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As the Pope Calls for Dialogue, a Debate on How to Resolve Venezuela’s Political & Economic Crisis

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In Venezuela, nearly 90 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured since April, when opposition groups began organizing a new round of street demonstrations. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused his opponents of waging an “armed insurrection” and economic sabotage backed by the United States. Opposition groups have accused Maduro of turning into a dictator. For more, we speak with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy. And we speak with Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez. He is a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and an adjunct lecturer of finance at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, where nearly 90 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured since April, when opposition groups began organizing a new round of street demonstrations. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused his opponents of waging a, quote, “armed insurrection” and economic sabotage backed by the United States. Opposition groups have accused Maduro of turning into a dictator. The recent round of street protests began after the Venezuelan Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its legislative power. The protests come as Venezuela’s economic crisis keeps worsening, as the country suffers from high inflation and food shortages.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Pope Francis appealed for a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis in Venezuela.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Dear brothers and sisters, Venezuela’s Independence Day will be marked on July 5th. I would like to assure this beloved nation that they are in my prayers, and express my closeness to the families who have lost their children in the demonstrations out in the streets. I appeal for an end to the violence and a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis. May Our Lady of Coromoto intercede for Venezuela, and let us pray for Our Lady of Coromoto for Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: The pope is the first Latin American pope. He’s originally from Argentina.

Well, over the past few weeks, a number of dramatic events have occurred in Venezuela. On June 28th, a Venezuelan police officer hijacked a helicopter and dropped grenades on the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court. Then, on July 5th, a crowd of about a hundred people, reportedly supporters of Maduro, stormed the opposition-led National Assembly and attacked lawmakers. Meanwhile, on Saturday, Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was released from military prison and put under house arrest.

To talk more about the situation in Venezuela, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Mark Weisbrot is with us, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy. Joining us from Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez. He’s a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and an adjunct lecturer of finance at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez in Chicago. Your assessment of what’s happening in Venezuela right now?

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: Well, first of all, thank you for having me on the show. It’s a really important topic to be discussing in such a forum.

Venezuela is really reaching probably the worst situation that it has had in living memory. There isn’t enough food. There is just gross, harrowing scarcities of medicine. And this is something that has been building up for a long time. For many years, the government has focused on large electoral spending binges that, despite the largest oil windfall in human history, have left Venezuela essentially broke and struggling to be able to both keep imports at levels that allow their populations to have basic goods, given that they’ve done really nothing to stimulate domestic production of any of these staples, while at the same time making foreign debt payments because of the indebtiture binge that the government went through.

So right now you have a government that is what I would call an unpopular populist government. Its rhetoric is very populist, but Maduro’s approval rating languishes just below 20 percent. There was an electoral—in 2015, the opposition won an electoral supermajority in the legislature. This new legislature has not been allowed to pass any laws, because they’re all struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. This is a Supreme Court that was freshly packed by Maduro himself, or by his pliant National Assembly, right before the new National Assembly took office. And then, governorship elections, which were slated for last year, have still not been taking—have still not taken place. The government, despite talking a good line about democracy, is now afraid of the electorate. And that’s something that creates a sense of conflict in which, even though the vast majority of Venezuelans feel that a different future will be better, have given up on the current regime as their leadership, there is really no democratic process in which they can, you know, move forward in that way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mark Weisbrot, I’d like to ask you your assessment. Clearly, Maduro succeeded President Hugo Chávez, who, despite much criticism of him, clearly enjoyed much more popularity among the Venezuelan people. Your sense of what’s been happening in Venezuela the past couple of years?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, I think a lot of what your other guest said is true, I mean, in terms of the overall situation. I mean, I could add to it: Inflation is over 500 percent, and you have scarcities of food and medicine, and the economy is in a very deep recession. And we could talk about that, if we have time, but I think, most importantly, going forward, it’s very important to avoid a civil war and escalating conflict there. And that’s why I’m very glad that you showed the pope, the pope’s call for dialogue and a democratic solution, because that was not reported anywhere in the international—major international media a week or so ago when he said it. And I think that’s the most important thing, going forward. And I think that, for example, the release of Leopoldo López, who was in jail for three years, that happened just a couple days ago through honest mediation. That was the former prime minister, Zapatero, from Spain, who was mediating there.

And it’s very important to distinguish that from what’s going on in the Organization of American States, which is just an attempt by the United States and its allies to use the organization to delegitimize the Venezuelan government so that it can be overthrown, something they’ve been trying to do for the last 15 years. And regime change is not going to—is not a solution there, and everyone should recognize that. It’s, you know—there’s over 100,000 people in the military there. There’s hundreds of thousands of people in militias. And a lot more people than that are armed. You really do have a danger of a civil war. And you have the Trump administration and Marco Rubio, who he seems to be listening to for advice on this—they want regime change. That’s their playbook. And so, if this mediation, which is a very—you know, there’s been a very hopeful sign now in the last few days, were to go forward, they’re going to—there’s a very big danger that they could sabotage that, and they could help push the country more toward civil war. So, this is very important, you know.

And it’s all political. In 2014, the Obama administration went to the OAS and tried to get a—to intervene against Venezuela, and the whole assembly reacted with a resolution supporting Maduro, because they were against regime change. Twenty-nine to three was the vote. Now you have right-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina—not just right-wing, but governments that are going to do whatever the Trump administration tells them on foreign policy. And so the OAS has become this instrument of regime change. And that’s very dangerous, because the media, of course, mostly reports it as though, you know, this is—they just care about human rights. And, you know, Marco Rubio openly threatened the governments of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and El Salvador, if they—that they would be punished if they didn’t vote with the U.S., you know, against Venezuela.

So, I think that’s the greatest danger, going forward, is that this really could escalate. You know, you remember the civil wars of the 1980s in Central America. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. You just had, you know, 50 years of a civil war in Colombia, which is coming to an end now through the agreement from last year. This could really get—spin out of control. And it’s very important—the most important thing is to avoid that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mark, I’d like to follow that point up, if I can, with Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, the issue of the polarization of Venezuelan society, and especially of the role of the military, because if it’s one thing that Hugo Chávez did leave as a legacy, it was as a military that pretty much defended the Bolivarian revolution. I’m thinking, for example, of the minister of defense, of Vladimir Padrino, who was a firm chavista, so that the military, in this case, even if the Maduro government continues to lose support, seems that it would be silently behind the Bolivarian revolution, and could lead to a potential civil war or much more violent situation, unless some kind of negotiations are reached. I’m wondering your thoughts on that.

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: Well, that’s the 1 million-bolivar question, which would be about $200 at the current exchange rate. Essentially—actually, before I answer that, there’s a couple of corrections I want to make on what—on Mark’s discussion. He said Leopoldo—the release of Leopoldo López. Leopoldo López has not been released. He is still serving out his 14-year sentence, but he’s doing it under house arrest. The Supreme Court ostensibly let him out for health reasons and because of some sort of unusual aspects of the evidentiary findings against him. This was the Supreme Court’s criminal wing, which tends to be a little bit less stolidly pro-Maduro than the constitutional chamber, which is the one that has struck down all the laws that the legislature has tried to pass.

And also, returning to the pope, there’s—this is not the first time the pope has made such a call. I think one of the reasons the international media may not have put as much attention on it is because this is the third or fourth time the pope has made a call for peace in Venezuela. And one of those times, the opposition actually engaged in dialogue with Maduro and with the current regime, and that led to the people leaving the streets. They sat down, and no concessions were made. Nothing was agreed upon. So, you can’t look at the opposition’s, let’s call it, insecurities about re-engaging with Maduro in a vacuum. This is something that has been learned through multiple attempts up to this point, some of which have involved the Vatican already.

As for the military, the military in Venezuela has traditionally been a strong social group in national decision-making. Venezuela has not had a war against one of its neighbors since independence. It has not had a civil war since the 19th century. The military traditionally in Venezuela was very community-oriented. And when, in 1989, you had riots, the Caracazo, there were—there was a massacre that was ordered by a former government against rioters, which really hurt the military’s credibility. And in that sense, Chávez, who attempted afterwards to overthrow that president in February of 1992, and then his supporters did so again in a coup attempt that killed hundreds of people in November of that year, that was something that created a bond between Hugo Chávez personally and the military, that I would say transcended just the fact that he came from them. The system that Maduro inherited is one that was very much designed to run and be fueled by Chávez. It’s a system that promises a lot, delivers much less, and that gulf was something that could be made up for in personal charisma and in just lavish oil rents, none of which apply in this new government under Maduro. So the military’s personal loyalty to Maduro is much weaker than it ever was under Hugo Chávez.

The reason, I would think, that the military has taken less of an active role throughout this crisis has to do with two factors. One, during the largest oil windfall in human history, which has essentially disappeared, there was a lot of corruption. And much of that, much of the smuggling, went to people who guarded the border. There’s important narcotrafficking that has gone on through Venezuela, largely through the Air Force and the naval forces, so there’s a lot of the military brass who may not personally like Maduro or think that he’s doing a good job, but the fear of a transition that might investigate what happened to that oil windfall, which has now disappeared, is something that keeps—makes people prefer the devil they know, in a certain—to a certain extent.

That said, while we’re not seeing any sort of organized insurrection within the military at a large scale, we are seeing a huge amount of defections. We’ve had hundreds of military defectors who have basically just walked off at this point. The read that I am sensing from the military right now is that unlike in the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chávez where the military reinstated him, I don’t think we would see that this time. I don’t think the military will take an active role in toppling Maduro, and I don’t think it should. But if there were to be, for example, a palace coup within Chavismo, I have serious doubts that the military would rally to defend him the way they once did for Chávez.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Weisbrot, your response to that?

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: The relationship just isn’t that strong.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get Mark Weisbrot’s respone to that.

MARK WEISBROT: Well, I think there’s—you know, Daniel is right that there’s a fear, not just in the military, but anybody who’s a chavista associated with—or anyone associated with the government, what would happen if a right-wing government were to come to power during a military coup, like they did in 2002. And within the 36 hours that they were in power, dozens of people were killed, and there was a roundup of government officials that had been begun. And this is—you know, the opposition does not have a democratic history in the last 15 years in Venezuela, not only the military coup, but they repeatedly rejected results of democratic elections and went to the streets and tried to overturn them. And so, there is a—there’s a lot of people who are afraid of what would happen to them, and not just military, but ordinary people, people associated with the government—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn—

MARK WEISBROT: —if they come to power in a coup.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Trump speaking in May about Venezuela.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Venezuela has a very, very serious problem. We haven’t really seen a problem like that, I would say, Mr. President, in decades, in terms of the kind of violence that we’re witnessing. The president was telling me—and I knew—that Venezuela was a very, very wealthy country, just about the wealthiest in your neck of the woods, and had tremendous strengths in so many different ways, and now it’s poverty-stricken. People don’t have enough to eat. People have no food. There’s great violence. And we will do whatever is necessary, and we’ll work together to do whatever is necessary, to help with fixing that. And I’m really talking on a humanitarian level.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump speaking in a joint news conference with the Colombian president, [Santos]. Well, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro recently warned President Trump not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] President Donald Trump, try to have some rationality in the crazy things that your people promote against Venezuela. What the opposition has done is to trick you. Let’s talk seriously and where we have our differences. We have differences, but there are many points in common, including your administration, Donald Trump, in terms of overcoming dark times. May you, President Donald Trump, not be remembered as another failure, like George Bush and Barack Obama failed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, very quickly, the response to Maduro and, before that, Trump speaking alongside the Colombian president, Santos, Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez?

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: So, I think that Trump’s interest levels in Venezuela are actually quite low. The reason that he has brought that focus, I would say, in talks with President Santos in Colombia, that you cited, and, before that, a couple months earlier, with one of his first world meetings with the president of Peru, President Kuczynski, that was—it’s difficult for Trump, given some of the rhetoric that has gone on vis-à-vis Mexico, which alienated not just Mexicans, but many Latin American countries. And in Peru and Colombia in particular, these are countries that have—I believe Peru has more free trade agreements than any other country. Colombia is not far behind. And so, it’s very difficult for the Trump administration to find common ground internationally in Latin America.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me get Mark Weisbrot’s response as we wrap up.

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: Talking about Venezuela, which is one way to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel, let me get Mark’s response, as we wrap up.

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: Sure.

MARK WEISBROT: Yes, well, I think that, again, the most important thing is that it’s still a polarized country. You know, Daniel mentioned the 21 percent approval rating. That’s about where it’s been for a year. I mean, imagine people saying that the president is doing a good job when there’s 500 percent inflation and deep depression and shortages of food. Imagine. Why is that? Again, it’s because there are a lot of people who still—you know, first of all, there’s millions of people who actually appreciate what—the 10 years of progress that they had under Chávez. Secondly, they’re afraid of what might happen to them if a right-wing government takes power in a coup. And so, you know, that’s why it’s so important to have negotiations. That’s why you need constitutional guarantees, so whoever loses the next presidential election doesn’t face a government that controls all three branches of government and uses it to persecute them. I think—

DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZ: Like this one.

MARK WEISBROT: —those are the things that are going to have to happen, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, speaking to us from Chicago at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research in D.C.

That does it for our show. Very happy birthday to Laura Gottesdiener!

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