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Venezuelan Sociologist Edgardo Lander and TRNN’s Greg Wilpert discuss how Venezuela got into its current international, economic, and political crisis and what it might take to get out of it

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

The attempted coup in Venezuela by Juan Guaido, the current president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, hit a pause for the moment when Defense Minister Padrino Lopez came out and stated that the military is unconditionally behind President Nicolas Maduro’s presidency. Let’s listen.

PADRINO LOPEZ: I warn the people of Venezuela of this very dangerous claim. It’s dangerous for our integrity and our social peace. I warn the people of Venezuela that a coup d’etat is coming against our institutions, against our democracy, against our Constitution, and against President Nicolas Maduro, the legitimate president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

SHARMINI PERIES: To talk about the unfolding crisis in Venezuela we have two guests. From Caracas we have Edgardo Lander, who’s joining us by telephone. He’s a professor of Social Sciences at the Central University of Venezuela. And we are here joined by Gregory Wilpert. He’s the managing editor here at The Real News Network, and the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me here.

All right, Edgardo, I’m going to go to you first. Now, Edgardo, here, right here on The Real News Network, in the past you’ve been critical of Chavismo for not having fully completed its revolution, and the way it had planned and articulated by Chavez and other members of the Chavismo movement. But at this moment, given the crisis we are folding–and it’s becoming very clear that it is being orchestrated by the United States–how are you receiving this attempted coup by Juan Guaido?

EDGARDO LANDER: It’s an extremely difficult situation, because on the one hand we have a government that’s becoming and has been becoming more and more authoritarian, incredibly corrupt, and inefficient, that has led to incredible economic and social crisis. So for most Venezuelans, life today is more difficult even than it was before the beginning of the Chavez period, almost 20 years ago.

So there’s an incredible amount of discontent among the population, and there’s still a solid core of backers for Maduro in the populist sectors. That’s certainly a minority. And during this the assembled to have massive rallies against the government. The presence of populist sectors and so-called cacerolazos, which is the banging of pots and pans to manifest opposition to the government, have been concentrated basically in the populist sectors of the population. So that’s one thing.

On the other hand, it’s the fact that this coup is something that has been orchestrated in every detail by theU.S. government. This has been a process in which the government has been talking and backing politically and financially the more radical right-wing sectors of the Venezuelan opposition. They have orchestrated the statement by the [Rio] Group in which they decided not to recognize Maduro after the elections that were held on May 20, but that’s another issue. But basically, it’s an attempt to orchestrate a displacement of Maduro by any means possible.

Guaido has proclaimed himself as president. There’s nothing in the Constitution that allows him to do that. Hence, Vice President Pence of the United States has called on the Venezuelan population to go out in the streets against Maduro on the 23rd, which is the anniversary–an important anniversary in Venezuela–after the last military dictatorship. In that rally, Guaido proclaimed himself as president. And literally a few minutes after that the official statement by the Trump government came out, backing Guaido. Which shows that this wasn’t something that some conspiracy theory was arguing, in terms of the connections, but it’s very clear that this was coordinated in much detail.

So for people in the left in Venezuela today, we are faced in an extremely difficult situation. On one hand, we reject the Maduro government because of all the things I’ve said. It’s becoming more and more authoritarian, and all the political, electoral, constitutional ways of approaching the crisis are being denied by the government. But on the other hand, this is a direct imperial intervention in Venezuelan affairs. And obviously there are geopolitical interests. There is an interest to get back control of a country where Chinese and Russian investments have been growing over the last few years. That Latin America had become a continent in this geopolitical struggle, and the United States, with this wave to the right in Brazil, in Argentina, et cetera, has been sort of getting back its control over its backyard. And Venezuela was like the last important block to advance this agenda of getting back absolute control, and pushing back this type of leftist government, and the presence of China, Russia, et cetera.

So the threat right now, if there’s confrontation between these two blocks, on one hand, the fact that the Maduro government, although it doesn’t have popular support, and it’s in a minority in terms of electoral votes or whatever within Venezuela, it does have the solid support so far of the armed forces. And that obviously makes a difference. On the other hand, we have this right-wing opposition that’s sort of coming out as the head of this massive, massive, massive popular discontent. This was shown in the rallies that were heard across the country January 23. We had the biggest rallies in a very long time, not only in Caracas but across the country. But this is backed, financed, by the United States, and there’s all sorts of threats, including the threat of military intervention.

So there’s a need to find some alternative way of negotiation that sort of brings down this level of intensity of the confrontation, because there is a severe risk of a civil war.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Greg, let me give you an opportunity to address the discontent of the people that Edgardo is talking about, because this is critical and pivotal to the survival of this government, or the next government. The reason that Venezuela is in this economic crises for the extended period of time now, almost six years, where people have been–their livelihood and their conditions have been deteriorating. And many people looking at Venezuela say that this is because of the sanctions by the United States. This is because of the oil prices took a nose dive, but they have come back up. And yet the government, and people like Edgardo in Venezuela, and many others, blame the government for mismanaging the resources that it does have internally. So what does that tell us?

GREG WILPERT: Well, I think it’s very complicated. I mean, first of all, I think the real–the beginnings of the economic crisis, and I think that most of the discontent can probably be traced to that economic crisis, began actually with Chavez’s death. And it was seen as an opportunity, I think, by people who have money as an opportunity to destabilize the government, and also have an opportunity to have an effect, basically, on the black market exchange rate. And so that opened a huge gap and and created lots of opportunity for corruption, and also lots of price distortions. Venezuela imports most of the things that it consumes. And so the prices for imports went up, because they’re using back market exchange rates. And so inflation started going up.

And that’s really the heart of it, the incredible rise of inflation. Now, at the same time, if the price of oil goes down it makes it more difficult also for Venezuela to import badly-needed consumer items such as medicines and foods, and that contributes further to inflation. So eventually you had hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is basically a vicious cycle where inflation leads to more inflation, because nobody wants to hold onto the local currency, because it’s losing value so quickly. So every time it loses more value, they want to get rid of it even faster than before.

And so then the hyperinflation–and we have to be honest about this. I think people who support the government are people who view the U.S. actions critically–have to be clear that the hyperinflation began before the main sanctions really hit, which were in off in August of 2017 when President Trump introduced financial sanctions on Venezuela that hit Venezuela very hard, and made a bad situation far worse. And so that’s, that’s–so in other words, the hyperinflation was an opportunity for the U.S. government to act. And this, of course, further contributes to discontent.

But I think we also need to be clear on another point. According to at least some recent polls I saw from Data Analysis which is an opposition-sympathizing opinion polling firm in Venezuela, true, Maduro has support of more or less 20 percent of the population. But actually, if you look at the support for the opposition, it’s more or less in the same range. Maybe slightly higher, but not much; 20-25 percent. Not much higher. It’s extremely unpopular. And so it’s not like Guaido is going to win any kind of popularity contest in the coming weeks. He’s hoping for basically being placed in power by the military, and not through an election.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Edgardo, this morning President Maduro addressed or held a press conference where the international press was able to ask him some questions. And during that press conference he clearly pointed to the United States as being behind this coup. Clearly he knows that the U.S. has orchestrated this, particularly given that this is not new to Venezuela. There’s been various attempted coups backed by the United States. So tell me how the people in Venezuela is receiving this, this kind of external interference with the politics, and possibly a legislative coup against the elected president of Venezuela, although the opposition didn’t participate in the last election; at least, a lot of them didn’t.

EDGARDO LANDER: Obviously for many people in Venezuela the threat of U.S. intervention, which is a not a threat but a reality, is something that’s very dear to our hearts. But you also have to take into account the fact that people in Venezuela, all over the country, are so desperate to get rid of Maduro. Because by now people blame Maduro for everything that’s going wrong with the country; that just the possibility of getting rid of Maduro becomes like the main objective, and everything else is sort of secondary. I mean, we’ll see afterwards.

So we’ve had, as I said before, the most massive anti-Maduro rallies in the country in a lot of–for many years. And these were massive rallies which were not in favor of the opposition. These weren’t rallies that were calling for Guaido to proclaim himself president. People didn’t know he was going to do that. There were rallies against Maduro and rallies that were demanding that Maduro resign. These were the things that were repeated over and over and over. So it’s not a problem of how many people would support at this moment an opposition candidate or Maduro in an election. It’s a problem of a country in which the great majority of the population wants Maduro to leave. So there has to be some negotiation for some concessions, or there can be elections that would allow for a constitutional electoral, and more important, pacific solution.

There is a threat that we are approaching a point of no return in terms of violence. Just in these three, four days, there’s been about 28 people that have been killed in these rallies, especially in the popular sectors of the cities, mainly Caracas. This is this escalation of violence that could lead, as I said before, to Civil War. So there’s a responsibility on both sides. The government is becoming more and more repressive, and it’s rejected by the majority of the population. But on the other hand, we have this right wing that thinks that the solution for the country’s problems will come through U.S. intervention; that is, via sanctions, economic sanctions, or via even a military intervention, if necessary.

So the most important thing in Venezuela from a leftist perspective is not only to confront the imperial intervention represented by the United States and the Lima Group, but also to confront the government and find solutions that allow for the expression of the popular will of the Venezuelan population. I am part of the Citizen’s Platform In Defense of the Constitution. We are arguing for the need for a binding referendum to ask the Venezuelan people what they want; to ask the Venezuelan people if they want to have overall general elections to review all the elected officials in the country as a political way out of this deadlock. We think that this is extremely important because this would be a way to avoid this increasing escalation of violence.

SHARMINI PERIES: Edgardo, I have to ask you if that’s a recommendation coming forward, a referendum to renew, I guess, have a new kind of leadership in Venezuela. Does that mean none of this current leadership could stand for such an election if the referendum–if the people agrees?

EDGARDO LANDER: No. I mean, the referendum has been called for. It’s a referendum to ask people if they want new general elections. After that there will be new elections. And these elections, of course, will require a renewal of the electoral council, because it’s completely controlled by the Maduro government. But there’s no attempt to limit who can participate. Anybody could participate in these new elections, but we need elections that reflect the state of the country today. There has been such a level of control over the electoral council by the Maduro government that all the elections in the last three years have been untrustworthy elections. We have come from a situation where President Carter used to say that the electoral system in Venezuela was the best, most trustworthy in the world, to a situation where elections are not trustworthy at all, and they are absolutely hijacked by the government.

So we need a new electoral council. But we need trustworthy elections, because it’s the only way in which we can avoid the solution of the current crisis in a violent way.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let me get Gregory Wilpert to respond to what Edgardo is proposing here.

GREG WILPERT: Well, I think some kind of a negotiated solution is certainly the solution. And that could involve a direction towards new elections of some sort, or a referendum. I think that’s a great initiative, in that sense. And the more people can actually talk about this and move something forward, I think, is very important.

I mean, I disagree a little bit on the point about to the fairness of the elections or the transparency of the elections. I mean, except for the National Assembly–I’m sory, the Constituent Assembly, the Constitutional Assembly elections, which were difficult to oversee because the opposition completely refused to participate in them. All other elections, it seems to me there have been relative–there have been a couple of cases of fraud, but very little. And usually it’s been discovered as to what happened. So to me that doesn’t seem like the main issue. I mean, the actual process itself hasn’t really changed that much, as far as I know. I mean, and I’ve been looking at it pretty carefully.

But I think the more important issue is who participates. That’s really the key. You cannot have the opposition or other people boycotting the election. I mean, of course they’re allowed to, but I mean, that’s–ideally that shouldn’t happen. Or that the government tries to jail key key opposition leaders. Now, in some cases they might have actually been involved in terrorist activity, which I think has been the case, as in the case of, perhaps, Leopold Lopez. But there’s lots of other people where the accusations perhaps might be more questionable. So that’s, to me, the much bigger issue is who could actually participate. But the actual process itself I still think is key.

But the fact is, of course–and I think this is perhaps partly what Edgardo’s referring to–is according to the opinion polls, the electoral council has lost a lot of prestige and a lot of recognition, and that you cannot have. I mean, I think there’s been a lot of propaganda about the electoral process, and that’s why they’ve lost a lot of their prestige and their trustworthiness in the public. And that, of course, doesn’t help, either. You need to–people have to be able to, even if they don’t know the details of how the votes are being are being counted and everything, they have to be able to trust that their vote is going to count. And if they don’t trust that, they’re not going to vote. And so of course–and so renewing the electoral council could be part of that process, of course, in order to regain that trust, which is absolutely essential, I think, for any democratic process.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Edgardo, let me give you an opportunity to respond to what Greg just said in terms of the legitimacy of the previous elections that you discredit, and then, of course, in terms of what else Greg said in light of the fact that moving forward–you know, obviously we need some way of moving forward, and the electoral process seems to be the most reasonable and rational one.

EDGARDO LANDER: Let me say a few things about that. I mean, I disagree with part of what Greg said. I think the last open, free, transparent, really trustworthy elections that were held in Venezuela were held in 2015. And the government lost those elections. And after they lost the elections, they decided that they had to–they had a really difficult choice to make. Either they respected the results of the election and recognized the National Assembly, which was dominated by the opposition, or they decided to remain in power no matter what. And that’s what they did. They decided to not recognize the results of those elections. They decided to say that there was a fraud in one of the states. That meant that, you know, representatives who are not recognized, so that opposition no longer had a two-thirds majority. This happened three years ago, and there has been no investigation whatsoever in relation to this supposed fraud. And there have been no new elections, and the state has had no representation for over three years.

When Maduro was elected, was reelected in the elections of May last year, It’s not just that the opposition decided not to vote, not to participate. It’s a fact that almost every main political party of the opposition could not participate, because Maduro asked the so-called National Constitutional Assembly to approve a so-called constitutional law in which the parties that had not participated in the previous election were no longer recognized as political parties, and could not participate in new elections. So when these elections were called, most of the opposition parties were not recognized as parties. And to be recognized as parties they had to go through a whole process of collecting signatures; a whole process for which they simply did not have time before the election.

So I disagree absolutely with the fact that the opposition did not participate because there was a chance of expressing discontent, and it really didn’t matter what the candidate was. But it is the fact that these weren’t fair elections, because the majority of the opposition parties were not allowed to participate. And this is a critical issue in any election. If you have a situation where the government or the electoral council calls elections, and at the same time decides who can participate and who can’t, who can be a candidate and who can’t, those can’t be in any way called free elections.

So this is a critical issue, a very critical issue. And that’s what has led the Maduro government to become so delegitimized in Venezuela, and for the electoral council, which was highly, highly trustworthy, to be absolutely untrustworthy nowadays in Venezuela. And this is something to happen after 2015.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Do you want to respond to that, or do you want to move forward?

GREG WILPERT: Just a minor point. It’s not a minor point, I guess. But I mean, I agree that that’s–it certainly was a problem, but they could have still participated, just under the banner of one of the existing parties. I mean, since people vote mainly for a candidate, not for a party–when electing a president they vote for both, the party and a candidate. But the candidate is the one who actually ends up winning, not the party, at least in the presidential elections. It’s different from the National Assembly. So in that sense it’s true. I think that that was a serious problem, the renovation of the political parties. But they could have still participated and they still could have defeated Maduro in that election.

But I mean, I think in a way there’s also the issue–I mean, like I said, I actually agree that the electoral council ought to be renovated, but for slightly different reasons than what Edgardo says. I wouldn’t believe belabor that point, necessarily, except to point out, of course, that the direction of the current opposition right now isn’t going to lead to that, as far as we can tell.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Edgardo, in order for what you are proposing here, for a referendum for another electoral process to take place, there really needs to be some sort of a mediating body, because the opposition and the government has now for years demonstrated that they don’t see eye to eye. It’s not possible for them to come to the table to negotiate almost anything. No progress has been made in terms of attempts that they have had in order to resolve the current situation. So in your eyes, who would lead this process?

EDGARDO LANDER: In terms of short-term possibilities, the best possible solution would be popular pressure around the streets that would lead to forcing this to confront the groups to agree at least on the referendum, if nothing else. If that’s not possible, in the Venezuelan situation we have a situation, we have, it’s [contemplated], that if you collect 10 percent of the total voting registered, you have to have a referendum. So that’s an alternative that’s been discussed by different groups on the left today; not only the left, but sort of what can be a call, in sort of more open, general terms of the democratic opposition. Not the right-wing coup-type opposition, but sort of a more left and center democratic whatever. I mean, this is something that’s been discussed and debated, and there’s all sorts of meetings going on. But the idea is to call–to create a platform calling for a national referendum, and to collect signatures, which would oblige the government to carry out this referendum. This is obviously an uphill battle. It’s not easy. People are so desperate in their day-to-day life that a referendum and then elections sounds too remote. People would like a response tomorrow. But that seems hardly possible, unless it’s by a coup, or U.S. intervention, or the sort of things which would present themselves as immediate solutions, but obviously would lead to very, very serious, violent situations.

SHARMINI PERIES: OK. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, and some of what you’re proposing here, Edgardo, comes to life. Tomorrow the United Nations is convening a Security Council meeting to address the situation in Venezuela. Perhaps these are the kinds of proposals that they would take into consideration. At least, if we had our way we would put that on the agenda. Edgardo Lander from Caracas.

EDGARDO LANDER: [Inaudible] again. The presidents of Mexico and Uruguay proposed that they become mediators for some sort of negotiation, and Maduro has said that he’s willing to accept that. So that’s sort of another venue that could be seen, if possible.

SHARMINI PERIES: Excellent. All right, thank you for that intervention. Greg, thank you for joining us, and Edgardo, thank you for joining us. We’ll be in touch and have you on again very soon. Thank you, Edgardo.

EDGARDO LANDER: OK, Sharmini. Glad to be with you. Bye-bye.

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

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Edgardo Lander is a professor of social sciences at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, and he is a member of CLACSO and the Hemispheric Council of the Social Forum of the Americas. His books include Modernidad y Universalismo (1991) and Neoliberalismo, sociedad civil y democracia (1995), and his academic writing has been published frequently in scholarly journals.