In an effort to discredit Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election, the Trump administration is rallying conservative governments in Latin America to discredit the vote and isolate Venezuela. If the opposition enters the race divided and if new economic measures work, President Maduro could still win explains Lucas Koerner
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The government of Venezuela and leading opposition parties are about to sign an agreement that is designed to move the country forward and ahead in this year’s presidential election. The country’s National Constituent Assembly or ANC, already decided last week to move up the presidential election from late 2018 to some time in April. Meanwhile, the government announced on Wednesday that it will abandon its lowest fixed exchange rate, which many economists have long blamed for being one of the root causes of Venezuela’s long-lasting economic crisis.
However, complicating the situation for the Venezuelan government, the Trump administration is seeking harsher economic sanctions against the country and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently touring Latin America lobbying other conservative governments in the region to participate in its sanctions. Joining me now to analyze this panorama of issues and developments in Venezuela is Lucas Koerner, joining us from Caracas to talk about these developments. Thank you so much for coming on, Lucas.
LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, let’s start with the upcoming presidential election that was just moved up. The US State Department announced that it will not accept the results of the upcoming presidential vote. This seems highly unusual, doesn’t it, to declare a vote invalid before it has even taken place? What’s really going on here?
LUCAS KOERNER: I think this reflects a longstanding US and US-backed opposition practice of effectively refusing to recognize any election which they stand to lose, while turning around and recognizing elections that they win. Let’s remember back in 2015 with the December 6th legislative elections, the United States, particularly Hillary Clinton, was calling fraud in the days before and the opposition won a surprise landslide victory, which they recognized, of course, despite all of these fraud claims. I think that it’s very dubious, this discourse that especially in Venezuela, a country that has held three elections since August, and internationally recognized elections with international observers, and the opposition has yet to present any substantial evidence to bolster its claims of fraud in those instances.
It’s a very dubious claim to not recognize these elections. It’s more, it’s part of it’s an insurance policy, that the United States fears the real possibility that given the mobilization of President Maduro’s base, that he actually has a higher popularity than a number of other regional leaders, that he actually does stand to win, especially facing an internally divided opposition. This is a political ploy to, in case that he does win, they can simply write it off as illegitimate and they can further step up the sanctions, which are strangling the Venezuelan economy.
SHARMINI PERIES: How aggressive do you think the State Department, Rex Tillerson, is going to be in this tour of Latin America, where he is statedly meeting with the countries that are more conservative, more aligned with the United States, to impose stricter sanctions on Venezuela than there already exist?
LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I mean, let’s just go back to the speech that he was basically openly joking about the active, “active role,” of Latin American militaries in overthrowing elected leaders. I mean, this is a very bloody history that most recently Honduras, in 2009, where the elected President Manuel Zelaya was taken from the presidential palace and put on a plane in his pajamas, with the complete backing of the Obama administration, at least the impunity of that administration at the time. You have the administration of Juan, really, the regime of Juan Orlando Hernández, that was just re-elected in Honduras in what was an openly recognized, even by the OAS, as a fraudulent election. I mean, the United States is embracing these types of regimes with open arms.
Or in Brazil, the Temer regime, which came to power in a parliamentary coup where Michel Temer himself, there’s evidence that he gave bribe, received bribes for the Kuczynski regime in Peru. Likewise, just pardoned a war criminal, Fujimori. I mean, there’s enough corruption and human rights abuses that are backed by the United States to go around. Yet, of course, Tillerson is applying this kind of double standard and singling out Venezuela for these kind of dubious claims.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, as I understand, the opposition is currently meeting with the government and about to announce an agreement. What do we expect this agreement to include and how do you think it will shape the legitimacy of the elections coming up?
LUCAS KOERNER: Well, the key issue, at least for the government negotiators, is calling on the opposition to recognize first the National Constituent Assembly, which they boycotted basically in a period of protracted anti-government violence that left over 100 people dead. Moreover, to lobby the United States, of course, which they have very, the opposition leaders have very close relationships with Marco Rubio, Senator Marco Rubio, and other right-wing figures within the US foreign policy establishment. Likewise, in Europe, to suspend these punishing sanctions, which we just saw were, again, ratcheted up with, last week, the EU administering its first round of sanctions against Venezuela officials and the UK now announcing extremely broad-sounding sanctions on anyone who does any kind of business that could basically provide aid to the Venezuelan government’s repressive capacity.
I mean, this is clearly the government’s demand that these kinds of completely illegal sanctions be lifted. It remains to be seen whether that can be done given that Marco Rubio himself has said that even if he is lobbied by the opposition, these sanctions will remain. On the opposition side of things, they’re demanding that the, first, the issue of the electoral authority, they’re claiming that the representatives there need to be renewed and appointed by, with the agreement of the opposition-elected parliament and the status of that parliament needs to be normalized because it’s been a situation of contempt of court due to their refusal to unseat some representatives who were accused of voter fraud. So, there’s an issue on both sides of attempting to normalize the situation of political crisis.
Nonetheless, it’s quite difficult given that something of a zero-sum game between on the one hand, Washington, and the more radical sectors of the opposition that want to overthrow the government at any cost. While on the other hand, the government certainly is under pressure from its own bases to not cave in to the kinds of neo liberal demands that are placed upon it, to carry out the kinds of structural adjustment packages that have long been trumpeted by Washington and by the IMF and other institutions to solve these kinds of crises. It remains to be seen if this agreement actually comes out within the next 72 hours as it’s been said. It could mean perhaps that Washington’s stance on rejecting the elections could be even further I think placed in more dubious light but it remains to be seen where, it’s all hearsay at this point.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Lucas, many honest observers of the Venezuelan revolution, some supporters of the Venezuelan revolution, have raised issue with barring people from participating in this presidential election. So, he government apparently has put restrictions on who could run and some people have been barred. Who’s been barred, or excluded from running and what will this mean to the honesty and integrity of the elections?
LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I think that we have to break it down because I mean, there’s some cases, for example, Leopoldo López, who’s a leader of the ultra-right Popular Will Party, who led the 2014… violent anti-government protest that at that time left 43 people dead and it was explicitly a campaign of the exit, the exit of the democratically elected president. In that case, he was convicted of a crime, sentenced to jail, and he remains under house arrest. There’s a good reason for him not to be able to participate in this election. The cases against other figures, for example, Henrique Capriles in April. It was announced that he would be banned for 15 years on allegedly linked to corruption. He wasn’t convicted of corruption. There was some…delegations there, but that’s more sketchy in a certain sense.
Likewise, the ban on the opposition, main opposition coalition…which was I believe last week is prohibited from participating in the election on the grounds that in 2016 they collected 55,000 fraudulent signatures as part of a recall referendum process. Similarly, these are kinds of, it’s maneuvering on the part of the government in order to try to win the elections, and obviously, I wouldn’t consider it fair play. Though I would say that all ruling parties everywhere in the world including the Democratic party in the United States do this kind of thing in order to get the candidates that they want to win. I mean, I don’t agree with it necessarily but we should put it in context.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s move on to the state of the economy, the hyperinflation Venezuela is currently experiencing. According to some reports, with a monthly inflation rate of exceeding 50% per month, how are people living? Just the other day the government announced that it’s now getting rid of the preferential I think, 10 bolívar, dollar, exchange rate, which for the past two years has governed the rate at which many basic goods were imported. Now at the same time, the government is also introducing a new currency later this month called the petro, which will be based on the price of oil per barrel. What do you expect the consequences of these moves to be and will it have a positive impact on the economy ahead of the elections?
LUCAS KOERNER: The price’s currently are absolutely insane. I mean, nauseating in a certain sense. They’re increasing at an incredibly rapid rate and the government’s instituted minimum wage adjustments just are not making it to really allow people to purchase what they need. Though, there is the government’s network of neighborhood administered house-to-house basically food networks called the CLAPs, which are administered and controlled by local communal councils and they actually cover a large part of the Venezuelan population. People are able to get what they need through this kind of emergency measure and it is interesting in a sense that common people, local community organizations are getting experience on how to provide for their needs in a collective way, instead of everyone just individually going to a supermarket.
It’s an interesting measure but the crux of the issue is exactly what you say. The issue of the exchange rate that, I think a lot of economists like Mark Weisbrot, who you’ve interviewed have shown that this is really the policy failure of the Maduro administration up till now to take on this issue that basically you’re giving, if the black market rate is at 230,000, and you’re giving away dollars at 10 bolívars, and these people who get these dollars are just going to sell them again on the black market, further contributing to this kind of inflation depreciation spiral. If in fact we’re going to see a unification of these rates and elimination of this lower rate, which is a constant temptation to these economic perversions, we could really see a recovery here.
I think that the petro represents an attempt to kind of break with the financial blockade, which was formalized by the Trump administration in August with basically a ban on any US banks having any dealings in Venezuelan debt, sovereign debt, or Venezuelan oil, oil company PDVSA debt. It’s been absolutely devastating for Venezuela’s ability to import vital food and medicines with millions of dollars tied up in international financial systems because they might have been signed, the purchase might have been signed by a Venezuelan official who’s sanctioned by Washington, or by the EU, or by Canada, or etc. I mean, it’s, I think that this could be a breakthrough, though we should be very cautious and wait and see what happens.
SHARMINI PERIES: Finally Lucas, one issue that has been getting a lot of headline attention worldwide about Venezuela, is the recent crackdown against corruption, which began with Tarek William Saab, the new Attorney General who took over the Public Ministry. Many top-level government officials, especially in the oil industry are being caught up in this corruption cleansing. What is your sense of what’s going on and please include the fact that former head of the, or the former Ambassador of the United Nations who used to head up the Oil Ministry and was a big follower of Chávez, Rafael Ramírez, is also caught up in this and I understand the government has issued an arrest warrant for him. Give us a sense of what’s going on here and is this a good thing?
LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I think that we have to say this is probably the most significant anti-corruption drive arguably in the entire period of Chávez mode of rule in Venezuela. I mean, they have arrested within the oil industry alone, 70 mid to top-level managers, including the president of PDVSA, the oil minister, and they’ve put out a warrant for the arrest of Rafael Ramírez, who was the head of the Oil Ministry for 10 years, and 12 years as president of PDVSA. I mean, clearly PDVSA, which during the height of the oil boom saw hundreds of billions of dollars come into its coffers and the way this was administered, I mean, clearly there was a temptation for corruption there that played out. Many of these figures were involved in all kinds of false contracting schemes in which they would say that they would import a particular part, and they wouldn’t actually import, or a contraband of crude, etc.
Clearly, this is a very significant event and Saab has also gone into prosecute other areas, which by the way, all these, he’s argued this has been completely left uncharted by the former Attorney General, Luisa Ortega, who actually fled the country when she herself came under investigation for corruption, for running an extortion ring from the Office of the Attorney General, so that, she did not investigate that the Panama Papers, for instance, is also an area of investigation. All of the illicit practices with the currency exchange system has also come under the purview of Saab. This is an interesting development. I think that a lot of people particularly on the left in Venezuela have argued that it should go farther, that not a single, for example, military official has been convicted yet of any wrongdoing.
That obviously should raise an eyebrow, because the military is a very important economic player and controls a lot of the food distribution. There definitely needs to be, the number of the ex-food ministers have been military officials and there definitely has been corruption there. So,it needs to go farther and it needs to go deeper but at the same time, we should note that the mainstream media’s narrative has been basically to dismiss this as another kind of authoritarian purge on the part of this dictatorship. While at the same time, lauding in the, basically, the Saudi monarch is a modernizer for his “anti-corruption drive,” which literally was completely arbitrary and actually saw some incredibly authoritarian practices in what is objectively a dictatorship. We should kind of look at both sides of this issue.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas. Much more to discuss about Venezuela but I thank you so much for joining us today and looking forward to the next couple of weeks unfolding, which is crucial for the Venezuelan people. Thank you so much.
LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.