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Gregory Wilpert (1/2): High inflation and shortages trigger a protest movement that splits opposition camp

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In Venezuela, protests, new protests, are planned on Saturday. The situation continues to be tense there. Across the United States, pro-opposition groups have called for protest, and as well as there is a lot of support from various groups in support of the Venezuelan government across the United States. Just it’s a very complicated situation.

Now joining us to help us unravel it all in the studio is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory is the founder of He’s the author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government. He also taught political science at Brooklyn College. His wife is the consul general for Venezuela in New York. And he will soon be heading up the English website for TeleSUR, which is a television network funded by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, before we get into what’s going on, I just–just to be transparent about it all, so you’re going to soon be taking up the job at the head of English TeleSUR, a website, which gives you–you’ll be directing content and hiring journalists and such. One of the governments that is funding this and certainly one of the governments that was most involved in establishing TeleSUR was Venezuela. Do you find this is going to cramp your style at all in terms of how you do analysis?

I need to say to the audience, while Greg’s wife has been consul general in New York for some time, I’ve always found Greg to do analysis. He tries to deal with facts. And I have felt him–what’s the word?–an honest broker in trying to make sense and analyze what’s going on in Venezuela.

Do you–is this new job going to, you think, change any of that for you?

WILPERT: Well, I think it might change some things in the sense that TeleSUR certainly has an editorial line and the directors and the editors are expected to follow that editorial line. I don’t know yet exactly what it is and to what extent it will limit what I would be saying or presenting, but what I can say right now is that since I don’t even know what that editorial line is, since I haven’t started the job yet, I still try to be as objective as possible, because I think that’s going to serve the interests, actually, of Venezuela and the interests of the region the most, and therefore I have no hesitation to say the things that I think need to be said.

JAY: Okay. So let’s talk about the recent events. Before the recent protests that have been all in the news, the opposition that lost–narrowly lost the last presidential election–and led by Capriles, a governor of Miranda state. And their strategy seemed to be, you know, criticize, try to get the opposition organized, and get ready to contend the next series of elections and not to create this whole kind of destabilizing protest movement.

López is the leader of this recent protest movement, who just a day or two ago gave himself up for arrest. And I guess we’re waiting to see what he’s going to be charged with.

Those protests seem to be much more provocative than the rest of the opposition had been planning. So what spurred this new level of protest, and what does it seem to be about? What is it demanding?

WILPERT: Well, what it’s demanding is one thing, and of course what spurred it is something else, I think. It’s demanding right now is that Maduro leaves office as soon as possible–and they’re calling it “the exit”, in other words, that Maduro leaves office. But what has spurred it, I think, is something that has been really boiling under the surface within the opposition for the past year.

JAY: Okay. Well, before we get to that, let’s–just to be clear, because I see lots of reports talking about regime change, calls for regime change, and Maduro should step down, and so on, but this is an elected government. They’re essentially saying to a government that was elected, and in elections that everyone accepted the results of, eventually–and in terms of official observers, as far as I know, everyone said it was a fair vote–they’re saying this elected government should step down.

WILPERT: Yes, they’re saying that they should step down, and they’re basically calling for Maduro to give up, essentially, to resign, despite the fact that he won the election, the presidential election. He also won the December 8 municipal elections with something like a 10 percent margin. So–I mean, so those arguments really fly in the face of the electoral results.

JAY: Okay. So what seems to have spurred this now?

WILPERT: Well, I think it’s something that has been boiling under the surface for the past year, that is, ever since Maduro narrowly won the election. And Capriles, actually, was instrumental in calling for violent protests back then. He was telling people to go out on the streets and demonstrate with all their rage. And people did. And, as a matter of fact, something like eight Chávez supporters were killed in the process of those protests.

The opposition recognized, I think, eventually that these violent protests did not really advance their cause, and kept a relatively low profile, and were hoping to basically show the weakness of the Maduro government in the municipal elections of December 8. They failed, however, to do that.

And so I think because of that failure, a lot of people within the opposition, that is, the opposition leadership, blamed Capriles for that, for not having shown a stronger leadership, a stronger ability to turn events around against Maduro, especially considering that inflation in the past year was 56 percent. It’s basically over twice as high as it had been on average in the previous 15 years or 14 years, and crime was consistently high as well, and there were more and more shortages in basic goods. So those three factors were very important.

And despite these problems, poverty actually declined in 2013.

JAY: But these protests are not coming from the poor, by and large.

WILPERT: No. But that’s the reason that Maduro, I think–despite these negative economic factors, there was still some positive–there was still some economic growth going on in 2013. And Maduro managed to turn the argument around, saying that it was actually the opposition, to a large extent, that was responsible for many of the economic problems, particularly the shortages. I can try to explain exactly how those come about [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, we’re going to do a two-part interview here. In the second part, we’re going to talk about the economic crisis–why is inflation so high and what’s happening with the exchange rates and such. So we’ll get into the detail of that in part two.

WILPERT: Right. So, coming out of the December 8 municipal elections, I think, within the opposition leadership, López and also the other radical right-wing opposition leader, María Corina Machado, recognized this as an opportunity to basically organize a coup, not necessarily against Maduro, but actually a coup against Henrique Capriles. I think one has to see it really as a–.

JAY: Take over leadership of the opposition.

WILPERT: Exactly, take over the leadership of the opposition, and to use the economic issues kind of as a springboard for that. And they managed, in a way, to turn things around, at least for them. That is, to some extent I think López and María Corina Machado have been successful in elevating their own profile within the opposition at the expense of ruining the unity of the opposition, I think.

JAY: And Capriles has actually distanced himself, or at least he did distance himself from these protests. Is he continuing in that position?

WILPERT: Yes. Actually, just yesterday he held a longer press conference, where he continued to say that we have to stop these kinds of violent confrontations with the police, and he was calling essentially for peace and was distancing himself again from these demonstrations.

JAY: Now, the United States has been accused of having their hand in this. The Venezuelan government threw out–what is it?–three consuls in the American Embassy in Caracas. Kerry came out and, I think, President Obama came out and called for releasing some of the protesters that had been arrested. What do we know about the American role in all this?

WILPERT: Not too much. The foreign minister, yes, Jaua, made the announcement about the expulsion of the three diplomats, saying that the evidence that they had against them was essentially a series of email correspondence that they had intercepted that showed that these diplomats were involved in meeting with student leaders and student organizations and essentially were supporting their movement in various ways, financially and also logistically. That was the accusation.

We haven’t seen the emails. They said they had to protect their sources and therefore they weren’t going to reveal them. But he did read other earlier, older emails that were available on WikiLeaks, where the U.S. government or the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela essentially did talk about various ways to support opposition movements in Venezuela.

JAY: Students are usually associated, when they’re in the streets, with left-wing causes, left-of-center values, and one normally considers the Venezuelan government as a left-wing, left-of-center government. What are the students doing in the streets and seem to be, you know, to some extent, at the heart of all this?

WILPERT: Yeah, I think the–.

JAY: Who are these students?

WILPERT: Well, I think the Venezuelan student movement, just as so many institutions in Venezuela, is very divided between a left wing and a right wing, and it’s certainly the more conservative or moderate student movement that is currently on the streets that is trying to lead this movement–or, actually, follow the lead of López, really.

But they’re essentially the students who come from the private universities, from the elite universities in Venezuela. There’s actually many thousands of students more in the Bolivarian University and other universities that haven’t participated. But these are really the upper middle class and middle class, you know, mostly upper middle class students that are at the head of this, really.

JAY: Now, López gave himself up. He’s in jail. Has he been–any charges laid? Or we’re waiting to hear what the charges are?

WILPERT: A couple of charges have been dismissed. They dismissed charges about terrorism, and I forget the other one, but treason or something like that. But a number of charges still remain. But no decision has been made as to exactly how they will proceed so far.

JAY: So where is public opinion on this? The demonstrations so far have been relatively small compared to some of the ones that were in the past. I mean, I remember there were days when the opposition could rally a million people. And what I understand: these could be in the size of ten thousand. It’s hard to really know.

You know, there’s been reports–in fact, there was a report on CNN today about some of the images that have come out, and it turns out one of the images that shows how many people are there–and a long, long line of people–turns out that photograph came from Spain. There’s another photograph that’s supposed to show some police forcing people to have oral sex. That turns to have come from an American pornography site. There’s another photograph that’s supposed to show something similar in terms of a big protest that actually came from something in Chile. But there’s a lot of–it’s hard to make sense of what the reality is.

Do you get a sense of what the numbers are and where public opinion is?

WILPERT: Well, it is very difficult to make sense of it all, because there’s so much disinformation flying around on all sides. And my impression is certainly that–and also from the reports I hear from people in Venezuela directly–is that, yes, it’s not massive. There are still–basically what they’re doing is repeating an action that took place already in 2004, where basically people block their neighborhood streets, and sometimes major freeways and major roads, and thereby create the sensation that there’s a tremendous protest going on because traffic gets backed up for miles and miles. But actually it’s just a handful of people who are blocking major streets, or even very minor ones.

But these protests are mostly taking place in the upper middle class neighborhoods, the same as in–basically, the neighborhoods of the students themselves. And that’s what makes this very distinctive, in the sense of a class dimension to these protests. They’re not taking place in the poor neighborhoods, where Maduro has his base of support.

JAY: Okay. So we’ll cover more on this as this protest movement develops.

But all that being said, there really is an economic crisis in Venezuela. Inflation, as you mentioned, is sky high. The exchange rate issues are causing them trouble. There’s a problem with affordability on foodstuffs. So in part two of our interview, we’re going to try to get at just what are some of the reasons for this economic crisis in Venezuela and whether it’s being used, improperly or not, by some of the opposition. And I guess some people might argue that. But one way or the other, there actually is a problem there.

So we’re going to get into that in part two of our interview with Gregory Wilpert on The Real News Network.


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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is 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 first taught sociology 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, 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). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.