Latin American studies professor Miguel Tinker Salas and journalist Ewan Robertson discuss the presidency of Hugo Chavez
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Wednesday, March 5, is the death anniversary of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. As the founder of the United Socialist Party, Chávez’s legacy has now continued on with Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro. But with thousands still protesting in the streets of Caracas, it begs to ask the question, what kind of country did Cházez leave behind? And ultimately what is his legacy?
Now joining us by phone from Venezuela are our two guests.
Miguel Tinker Salas is a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College. His forthcoming book is titled Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Also joining us by phone is Ewan Robertson. He is a staff writer with the news website Venezuelanalysis.com. He has written in-depth on labor issues, health policy, and foreign policy in Venezuela.
Thank you both for joining us.
EWAN ROBERTSON, STAFF WRITER, VENEZUELANALYSIS.COM: Thank you.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS, AUTHOR, VENEZUELA: WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So I’m going to start off with you, Miguel. Chávez is certainly known for providing medical clinics, new schools, subsidized housing for poor and working-class barrios. Can you just speak to the key components of Chávez’s legacy in your opinion?
TINKER SALAS: Well, I think there’s two fundamental areas to consider in looking at Chávez’s legacy. The first is to look at where Venezuela was before Chávez in 1998, and not just Chávez, but the social movements, the state of the country. And the country was on the edge of a precipice. You had a country that exported oil but had 60 percent poverty, a country where inflation had reached 102 percent in the years before 1998, a country where, again, inequality was rising dramatically, where conditions for working-class and people in the informal sector and the various groups that were marginalized were under very stressful conditions, and a country in which the social fabric was tearing at a tremendous pace.
The government–the election of Chávez brought to the forefront a different leader, but also brought to the forefront the very social movement that had for years been struggling to try to change Venezuela. So it created a new space and a new sense of possibility, a new sense of changing the country, a new sense of actually sharing part of a national discourse that had largely written those sectors out of Venezuelan society and history.
But, likewise, the Chávez period and the legacy should be judged in terms of the transformation of Latin America as a whole, because Chávez is the first of a series of progressive, social democratic, and left presidents that’s elected in the region, and it transforms dramatically the region, its relationship with each other, its relationship with the world, because shortly after Venezuela, you have the election of Lula in Brazil, the election of Morales in Bolivia, the election of Correa in Ecuador, the Kirchners in Argentina, the various groups in Uruguay and other countries. So it transforms Latin America as well and gives voice and agency to a region that was invisiblized and largely seen as the U.S.’s back patio.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk specifically about that relationship with the world, ’cause we know Chávez was a big proponent of region integration. There were different institutions, like TeleSUR and ALBA that were created.
Ewan, I want to get your perspective. What’s the current status of institutions like the one I just mentioned? And do you believe they will live on?
ROBERTSON: Well, yes, I think several of the institutions created during the Chávez years in Latin America, institutions in which Hugo Chávez was a key player in creating, will continue, and particularly the UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, which has eight member states, including Brazil and Argentina, and, of course, possibly the combination of Chávez’s regional integration project CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which was founded in Caracas in December 2011 and has 53 member nations and includes all nations within the Americas with the exception of the U.S. and Canada. And I think those institutions will definitely continue, whatever the course of Venezuelan politics.
The ALBA is possibly more dependent on Venezuela having a left-leaning government, because of its nature as an alternative, leftist project of integration for the Americas, and a more conservative Venezuelan government would possibly not have an interest in trying to continue that alliance, which would not mean the definitive end of that alliance, but it would definitely be problematic, to say the least.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s switch gears and let’s talk about the current state of Venezuela, and specifically the pressure that is being applied now from the opposition. We want to get your take, Miguel. First and foremost, what are the chances the Venezuela that Chávez was envisioning will survive now that we have this opposition group coming forward? And I want to also get your present take on the current president, President Maduro, why he hasn’t called for these mass demonstrations and protests from his base, the barrios. Why haven’t hundreds of thousands of people come into the street as Chávez once did when opposition would challenge his authority?
TINKER SALAS: I think the Venezuela that Chávez envisioned is still very much there. I think there has been some setbacks. But this opposition is not new. This is the same opposition that attempted the coup in April 2002, the same opposition that attempted the work stoppage by the oil company in the end of 2002 and 2003, the same opposition that engaged in unconditions–or trying to create conditions of an ungovernability in 2004. And the fact that students are protesting is also not new. They were the face of the opposition since 2006, so that I think that fundamentally the government still has a lot of support, that that support exists and is there also for the Maduro administration. Obviously, Maduro is not Chávez, nor can he be Chávez, nor try, nor should he try to be Chávez. He has to find his own leadership and his own style of connecting with the population.
And, in fact, the government has made appeals. It has drawn out significant numbers of people. But also it’s also trying to calm tensions, so that rather than instigate large numbers of masses in the streets and leading to confrontation, as happened previously, in 2002, they have opted for a peace conference and they’ve issued an olive branch to the opposition. And the political opposition has not accepted it, but the economic sector has, and more rational people have as well, and the country has been engaged since last Wednesday in an open process of attempting to dialog and to give voice to all the different sectors of society, and had been very much engaged in these issues. And I think that’s the appropriate mechanism at this point, understanding that Maduro recognizes that they won by 1.49 percent. They didn’t win by double digits. They have to negotiate to some extent. But they also are not willing to sacrifice the gains that have been made in the last 15 years.
DESVARIEUX: Ewan, I want to get back to you. Some critics of these opposition demonstrations see this as an attempt to really sabotage the one-year commemoration of Chávez’s death. You’re there on the ground. What’s your take?
ROBERTSON: Well, I don’t think it’s specifically aimed at sabotaging the anniversary celebrations of Chávez’s death. I think this has been born more out of a movement within the more radical sector of the opposition that initially sought to replace the leadership of the moderate opposition, which was headed by a former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles. And also they’re trying to torpedo the dialog which was beginning to occur between the moderate sector of the opposition and the government in January after the government won convincingly in local elections in December, when the government and its allies gained around 55 percent of the popular vote and around 65 percent of municipalities, of mayors. And so what has begun as a movement among the radical opposition has continued, and it’s tried to gain momentum through, on some occasions, violent confrontations in the streets, through trying to add new issues and new causes to its banner.
And so we’re seeing a month of these protests taking place and these violent street barricades in areas of some of Venezuela’s cities. However, I don’t see that as directly related to Chávez’s anniversary celebration.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Final question goes to you, Miguel. What are the most pressing issues that Chávez’s administration, in your opinion, left unfinished? Essentially, what work still needs to be done there in Venezuela?
TINKER SALAS: Address the question of inequality and the question of poverty still. I think definitely they have to continue addressing the issue of food distribution and food access, particularly in Mérida and Tachida and the western states. There are food shortages and there are long lines. They undermine support for the government.
They also have to expand the social programs and continue to empower the population. I think it’s very difficult in a process of 15 years to transform a country, to transform a way of envisioning the country and a way of understanding Venezuela’s relationship with the outside world without evoking resistance. And I think sometimes the resistance may even come from sectors that are being benefited. And that’s not uncommon.
But there are still pressing issues with housing, pressing issues with delivery of services, pressing issues with infrastructure. Crime has to be addressed. And the inflation has to be brought down under control, what it was previously.
But understand that Venezuela has been relatively under attack for a consistent period of time. This issue of the currency has been a bubble driven by some sectors of the economy trying to exacerbate problems that are caused by currency. The issue of crime has been extremely politicized. And rather than engaging in a national dialog, they’ve opted instead for politicizing of issues.
So I think that the steps that have been taken recently are very positive on the part of the Maduro government in terms of dialog and peace, and it exposes the opposition, because they don’t have an agenda. All they have is a criticism of Maduro and a desire to replace him. But they have either no program, and they have no concrete leadership, and that’s become very evident, because their protests simply sought to oust him, oust a democratically elected president, who is–and a process that has faced 19 elections since 1998, winning 18 of those elections. And I think that that really exposes the opposition. And it’s obvious that democracy makes them uncomfortable. They’re not willing to accept the results of a democratic process.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Ewan Robertson, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERTSON: Thank you very much.
DESVARIEUX: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, thank you for joining us as well.
TINKER SALAS: Muchas gracias. Thank you very much.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. And thank you for joining us, of course, on The Real News Network. You can follow us on Twitter @therealnews and of course send me questions/comments @Jessica_Reports.
Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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