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Ten Questions About Venezuela

Ten Questions About Venezuela

Diez interrogantes sobre la situación de Venezuela

Luis Duno-Gottberg

In this issue of Literal, we try to offer two points of view regarding the current situation in Venezuela: that of the critics and that of the sympathizers. To this end, we have prepared 10 fundamental questions regarding the crisis, its causes, and its possible outcomes: all this, with the objective of providing a panorama the reader can use to arrive at his or her own conclusions.

1. What ignited the current conflict in Venezuela?

To summarize with three ideas, I would firstly say that the present conflict owes as much to the failures of the Chávez project as to clear class antagonism and open political opportunism. In this sense, it is a combination between the legitimate discontent of one segment of the population and a violent reconfiguring process of political factions in their struggle for power.

Now, just as it is an error to think that the conflict within Venezuelan society during the past decade began with the arrival of Hugo Chávez on the political scene, it is also an oversimplification to derive what is happening in the country today exclusively from the protest that began in the month of February. The origin of our polarized reality is to be found in the very design of a nation that marginalized and violated the vast majority of the people.

In more immediate terms, the conflict responds to a specific juncture where the deficiencies of the model of administration and governance of the Chavist project intersected with political ambitions and schisms within the opposition. With regards to the former, it is certain that there is a substantial economic crisis, with high levels of inflation and a growing monetary devaluation that affects consumers in a country that, not having succeeded in effectively activating its means of production, depends to a large extent on imports. Another factor generating discontent has to do with criminal violence, a phenomenon linked to generalized corruption, the continental expansion of drug trafficking, Colombian paramilitaries, the possession of arms, and cultural patterns rooted in machismo. On the other hand, what happened in February should also be seen as a kind of “coup d’état within the opposition.” What do I mean by this? In the last presidential election, conducted some months after the death of Chávez, the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski garnered a notable increase in the number of voters who favored him. Here, the opposition captured more than half a million votes that had previously gone to Chávez. This achievement was tied to the candidate’s recognition that, after the fiasco of 2002 (year of the Carmona episode), any viable opposition would needed to be of broad appeal and accept some form of “welfare state” in its electoral pitch. Nevertheless, not every faction of the opposition appreciated this result. Impatience led to violent protests against election results that were legitimized by massive and peaceful voting by diverse political participants, above and beyond the advantage that state control granted to its Chavist candidate. Peace was re-established, albeit momentarily.

During the election of mayors and governors in 2013, a new strategy emerged: the opposition claimed that results would function as a referendum of sorts, challenging Nicolás Maduro’s legitimacy. Voters decided otherwise, and the president, who began in a position of weakness, seemed to gain some ground as the government won an even greater margin of popular support. The failure of the opposition’s strategy led to virulent criticism and Capriles’s leadership appeared seriously eroded. At this juncture, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado found an opportune opening for promoting their own interests, in particular the idea of “The Exit.”

Let’s unpack this event: facing what they saw as weakness in their own former ally and recent presidential candidate, while at the same time pondering the impossibility of relying on the electoral process, they began to stimulate a massive presence of their supporters in the streets of the country’s major cities in order to force the resignation of the president elect. From this point on, they called upon the public to protest the economic crisis and its inherent insecurity–which is perfectly lawful–but with the underlying rationale that the current administration should cease to govern, which could only happen through a referendum as stipulated by the national constitution. Thus, legitimate demands for safety, improved economics, and the broadening of the political sphere converged with disputes from more extreme factions of the opposition over power within the opposition and a call to disrupt constitutional order. The result has been a chaotic situation that runs the risk of normalizing strikes, sabotage, and assassinations as forms of resistance against the government and its institutions. A climate of destruction and anxiety has ensued, exacerbating polarization and threatening the stability of the nation. Day after day we deplore the loss of life –of students for and against Chávez, workers, and various members of the police force alike.

2. Do shortages exist in the country? And if so, what is being done to resolve this?

Yes, there are shortages of many kinds and this has multiple causes, as might be expected. On one hand, there are serious flaws in the economic policies deployed in recent years, which along with the acutely conflictive climate have discouraged investment. Failures in this area are serious and need to be addressed. Venezuela also continues to be a country that imports a significant amount of its food, even though some sectors have managed to increase their output. The incapacity to develop our means of production and our negative trade balance might be part of that old “legacy” of petro-culture  which is ensnared in an economy of extraction. Nevertheless, the shortages also originate in different forms of economic chicanery, from the millionaire who smuggles goods subsidized by the State to the hoarding of food staples and other goods. For example, many tons of foodstuffs have been found hidden in industry warehouses. And what is being done? Though different controls have been attempted, for example, an electronic system to prevent people from buying subsidized goods for black market resale or for smuggling into Colombia, effective means have not been taken to stimulate the economy and this deserves a serious national debate.

3. To what do you attribute this series of manifestations? Are they the result of an internal conflict, or are they encouraged by external interests?

The conflict responds to two factors. As I suggested earlier, within Venezuela there are groups that benefit from the exacerbation of antagonism, which is true for both sides. For example, those who perceive their opportunities as diminished by the electoral process gain visibility and leadership through violence. Those who wish to reposition themselves within each group as viable leaders build themselves up as strong figures, ready for anything. Those who saw themselves excluded from the riches distributed by the State also back a new order that would allow them access to petro-dollars.

However, there are also more immediate and legitimate reasons for protesting, as I alluded to above. The economic crisis, heightened insecurity, and corruption are real problems that concern both the opposition and the supporters of the Chávez project.

Another fundamental element needed to understand the role that internal and external factors play within the conflict is the “political geography” of the protest. This involves thinking about the political and social significance of geographic hotspots –or those places where discontent with the Chávez project has been expressed with greater violence. Careful examination of these locations would shed new light on class antagonism in geopolitical terms, particularly for example in the case of paramilitary activity in Táchira, or in the instances of protest localized in middle-class urban areas.

Finally, we cannot underestimate interests that exist outside of Venezuela in favor of seeing the so-called “Chávez Era” come to a definitive end. Over the last fifteen years, the Venezuelan State has been antagonistic to the interests of the United States, where concerns about the nationalist stance of the revolutionary project in turn directly affect the nature of economic exchange and global politics.

4. From President Maduro’s point of view, the “evil triad” is represented by Capriles, López and Machado… Evil must be fought and made to disappear. How can this desire to make the opposition disappear be reconciled with democratic coexistence?

There are various assumptions in that reasoning that I do not share. The first error is in thinking in terms of a “trilogy of evil,” an image similar to Bush’s well-known axis, which leads to erasing the specificity of political conflicts. The opposition is heterogeneous and even Capriles, López, and Machado are distinct from one another. The Chavist group is also heterogeneous. The only means of resolving the conflict now choking the country is rooted in dialogue and recognition of one another. Both sides mutually and vehemently deny the other. The Manichean notion of “good versus evil” is present not only in Maduro, but also in some sectors of the opposition. One has to understand that there is a considerable percentage of the population that values the Chávez project and that voted for it. Talk of “The Exit” ignores, erasing with barricades and fire, half of the country. The repression of protest and denial of the opposition as a political force strangles the other half of the country. We must be more vigilant in distancing ourselves from this logic –and this language.

5. What is the human rights situation?

There have been certain violations of human rights by official bodies, just as there have also been abuses by civilian groups on both sides. When a group of violent demonstrators blocks an ambulance’s access, stretches wires at street entrances to knock down motorcycle riders, and shoots at persons manning barricades, is it not an attack against human rights? When a civilian organization intimidates opposition groups that express their discontent with the direction the country is taking, is it not an attack against human rights? It may be argued that only the State can violate human rights, but it seems to me that this reasoning leaves unacceptable openings for violence. The government is under the obligation to restore order in any way without violating the right to peaceful protest. The perverse means of antagonism described above makes rising to that challenge more difficult with each passing moment.

6. The Venezuelan State has maintained that the hundreds of photo and videos circulating online, showing repression of the civil population, belong to other times and other regions. These do not represent the true situation, they say. Nonetheless, despite of censure received by CNN, live foreign television broadcasts are also showing repression. What is the actual reality being experienced in Venezuela?

The manipulation of images is a phenomenon that has reached grotesque dimensions. A large quantity of photographs has been altered and circulated internationally, stirring up violence and producing false interpretations regarding the country’s true condition. Images originating in Brazil, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and even images of sexual violence taken from pornographic sources have been distributed with the suggestion that they are taking place in Venezuela. “Reality” is always mediated, but these kinds of media documents are not merely filtered by personal interpretation; rather, their systematic production and dissemination constitutes a true war strategy that exacerbates hatred.

7. The differences between Maduro and Chávez are many and it is reasonable to say that the latter’s charisma was not passed down. Personality aside, what improvements has Maduro’s administration accomplished?

I believe that Maduro and Chávez are completely different. They have different personalities and different styles. The national and international context has also changed. In many respects, the situation of the country has worsened. Adding to the mistakes in the exercise of power, for example the planning and implementation of development and management projects, the effects of a fierce antagonism on the part of those who struggle for the control of a wealthy petro-State have also been injurious. The confluence of these factors easily destroys a country, but it is far worse if we also consider the harm caused not by peaceful and necessary protest, but by violent expressions of dissent. The latter has implemented a continuous and, at times, brutal siege. Here I am referring to economic sabotage, vandalism, and harassment, all of which have had a significant economic impact that compounding the government’s own managerial deficiencies.

8. How are the problems of currency and ID cards being resolved? And the physical insecurity? Is Caracas among the most dangerous cities in the world.

The issue of foreign currency is complex. The Venezuelan State has controlled the exchange rate as a means of averting a destabilizing phenomenon; namely, the loss of capital that accelerated with the arrival of Chávez and that was tied as much to a lack of confidence as to a calculated attempt to undermine the government. Another undeniable fact is that the State benefits from the control of foreign currency because of the massive revenue it receives in U.S. dollars through oil exports. That type of strategy, however, does not work in the long run and Venezuela is no exception. When you generate a scarcity of foreign currency, speculation and corruption are not far behind. How then do we move away from this practice without causing further instability? It is possible that the implementation of multiple exchange rates–while a bit surreal and certainly a headache in terms of economic planning–might work as a means for gradual withdrawal from this practice and the eventual release of foreign currency. With regards to the misuse of credit cards abroad that aim to dupe currency control for economic gain, this seems to be nothing more than a picaresque expression of an aberration that, beyond a doubt, becomes more significant in other sectors of the financial system. I would like to comment at length on the increase of “insecurity” in Venezuela, but unfortunately, am constrained to brevity here. Firstly, as with all else in a country that is deeply polarized, some will decide to accept the government statistics, while others will recognize those of the opposition. (I recommend a study by Dorothy Kronick, of Stanford University, for additional reading.) Regardless, one way or the other, the outlook is deplorable and requires an intervention that takes into account both the structure of the government and social practices as well. Secondly, I believe it is beneficial to opt for another concept when discussing this theme. Instead of “insecurity,” let us think about the “criminal violence” that affects, to a great extent, the most disadvantaged classes –even though the instances of violence to celebrities may be the most visible in the mass media. This distinction is key in understanding the complexity of the violence and its political character. Here one has to address the phenomenon of poverty in the face of the most vulgar consumerism, the effects of drug trafficking, the corruption of the police and prison systems, and the firm hold of a macho culture of cruelty and violence. We live in a violent country because of the confluence of these factors.

9. Maduro has systematically denounced the interference of foreign governments in domestic politics, but not of its most “friendly nation”: the Cuban government. Do you find this contradictory?

Yes, your statement is logically formulated in that way. And yes, within such logic there could be a contradiction, because it is true that there is an important relationship between Venezuela and Cuba, which provides assistance in exchange for oil. It is also true that the United States provides assistance to those who want to destabilize a democratically elected government. From another point of view, Maduro’s accusation might stem from a raison d’etat that denounces the interference of powers that it considers enemies to national interest. It is one thing for a State to establish sovereign alliances based on its interests (whether we share them or not is something else), and it is another when external forces operate against said interests.

10. What role is played by other Latin American governments that are allied with the Bolivarian Revolution?

In recent years, I have felt that Venezuela is something of a proxy country where, despite myriad differences, battles are waged akin to those of the Cold War. On the other hand, I believe that there is greater institutional strength in Latin America, or at least a clear intuition that destabilizing governments will lead to a major regional crisis. What happened recently at the OAS, where institutional and democratic procedures were victorious rather than Maduro’s administration per se, has great value.

If you would now permit me a final reflection on the need to reimagine the agonizing nature of Venezuelan politics: the dynamic of friend-enemy as the defining principle of the factions in conflict and the exaltation of self-affirmation will only bring about self-destruction. Curiously, there is ambivalence in the word “hostility,” where both hostis (other, stranger) and hospes (guest) coexist. It might be that Nations function under a similar ambiguity, accepting and rejecting the Other –who is a guest and a stranger, near and far. Nevertheless, it remains in the hands of all Venezuelans to conceive of a different sense of community, one that rejects such a dynamic. This doesn’t mean abandoning difference, but rather transforming it into a democratic confrontation sustained by principles of inclusiveness and respect.

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