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As U.S. Sanctions Maduro and Hints at Regime Change, a Debate on Resolving the Crisis in Venezuela

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The Trump administration has issued sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as tensions escalate in the country following a controversial vote to elect a new National Constituent Assembly—which will have the authority to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. According to the official tally, at least 8 million people—or 40 percent of eligible voters—cast ballots Sunday, despite an opposition boycott. The right-wing opposition has accused Maduro of attempting to consolidate his power. Two prominent leaders of the right-wing opposition—Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma—were taken from their homes by security forces early this morning. Meanwhile, the director of the CIA hints that the agency is working to push regime change. We host a debate with political science expert George Ciccariello-Maher and economist Francisco Rodríguez.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Venezuela, where two prominent leaders of the right-wing opposition, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, were reportedly taken from their homes early this morning by security forces. Both men were already under house arrest. This comes as tension is escalating in Venezuela after voters went to the polls Sunday to elect a new National Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. The right-wing opposition accused President Nicolás Maduro of attempting to consolidate his power. According to the official tally, at least 8 million people, or 40 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots Sunday, despite an opposition boycott. On the same day as the vote, at least 10 people, including a candidate, died during widespread violence and protest.

On Monday, the Trump administration placed sanctions on Maduro, barring all U.S. individuals and firms from doing business with him. This is National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

H.R. McMASTER: Maduro is not just a bad leader, he is now a dictator. The United States stands with the people of Venezuela in the face of this oppression. We will work with our partners to hold accountable all those responsible for the escalating violence and ongoing human rights violations. The president promised strong and swift actions if the regime went forward with imposing the National Constituent Assembly on the Venezuelan people.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday night, Venezuelan President Maduro criticized the new U.S. sanctions.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Why am I being sanctioned? For facing fascism, hatred and intolerance. For not letting Venezuelan oil and our natural wealth fall into the hands of the magnates who finance Mr. Emperor Donald Trump. That is why I’m being punished, to defend the resources of Venezuelan land, which will never again fall into the hands of the U.S. imperialism. That is why I am being punished.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about the situation in Venezuela, we’re joined by two guests.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we’re going to George Ciccariello-Maher. He’s the author of Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela as well as We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. He teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia, previously taught at the Venezuelan School of Planning in Caracas.

And here in New York, we’re joined by Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist of Torino Capital. He’s the co-author of Venezuela Before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse. Under Hugo Chávez, he headed the National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisory Office.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with our guest here in New York. Francisco Rodríguez, can you describe what’s happening right now in Venezuela?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: All right. Well, right now in Venezuela, we have a political crisis, essentially. The government is deeply unpopular. The country has been hit by an economic crisis. Maduro’s approval ratings have fallen; in the latest poll surveys, they come out below 20 percent. So, he still has the support of about a fifth of the population, but, however, most Venezuelans want him out, as typically happens when you have such economic deterioration.

So, there are several constitutional procedures in the Venezuelan constitution whereby you could have, for example, early elections, a recall referendum. And the opposition tried to push for a recall referendum and was unable to do so. Some courts, controlled by the government, basically stopped the recall referendum last year. So the opposition has been calling for early elections or another way out of this.

Instead of doing that, the government actually decided to press ahead with the Constituent Assembly. And the problem with the Constituent Assembly is that the government actually designed its own rules to elect the candidates, and designed rules that were very biased in its favor. These rules, for example, gave an urban municipality with many voters the same type of—the same number of representatives as rural municipalities, where the government controls a majority of votes. It also allowed about a third of the delegates to be elected from lists of sectoral representatives, and it wasn’t very clear where those lists were coming from. So the opposition decided to boycott the elections.

And, in fact, the people—so, turnout in this election turned out to be basically an indicator of the government’s strength. The government claims that 8 million persons—the Electoral Council claims that 8 million persons came out to vote. That’s not a very credible claim. We did some independent polling, exit polling, and we actually estimate it was about 3.6 million persons. The last election that you had, the last uncontested election, in terms of the results that you had, Maduro got about 5.5 million votes. It would be very difficult to believe that he’s actually regained two-and-a-half million votes in the context of one of the deepest economic contractions in world history. Venezuelan GDP is now set to shrink by about 35, 40 percent by the end of this year. That is the deepest economic contraction in Latin America, and it’s the type of contraction that is typically seen only in countries that are undergoing wars.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say that the 40 percent figure is questionable, I mean, were there—is there an actual vote tally? Isn’t there a way to tell for sure whether that many people voted or not?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Well, no. No, there’s no way to tell for sure, in the sense that the Electoral Council is controlled by the government. And there are four government representatives, one from the opposition. He actually was not present in the announcement. So, we really have an announcement of a number of—well, there was a decision, by the way, by the opposition to boycott these elections, and that—that gives us an additional problem, because the opposition didn’t have witnesses. Typically, when you participate in an election, you have witnesses, and you can contest the vote. The opposition didn’t have that. So, all that we have is an announcement of turnout by the government. And we really don’t know how credible it is.

What I can tell you is that we carried out some independent exit polling in order to try to assess what the turnout was, and we got a turnout figure of about 19 percent. And, you know, if you think about it statistically, as with any polling, there is a confidence interval, so that number could have been 22, could have been 23, maybe it could have been 25. It couldn’t have been 42. That’s, essentially, statistically impossible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, George Ciccariello, I’m wondering your assessment of what’s been happening in the last few days, especially with this vote over the weekend.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: So, I think it’s undeniable that Venezuela is in a deep and sustained economic and social and political crisis, which has more recently become an institutional crisis. Since the Venezuelan opposition took control of the National Assembly, you’ve really had this kind of deadlock within the institutions and a tit for tat between the executive, judiciary and the National Assembly controlled by the opposition. And then, this has been coupled with these sort of really violent street protests, periodically through the last few years, and over the past few months taking more than 100 lives.

And so we’re talking about a situation in which the government was being asked to do something to help break out of this crisis. And this was one of the solutions that was put forward, or one of the possible solutions—in other words, to try to bring people to the table, to get people together to work on a revision of the constitution in a way that might help to break out of this crisis. And I think that’s a very difficult prospect, because the causes of the crisis are deep and are grounded in deep economic realities. But the goal of the government was to put forward a kind of legitimate process.

And, unfortunately, the refusal of the opposition to participate in this election, to boycott it, this is a strategy that has hurt them in the past, as with the 2005 National Assembly elections. And this time, what they’re trying to do is to delegitimize the process entirely, in other words, an electoral process that they could have participated in, rather than attempting to move forward with more destabilization in the streets, which seems to be the chosen strategy of the opposition running up—in the run-up to the next presidential elections next year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about that opposition, because we—the reports that most of the commercial press here in the United States are showing of what’s going on in Venezuela is of people protesting in the streets and scores of people being killed. But there’s very little reporting on who is being killed and who is doing the killing. There are some reports out of Venezuela that as many as 20 people have been burned—have been publicly burned by opposition figures. I think the last one was Orlando Figuera on May 20th, was burned in the streets, as thought to be a Chávez supporter. What do you know about who is actually involved in this violence? Is it the government against the protesters, or is it, in some cases, the protesters against the chavistas?

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: It’s certainly both. Of these more than 100 deaths, those—you know, those that we know the causes of, they’re pretty evenly split. Some are dying at the hands of security forces. Others are being killed in and around the protest by protesters. These are often violent blockades in which people are not even able to get to work, and when they try to get to work, they’re often attacked. And if you look too much like a chavista, which is to say you look poor or you look dark-skinned, you’re much more likely to be attacked, and, in these really brutal cases recently, to be—you know, to be burned publicly, to be lynched. And you’ve also had these—you know, this constant campaign of sniper attacks, which have cost several lives. You’ve had people attacked. Police recently attacked with bombs.

And so we’re talking about really a battle in the streets. It’s not a question of protesters simply being repressed by the government. It’s a real battle in the streets, in which the government is actually very hesitant often to use force, because it know it will be tarred as repressive. And so, that’s why these protests have gone on for so long. And if you ask many people, and particularly in poor neighborhoods, they want the protests gone. And yet the government does not want to be too heavy-handed with these protests. So it’s really been this long sort of political war of attrition in the streets. And it’s something that requires a solution urgently, so that we can get to discussing the real economic causes of the crisis and moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you agree with that assessment, Francisco?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Oh, I definitely think that there’s a confrontation, and I agree that the violence is not only one-sided. I agree that there’s violence coming from the opposition. It’s very difficult here to come up with tallies. And even, you know, in the cases the other speaker was pointing out, there are snipers. I mean, what do we know about who these snipers are? Are they—the opposition says that they’re government snipers; the government says that they’re opposition snipers. The reality is that when there is political violence of this type, you’re not going to be able to find out what really happened until you have a truth commission, you have investigations, you kind of can understand the process that led to it. So, I don’t disagree with that characterization.

I probably would disagree with the idea that the government has not been heavy-handed. I mean, the government has been—you know, there are a lot of—well, there are allegations, of course, or even very kind of serious allegations about torture. But there are things that the government has definitely not allowed which would be allowed in a normal democratic society. The whole district of Libertador, which is a district of central Caracas, is a district in which opposition demonstrations cannot occur. So, the government does not allow—it allows the demonstrations to occur in the region of Miranda, because there’s an opposition governor there, so they have less authority. But once they get into Caracas, which is where the government buildings are, they don’t allow them to come—to go into the city. Is it—is it true that sometimes the protests have turned violent? Yes. It’s also true that, generally, in a democracy and in any well-functioning—in a society with some type of rights of expression, people should be able to demonstrate before government buildings. They should be able to demonstrate that they are against the government. People in Venezuela don’t have the right to do that. And I think that the concern is not just a concern of security. I think that there are very serious limitations that are being put on Venezuelans’ political rights.

But I would get back to the basic issue, which is that the basic limitations come on Venezuelans’ electoral rights. The fact is that Venezuelans had the right to decide whether they wanted to revoke their president, according to the Venezuelan constitution. When President Hugo Chávez faced that type of contest in 2004, he said, "I’ll go to the referendum," and he won the referendum. So people voted in favor of Chávez. But in the case of Maduro, he has not allowed the referendum to go through. And all of the pretexts that have been put for that are really very poor. There was just nothing even resembling a normally coherent argument about why it was that the referendum was stopped. The government alleges that there was fraud in the collection of signatures, but they point to signatures which were allegedly fraudulent which had already been excepted from the tally. And there were enough signatures, even excluding the fraud—the presumed fraudulent signatures, in order to get the process to go forward. But nevertheless the government stopped it, because there’s a reality, and, you know, this is something that I don’t think anybody would contest right now: Maduro would lose a presidential election. The government would lose an election right now, according to every single poll. I mean, the polls that in the past said that Chávez would win now are saying that Maduro would lose, by a three-to-one margin, by even a four-to-one margin. And the government knows that. And that’s why the government doesn’t want to hold elections. But once we get to restrictions on the ability to elect your leaders, we’re really talking abandonment of what we understand is democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: George Ciccariello, would you agree with what Francisco Rodríguez is saying?

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Well, it’s a very quick slide between the ability to recall your leaders, which I agree is actually one of the hallmarks of the Bolivarian process and one—sort of a rare phenomenon in the world—a slide from that and the ability to elect your leaders. There’s never been any kind of restriction on the ability to elect the Venezuelan leader. What there has been is an expansion of electoral rights and electoral freedoms and the ability to participate in more direct ways in recalling leaders. And I would like to have seen a recall referendum. The opposition was very half-hearted when it put forward the—you know, the proposal, and has not pushed it entirely. And the Supreme Court—of course, not Maduro, but the Supreme Court—stopped that process on the basis of these claims of fraud.

But the reality is, you don’t slide from that into saying that you’ve got some kind of dictatorship, when I can’t recall President Trump, when you’ve got several leaders in Latin America who are less popular than Nicolás Maduro. And no one is asking when we can recall Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico. No one is asking—or, referring to the leaders of various other countries as dictators simply because their term has not been completed. And Maduro’s term is completed next year. There will be elections. Any constitution—any constitutional reform that comes out of this assembly will go to a public vote. And so, we’re talking about a country that’s had more elections, more verified clean elections, than really anywhere else on Earth in the past 15 to 20 years. And it’s really—it’s really difficult to hear anyone, and much less the Trump regime, refer to this as a dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, then we’re going to come back to this conversation. George Ciccariello-Maher is with us, Drexel University in Philadelphia. Francisco Rodríguez is with us here in New York, chief economist at Torino Capital, co-author of Venezuela Before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Las Cafeteras, singing from their latest album, Tastes Like L.A., here in our Democracy Now! studios. To see the full interview and performance, go to democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as we continue to talk about the situation in Venezuela, I want to turn to CIA Director Mike Pompeo talking about Venezuela last month at the Aspen Institute.

MIKE POMPEO: Any time you have a country of—as large and with the economic capacity of a country like Venezuela, America has a deep interest in making sure that it is stable and as democratic as possible. And so, we’re working hard to do that. I’m always careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There’s a lot of stories. So, I want to be careful with what I say. But, suffice to say, we—we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela. And we—the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there, so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others, the Colombians. I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogotá, week before last, talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was CIA Director Mike Pompeo talking at the Aspen Institute last month. So the United—so, he’s been going around Latin America talking with key leaders there about what to do about Venezuela. Francisco Rodríguez, your sense of the role of the United States in all of this, because we always seem to be portrayed as an observer—

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Right, right, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —rather than as a participant in the process?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Right. Well, the U.S. has taken a pretty active role and, to a certain extent, a unilateral position, in the sense that the U.S. has been pushing for very strong sanctions on Venezuela. And it imposed sanctions on leaders. Well, of course, we know from yesterday the sanction on President Maduro. It’s, more than anything, symbolic. But they’ve also imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan government officials. This is a policy that comes from the Obama administration. And now there is some discussion in the administration about imposing economic sanctions on Venezuela, maybe an oil embargo. I mean, all of these things appear to be on the table. And even though they haven’t been announced yet, they are under discussion.

The U.S. has also been coordinating with other countries in order to try to make these sanctions at least a bit multilateral. So, on the sanctions that were imposed on government officials, these were sanctions basically not allowing U.S. firms, either persons or individuals, to do business with them. And they have the effect of freezing the accounts that they would have in the U.S. There were announcements by Panama, by Colombia, by Mexico, that they would collaborate with those sanctions and that they would enforce them, that in fact they would also freeze the accounts of those individuals. So the idea is to, you know, cut off the money and the accounts of, up until now, individuals in government. But this is something that could extend to PDVSA, which is the firm that generates most of the nation’s revenue. And I think that it could have a pretty serious effect on the Venezuelan economy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, George Ciccariello, your response to this Pompeo—the words of Pompeo and the U.S. role, especially the CIA?

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: I mean, I think it’s entirely unsurprising, and it is a continuous role. I mean, this is not something that really changed dramatically under Obama. From Bush through Obama and into Trump, what we’ve seen is a desire to have an active role in removing a chavista government from power. The question has just been how to do so most effectively. There was a coup in 2002 backed by the Bush administration, and, you know—and it failed. It was—it was, you know, a kind of a disaster for the opposition politically. And so, then the Obama administration continued to fund those very same coup leaders, continued to fund people involved in that coup and right-wing antidemocratic elements, and to do so openly. And so it’s no surprise to see this happening now and to see the CIA expressing its open desire to be involved, because this has been the role for so long.

And I think any question of sanctions is really only going to help Maduro. It’s only going to help stabilize politically the legitimacy of the Maduro government, in part because being attacked by the United States is really a—you know, only burnishes the credentials of someone as an anti-imperialist. But also, to be attacked by someone with such low moral credibility as President Trump is really a gift to any political leader, because you’re being attacked by someone with no credibility and no—really no ability to say anything about anyone, much less Nicolás Maduro.

AMY GOODMAN: George Ciccariello-Maher, what about the arrests last night of Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma? Both were under house arrest, but we see the video, in both their cases, of them being taken out of their homes by—I guess it’s Venezuelan intelligence.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Yeah. I think it’s important to realize and to remember that these people were under arrest. They had been shifted to house arrest. They’ve been charged with a number of things, from conspiracy to inciting violence in the streets. And they represent really the conservative right-wing fringe of this opposition movement. Now, whether we—you know, whether the evidence is there for them to be continued to be held or to be convicted—to have been convicted is a question, but they’ve been charged with serious crimes. And I think the category of political prisoner is used very broadly in Venezuela to apply to things that, you know, people would be in prison for in many other places. And these are people who have been involved in—you know, undeniably involved in the coup and undeniably involved in mobilizations in the streets that have turned violent, and have continued to encourage these mobilizations.

And so, I think it’s really no surprise to see this happen right now. I’m not sure that it’s going to help the political situation at all. But it’s not quite as simple as the narrative that’s being put forward of people being grabbed and seized out of their homes. These are people who were under arrest and, in one case, convicted. And so, we need to be very clear when we’re talking about what’s going on. But, you know, moving forward, the question is really going to be how to deal with these questions, how to get people together to discuss this situation. And I’m not sure that these kind of, you know, actions in the middle of the night are going to help the opposition come to the table.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, briefly, could you talk about the criticism of Maduro from the left, not just from the right, that there are some folks formerly part of the chavista revolution—for instance, Luisa Ortega, the attorney general, who has now become an outspoken critic of the current policies of the Maduro government? Can you—what’s the nature of the criticism from the left?

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Sure. I think there are a wide range of what you could understand to be critics, left-wing critics, of the Maduro government—some of these figures, of course, that you’ve heard about, but also, I think, more importantly, on the grassroots level. You know, we need to be very clear about the fact that this is a—this is a revolutionary process that has brought in a great range of participatory social movements and revolutionary grassroots organizers. But for the most part, these are people that have not broken with the government, but are really trying to push and figure out a way to press the government to the left, to encourage a renovation of the commitment to grassroots democracy. These are people who organize in these things that are called communes, where people are directing and managing, you know, production on the local level, in local grassroots democracy, and trying to figure out a way to leverage this government, to press it to the left, and to do so in a very difficult situation of crisis, in which Maduro has been erratic, to be perfectly clear, on the one hand, supporting grassroots organizers, supporting this sort of ferment at the grassroots level, while trying to stabilize the political and economic system in ways that really—that are really distasteful, I think, to many, turning to foreign capital, turning to foreign corporations for investments. And so there’s this tense contradiction that’s going on amid this crisis, and many on the left are dissatisfied, of course. Many Venezuelans are certainly dissatisfied with the state of the economy. And so, you know, the question is really how to stabilize the economy, how to move forward, and how—from the perspective of these left-wing sectors, how to deepen this process, how to, you know, create a situation in which Venezuela can become more socialist, not less, and not turn back simply to the old neoliberal capitalism that failed in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Francisco Rodríguez, how you think the country should move forward? I mean, you’re a former chavista. You were head of the National Budget—the Congressional Budget Office under Chávez?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Well, no, I was appointed—I was appointed by—with the support of both parties, actually. It was a bipartisan appointment. I was appointed by a unanimity of the National Assembly back in 2000, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But are fiercely critical of Maduro right now. How do you—

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: I’m critical. I’m critical of Maduro’s economic policies. I actually participated in an attempt last year, led by UNASUR, to try to advise the Maduro government in order to improve economic policies. There were a set of recommendations that were handed to the administration. And as a Venezuelan, definitely the first thing that I want to see is for my country to be able to address these deep economic issues. I mean, there has been a very serious deterioration in living standards. There have been increases in, for example, infant mortality rates, maternal mortality rates, indicators of hunger, body weight loss. And there are a number of things that are really going wrong in Venezuela.

And I think that there are changes in economic policy that could be carried out in order to address these issues. And, for example, Venezuela has a completely dysfunctional exchange rate system. The government sells dollars at an exchange rate of 10 bolívares per dollar. Nevertheless, in the black market, these are sold for over 10,000 bolívares per dollar. So the government is trying to maintain a completely unrealistic price of foreign currency, and that just generates an incentive for corruption. There are completely excessive controls on any type of economic activity in Venezuela, on just a basic price-setting mechanism. There haven’t been any mechanisms—well, nothing was done in order to save during the oil booms of the country. When oil prices started going down, it basically didn’t have international reserves. It didn’t have anything to use as a buffer on the way down, as other countries. There have been a lot of errors in terms of economic policy. There are still things that could be fixed, that could make things better.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue this discussion. Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist of Torino Capital, co-author of Venezuela Before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse. Under Hugo Chávez, he headed the National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisory Office. George Ciccariello-Maher is professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His books include Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela and We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.

This is Democracy Now!When we come back, we look at what’s happening in Korea and here at home, with a former presidential candidate, Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "El Zapateado," here on Democracy Now!, Las Cafeteras performing in Democracy Now!'s studios. To see the whole interview and all of their songs, you can go to democracynow.org. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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