The U.S. imposed sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro after his sweeping victory in an election UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calls “another step towards a dictatorship.” TRNN discusses the implications with author Steve Ellner and historian Miguel Tinker Salas
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Venezuelans held a controversial vote for a Constitutional Assembly on Sunday. According to official figures, 8.8 million voters turned out for what amounted to 42% of registered voters. The opposition and its supporters boycotted the vote and said that the National Electoral Council committed fraud by allowing people to vote more than once. The US moved to add sanctions against Venezuela, adding President Nicolás Maduro to a list of high-ranking officials targeted by financial sanctions. US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, tweeted on Sunday, “Maduro’s election is another step towards a dictatorship. We won’t accept an illegitimate government. The Venezuelan people and democracy will prevail,” she wrote. President Nicolas Maduro had called for a Constitutional Assembly three months ago to initiate a national dialogue and for guaranteeing peace in the country, which has been experiencing almost daily protests both for and against the government. Over 120 people have died in the often violent protests. Joining us to discuss Sunday’s vote in Venezuela are two guests: Miguel Tinker Salas and Steve Ellner. Miguel Tinker Salas is Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Steve Ellner is Contributing Editor at Latin American Perspectives. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics. Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us today. MIGUEL SALAS: Thank you. STEVE ELLNER: Good to be on the program. SHARMINI PERIES: Miguel, let me start with you. 8.8 million is a large turnout in spite of the fact that in the last presidential election, over 14 million people turned out. But this is still significant, particularly given all the controversy and opposition organizing that has taken place against the vote and, of course, the opposition boycotting the election. So 8.8 million is a large turnout. What do you make of this turnout and the results? MIGUEL SALAS: Well, the government is seeing it as an affirmation of their position. That is, the Maduro PSUV see it as a affirmation of their position to advance the National Constituent Assembly to what they claim has deepened the process of social change in Venezuela. They have attributed an awful lot to this National Assembly. They’ve attributed it as a vehicle to find peace. They’ve attributed it as a vehicle to diversify the economy. They’ve attributed it as a way of resurrecting different social contracts. It’s unclear how it’s going to do that. It’s unclear in that context why it was needed to revise the economy or to revise other social contracts. Obviously, the opposition and the foreign governments, particularly those opposed to Venezuela, see it as a game changer because the National Constituent Assembly is a supra body. It can dissolve the National Assembly. It can dissolve the Supreme Court. It can fire the attorney general. So in that sense, it’s a supra body. In the end, whatever decisions they make must be brought back to the Venezuelan population for approval. So there is limits to what they can do and expect the population to support them. So I think that the fear among many is that the government falls into triumphalism and thinks that they have this mandate now to dramatically change the country when, in fact, the country continues to be polarized. If we’re to believe that the opposition, the last … July 16th, they had seven million votes. We have no way of confirming that. They’re going to say the same thing, that this weekend, there was eight-point-something million votes. There’s no way to confirm that except this is the same National Electoral Council that confirmed the opposition victory for the National Assembly in December of 2015. So again, it highlights the potential for possible dialogue but, more importantly, how polarized the country is and the challenges it continues to face. SHARMINI PERIES: Miguel, there’s been a huge reaction on the part of the international community who doesn’t honor this process. In fact, some Chavistas who in the past have indicated their support for the Maduro government has now taken a step back and is rethinking this as a result of this being put forward as a proposal to resolve the conflict that’s going on in the country. What do you make of that? MIGUEL SALAS: I think that we have to be careful in terms of who is leveling the criticisms. The US is not in a position to actually be critical of what’s happening in Venezuela. This is a government on the part of the US that has sought regime change in Venezuela since 1999. They have participated in multiple fronts on trying to oust, first, Hugo Chávez. The Obama administration was not much different. The Obama administration declared Venezuela a clear and present danger and imposed sanctions against the Maduro government. They refused to recognize the election of the Maduro government. The Trump administration has continued to follow in that same process by having sanctions against individuals and now talking about sanctions against refined oil products, sanctions that do not work. Sanctions have not worked in Cuba. They haven’t worked in Iran. They won’t work in Venezuela. They will increase the suffering of the Venezuelan people, and that’s unfortunate because there’s already tremendous shortages in Venezuela of foods and medicine because this is a country that imports the majority of what it consumes. So the idea that sanctions by either the US or, in this case now, Canada and Mexico saying they’re going to tag along is very counterproductive and will simply confirm for the government and for some in the left in Venezuela that they are the targets of regime change. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Steve, you’ve been observer of Venezuela for over 40 years. This type of politics have emerged in the past where there’s been such controversy between the pro-Chávez governments and the opposition. Put this in the context of its history. STEVE ELLNER: I think that the polarization that you’re seeing in Venezuela, the social and political polarization goes way back. In fact, from the very outset with Chávez was a candidate in 1998 in the presidential elections that year, the business community, the Fedecámaras, the Chamber of Commerce, which had prided itself on being apolitical throughout its whole history, openly opposed the Chávez candidacy. The two major parties united to support a united candidate in order to defeat Chávez. So the polarization goes way back. You saw it in 2002 with the coup attempt in April, the general strike of 2002, 2003. So this is really an old story for Venezuela. But the polarization has never been this intense, this bellicose. As you mentioned in your introduction, the violence is really unprecedented for Venezuela over these last three months. So the situation has really gone from bad … And I think I interpret Maduro’s decision to decree the holding of a constituent assembly as an attempt to break this deadline and to reach out to the opposition, which he’s done. He’s called for a national dialogue. So there are different possibilities, but I think the main desire on the part of most Venezuelans is to put an end to the conflict and the violence. SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of the violence, Miguel, the reason that this got to this level of controversy and conflict in Venezuela, the fundamental reason was really the economic conditions in the country as the oil prices took a dive, less social services were being delivered to the people in Venezuela, more issues around basic goods and services that were available to the people in the grocery stores and in shops and so on, essential goods. This was attributed to Maduro’s mismanagement of economic affairs in the country. Would you agree with that assessment? MIGUEL SALAS: I think there’s an element of mismanagement on the part of the Maduro administration. There were so many missed opportunities. Four years ago, when he assumes the presidency shortly after Chávez’s death, tackling the dysfunctional exchange rate, tackling the inflation within the country, attempting to tackle some of the infrastructural problems that create the bottlenecks in the economy, to let these continue to persist knowing that the price of oil was already beginning to drop, continue to believe that somehow oil was going to recover, that’s a fundamental part of what I consider to be mismanagement or incompetence on the part of some in the administration. But again, in the context of a war declared against this government by the private sector, by the opposition. This is not something happening only a void. There is government mismanagement, but it’s also occurring in the context of a decided economic war against Venezuela on the part of the private sector and the opposition. So we have to consider both conditions. Both factors are as critical in understanding the crisis. But again, the government bears the responsibility because, again, they control the economy, they could have taken steps much earlier to ensure that the bottlenecks were resolved, that the food products were distributed equitably. They came up with the CLAP program, which was to provide food to local communities and communes to help distribute food. But even there, there’s been bottlenecks. In some cases, food arrived, then never arrived the second time. Some states have never even received them. So again, this is part of the larger scenario in which Venezuela operates and in which people were expecting change. This, again, is a population that lived on oil profits, that had benefited from them. Under Chávez, there was an increased consumption on the part of Venezuelans, and they expected to continue that. They didn’t see themselves having to experience the kind of challenges they have now. They were unaccustomed to standing in lines as many other Third World countries were. So again, there’s also a clash of values and of conceptions and of the idea of Venezuela as a privileged, oil-producing state that now confronts the reality of scarcity and some level of mismanagement in the context of an economic war. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Miguel, you’re a part of the Latin American Studies Association who in the past have acted very responsibly on matters related to Venezuela, although recently, there’s been quite a bit of controversy among the academics that are a part of this network. Today, you were earlier offline reading to me a statement that they have issued. I was wondering if you could read that statement to us and if we could get your response to it. MIGUEL SALAS: I don’t have the statement before me right now to read to you. My main concern is, again, academics can differ on different policy matters, whether it’s Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, the lack of democracy. What I find problematic about that statement is that the onus is all on the government. There is no real nuanced perspective to understand that other forces are also responsible for the crisis in Venezuela. In particular, the United States is not mentioned. The opposition is not mentioned. It’s all the onus is on the government. I think that although we can disagree, it’s fine to disagree, I think that we have to have a balanced approach and one that does not simply pretend that this crisis is happening in a void or in a vacuum. Again, I urge LASA members who have a chance to vote to read it very carefully, to come to their own conclusions, and to ask themselves why the organization is taking this position particularly when other issues in Latin America could also be clearly addressed, whether it’s Mexico where 100 journalists have been killed and students disappeared and a drug war where 150,000 have been killed, countries in other areas that suffer the same sorts of problems. So I think that it’s important to contextualize, to give this deep thought, and to understand what’s missing from that resolution, and vote no. SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, let me turn to you. You’re probably also a member of the Latin American Studies Association. What do you make of what Miguel just said and how the academic community should respond to what’s going on in Venezuela? STEVE ELLNER: I agree with Miguel’s analysis, and I’d just add that rather than contributing to resolve problems, that kind of one-sided position really just aggravates the problem. It’s counterproductive in terms of trying to contribute to some kind of solution to the intense conflict in Venezuela. There has been over 100 deaths as a result of the street violence over the last three months, but those deaths are the responsibilities of both sides. There is actions that, in any other context, in any other country in the world, would be considered terroristic in terms of attacking police, attacking National Guardspeople, and attacking military bases. So that to put the burden on the government and the government forces when both sides are getting hit and a number of the deaths, in fact, more than 50% of the deaths are people who are not involved in the protest themselves is misleading a deceptive impression as to what’s really going on in Venezuela. SHARMINI PERIES: Particularly compared other countries who, like Mexico and the Colombia, who might have worse records in terms of human rights and responses on the part of the government. If you could, Steve, just speak to the situation in Colombia and Mexico and why they’re not being reprimanded with sanctions in the same way. STEVE ELLNER: Certainly. That’s a valid point, and not only in terms of the violation of human rights, which in the case of Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, you have notorious examples, but in addition to that, the argument that Maduro is not popular, the argument that the majority of Venezuelans do not support the Maduro government is not a justification for regime change. After all, these other countries that you mentioned, the popularity of the president is actually lower than that of Maduro. Maduro is above 20%. That’s not the case with Mexico, and it’s certainly not the case with Brazil. Michel Temer, the President of Brazil who is calling for sanctions against Venezuela, has a popularity rating of about 5%. SHARMINI PERIES: I believe it’s less than that. I want to thank you both for joining us today, and we’ll be on top of this story in the coming days, and I hope you can join us again. Thank you very much, Miguel. Thank you very much, Steve. MIGUEL SALAS: Thank you. STEVE ELLNER: [inaudible 00:16:30]. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.