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Miguel Tinker Salas: While inequality is now lowest in Latin America, Venezuela is still a country where the poor lives along side the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy

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

Venezuela will be voting for a new president on April 14. And the issue at the front of most people’s minds is crime. President Maduro has made that apparently one of his main campaign objectives, new policies for dealing with the high level of crime in Venezuela, and the opposition has made it their major issue as well.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Miguel Tinker Salas. He’s a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in California. He’s published and lectured widely on Venezuelan politics, and he is from Venezuela. He’s the author of the book Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and a new book about to come out, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Thanks very much for joining us, Miguel.


JAY: So President Maduro, I am told, is making, dealing with the problem of crime and the high murder rate, particularly in Caracas, as one of his main campaign objectives and promises. But some people are asking, well, what happened? The Chávez government’s been in power for 14 years. Why hasn’t more been done about crime already?

TINKER SALAS: Crime is a conundrum in Venezuela, as it is in many countries in Latin America. As we know, crime has increased dramatically throughout the region, as inequality was a product of the 1980s and ’90s, was also part of the same phenomena. And the government essentially assumed that by a series of social missions and social programs and reduction of poverty, it would also reduce the material basis for crime. And that really hasn’t happened, so that they have to really consider other alternatives and other approaches.

They’ve attempted to create a national police force to eliminate the whole bevvy of multiple municipal police, state police, national police, and try to concretize a different approach. But up until now, it really has not reduced the crime. So I think it does require a different perspective, a different orientation. And nothing is really gained by simply politicizing it, which is what the opposition is doing, because on the other hand, they have not provided a proposal. Instead, we’ve seen people simply arming themselves, creating barriers in their neighborhoods, etc., and not really fundamentally addressing the social basis of crime, which is continued inequality, which is a highly conspicuous consumption society. And those issues are prevalent in Venezuela, as they are other countries in Latin America.

JAY: So what happened in terms of what the assumptions had been of the Chávez administration? There has been (which obviously are great merits) tremendous reduction of the inequality in Venezuela, I think, in terms of the inequality measurements of high income and low income. Venezuela has the least inequality now in Latin America. They’ve made great strides on literacy rates. They’ve made—there’s a social safety net there now. On the other hand, as you say, it has not led to a reduction of crime. Do they have an analysis why?

TINKER SALAS: I think fundamentally it’s an issue that has to be framed in the context of the levels of inequality that still persist. As I mentioned earlier, Venezuela is a highly conspicuous consumption society. And the issue of crime has been there in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and now. It’s not a phenomenon that’s happened in the last decade. And that’s why it’s been very difficult to root out and difficult to have concrete proposals that actually deal with it.

I can recall back in the 1960s proposals by then governments to reduce the age at which people can be arrested from 18 to 16 and even below that. Other proposals had been simply increasing repression. So the government has said they don’t want to simply increase repression. The answer can’t be to simply police more, to militarize poor neighborhoods, and to put the issue of crime on the back of the poor. So there really has to be more innovative approaches, streamlined community policing, and other forms of dealing with crime that don’t simply rely on repression. And that’s been part of the Gordian knot that they have not been able to resolve.

JAY: Now, when I was in Venezuela, some opposition people I talked to suggested that one of the reason Chávez didn’t go after crime more than he did was that his voting base was in the barrios, in the slums, the poor areas, and if they went more repressively after crime, that’s to a large extent where they’d have to go, and he didn’t want to, because he didn’t want to lose votes. I mean, is there anything to that argument?

TINKER SALAS: No, I don’t think so, because the people in the poor neighborhoods are the ones that are actually on the front lines of crime. And in fact we’ve seen responses by poor people taking action on their own, actually protecting their own neighborhoods, creating community watch systems and others. So I think that that argument is part of the same effort to politicize the question of crime without really providing an answer for it, because I think the answer has to come collectively from the society, from the values it nurtures, from the actual values that it establishes. And I don’t think that simply blaming the poor or saying that Chávez didn’t repress the poor neighborhoods enough for fear of losing votes is an answer.

I think that we’ve now seen very concretely that crime is centered in six separate states. There can be much more strategies developed to deal with that reality and to deal with the hope that exists in some of those communities for change without relying simply on repression. But it is a fundamental problem in Venezuelan society, as it is in, say, Brazil, as it is in Mexico and other countries where violence has become much more pronounced.

JAY: Now, when I was in Venezuela, one of the jokes going around was if somebody robs you on the street, don’t scream, a policeman might come, that the idea the corruption in Caracas was so bad amongst the police. And I know they were trying to grapple with that by creating a new national police force. Where is that at?

TINKER SALAS: Well, they developed it in certain states. And so there has been some progress in developing a national police force in areas. But, again, they run into how much the state can actually accomplish in states with municipalities, with state forces and others. So there is an effort. It hasn’t really reached fruition throughout the entire country, but there has been an effort to increase the police presence, a national police force. And the ministry of interior has taken on this task much more forcefully than we’ve seen in the past. And I think everyone agrees that it’s a fundamental issue.

And you see Maduro come out in the campaign saying, making appeals for end to violence, saying he’s going to go into poor neighborhoods and grapple with the issue himself. So I think it is a front-line issue, and obviously it’s become one of the number-one issues in this campaign.

JAY: Because the Venezuelans, you know, have a very close relationship with the Cubans, and, you know, you can argue and debate various things about Cuba, but one thing Cuba has almost none of is crime. And you would think maybe they would learn something. I’m not [incompr.]

TINKER SALAS: Right, except you also don’t have as highly conspicuous consumption society in Cuba as you do in Venezuela. You have to—again, Venezuela has many, many different faces, and one need only go into Caracas and see how people have multiple phones and multiple houses, cars. And, again, that chasm between that reality and what most people face, yes, you reduce poverty, but inequality is still part of this process. And as long as that remains there, I think you’ll have people trying to rely on crime, so that it’s rooted in society, it’s rooted in very particular norms and customs of trying to acquire goods. And I think, unfortunately, it continues to be an accompaniment in Venezuela. But let me underscore it’s been there as an accompaniment of this oil-based society throughout the 1960s up until the present.

JAY: Yeah, I know. When you go—when, again, you go into Caracas, the city’s filled with malls that look like they’re in Beverly Hills or something like this.

TINKER SALAS: And there are neighborhoods in Venezuela that might as well—that think like they are in Beverly Hills. And that’s the reality that faces people who live in the barrios, who live in the hills. And that chasm, that distinction, that social difference is part of the factor that fuels this crime.

JAY: Now, the opposition seems to be running on a kind of—I don’t know—what you could call Chávez lite, in the sense that they say they’re going to keep a lot of the social safety net programs, they’re not going to go after the community councils and such, but they’re going to do it more efficiently. And the knock has been that in the last 14 years the Chávez administration has good goals often, but they can’t execute properly. Do you think there’s something to that critique?

TINKER SALAS: I think there is something definitely to the critique about efficiency in the delivery of goods and services on the part of the Chávez forces. There is a problem with corruption. There is a problem with bureaucracy. There is a problem with actually being able to carry out what you promise. And that’s always been a constant problem with the Chávez government, and that is the ability to have accountability, to be able to set goals, to accomplish them, and to deliver on those goods and services and those benefits.

Now, the opposition’s argument is the same rerun of what we saw in the October election. You had Mr. Capriles Radonski say that he is like Lula, that he is now a moderate leftist who wants to see a moderate leftist program but with free-market economy. So he tries to equate himself with Lula and tries to argue that he will maintain the social programs.

But people really don’t have faith in that, because the reality is that if we look at the opposition, many of their goals—and they speak about their discourse—is the return to pre-Chávez era, 1998. And people in Venezuela still have a memory of what that looked like and what that inequality was like. We’re talking about inflation of 50 percent in some cases. We’re talking about poverty at 50 percent, 60 percent in some cases. We’re talking about crime still being a factor.

It’s always interesting when they talk about the need for efficiency and separation of powers and they refer to the pre-Chávez era as if that was a panacea, when in reality it was precisely those conditions that gave rise to the Chávez phenomenon.

JAY: Now, just finally, there’s accusations coming from Maduro’s camp, the Chavista camp, that the U.S. is involved, they’re financing the opposition. There’s been kind of talk about the opposition might even withdraw in order to discredit the elections and that this might be a kind of an American-inspired strategy. I mean, to what extent do you think the U.S. is involved? Or is this partly, you know, rhetoric in order to kind of develop a nationalist support?

TINKER SALAS: Well, I always thought that—I don’t have any evidence or proof that I can point to that says, here the U.S. sent a check to the opposition.

I think the opposition has plenty of motives on their own to oppose the Maduro government and any Chávez projects. I’m always in the belief that the opposition is very much running the show in Venezuela. Yes, they might have assistance. Yes, they might have advisers. Yes, they might have support. But the reality is this is an opposition that is Venezuelan in nature and character. It’s a middle class, it’s an elite who sees the process of social change as a zero-sum game and who want to return to the privileged status and privileged position in which they derived benefits from the oil industry in the past, and that they are really objecting to the redirection that has taken part with the oil industry, with the 60 percent investment in social policy, and that they really don’t see a benefit in that for Venezuela and they really want to return to a faithful ally of the U.S., a pro-U.S. ally, and an exporter of oil to the U.S.

So although I don’t doubt that the U.S. presence is there, I think that the U.S. is a factor in terms of an example, in terms of a model, and in terms of a view of a middle class in Venezuela and an elite in Venezuela who think that progress and modernity is defined by the U.S. And in that sense the U.S. is present.

JAY: And some of that elite in Venezuela is some of the richest people in Latin America. And, in fact—and they live half the time in the United States, don’t they?

TINKER SALAS: A lot of them have—and I always find it interesting that many of these opposition forces, they speak in English, they act in English, they think in terms of U.S. as the model. And yes, they are very much interconnected, both on the academic level, as well as the social level, political level, and economic level, with their North American counterparts.

JAY: Alright. Thanks. We’ll talk again as the election gets even closer. Thanks for joining us.

TINKER SALAS: Thank you very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Miguel Tinker Salas is a professor of History and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is co-author of Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy and author of Under the Shadow of the Eagles and The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. His latest book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.