT: Yeah, that's true, and it's probably violating the rules. But on the other hand, his argument was, well, you don't recognize the president; you were elected by the same system, so how can we recognize you? So that was his logic, basically. [crosstalk]JAY: A little dubious, I would think.WILPERT: Anyway, they came to an agreement, though, that they--this, you know, lasted for a couple of days, and in the meantime everything's calmed down, and the opposition party and the governing party have come to an agreement and that everybody would be given the right to speak from now on. They haven't had a session yet, but it seems like everything will be back to normal, pretty much, in the National Assembly.JAY: And what's the mood in the streets? I mean, is the opposition still mounting protests and that? Or is the country ready to move on now?WILPERT: I think the country's pretty much ready to move on. The opposition, though, is--it hasn't really mounted significant protests or anything like that, but it's continuing its international campaign to try to get, for example, parliaments that are governed by conservative majorities to question the result and various other people that they have around the world who support the opposition to question the result. So it's really more turned to an international arena. They've also challenged it in the international court of--I'm sorry, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Organization of American States. I don't think any of these efforts will get very far. And so that's therefore--and it's not being really reflected in the mood in Venezuela itself.JAY: Is there any polling about what Venezuelans think of all this?WILPERT: Well, the only polls that I've seen recently have been more about what people think of Maduro's performance so far, since the election. And it's not doing too great. I mean, he's still got around 50 percent support, which is--you know, it's not bad, but it's not so great.JAY: That's considered a victory in the United States if you're president on most days.WILPERT: Right. The thing is, there's a lot of other issues that I think are much more important on ordinary Venezuelans' minds than the election. And that's really the issue that's--those are the issues that are causing Maduro problems, not the election.JAY: Well, right now there's an issue of food shortages. What is that all about?WILPERT: Yes, exactly. That's one of the major issues is that there are a number of different basic staples that are very difficult to find in Venezuela, or when you do find them, you have to stand in long lines to buy them. And even the Central Bank of Venezuela is saying that there is a shortage problem.And the other major problem is also economic, which is the inflation rate. There was a tremendous amount of inflation, actually, right after the devaluation of the currency, which I must--I have to say, it came a bit of a surprise to me, because the imports, you know, already have been adjusted to the parallel that is the unofficial exchange rate, so there really shouldn't have been a spike. However, what spiked also was the parallel exchange rate. So, anyway, so that's really--the combination of these problems of inflation and shortages are what are giving Maduro--are causing problems for Maduro right now.JAY: So what is--but what's the cause of this? This is--the opposition is saying this is an example of the mismanagement of the economy. They have all this oil revenue, and yet you still have food shortages. There's one story I saw where Venezuela had to go out and buy millions of rolls of toilet paper 'cause there wasn't enough on the market or the price had gotten too high.WILPERT: Yeah, there's two main causes, I think, for the shortages. One is that simply when it's affecting something that has a controlled--has a price control--and there are many basic items--food items are--have price controls--and the price for producing them has exceeded the regulated price, then of course producers don't want to produce that product. So that's one reason for the shortages.And the other reason is that it could affect or it has affected products that are imported regularly. However, to import them, some importers require or request dollars that are exchanged at the official exchange rate, which is controlled by the Central Bank, or by the government, and that hasn't been happening quickly enough. So, in other words, there haven't been enough dollars provided to importers in order to pay for imported products, and therefore not enough is being imported. So those are really the two main reasons for the shortages. And part of the reason for the shortage of dollars has to do with a change that was introduced, actually, just before the election. That is, they not only devalued the currency slightly, but also what happened is that they introduced a new exchange mechanism that didn't work out too well. And so now they're kind of scrambling to find a better method.JAY: And do they have one?WILPERT: It doesn't really look like it so far. Nothing new has been announced. The main project right now is to introduce--to exchange more dollars at the official exchange rate in order to cover the shortages. That's really the main announcement that was made actually just recently, just a couple of hours ago, actually, to decentralize the process of exchanging dollars so that more people can exchange dollars faster.JAY: And there was a sort of a verbal fight between Maduro and--Mendoso is his name?--the man that owns one of the biggest food producers in Venezuela. And then they had a meeting where they kind of made up. What was that about?WILPERT: Well, the thing is that one of the arguments of the government is also that many private producers of food products are hoarding and trying to--and are basically not selling the products that they do have because they don't like the regulated price. And so Mendoza, who's basically one of the richest people in Venezuela, and actually even in the world, contested this statement of the government that there's any hoarding going on. He's basically making the economic argument that they cannot produce more, given the price controls, and they need higher prices, really. And so, anyway, so the government head, that is, Maduro, and the vice president and ministers had an official meeting with Mendoza and his people to figure out where exactly the problems lie in the production process and in the process of supplying the market with all it needs. And they've come to several different agreements where supposedly the situation will improve, basically.JAY: So, so far, if you have to give Maduro a grade, how's he doing?WILPERT: Well, I would say it's rather mixed. On the one hand, the problem is the country is suffering from these economic problems of shortages and inflation. But on the other hand, Maduro has been very much--I think he learned from Chávez to be a very active president, to constantly respond to every issue, to have meetings with people in the communities throughout the country. So he's been holding up a very, very active schedule of meeting with people and televising his meetings with ordinary Venezuelans, and that, I think, has boosted his popularity to some extent, even though it's not--you know, it's moderated by these other problems that I mentioned. I think his popularity would probably be--have dropped quite a bit if he weren't keeping up this kind of public appearance schedule and talking to people about their problems. And so in that sense I would say it's a mixed result, really, in that.JAY: And where's the economic policy coming from now?WILPERT: Well, there was a change in the government, in the cabinet, and previously an old-time or longtime adviser of Chávez, Jorge Giordani, was really controlling a lot of the strings of the economy, and that has switched now. Maduro appointed somebody who's considered to be a little bit more moderate. The former president of the Central Bank has been named again minister of finance. And that was seen very positively, actually, by the private sector. And he's considered to be less ideological and more pragmatic than Giordani. And so there's likely to be a little bit more cooperation, I think, with the private sector due to this new appointment.JAY: So what does that mean? I mean, that sometimes sounds like code for Maduro does not want to push the sort of socialist reforms, or at least not as quickly as Chávez was.WILPERT: Well, I think the government is a little bit uncertain as to which way to go right now. It seems to me that they need some clarity in terms of how to fight the inflation and shortage problem. They keep waffling between one set of policies and the other without a real clear vision as to how to address this [incompr.] problem, which can be boiled down to the fact that Venezuela is an oil-producing country that receives most of its income in petrodollars, which then flood the Venezuelan market and raise prices generally. And they always have this dilemma in terms of--which is known as the Dutch disease, that either they let these dollars come into the country and inflate the prices or they keep the dollars out and therefore deprive the economy of badly needed resources. And so it's a constant problem that oil-producing countries, especially the kind that are similar to Venezuela, have. And Venezuela has so far always erred on the side of, you know, using those petrodollars, which has been the main fuel for inflation, really. But they don't know how to get this under control, I think, and the situation. And I think what they really need is to get some clarity on it.JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Greg.WILPERT: My pleasure.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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