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Steve Ellner considers the government’s call for a constitutional assembly a positive step for breaking the political deadlock, but it still won’t solve the country’s most pressing problems

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Violent clashes and demonstrations between Venezuela’s opposition and state security forces are in their sixth week now. The violence breaks out whenever demonstrators try to break police lines in order to march into the center of Caracas. 42 people have died so far, including opposition demonstrators, police officers, government supporters, and bystanders. Last week, President Maduro convoked a constitutional assembly in the name of jump starting a national dialog. Opposition politicians, however, have rejected the call, saying that it is just a ploy to consolidate power during a growing opposition movement. Here is what Elias Jaua, who the president has appointed and is in charge of organizing the constitutional assembly, had to say to the opposition recently. VOICEOVER: In all settings, we will defend our honor as revolutionaries and as the defenders of human rights that we are. You assume the responsibility of the violence that you’ve generated in the country and of the people who died because of this violence. SHARMINI PERIES: To discuss this is Steve Ellner. His most recent book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics. Thanks for joining me, Steve. STEVE ELLNER: Good to be on the program again. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Steve, let’s begin with the protests, which have been going on now for six weeks. What is the opposition hoping to achieve and why is there so much violence? STEVE ELLNER: One of the key elements of the protest is the determination of the opposition leaders to reach the downtown area of Caracas, which the government has stated on numerous occasions is off limits for the opposition. The reason being that the government is fearful of massive civil disobedience along with clashes with security forces and an ongoing presence, something similar to what happened on April 11th that led into the coup the overthrew Chavez on April 11th, 2002. So, the government from the very outset has stated that protests will be tolerated, will be allowed for, in the eastern part of Caracas but not in the center of Caracas. The opposition, day after day, calls for protests originating from the eastern part of Caracas but trying to reach the downtown area. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, tell us about the constitutional convention that Maduro has proposed. I mean, this is something the opposition had been calling for for a very long time, and now that it is offered up to them, they don’t want to participate. Why is that happening? STEVE ELLNER: Well, I would say that the call for the constituent assembly is a mixed bag with regard to the possibility of easing tensions or solving the political crisis in Venezuela. On the one hand, like you say, the opposition refuses to participate, which isn’t surprising because the opposition’s position over an extended period of time, actually going back to the protests in 2014, has been refusal to negotiate, to participate in a national dialog, which Maduro has proposed on numerous occasions. The position of the opposition is that it will not participate unless there are concessions on the part of the government and they’re sort of preconditions for the opposition’s participation in any kind of initiative on the part of the government. So, the opposition’s rejection, or refusal to participate in the dialog and in the call for the national assembly and national constituent assembly, is not at all surprising. The other part of your question with regard to what this amounts to, I would say that it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is something new, it’s an initiative, designed to break the standoff, break the stalemate, between the opposition and the government, to incorporate different sectors of the population in the decision-making process, so that there is the possibility that this will provide the country with a degree of stability through incorporation, through participation. On the other hand, the possibility that the constituent assembly doesn’t really amount to anything, that you have low turnouts in the elections for the delegates to the constituent assembly, and that the constituent assembly doesn’t really develop or work on any concrete proposals to solve the nation’s pressing problems, particularly economic problems, but that would be counterproductive as far as the government is concerned. Rather than provide greater stability, it would only exacerbate [inaudible 00:05:51]. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, do you think that this constituent assembly is going to bring about a peaceful dialog and lead to some sort of reconciliation from this very partisan political environment? STEVE ELLNER: I don’t think that in the short run that there is any possibility that the organized opposition will participate. But I think that if there is a participation of different sectors of the population … after all, the proposal is to have approximately 50% of the delegates be elected by popular vote and 50% of the delegates be elected representing different sectors of the population: the peasantry, the working class, the communities, et cetera. If there is a participation, if there is a rank and file participation on the part of the Chavista rank and file, which, after all, consists of, in the last elections, 42% of the population, if that Chavista mass — many of the Chavista people are disillusioned — if their participation takes place and the members of organized labor, the peasant movement, people outside of the Chavista movement, but people who belong to different organizations in civil society, I think that that would get the ball rolling. I think that would create an atmosphere that would be conducive to some sort of national conciliation and a national dialog. SHARMINI PERIES: And how likely is it that that could take place? When you watched the May Day celebrations in Caracas, you saw a huge turnout of people largely organized by the unions celebrating workers’ rights and workers’ day, and there it seemed like there was quite a bit of support for the government who has been actually quite closely working with the workers’ movements in Venezuela. Is that an accurate description? STEVE ELLNER: Yes, I think that Venezuela’s very much polarized and the opposition in calling for regime change and raising the banner of regime change is really the only concrete proposal that it’s putting forward. Other proposals as well, but no economic proposal, no social proposal, nothing concrete in terms of solving the pressing economic problems of the country. They’re not recognizing the fact that you do have this polarization. People are saying that the Maduro government is on its last leg. That’s I don’t think accurate, at least at this point. It’s a very volatile situation and things can change. But the fact of the matter is, that in the last elections the Chavistas were defeated, they were heavily defeated, but they received 42% of the vote. And the reason why they were defeated was that many of the people didn’t vote at all. So that, if this call for a constituent assembly succeeds in activating people, and specifically different sectors of the population — the Chavistas and the non-Chavistas who belong to these unions, these organization in civil society and especially the community councils — then you’ll have … that will be a game changer. I think that that scenario, that best case scenario would result in a modification of the opposition’s discourse. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Steve, when you look at the international media coverage of what’s going on in Venezuela, you see repeated reports of opposition demonstrations and the ongoing economic problems, such as inflation, and shortages of food, and basic needs people have, and a lot of that is true; however, that reporting, combined with these ongoing protests for the last six weeks and how violent they are, and all of that, paints a picture that there’s a great opposition to the government itself. But I got quite a different picture when I watched that May Day protest. Those were the largest … actually, they were not protests, but they were pro-government, largely organized by unions, and Chavistas, and so on, these were the largest demonstrations I actually saw anywhere and The Real News did do some coverage of what was happening across the world on that day. These were the larges protests I saw. Now, how much support is there for the government, and is that kind of international mainstream media reporting of what’s going on in Venezuela accurate? STEVE ELLNER: Well, I think both versions have an element of truth. The opposition is very much mobilized. I think that it’s important to point out that the opposition’s mobilization capacity has fluctuated heavily throughout these 18 years of Chavista rule. The opposition was very much mobilized at the time of the coup in 2001 and [inaudible 00:11:20] of 2001-2002, and that tapered off in succeeding years. By 2006, after Chavez was reelected president, the opposition lost that mobilization capacity. It has regained it. There’s no question about it that the opposition protests are massive. But, as you point out, the Chavistas also have an amazing mobilization capacity and they always have. Their mobilization capacity has not fluctuated like that of the opposition. And I say amazing because 18 years is a long period of time and inevitably there’s an erosion of support, or at least active support, for any government, especially a government that proposes radical far-reaching change. So that the fact that the Chavistas after all these years are still able to get their people out, I think is a very fundamental factor because if the Chavistas were to lose that mobilization capacity, I think that Maduro’s stay in power would be very tenuous at that point. You know, in 2002 with the coup, one of the things that the opposition mistakenly stated was that the Chavistas had lost their mobilization capacity. In Spanish it’s called [foreign 00:12:40], and that’s an important term here in Venezuela. They didn’t lose it in 2002, as subsequent events demonstrated, and they still have it to this day. SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, finally, if you could advise the government at this time, what would you say to them in terms of what needs to happen to bring back peace and stability to the country? STEVE ELLNER: I would firstly say that the government should do more to strengthen the position of the quote moderates. I say quote because it’s not an easy term to deal with, but there are moderates within the opposition. Even though the opposition leaders all seem to converge on a hard-line approach towards the government, there are members of the opposition who favor emphasizing economic issues, and by implication a de-emphasizing the accusation that the Maduro government is a dictatorship, that communism is around the corner, that kind of thing. I think that that’s positive because the economic problems are recognized by everybody and an incorporation of the moderates in the decision-making process, specifically in the constituent assembly … if they were able to get some of the moderates who identified with the opposition but are willing to sit down and talk and make concrete proposals, I think that would be a triumph for the government and I think that their discourse at this point should reflect that objective of trying to rein in the more moderate sectors of the opposition. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve, I thank you so much for your insight and analysis, and hope to have you back very soon. Thank you. STEVE ELLNER: Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here 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.