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On Thursday, Venezuela officials released recordings of what it said was proof that opposition figures and some military officers were plotting to overthrow the government – Analysis with Miguel Tinker Salas and Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Thursday, two senior officials of the Venezuelan government released what they say is evidence of the coup that the government announced about a week ago. These are audio intercepts of what they say are coup plotters, as well as a recording of an imprisoned military officer confessing to various details of the coup. Now joining us to talk about this and a broader picture of what’s going on in Venezuela now, joining us from his office in Claremont, California, is Miguel Tinker Salas. He’s a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, author of the books The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and, coming out very soon, next month, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. Thanks very much for joining us, Miguel. MIGUEL TINKER SALAS, AUTHOR, VENEZUELA: WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW: Thank you. JAY: So what do we know so much–I’m sorry. What do we know so far about what the government is saying took place in terms of this coup? TINKER SALAS: What we saw today was a purported audio recording between a former retired officer in communication with active officers highlighting or purporting to say that he had been approached about a potential coup to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro, the democratically elected government of Nicolás Maduro. It was a short clip, two minutes. So it’s important to continue to have this kind of information, because, as you know, all the press is sort of highlighting that Venezuela continually says it’s under a threat of a coup but ridicules and mocks Venezuela. And here we actually have concrete evidence that this might in fact have happened. JAY: Yeah, the Western press particularly, watching papers like The Washington Post, New York Times, have been treating all of this claim with some sort of ridicule, although I find it kind of interesting that they almost never contextualize that in fact there was an actual coup against President Chávez in 2002. And at least one of the people who has been accused of this coup actually signed a document in 2002 supporting that coup. TINKER SALAS: Right. The U.S. has historical amnesia. The U.S. press has historical amnesia. The State Department seems to have historical amnesia. We only remember about coups in terms of Guatemala or in terms of Chile in ’73 or in terms of something else. We tend to forget that coups have happened in Honduras against /mɛl/ Selaya or in Paraguay against the president of that country, and that they happened in Venezuela in 2002. And not only in 2002, but the fact remains that there’s been an ongoing effort to destabilize the government, to represent the government as a crisis in crisis mode, and to depict the country as if it’s on the brink of a precipice. It’s very interesting for your listeners to look at how Mexico is depicted and how Venezuela is depicted. Mexico’s actually experiencing a real human rights crisis, with over 100,000 dead, thousands disappeared and displaced, and millions immigrating. And Venezuela, a very small number, a very deplorable number, but a very small number of people who have actually perished. But the reporting is completely obviously one-sided and really depicts the country, as I suggested earlier, as somehow on the verge of the crisis. JAY: Right. Now, one of the accusations against the coup plotters is that they released a document on the day the alleged coup or accused coup was supposed to happen. What is this document? And what is their vision for Venezuela if there was a coup after the coup? TINKER SALAS: Well, that’s the interesting part. I mean, there is a popular saying in Venezuela, which is, [Spanish], get out of the way so I can take your place. And what we see from the opposition is critique and critique. This document was called the transition, much the same way as last year their statement for an effort to oust Maduro was called the /saˈlida/, the exit. And what it purports is a series of criticisms against the government, of grievances against the government, but not very clear as to what they would represent. When in fact they’ve had a chance to do that, which they did when Capriles Radonski and other candidates ran for a position on the opposition, they actually listed return to neoliberalism, privatization of the oil company, floating in the Bolivar, a very neoliberal economic policy. But they know that that wouldn’t gain much ground in Venezuela, so they remained very amorphous about it. But it’s clear that they are already planning for what they call the transition or la transición, the same way that they planned last year for what they call the exit. JAY: One of the positions of the opposition, certainly some of the people that have been accused of the coup, has been to privatize the national oil company. Is that correct? TINKER SALAS: Well, what they look for is they want to return to PDVSA before 1998, before Chávez, that is, when the PDVSA was a state within a state. PDVSA’s the national oil company. And they wanted to be an alternative power. And that’s precisely what they would like to do, because if you control PDVSA, you control the economic pursestrings of the country. And understanding the oil workers and the oil elite essentially had a very privileged lifestyle within the country and were essentially an independent way of pressuring the state and extracting concessions for largely a middle-class project, one that in point of fact had seen the experience of over 60 percent of the country living in poverty. So in many ways, for most Venezuelans, that’s a return to a past they would like to avoid. So their position is much more careful in how they frame their position around those issues nowadays. JAY: Now, one of the things that in my opinion, at any rate, give some credence to the fact that there was a coup attempt is that in fact there is–the economy in Venezuela is in very dire straits right now. The price of oil has severely damaged all the budgeting measures. I was in Caracas, actually, just a few weeks ago, and the inflation is terrible. I think the inflation’s running something like–I see numbers anywhere from 68 percent to 160 percent. I’m not sure what a legitimate number is. But one way or the other, American dollars right now–I saw one report that you can buy a tube of toothpaste for USD 0.07. So the economy really is in a very serious situation. Maduro’s polling right now apparently is down to about 24 percent. I mean, a lot of people think if there was an election now, he could well lose. So the moment is a very difficult moment. TINKER SALAS: No doubt about it. Venezuela depends on oil for its foreign reserves. Oil prices have fallen precipitously, which means that the government’s budget has a huge hole in it. The fact that they spend 60 percent of their oil revenue profits for social programs means that those areas have been taking a hit. Also means that they have less money with which to import food products and others. And with large amounts of money following a small amounts of goods, you’re going to have inflation. But it also speaks to the fact that in the last 15 years, the consumer class in Venezuela has grown significantly. So we talk about the purchasing power of a large number of population that historically had been excluded. So you have several factors going on at the same time: greater demand for a least amount of products, the government having problems importing products, bottlenecks at the ports, inflation. You also have a large number of the goods leaving the country as contraband, because there are subsidized goods in Venezuela that can fetch much higher prices in Columbia and elsewhere. A large amount that contraband is also gasoline, which goes and flows into Columbia and subsidizes the Columbian economy the same way that the food products are going in that same direction. And you also have corruption. And the government really has challenge on its hands to root out the corruption, to clear up the bottlenecks, to provide products for the population. But it’s an increasingly–a larger population than it ever had before. And the opposition here has no clear plan. JAY: I think I’ve observed that myself, no clear plan. But there’s also tremendous frustration amongst a large number of Venezuelans that the government doesn’t seem to have a clear plan. TINKER SALAS: Yeah, that’s unfortunately the perception that exists. And that perception is growing because people are having to stand in lines to get basic food products, something that Venezuelans aren’t accustomed to. An entire generation of Venezuelans have been raised with the notion that oil gave them a certain birthright, a birthright to subsidize food products, to gasoline, the cheapest in the world, to having their trips abroad subsidized by government dollars, so that you had a series of privileges that has been part of this rentier state that the government has to begin to alter and challenge. It’s a difficult time to do that, because you’re trying to change a mindset while you’re in the middle of an economic crisis, and that simply worsens the conditions under which you’re trying to implement these reforms, so that the government is in dire straits. But it’s begun to take measures to correct the exchange rate by now floating the Bolivar and the dollar on a parallel market, hoping to be able to provide more dollars and given points for the import of products. But there’s also been, as I pointed out before, corruption. The exchange rate system provides a very fertile ground for corruption, and the government is the first to admit that it can’t locate $20 billion. JAY: Yeah. I mean, just to–the exchange rate’s a little Byzantine. But if I understand it correctly, if you can get access to the official rate dollars, which can be anywhere from six to maybe 12 Bolivars to the dollar, you can turn around and sell them on the black market for as much 150 to 180 Bolivars. TINKER SALAS: And that’s precisely what’s happened. You have these–what’s called [Spanish], or phony corporations, that essentially are a shrill [shill (?)]. And they go to the government, they say, we’re going to import x amount of products. They get the dollar at six to one. And they go on the–they take the dollars that they got from the government, and they go on the black market and essentially trade them and make the money in the monetary exchange, not in importing goods. And that’s part of the corruption that has been ongoing in Venezuela, not just under this government, but under previous governments as well. JAY: And I think it also needs to be said this is not just people that support the opposition that are playing this game. There’s people supporting the government that are playing the game. TINKER SALAS: Unfortunately, political corruption is part of a political culture that affects both, in this context, government supporters and the opposition as well. JAY: Now, a couple of senior people in the government, particularly–I think he was the former planning and finance minister, a guy named to Giordani. Maduro kind of, I guess, dismissed him as minister, and he’s been making a lot of criticism of Maduro. What’s that all about? TINKER SALAS: Well, the criticism has been that the kind of reforms Venezuela needs to have been done should have been done much earlier, that there should have been an effort to balance out the different exchange rates, that the subsidies of some of the basic products, particularly gasoline and others, should have been rectified much earlier. So he was a proponent, on some levels, of that arena. The problem is that the government seems to be in some cases unwilling to make those kind of hard decisions, particularly given the fact that Venezuela’s constantly in an electoral cycle, so that they are always hedging their bet in that context. But I think there’s something else beyond that, and I think that we see that in Maduro’s proclamations, when he’s constantly saying that people don’t want to see the price of gasoline increase, because it is a birthright, and the last time that that happened has a dramatic political impact in 1989. JAY: Just let some–people need to understand. What is gasoline? About $0.10 a gallon or something like that? TINKER SALAS: Less than that. You can fill a tank of gas for less than $.50–$.20, in fact. JAY: Okay. So there’s some suggestion he might raise it now. TINKER SALAS: Well, he’s engaged in a process of conversation, discussion, because there’s a fear, again, that most Venezuelans interpret that as a birthright, and therefore it would react negatively not just for the price itself, but for the political and cultural consequences that that might have in the context of something that oil has considered, which is part of this birthright notion. JAY: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of ironic, because the Western press always–they could not say the word Chávez without putting the word dictator in front of it, and they continue that with Maduro. But the fact is, they’re very concerned, even afraid of the electoral consequences of what they do, ’cause in fact they do run in elections and they do respect the outcome of the elections. TINKER SALAS: Venezuela’s had 19 different elections, and they have been observed by hundreds of observers, by international bodies, from throughout the world. And the system has been declared, actually, very transparent. And even when they have had tight elections, they’ve bent over backwards to actually demonstrate that the actual process was transparent. But that’s not the issue. The issue is simply that there’s a political decision to represent the country as a dictatorship, as a repressive dictatorship. I go back to what I said earlier. There’s been 42 to 43 people that died in Venezuela from both sides of the political spectrum, including military and police officers. And yet there’s condemnation of Venezuela. In Mexico, 43 students are disappeared by the government, and there’s silence on the part of U.S. press and the State Department. JAY: Now, there’s been a lot of criticism of Maduro himself in terms of his skill or ability to be president. He’s not as charismatic as Hugo Chávez. But to some extent I wonder if that isn’t a little bit on the unfair knock, because the big problem, is it not that they were–Chávez was never able to diversify the economy, and this being this almost one-trick economy is really the underlying issue. And Maduro inherited that. TINKER SALAS: Well, the reality is that Chávez was a very organic leader, which had a very different kind of relationship with the population. And it’s unfair to expect Maduro to have that. It’s simply a different personality, different kind of person. But the reality is that what Maduro inherited in some ways were some of the excesses that were there, present, during the Chávez administration, and that is the inability to transform the economy, to rely the rentier state, to continue the high level of subsidies in the economy, to have what some people have said [Spanish] an excessive use of foreign exchange dollars for many of these different kinds of changes and not fundamentally altering the economy itself and public perceptions of what the state can actually provide. I think that the key thing has been the empowerment of millions of people, the mobilizations that take place, how Venezuela has been transformed at many different levels. But much of old Venezuela is still present. And I think that that’s the challenge one sees in this context. JAY: And just finally, most predictions are we’re probably looking at about a $60 barrel of oil for maybe a year or two. Who knows for sure, but that’s, I think, the scuttlebutt these days in the pages of the business press. Apparently–I know we’ve heard from the Venezuelan government that they have budgeted for this, but in reality I think most people think they were figuring it’d be about at least $100. At $60 a year or two, how does Venezuela do? TINKER SALAS: Well, I think that if we recall when Chávez first came to power, we’re talking about oil at $7 and $8 a barrel. The government at that time thought that if you had a bandwidth of between $30 and $40, you’d be doing very well. I think that with the adjustments that have been made, I think that oil will have a higher bandwidth, between $60 and $80. I don’t think it’ll remain as low for a long time. We’re starting to see the price of gasoline at the pump already increase, even though oil is still at about $50 a barrel. So speculation will no doubt push the price even higher. But I think that if they budget, if they streamline, if they make the additive correctives, if they are able to control what they’ve highlighted themselves, corruption, and been able to improve production, that they might actually be able to weather the storm. JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Miguel. TINKER SALAS: Thank you. 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.