Gabriel Hetland and Gregory Wilpert say that removing President Maduro from office appears to be its first order of business
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. There has been a significant setback and defeat for the Maduro government in the congressional elections in Venezuela. The victory significantly alters the political balance, giving the opposition party MUD a crack at power for the first time in 16 years. The election was framed by the country’s deep economic crisis due to the fallen oil prices and the lack of access to basic goods for its people. To discuss these developments and more, I’m joined by two guests. Joining us from the Newark airport on his way back from being an electoral observer at the Venezuelan elections on Sunday is Gabriel Hedland. Gabriel is an assistant professor of Latin American studies and sociology at SUNY Albany. And also joining us from Caracas is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory is the former director of TeleSUR English and author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and the Policies of the Chavez Government. Thank you both for joining me. GABRIEL HEDLAND: Thank you for having me, Sharmini. Glad to be here. GREG WILPERT: Thanks [for having me]. PERIES: So Greg, you are still in Caracas. So let me start with you. What are the most recent developments since we spoke to you on Sunday evening? WILPERT: Well, the most recent development is first of all that the national electoral council announced that the opposition had 109 out of the 167 seats for the National Assembly. If you add–sorry, actually 107, sorry. Was that they announced officially 107 late last night. You need to add to that also the three indigenous representatives that are sympathizing with the opposition. And so they actually have officially 110. And then this afternoon they announced one more race, so now they’re at 111. They need 112 in order to get a two-thirds majority, and there’s still one outstanding race that’s being counted. I assume that any moment now they will announce which way that seat is going. The opposition has been saying all along that it’s theirs, according to their records. I haven’t seen the Chavistas actually denying that, so it leads me to believe that they might be correct. PERIES: And Gabriel, you’ve just landed in New York. But prior to your departure, what were your observations? HEDLAND: I was in the state of Nueva Esparta for election day observing voting centers there, and basically observing a process similar to what’s been reported elsewhere. Very smooth process, very high participation, high turnout. In terms of the process, no problems actually happening. At this point there’s a lot of questions about what this means for Chavismo, what it means for Venezuela, what it means for popular movements in the region as a whole. PERIES: And what, what are you hearing on the ground in terms of–you know, the defeat, of course, is very clear. It’s now a question of a two-thirds majority which enables the National Council to do various things that they weren’t able to do before. So what are the spirits on the ground in relation to that? HEDLAND: Well, as you can imagine in the opposition, wealthier communities, spirits are quite high. People are celebrating and smiling, and in wonderful spirits. In Chavista communities and amongst folks who are sympathetic to Chavismo in one way or another, spirits are much, much lower. And just traveling from Nueva Esparta back to Caracas on Monday I sort of noticed that people in general seemed a bit stunned. I’m not sure that people quite expected this to happen. Possibly even some of the people voting for it, I think they wanted to give the government a bit of a kick in the butt, but I’m not sure that everyone who voted for the opposition really knew what they were getting into. PERIES: And Greg, on Sunday night when Paul Jay did an interview with you, you went through a list of things that the two-thirds majority would enable the opposition to now, you know, carry out. Can you just review some of them for the listeners? WILPERT: Well, they would be able to remove ministers and the vice president, first of all. They can pass what are known as organic laws, those are laws that are, touch on basic fundamental rights, such as the labor law. And that are derived directly from the constitution. They can also initiate referenda. Now, there’s a bit of a debate about whether or not they can initiate a recall referendum. My interpretation is they cannot, that they still need to collect signatures in order to do that. But they can [inaud.] signatures initiate a constitutional convention. And they can remove Supreme Court judges, and they can impeach the president. So all those things put together is a very powerful situation for the opposition. PERIES: And the significance of all of this, how soon, how soon will they be able to enact on some of this now? When will they be sworn in? And there was some rumors in the U.S. media, in USA Today, about the powers that the current National Council has in terms of being able to endow some power in Maduro so that it leaves the newly elected council somewhat moot. Is there any truth to that? WILPERT: Well, in theory, the National Assembly could pass an enabling law which is done before, which would allow the president to pass laws by decree for a limited time on particular, on specific issues. I’m kind of doubtful that they will do it, because with such an overwhelming opposition majority they could quickly and easily reverse that kind of a law. So I’m kind of skeptical that they would do that or would try to do that. They take office on January 5, and the first order of business is to elect a president of the National Assembly, which they probably do, and also perhaps reform the procedures of the National Assembly. And they already said that the other first thing that they want to do is pass an amnesty law for the so-called political prisoners. So that’s, those are the first things on their agenda. As for the other things, we don’t really know yet what they plan to do because they haven’t said. They campaigned without a program, without saying what they intend to do once they get into office. But we know from past experience that their top priority is to get rid of the president as quickly as possible. PERIES: And Gabriel, did you get a sense of the, what the people know in terms of the consequences of this kind of political change in Venezuela, particularly embracing a national program that might be more neoliberal than they are used to from the past previous leadership of both Maduro and President Chavez? HEDLAND: Yeah. I think it’s safe to say, following Greg, that people have really no idea what the opposition that they were voting for was going to do. Many people responded to questions about whether or not they knew who the candidates were by saying I don’t know, but I’m going to vote for them anyway. This really was a decisive rejection of the government. But it was not necessarily a vote for any particular program. The opposition did not present an agenda to people, so people really were voting for an end to lines in the grocery store, an end to food shortages. It’s not clear that that’s going to happen with the opposition, but that’s what people were hoping might happen as a result of this. PERIES: And Greg, what does the government plan to do now? I know if it was President Chavez in place right now the entire Chavista community would be called to order in terms of what’s next. Is any planning taking place? WILPERT: Well, President Maduro certainly announced that the first thing that he wants to do is do a profound revision and self-criticism of what has gone wrong, what can be changed, what can be improved. So that’s something that he announced today that he plans on doing, and it’s been echoed by a number of other people saying that, you know, we should take this opportunity to learn from our mistakes in order to move forward, and to carry the Bolivarian project forward. Which is obviously going to be very difficult under these circumstances. Others have been saying also that this is an opportunity, that it should be seen as an opportunity for the project to renew itself. At the same time, the night that Maduro gave his concession speech, he also said–he basically blamed the opposition for the economic war and for the loss that night, on Sunday. So it’s a little bit–I think he’s, now since two days have passed, it seems to be a little bit more self-critical than he was on Sunday night. PERIES: And Greg, in terms of one of the big issues is the economic wars people are experiencing right on the ground. You can see so many media are blasting the empty shelves in the stores, basic goods that people need in order to feed their children and be healthy, and basic goods are missing from the counters. What–what led to this crisis, and is the government now acknowledging that they should have done something about it? WILPERT: Well, first let me just step back a second. I mean, the empty shelves, when international media show them, I mean, I think those are really relatively rare. I mean, when I, I was at the supermarket today. The shelves were all very full. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t shortages. There definitely are plenty of shortages. But at the same time the shelves are still full. It’s not like people are going hungry here or anything like that. So there’s plenty of food here to be had. It’s just that certain staples are definitely missing. I could not find any rice, for example. It’s been very difficult to find the, the cornmeal that people use for arepas, the national dish, and eggs are in short supply, and so is milk. PERIES: And those are significant. I mean, one who is running for a campaign would make sure that there’s plenty of that, if you want to, or plan to get reelected. WILPERT: Yes, absolutely. No, that is very significant. And it seems very clear as to what the problem is. The problem is that the government tries to keep the prices low for those products, and has introduced price controls for them. And people just buy them up as quickly as possible, and sell them on the black market or export them to neighboring countries because they can make up to 10-50 times the cost of that, of those products, here that they are at the official–sorry, at the official price. So there’s a tremendous incentive for people to resell things, and it makes it almost impossible to really have–institute a real price control. So actually, everything can be had. It’s just that it disappears so quickly because of the low price, and then you have to buy it on the black market, which is usually hidden. A visitor normally won’t see a black market anywhere, because there, you know, they run out of the garage of, you know, the high-rise buildings or something like that. So they’re completely invisible and only available through connections. So that’s–so the stuff is there. It’s just the problem that the price controls are so far lower than what they can be had, at the prices they can be had on the black market or in neighboring countries. And that’s really the crux of the problem. PERIES: And Gabriel, I know you have to go soon to get a connection. But give us a sense of what that conversation on the ground while you were there looked like, in terms of the absence of basic goods that they need, and not having access to it. I know some people have been lining up very early in the morning to have their ration of food. But this on the ground actually turned the election. So give us a sense of what you observed in that regard. HEDLAND: Yeah. I mean, I spoke to people in the neighborhood of [name inaud.] in Caracas, and they told me that, this is a Chavista supporter, who said that he and his wife and family have been unable to get soap, deodorant, tampons, birth control pills. He said getting basic foods at cheap prices are difficult, but the other products that I mentioned he can’t get at all, whatsoever. And I did take some trips to the pharmacy myself and noticed that there was absolutely no soap, absolutely no shampoo. I didn’t find toilet paper. So there were certain products that are pretty basic for people’s lives that are unavailable. PERIES: All right. And then what do you think the, the new government or new National Council is going to do to address these kinds of problems, or can they? HEDLAND: Well, I think there’s a split, a merging within the new government, not entirely surprisingly, between a relatively more moderate camp led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, the ex-presidential candidate, and then a more radical camp led, to some extent, by Leopoldo Lopez and the people surrounding him, Maria Corina Machado and others. And I think the more radical camp is very, very focused on removing Maduro from office and probably sees that as the overwhelming priority. Capriles has made some statements I’ve read in newspapers about wanting to focus on the economic situation. It’s not entirely clear what they would do to focus on the economic situation, but I would imagine they would try to boost domestic private investment and foreign investment. There was a video leaked of an opposition leader talking about doing an agreement with the IMF. I don’t believe that they could do that with the National Assembly. I think that could only be done through the executive. But clearly stimulating private investment, both domestic and foreign, will be a priority for National Assembly leaders to try to do. The other thing that they might try to do is get the currency situation under control, but I haven’t heard any specific proposals whatsoever. There’s been very, very broad and relatively vague proposals by some leaders about the social and economic situation, and then there’s been other leaders explicitly saying we’re going to move to remove Maduro from power. So I would imagine there’s going to be some jockeying within the coalition to figure out what they actually want to do. Another interesting thing to think about is the fact that this is a very diverse coalition that was really only united by opposition to the government. It’s entirely possible that they will not be able to maintain a two-thirds majority come January when they sit down. It’s very possible, I would even say probable, that the government will do strategy, try to peel off a few legislators. If they’re able to do that they could prevent the two-thirds majority from taking hold. It’s not clear that they’ll be able to do that. But I imagine there’ll be jockeying on both sides of the aisle to move forward. PERIES: And Greg, what do you make of this priority of removing Maduro as the number one priority for the National Assembly? And how soon do you think–if they were able to form a kind of a coalition to do that, would they be able to be successful, and how soon might that happen? WILPERT: I do think it’s a very high priority for them. As Gabriel was saying, if they want to make an agreement, for example, with the IMF or something like that, they need the presidency, obviously, for that, and many of the other things that they want to do. So it’s definitely going to be on the top of their agenda. But also, I think I want to reinforce also what Gabriel said, that because of their diversity it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually maintain the unity of 112 seats. Now, on the other hand, you might also have the opposite phenomenon. That some people, opportunists, basically, within the PSUV, that is the socialist party coalition, might peel off towards the opposition, on the other hand. So there’s going to be a lot of jockeying that could delay things. And so it’s very difficult to say. They have a deadline which is kind of the end of 2016, because if they remove Maduro after 2016, then the vice president takes over for the rest of the term. But if they do it before the end of 2016, then there would be a new presidential election. So I would say it could happen any time, if they manage to succeed. That’s the big if. But if they manage to get those 112 votes, then it could, it would be still a drawn-out process. Because they would still first have to probably remove Supreme Court members, appoint new Supreme Court judges, and then only proceed with an impeachment process. Or if they go the constitutional convention route, that could also take a very long time because they would obviously have to come up with a new constitution. So whatever scenario you look like, it’s going to take a while. I would say at least 6-12 months, is my guess. But who knows, things could be very fluid from now on. PERIES: Thank you both for joining us today, and hope to have you back very soon, as we will be following this issue tomorrow, as well. HEDLAND: Thank you. WILPERT: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.