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Lucas Koerner in Venezuela analyzes the current developments withTRNN’s Sharmini Peries and Greg Wilpert

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SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. President Maduro, in response, announced that he is cutting off diplomatic ties, and the embassy diplomats have 72 hours to leave the country. All this came shortly after Guaido, who is currently the president of the National Assembly, swore himself in as president.

[Spanish language clip]

SHARMINI PERIES: He swore himself in on the claim that Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate president, and that in the absence of a legitimate president and vice president the National Assembly president is next in line for the presidency. Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence here in the United States made an announcement to Venezuelans, urging them to rise up against President Maduro.

MIKE PENCE: On behalf of President Donald Trump and all the American people, let me express the unwavering support of the United States as you, the people of Venezuela, raise your voices in a call for freedom. Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. The United States joins with all freedom-loving nations in recognizing the National Assembly as the last vestige of democracy in your country, for it’s the only body elected by you, the people. As such, the United States supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaido, the president of your National Assembly, to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a usurper, and call for the establishment of a transitional government.

SHARMINI PERIES: Leading up to all of this, tens of thousands of Venezuelans had taken to the streets of Caracas on the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez. Now, this is something that happens annually, and both Chavistas and opposition and various Venezuelans come out on this particular day. But the timing of this so-called ‘self-swearing in’ happened to have taken place on the same day.

Now, supporters of President Maduro also took to the streets in a competing demonstration against the opposition. Now, what is happening in Venezuela right now is what we are going to discuss on this panel. And joining us to do that is, joining us from Caracas, is Lucas Koerner. He’s the editor of And in our studio we are now joined by Gregory Wilpert. He’s the managing editor here at The Real News Network, and he is also the author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. I thank you both for joining us.


LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas, let’s go to you first. What is happening on the ground there? I understand that President Maduro is currently speaking just from Miraflores, from a balcony. Some of us are listening to it, and we’ll try to bring you some of that footage later on. But give us a sense of what’s happening on the ground, and then perhaps describe what has unfolded in the last two days.

LUCAS KOERNER: Well, definitely the streets are very hot. I mean definitely you can hear gunshots and other signs of disturbance. There’s cars being burned currently in Merida. I think most people are returning from the various, the two marches that took place, to their homes for now. Evidently there’s definitely a sense of very high tension with, you know, we’ve seen two consecutive nights of violent protests, kind of the same kind of guarimba-style protests that we saw in 2017 with small groups of mostly young people destroying public and private property, and provoking confrontations with authorities, often in many of the more working class areas of the city. Though from people I know that in, for example, [inaudible] Maria barrio and from Propatria, at least, none of the people are from that area. They were coming in from outside, which is another thing that we saw in 2017, where these groups were being paid by the opposition. We don’t know if that’s the case this time, but there definitely is a, you know, heating up of the streets, both before what happened today, and now to see, perhaps, what happened–the swearing in can be made into a reality through an actual toppling of the government.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Lucas, We know that President Maduro is speaking at the moment. Do you have a sense of what he is saying? What we know so far about what he’s saying?

LUCAS KOERNER: We know that he has already broken off diplomatic relations with the United States after President Trump recognized Juan Guaido though as the interim president of the country. And soon it was followed suit by Canada, and most of the Lima group countries, and also Ecuador, which is somewhat of a surprise, among many others. So we don’t know, exactly. I’m not listening to the speech right now, so I couldn’t tell you what, exactly, measures that he’s going to take. But I imagine that it will be steps to bring Juan Guaido and the leadership of the National Assembly to account for this usurpation of power that has taken place.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg, let me go to you. Those of you who follow Venezuela on a regular basis and have your ear to the ground, as you do, of course we’ve been seeing some of the events that have led up to this, which were a serious indicators. In fact, Lucas sent around email just a few days ago saying, you know, what’s unfolding slowly here is certain indicators we need to be paying attention to. So what has happened in the last few days? And obviously you were not surprised by this move.

GREG WILPERT: It’s of course difficult to go back only just a couple of days, because things have been happening all along in Venezuela–as a matter of fact, ever since the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez. The U.S. government has been trying to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. But more recently–then, of course there was the attempted assassination against Maduro. I don’t know, maybe it was six months ago. I can’t quite remember now the exact date. And then in the most recent developments there were a number of different kinds–well, first of all, President Maduro, of course, has made announcements before that, that is, after the assassination attempt with the drone bombing. He made announcements warning that something will be happening soon. I mean, they clearly have intelligence within the opposition embedded to know that something was being planned. And he actually specifically highlighted Mike Pence and John Bolton as being two of the people who were spearheading this effort to undermine and overthrow of the government.

And then more recently, though, the more recent developments included the kind of, one could say, fake arrest of Juan Guaido. That is, it seemed like the military–sorry, not the military–the intelligence police arrested him briefly for a day. And turns out they there were sympathizers of his, and wanted to show their sympathy for him, and he was released immediately, Guaido. But it certainly sparked a lot of questions, too, and we covered that here on The Real News. It certainly sparked a lot of questions as to what is happening within the military and within the security forces of Venezuela, is it fragmenting.

And then yesterday, actually, there was also another uprising in Caracas of some military officials–that is, the National Guard–that tried to take over some weaponry. There’s speculation that that weaponry might have been intended to be used today. They didn’t succeed, and were arrested, 27 of them. But all of these were indicators that something was going to happen today. And so this was, you know, in that sense it was a coup that was announced well in advance. But today it seems like it’s all coming to a head.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, much of this depends on how the military reacts to what is unfolding at the moment. Lucas, any indication that the announcements by the military social media that’s taking place gives you any hint as to how the military will react? And the military is obviously somewhat divided in terms of its loyalty to the president, but are they going to hang in there? What is the sense on the ground?

LUCAS KOERNER: I haven’t seen any statements by the armed forces yet, but I think that–I mean, the armed forces has continually reiterated its support for Maduro and his constitutional mandate, and I don’t see that changing. I think that while Greg is right to point out that there definitely are divisions within the repressive apparatuses, and particularly the SEBIN, which itself was formerly the DISIP, and is largely staffed by right wing or opposition-sympathizing officials, there definitely is worry there. But I think within the at least the national police and most other branches of the armed forces, at least at the level the leadership, it feels that there is a loyalty to the constitutionally-elected president, and there is no sign of that breaking as of yet.

So the issue is while the Opposition is attempting to, of course, break all elements with reiterating promises, pledges that there will be an amnesty should the armed forces play a role in overthrowing Maduro, we’re yet to see–I think Monday’s incident with this small group of rogue National Guard troops are largely subordinate. None of them were ranking officers. They were kidnapping their captain, and then attempting to steal weapons. That definitely was rapidly neutralized, and I think that that is a sign–if that was an attempt to probe the readiness of the armed forces, I think it showed that they remain loyal to the government for now.

SHARMINI PERIES: For now. Greg, any indication that the military is divided, that there’s cracks in the military that might support Guaido here?

GREG WILPERT: Well, the thing is, one also has to look at it depending on the rank of the military. That is, I think there’s little doubt that the top ranking officers are solidly behind Maduro. They’ve been–they are loyal followers, have been from the beginning. And they’re very invested, of course, also in this government. So it seems unlikely to me that if there was a split within the military that it would come from the generals. What we don’t know, and where there’s certainly more possibility for a split, I think, is in the lower ranks. And this is, it’s kind of, also, what Chavez exploited back in 1992 when he organized his coup against the government at that time, which was of midlevel officers.

And that’s a more likely scenario, especially because, of course, everybody in Venezuela is suffering under the economic crisis, and certainly those kinds of military officers and midlevel officers would be suffering more than high ranking generals who have very good pay, or oftentimes also benefit from corruption. Whereas the midlevel ones, they don’t have much to lose. Unless, of course, it fails, in which case they might spend some time in prison, but of course with the hope that eventually the Opposition would come into office. And with Guaido saying that they would get amnesty, that is a big incentive for them. And so I think that’s one of the big dangers, is that they will break off at some point. That’s definitely a possibility. And that’s, of course, something that the U.S. government, I think, is really hoping for.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Lucas, discontent of the people, in terms of what they have been suffering for the last five years or so under the Maduro government, we should not ignore because it has come to a head here, that obviously the foreign policy establishment of the Trump government i taking advantage of. But they have also been fueling this. Your thoughts on how the Trump administration in particular–although, I must say, much of this started even before Trump came to power–where the Venezuelan economy has been strangled by various economic policy towards Venezuela. Can you highlight some of them, and the kinds of squeeze that the U.S. has been spearheading to strangle the Venezuelan economy?

LUCAS KOERNER: Yes. In August of 2017 the Trump administration imposed financial sanctions, not only on the Venezuelan state but on Pdvsa, that severely curtailed its ability to access the global credit market effectively to borrow, to import all kinds of indispensable inputs for production, particularly in the oil sector but also in a whole lot of other sectors. So this–and the Torino Capital economist Francisco Rodriguez, who is considered probably the number one authority on the Venezuelan economy as of now, he has shown in a paper he released late last year that compared with Colombia, the oil production in Venezuela took a nosedive right after the sanctions were implemented. And it has fallen to, I think I’ve seen it to like 1940s level. I mean, literally we’ve seen, I think, over–a loss of over a million barrels a day of production in the last [inaudible]. This is devastating for a country that depends on over 90 percent of–90 percent of its export earnings come from oil. This is really hindering the government’s ability to import vital food and medicine, but also is just, you know, making life–is making a hyperinflationary economic crisis way worse, and preventing any kind of recovery.

And you know this is so–I mean, this must be, this is the context we’re looking at. And this is, most Venezuelans, this is their number one issue right now. When we look at the Opposition-aligned conservative data analysis a pollster in October did an omnibus survey in which they found that around 86 percent of Venezuelans, their number one issue was either the economy or social issues, you know, with regard to medicine, or crime, et cetera. Only 12 percent really put the political issue of, you know, the government or corruption as the number one issue. So I think that, that’s the issue. That’s clear. The question is can the opposition in the short term translate that deep unrest–I mean, that deep discontent into unrest. Into active, you know, insurrectionary action in the streets that could be used to force the armed forces to act to oust Maduro. I mean, that’s really the question.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg, let me go to you. You said earlier that, you know, this is not new in Venezuela. Venezuelan people have experienced other coups. The coup against President Hugo Chavez was not very successful at the end of the day. In fact, it built the Bolivarian movement, made it even stronger. The support when he came back after that coup for him and his government was greater than before. Now at the same time, this time around, it seems like the United States, who is obviously supporting this effort on the part of Guaido, is a little bit better organized. They seem to be having certain support, at least from other countries in the region. As well as, I imagine, the Organization of American States, and other bodies. Put this in regional context for us.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, certainly. Well, first of all, I want to say that I don’t mean to minimize what’s happening. As a matter of fact I would say right now Venezuela is going through the most difficult and the most dangerous moment any time that I have known since 2002, when the coup attempt happened against President Chavez. I was there back then. And so I remember that very vividly, actually, and that was a very scary time. And I think right now we’re in a similar situation in many ways, although the coup hasn’t actually happened yet. It’s a much slower coup. The advantage that the Opposition has at this point, as you mention, is the international support it’s getting. Of course, back then it did have the support of Colombia and of the United States. This time many other countries are behind this as well that are supporting it in various ways. Already Chile and Argentina have said that they would recognize Guaido as the president of Venezuela. They’ve joined the United States in that call.

SHARMINI PERIES: And I understand Canada has, too, and other Lima group countries.

GREG WILPERT: And I think Almagro has–the Secretary General of the OAS has, as well. And so this is definitely vastly more solid and broad support internationally. Also what they have speaking for them, so to speak, is this broad-based discontent that we’ve talked about, and the economic crisis, the hyperinflation that’s going on in Venezuela. And of course, that people’s hope that a new government would, like Lucas says, it’s not something that people actually believe in, that a new government will be able to make–to do something much different, because the opposition is very unpopular in Venezuela, actually. Their approval ratings aren’t much higher than that of Maduro.

SHARMINI PERIES: And they’re divided. There’s no-

GREG WILPERT: Exactly, that going to be my next point, is that they’re internally very divided. That’s the other thing that they have going against them. There is the radical Opposition that wants to do an insurrection, basically. But there is a sector of the Opposition that actually would prefer a more, a slower transition to a new government, and is negotiating with Maduro and is rejecting these kinds of calls. As a matter of fact, several prominent opposition leaders have already said they don’t want to recognize Guaido as the president of Venezuela, because they don’t believe that this would be the right path, because this path that they’ve taken is too dangerous. It could lead to a military confrontation, to civil war. And that is something that everybody should be very aware of. And that’s why, of course, everybody in the United States, especially the Democratic Party that says it’s opposed to Trump’s foreign policy adventures, should be opposed to any kind of support for the Guaido government or any kind of military intervention.

SHARMINI PERIES: Describe that opposition you’re talking about, opposition within the Opposition, the opposition to Guaido.

GREG WILPERT: Well, there are many longtime politicians, several of them–for example, Accion Democratica. The guy, the leader of that is Henry Ramos Allup. He’s–I think he’s a nutcase, actually. But he’s actually one of the more rational opposition leaders at times, and he has offered to negotiate. He used to be the president of the National Assembly, even. And then there’s others, for example Claudio Fermin, who was the campaign manager for Henri Falcon, who ran against Maduro in–sorry, last year in 2018. And he’s a very significant leader. There’s others, too. Of course, none of them have huge amounts of support. None of the Opposition leaders do. But to compare–I would say if you were to weigh them in terms of their relative weights within the Opposition, it seems to me roughly 50/50.

However, the more moderate opposition, which is almost half of it in terms of leadership and in terms of popular support, gets no media coverage in the Western media. They’re completely non-existent at the moment. Whereas all the media coverage now goes to the radical Opposition, and they are the ones who are also getting the international support, especially from the U.S. government. Which is one of the reasons why that more moderate opposition has been completely undermined and completely disempowered, really, in terms of actually doing something. But I think that’s the only way forward, is through a negotiation between the government and the more moderate Opposition.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Lucas, let me go to you. What support does Guaido have for the move he has made in Venezuela? I mean, the people on the ground that are marching today, are they in support of this move on the part of the president of the National Assembly, Guaido? And is the Western media representing that accurately? Because what we see is the demonstrations that took place, and then that looks like support for Guaido. Is that, in fact, what’s happening on the ground?

LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I’ll go back to what Greg pointed out, that according to that data analysis poll I cited, the National Assembly had, as of October, a 70 percent disapproval rating. Which, you know, Maduro’s disapproval rating is around 80 percent. And the Opposition parties themselves, their coalition has a higher disapproval rating. And you know, Guaido was previously unknown, you know, just about–you know, two weeks–a little over two weeks ago, you know, no one knew who he was. And you know, he’s a young politician. He was educated in the neoliberal think tank EISA, which is the home of the Chicago boys.

So I think that, you know, to say that it–I think it’s very fallacious to extrapolate the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets today in different parts of the city in support of the Opposition, to say that they, that is necessarily an endorsement of Guaido as President of Venezuela, especially because it was not–it was not known that he was going to do this, take this step that he did. I think that, you know, as I mentioned before, there is tremendous dissatisfaction, particularly on the social and economic front. And that is really what has fueled this turn out for the opposition, though we should not ignore the fact that the government does maintain a hard floor of around 30 percent of the population, if not more, behind it. And that’s not a insignificant part of the population. And you know, as Greg said, there really could be an extremely–you know, there’s a potential for a violent confrontation if the opposition persists with this kind of short term effort to oust the government by force.

I don’t think that that’s going to happen, necessarily. I think they would like to, but I think we’re looking at a longer period of deeper and more punishing strangulation of the country through imposition of further sanctions, until basically the armed forces take action, or basically the government surrenders. So I think that that’s we’re looking at.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. So this is just unfolding today, and we’re going to be having another conversation a little bit later on with Alex Main from the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C., who also follows what’s going on in Venezuela quite closely, and also has a sense of what’s happening in terms of Washington’s response to all of this. What should be looking ahead for? What are some of the critical things that we need to be looking out for in the next few hours, and of course in the next few days?

LUCAS KOERNER: Well the big danger is, of course, that if Guaido to get support from the military, and he calls for support from the United States to help him in some way, and maybe even Colombia or Brazil, that there could be a very real military intervention. I mean, I’ve never–I mean, people in Venezuela have always asked me, you know, what chances do you think there is for a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela? I always said, no, I don’t think that’s possible, because it’s just way too dangerous of a military adventure. However, if there were military support, and a government that the U.S. says it recognizes calling for it, then that’s definitely a possibility.

Add to that, of course, the possibility also which has been contemplated that there will be an oil embargo against Venezuela, which I see now as being highly likely, that would further strangle strangle the Venezuelan economy. That would just–you know, things can definitely get worse. And so that’s, that’s the big concern, is a combination of an oil embargo, an uprising of military forces, and a possible military intervention that Guaido could potentially call for. That’s really some of the most dangerous things lying ahead, and hopefully it won’t come to that. And like I said before, hopefully the more reasonable forces in the U.S. government will prevent that from happening.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Lucas, let me say goodbye to you. I know you have a few other engagements at the moment, but we hope you can join us again. Perhaps we’ll take this up tomorrow in terms of the developments that will unfold between now and then. And Greg, I thank you so much for joining us. Gregory Wilpert is our Real News managing editor here, and Lucas Koerner with I thank you for joining us today.

LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Lucas Koerner is a journalist at Venezuelanalysis based in Caracas, Venezuela.