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Steve Ellner says deep discontent across the political spectrum in Venezuela is creating a political vacuum

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Venezuela’s opposition recently, that is on Monday, turned in 1.8 million signatures, almost 10 times the number required, to the country’s national electoral council in order to activate a constitutionally guaranteed recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro. Following President Hugo Chávez’s death, Maduro won the April 14, 2013 election with a very thin margin of 1.5 percent against Henrique Capriles. If unchallenged, President Maduro’s term will carry on until the end of 2018. With us to discuss the opposition’s latest strategies and the broader situation in Venezuela is Steve Ellner. Steve is professor emeritus of history from Universidad del Oriente in Venezuela, where he has lived for over 40 years. His most recent book is “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics.” He is joining us from San Francisco today. Steve, thank you so much for joining us today. STEVE ELLNER: It’s good to be on the program again. PERIES: Steve, so the signature collection process is just the first step in the recall process. The next step involves collecting signatures from 20 percent of registered voters. Almost 4 million signatures are required to activate a recall. So, what is the likelihood that this will actually take place, do you think? ELLNER: It’s hard to make predictions because there certainly is a lot of discontent in Venezuela because of the current situation, actually two very pressing problems. One is the shortages of basic commodities and the distribution system which means long lines and many, many hours to get basic commodities, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, a situation that should be [inaud.] the power outages as a result of the drought, which is the biggest that Venezuela’s had in many, many decades. So, the situation is tense, and there is a lot of discontent. In fact, many of the Chavistas stayed home in the last elections in December as a kind of protest vote. But, on the other hand, the other thing to consider is that, in spite of the discontent, the opposition has not succeeded in creating a groundswell in favor of their positions. The opposition is also fairly unpopular in Venezuela, so there’s somewhat of a political vacuum. That means that the outcome of this signature collection process and the recall is hard to predict. PERIES: Now, the opposition does control the general assembly and they have made several attempts to try to unseat President Maduro, the two demanding that president resign and one demanding that he shorten his term, and various other unsuccessful strategies to unseat him, but that’s because President Maduro and the Chavistas are controlling the supreme court at this point. Is there any chance that that scenario would change? ELLNER: Very little. I think, from the opposition’s viewpoint, their best bet is the recall process, and that’s embodied in the constitution. The attempt to shorten Maduro’s presidential term meets the objection of it being a retroactive measure. Maduro was elected, as you mentioned, in 2013, so his period extends for these five years, and even if that amendment is passed it wouldn’t be retroactive. Look at, in the United States, the amendment that limited presidential terms to two terms or two elected periods was passed in the 1950s but was not applied to President Truman, so I think the basic principle would be applied in Venezuela. And so, I think that the most promising path for the opposition, from the opposition’s viewpoint, is the recall election. [PERIES: Steve, now, the opposition in Venezuela seems to be emboldened by what os going on in ] [CUT 5:16-5:28] Steve, the opposition in Venezuela seems to be emboldened by what is going on in the rest of Latin America. By this I mean the proceedings against Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Dilma Rousseff and now Lula in Brazil. What is your assessment of the success these proceedings that are going on and the attack on the left that’s going on in terms of the success the opposition will have in Venezuela? ELLNER: Yeah. I think that what is being clearly demonstrated is that there is a campaign. There is a pattern, and that pattern leads into the thesis that is promoted by pro-establishment commentators and right-wing commentators that socialism is inherently, inherently lends itself to corruption, that there is an inherent relationship between socialism and leftist governments on the one hand, and corruption on the other. And it completely leaves out of the picture the fact that these corruption scandals, such as in the case of Brazil, and in the case of Venezuela as well, implicate not only people in the government but also people in the opposition and people in the private sector, and, specifically in the case of Brazil, all the different parties, leading members of all the different parties are involved in this corruption scandal along with the Workers’ Party of President Lula and Dilma Rousseff. In the case of Venezuela there is something similar going on. A system of exchange controls in which you have this wide disparity over the last couple of years between the official price of the dollar and the black market price of the dollar. That situation lends itself to corruption. [inaud.]– PERIES: –And Steve, I must ask you, why isn’t that situation being dealt with? I know that various economists have made proposals in terms of the exchange rates that are multi-layered in Venezuela. Why is that situation still lingering? ELLNER: Sharmini, my point that I make in conversations and in some of my writing is that there isn’t a simple fix. The problem is complex. There’s no panacea. The system of exchange controls was established as a result of the general strike of 2002-2003, and there was the threat of capital flight or fight. In fact, capital flight was occurring, and so the government established these exchange controls. In other words, you can’t just purchase dollars. You have to justify your use of dollars, and the system worked fairly well. You had the official exchange rate at one level and the open market rate more or less twice that of the official rate, and that system worked fairly well up until late 2012 when Chávez was in really bad shape physically. He passed away shortly after that. And at that point, and we don’t know exactly what the explanation is, but the official rate was, at that point, two to one. The price of the unofficial dollar shot up, and it’s been that way ever since. Now, there’s no quick fix, because if the government were to eliminate that system you wouldn’t have any dollars left in the country. Everybody would take their dollars out of the country. And if the exchange rate is increased threefold to fourfold in order to try to approximate the situation that existed before you’d have the threat of rampant inflation. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t any policies that can be followed at all. I’m not that much of a pessimist, but I think that the situation is not at all easy. [crosstalk] On the other hand– PERIES: [interceding]–Now, in addition to the economic situation and the exchange control crises that Venezuela has been experiencing, as you said earlier in this interview there’s also these issues of the drought and other shortages that are going on, in terms of basic goods, but let’s take up those issues in our next segment, Steve. Thank you for joining us for now. ELLNER: Okay, thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Steve Ellner about Venezuela. Now, Steve, Venezuela’s experiencing runaway inflation and persistent food shortages and supply shortages. You live there most of the time. How bad is it, really? STEVE ELLNER: Yeah. It’s a very, very difficult situation and it’s created a lot of tension. Because of the shortages of basic commodities and the system of regulated prices people stand online and there are a lot of instances of people who make a living out of doing this because of the, as I mentioned in the first part of this interview, the unofficial prices are much higher than the official ones, and so people wait online in order to purchase these products and then they sell them on the black market, and also there is concern about contraband, about products going directly from warehouses, perhaps, to neighboring Colombia. So, this is taking place on different scales and it’s creating a problem with people who don’t want to wait online, mainly middle class people who aren’t willing to wait in line for hours at a time, have to purchase these goods at a much higher rate, so there is, you know, a black market, a thriving black market and a lot of discontent. PERIES: Now, in addition to all of this we also have a drought going on which is adding to President Maduro’s problems at this time. What is the extent of that drought, and how long do you think it will last? Venezuela is usually a very lush and rainy, tropical climate, but they are experiencing a drought that seems unusual. ELLNER: Yes, unusual in terms of its intensity. Venezuela has not had a drought of this proportion for, since about the 1940s, I believe, and as a result, you know, Venezuela is dependent on hydroelectric, 70 percent of the electricity is hydroelectric and most of that comes from one dam, the Guri Dam in the Guayana region of Venezuela. And, until it starts raining, and the prediction is that heavy rain will commence in mid-May, so in a couple of weeks the problem should be solved. But, meanwhile, there are power outages and blackouts every day, sometimes lasting for several hours. PERIES: Steve, if President Maduro is going to withstand a recall referendum he’s going to have to improve the conditions in Venezuela rather rapidly. He’s facing declining oil prices, an economic crisis that involves triple-digit inflation, these persistent shortages you are talking about, and now add to that this drought and so many things going on that he has to get a grip on. So, if you were advising him, and you are [inaud.] Flores today, what would you be saying to him? ELLNER: Well, one thing I would say is that he’s got to take a bolder approach. Maduro is not a man of action as Chávez was. Chávez made decisions and wasn’t afraid to go to battle and rally the people on his side. Maduro is very slow to act. Just to give you one example, he stated at one point that the price of gasoline in Venezuela, which is, again, one of these products that are artificially low, in fact extremely artificially low, the lowest in all of the world, as a matter of fact, and he recognized the fact that prices had an increase and he said that he would choose the right moment and the right opportunity to increase prices, and a year went by before he decreed a price increase of gasoline. And that’s just one example of his slowness to act. This situation requires a bold approach. Another example, I think, is the war on corruption. I think what is happening in Venezuela demonstrates that a country, a movement that comes to power on the crest of popular mobilization in a situation in which is seems as if there’s a great amount of empowerment among the popular sectors of the population that inevitably, at a certain point, you’re going to have a problem with bureaucracy, and the remedy for that is a democratic situation in which people have some input in decision making and a political party that is semi-autonomous, and that’s really not the case in the case of the PSUV, the governing party. The governing party is run by, you know, people who are connected with the state, national deputies, governors, mayors, so that you should have more independence in order to have more of a direct input in decision making coming from below. Those would be two pieces of advice that I would offer president Maduro if he were to ask me. PERIES: All right, Steve. I thank you so much for joining us, and we’ll be keeping an eye on this motion for recall referendum, and I hope you’ll join us again. Thank you. ELLNER: I certainly will. Okay, thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Steve Ellner is a Contributing Editor ofLatin American Perspectives and the editor of “Latin America's Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century.