Steve Ellner: The image of Venezuela as an oppressive failed state is really very far from what’s happening on the ground.
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Earlier this week, Venezuela’s national electoral council, known as the CNE, announced that the presidential recall referendum will be proceeding to the next phase, and outlined a timeline for the rest of the process. According to the electoral authority, the next step is to collect 20 percent of the registered voters’ signatures in three days. This process can now take place in late October, meaning that if it is successful, a recall referendum won’t happen until three months later in late January. According to Venezuela’s constitution, if the recall happens after January 10 in the last two months of the president’s term, this means that the vice president, someone whom the current president Maduro appointed, would take over as president. Joining us now to discuss the situation in Venezuela is Steve Ellner. Steve has taught at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela since 1977. He’s the author and editor of a number of books on Venezuela, and the most recent, Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power. He joins us today from Barcelona, Venezuela. Steve, so good to have you with us. STEVE ELLNER: Good to be on the program. PERIES: So finally the national electoral council outlined the timeline for the recall referendum, and dashed the opposition’s hopes that it might still take place within the year in order to hold a presidential election before the last two years of the president’s term. What has the opposition’s reaction been to the CNE’s declaration? ELLNER: Well, the opposition claims that the procedure for the recall, the requirements for the 20 percent of the registered vote, vote signatures, that it is feasible to carry out the process in the course of this year. That it isn’t necessary to wait until next year. And the difference is very important, because if the recall election is held after January 10, then if Maduro loses that recall, then he will step down and the vice president, Aristobulo Isturiz, will become president for the rest of the term, the two years that remains in the presidential term, so that the opposition will not have the option of being able to come to power in these next two years. The Chavistas state that the opposition made a mistake, that they didn’t concentrate on the effort, on the recall effort. They didn’t collect the votes that they needed to initiate the process until three months after the beginning of the year, until late March. They waited because they themselves were divided. There were currents in the opposition that didn’t want to have anything to do with the recall, and they favored other courses of action, so that as a result of divisions within the opposition and as a result of some errors in collecting those signatures, the 1 percent that they collected that initiated the process, as a result this whole process has been held up. PERIES: Right. And government is also saying that the petition for the recall was submitted too late, and this petition also included countless forged signatures. What is your interpretation of what actually happened? ELLNER: You know, you talk about Cabello, who’s really the second key person in Chavista government, in Chavista command, stated the other day that the Chavistas don’t want the recall to take place this year. That is their position. Of course, that really isn’t any secret. It’s obvious that they don’t want it. And they have the right to insist on a close revision of the signatures that have been collected, because as you’ve mentioned, there are so many irregularities. For instance, there were over 10,000 signatures of deceased people. There were several thousand signatures of people who are underage, and therefore cannot vote, and their signature does not count. There were a number of signatures of prisoners, when in fact there was no collection of signatures within the jail system in Venezuela. So because of these mistakes on the part of the opposition, Diosdado Cabello stated, well, the Chavistas are just taking advantage of the situation. They are insisting on something that they have a right to insist on, and that is that these signatures be reviewed and that that in itself is slowing down the process. And as you mentioned, the opposition did wait too long in order to initiate the process. Instead of doing it at the beginning of the year, on January 1, they waited three months. And as a result, there just isn’t enough time this year for that recall election to be held. PERIES: And now on top of all the internal strife that’s going on, 15 countries of the Organization of American States just issued a statement urging the Venezuelan authorities to organize the recall referendum as soon as possible, and it was signed by 15 countries, as I said, including the U.S., Canada, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil, all countries that are leaning right, aligned with the United States. What do you make of this, and do you think the international pressure will make any difference with regard to what’s happening in the internal electoral procedures in Venezuela? From what I understand the procedures are very clearly spelled out in terms of recall referendums. ELLNER: Right. There’s no question about it, that there is a fundamental change in the correlation of forces politically, ideologically speaking, in Latin America over the last year. Elections have been held in countries like Peru, Argentina. There have been what some people are calling a soft coup that just took place in Brazil, that took place in Paraguay a couple years ago, that also took place in Honduras. And that has really changed things in terms of Venezuela’s position within the context. You know, Chavez played a key role in promoting Latin American [unity], and that coincided with a period of [inaud.] for the [inaud.] countries, Argentina, Brazil, to Ecuador, Bolivia, et cetera. El Salvador is a third example. And as a result I keep promoting [inaud.] Latin American community outside of the OAS. Just Latin American nations. This was the case with [inaud.], it was the case with Unasur, which takes in just South America. And so that the OAS, which some claim has been, is dominated by the United States and always has been, was undermined. Now the situation has changed, and what is somewhat ironic is that the countries whose legitimacy has been most questioned are the countries that are at the forefront of this effort to ostracize Venezuela. Specifically in the case of Mercosur. Venezuela should assume the provisional presidency of Mercosur, which is done on an occasional basis. And it’s Paraguy that has really been objecting to that. But you know, the government of Paraguay came to power in what some consider to be a soft coup. The same thing with the case of Brazil. Argentina took a more moderate position, at least at first. So there’s no question about it, that Venezuela is finding itself somewhat isolated within Latin America, and the efforts that were made by Chavez to promote unity basically involving the more radical leftist governments, such as Brazil, such as [livia], Ecuador, in Venezuela, and the more moderate leftist governments such as Argentina under the Kirchners, and Brazil, and Paraguay, but also trying to rein in non-leftist governments like that of Colombia. And I know the situation’s totally different. And this manifests itself every day in condemnations of Venezuela, resolutions pointing to violation of human rights in Venezuela, and I think that that really has to be analyzed. PERIES: Steve, you’re a longtime follower and you’ve been living in Venezuela and have been a part of sort of the political analysis of Venezuela for a long time now. When you think about what’s happening now in the moment that Venezuela is in, President Chavez faced similar kinds of pressures prior to the coup that took place in Venezuela against him. And so if you, if you think about the continental pressure, the pressure in terms of the oil industry and havoc and so on that led to the coup against him, are conditions repeating itself here? ELLNER: Well, I would say that to a certain extent there are similarities, in the sense that Venezuela was politically, ideologically isolated at the time in 2002. But you know, consider the fact that during the coup, the coup that took place for two days in April of 2002, the Latin American community, even though there wasn’t any leftist presence in Latin America at the time, nevertheless condemned the coup. And if any country was isolated it was the United States. The United States with, as a result of the efforts of Otto Reich under the Bush administration, attempted to convince other Latin American countries to recognize the de facto government of Pedro Carmona. And the rest of Latin America, with just one or two exceptions, refused to do so. So in a sense, the situation now for Maduro is even more difficult, because he’s not getting the support. He’s facing the hostility of countries that, of governments that have just come to power, and are committed to a right-wing agenda in terms of economic policy, and have been pretty hostile to the position of the Maduro government within the community of nations, within the community of Latin American nations. PERIES: Right. And then of course the OAS issuing these kinds of statements also smacked of what happened just prior to the coup that took place against President Chavez. Finally, I want to ask you, Steve, one of the things that we keep seeing in the international media repeated again and again is about the crisis and the turmoil that Venezuela is going through in terms of the ability to feed its people and find basic goods and services, and with the fallen oil prices and government not having as much revenue as it did. It is having a difficult time providing some of the services and goods that was provided for the people in the prior era of the Chavista governments. How are you feeling the crunch, as they say, on the ground? I mean, you’re living there. How is it to actually live there right now under these pressures? ELLNER: Well, it’s not easy. It’s not easy. And what the media, what the U.S. media, states about the situation, the economic situation, in Venezuela certainly reflects what is happening. On the other hand, there are exaggerations. I would say that one of the things the media does is to juxtapose the economic difficulties, which are undeniable, and the political situation in terms of violation of human rights, which is highly exaggerated. That’s another issue, which I won’t go into. But that is, you know, it–the statements that are coming out of the media leave the impression that you have a failed state in Venezuela. And that is, that is hardly the case. The government is not a failed state government. It’s taking measures, they’re not completely successful, but they’ve alleviated the situation to a certain extent. And in addition to that, the image of a failed state with regard to repression and that kind of thing is really very far from what’s happening on the ground. But with regard to the shortages, you have a dual-tier situation in which you have long lines, people wait on long lines for hours and hours to get goods, to purchase goods, at highly-subsidized prices. Now, it’s the poor people for the most part that do that, and the middle class end up purchasing goods either in legal commercial establishments that sell goods higher than the regulated price, so the middle class pays more without having to wait in line, or they purchase the goods in the informal economy, whose prices are even higher. So they have a triple-tier situation in which goods are available to a certain extent, but prices are not uniform. PERIES: All right, Steve, I thank you so much for joining us today, and we’ll be keeping an eye on this situation with the referendum, and I hope you can join us again. Thank you. ELLNER: I’d be glad to. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.