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What’s Next for Venezuela as U.S. & Opposition Reject Negotiations Aimed to End Crisis Peacefully?

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has reached out to Pope Francis, asking for his help to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela. Maduro is facing increasing international pressure to resign from office two weeks after opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president. Guaidó made the announcement on January 23 after speaking to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who offered support from the Trump administration. Since then, a growing number of countries have openly recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, including Austria, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Italy has blocked a European Union statement recognizing Guaidó, and Ireland and Greece have called for new elections but have not recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan opposition and the United States have rejected an offer by Mexico and Uruguay to host talks between the two sides. We speak to David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and professor of sociology at Tulane University. And in California, we speak to Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College and author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela” and “Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has reached out to Pope Francis, asking for his help to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela. Maduro is facing increasing international pressure to resign from office, two weeks after opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president. Guaidó made the announcement on January 23rd after speaking to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who offered support from the Trump administration. Since then, a growing number of countries have openly recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. On Monday, Austria, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden all voiced support for Guaidó, after Maduro rejected their calls to hold new elections. But Italy blocked a European Union statement recognizing Guaidó. Ireland and Greece have called for new elections but have not recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Venezuelan opposition and the United States have rejected an offer by Mexico and Uruguay to host talks between the two sides. On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke in Miami and ruled out any negotiations.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: This is no time for dialogue. This is time for action. … And the time has come to end the Maduro dictatorship once and for all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Vice President Mike Pence. On Sunday, President Trump appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation and said sending U.S. troops to Venezuela remains an option. He was interviewed by Margaret Brennan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What would make you use the U.S. military in Venezuela? What’s the national security interest?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don’t want to say that, but certainly it’s something that’s on the—it’s an option.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you personally negotiate with Nicolás Maduro to convince him to exit?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, he has requested a meeting, and I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process. You have a young and energetic gentleman, but you have other people within that same group that have been very, very—if you talk about democracy, it’s really democracy in action.

AMY GOODMAN: While the U.S. is rejecting negotiations, the impact of the sweeping new U.S. sanctions on Venezuela are being felt across the country. The Wall Street Journal is reporting oil tankers are beginning to pile up off the Venezuelan coast as Venezuela struggles to pump and ship oil.

To talk more about Venezuela, we’re joined by two guests. Miguel Tinker Salas is a Venezuelan-born professor who teachers at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. He’s the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. David Smilde is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, where his focus is Venezuela. He’s a professor of sociology at Tulane University. He runs the blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights and is co-editor of the compilation Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez. He lived and worked in Venezuela since 1992.

We want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, why don’t we begin with you? Can you summarize what’s happened so far in Venezuela and what you think is about to happen?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, the first thing we all know is that Guaidó declared himself the interim president, immediately recognized by the U.S., by the countries of the Group of Lima, and then by many of the European countries. And I think many in the opposition thought that by now Maduro would have fallen. They overestimate their power, and they underestimate, consistently, the fact that he may still have power among sectors of the population—granted, not many, but still has significant power and still has the power of the military.

We saw dueling protests over the weekend, pretty impressive, both sides—the opposition in Las Mercedes, an upper-middle-class neighborhood; the Chavista protest in Avenida Bolívar, in the center of the city. Immediately thereafter, we saw an effort at spinning which march had the biggest amount of people—again, part of this position that either side can still draw out a population.

The fear I have is that we increasingly continue with a policy of winner take all, that there is no effort at negotiation, that all the marbles are being put on international recognition ousting Maduro. And in the long term, there is no recognition of what does this mean for the country in terms of its social fabric, its political culture and going forward, if there’s no negotiated agreement on that process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask David Smilde to give us his perspective, especially in light of the fact that the attempts to change the Bolivarian Revolution have not—did not start yesterday. There’s been a constant tension between the United States, first during the Chávez regime and now under—during the Maduro era, to change the direction of Venezuelan society.

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think, clearly, there’s been long-term tensions between the United States and Venezuela. But I would urge listeners to not reduce the current situation to that. I think what happened with Juan Guaidó declaring himself president, or interim president, was in the works for a long time. It was not dictated from the United States. Clearly, there was coordination. But it’s something that is a plausible reading of the constitution, given the fact that so many Venezuelans and the international community do not see the May elections as having been legitimate. And so, I think, you know, it’s a difficult situation.

I am very worried of the fact that the United States has taken such a high profile in this, right from the beginning. And I think the move to sanctions this past week, oil sanctions, I think, is very difficult. As Miguel just said, I think the U.S. and the opposition thought that the very day that Guaidó declared himself president, that the military would step in. And, in fact, there was a very long period of silence from them. But they’ve backed Maduro now. And so they have more strength than people think. And I think, you know, unless there’s some sort of a change or transition in the coming weeks or month or so, the sanctions that—these oil sanctions are going to hurt the population more than they hurt the government, and are probably going to allow the Maduro government to simply ratchet down its authoritarian project.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, in terms of this whole issue of the oil sanctions, the pictures now of tankers supposedly lined up, unable to transport oil, but isn’t the real problem that any country that wants to buy the oil, the issue of the currency that they use, whether they will then be sanctioned by the United States as a result of doing transactions with Venezuela, that that’s the problem, the financial squeeze that the U.S. is putting on the country right now?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yes, it is. And many of those tankers are in the Gulf Coast, and they haven’t reached port because, again, they’re concerned about who will pay for the oil. And the buyers are concerned: If they pay the Venezuelan government, will they get sanctioned? And again, this is the danger of those sanctions. Sanctions essentially pass the pain on to the population, not to the government. Sanctions did not work in Cuba. Sanctions did not work in Iran. Instead, it increases the suffering for the average Venezuelan. And it’s a tragedy that that’s part of this strategy, that it’s a waiting game to see, in large measure, the extent to which the sanctions will have an impact on the population. And someone is betting on the fact that people will be suffering and will turn their wrath on the government. They may in fact turn their wrath on the other side—that is, the one who is imposing the sanctions and caused these. So, again, it’s a very dangerous proposition to continue to utilize sanctions, because the people pay the price.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask David Smilde about the sanctions and the U.S. intervention at every level strangling the Venezuelan economy. Bloomberg reported on January 25th, “Nicolas Maduro’s embattled Venezuelan regime, desperate to hold onto the dwindling cash pile it has abroad, was stymied in its bid to pull $1.2 billion worth of gold out of the Bank of England … The Bank of England’s decision to deny Maduro officials’ withdrawal request comes after top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, lobbied their U.K. counterparts to help cut off the regime from its overseas assets.”

And then, on January 29th, Bloomberg reported, “Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo took another step to bolster … Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, certifying that the National Assembly leader has control over key government bank accounts based in the [United States]. Pompeo determined that Guaido has authority over the nation’s accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks.”

Do you think it is too simple to compare this to Nancy Pelosi going out into the streets as House speaker, the equivalent of what Juan Guaidó was, president of the National Assembly, with thousands of people, announcing herself president, and then countries of the world, particularly colonial powers, announcing they recognize her as president, and then those countries, where U.S. money is, saying, “We’re giving our money over to her”?

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I do think that would be too simplistic, because I think, you know, this is—this is a plausible interpretation. I don’t think it’s a lock-tight interpretation, because the constitution of Venezuela doesn’t have clear norms for this type of situation. But it’s a plausible interpretation that if there’s not a president, this was not a legitimate president, it will be the National Assembly president that steps in as interim president. And I think, you know, if countries—

AMY GOODMAN: Wouldn’t it be vice president?

DAVID SMILDE: —around the world are not seeing Maduro as the legitimate president—

AMY GOODMAN: Wouldn’t it be vice president?

DAVID SMILDE: —if they’re recognizing Guaidó, because of this, these sort of constitutional norms of succession, then I think, you know, it’s plausible, I think, that—

AMY GOODMAN: But wouldn’t the constitution—David?

DAVID SMILDE: —that these assets would be given over to Guaidó. I think it’s a very dangerous game, because I think Guaidó—you know, what never gets mentioned is that Guaido has no way of getting this money into Venezuela. No, it’s going to be in some sort of escrow account. He doesn’t have—the opposition doesn’t have any parallel central bank. And so, in the meantime—in the meantime, there’s going to be a real difficulty in Venezuela in terms of the lack of funds coming in.

AMY GOODMAN: Wouldn’t it be the vice president who would take over, if the president, Maduro, was pushed out?

DAVID SMILDE: No. My understanding, constitutionally, it would be the National Assembly president.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, in terms of the potential for civil war in the country—supposedly Maduro has called on the people’s militias to become more active now. He said that weapons would be available to them from the military. What’s the potential for, given the fact that no matter what the size of his supporters are, they are clearly dedicated and determined, for the potential for Venezuela to slip into civil war?

DAVID SMILDE: You know, I think it’s something that’s not considered enough, because I think this very clearly could happen. I mean, the opposition itself does not have arms, but you could clearly have some sort of faction of the military rebel against Maduro and others stay loyal. And that could end up causing a civil war. If that were to happen, it would be a really difficult situation, because there’s also—there’s not just the armed forces, but there’s also colectivos. There’s other armed actors. There’s also, you know, paramilitaries that are in Venezuela. There are armed gangs in the areas that have gold. And so, that could be real chaos. I mean, there’s this simplistic assumption that just pressuring Guaidó and trying to lure the military to—or, just pressuring Maduro and trying to lure the military to step in is somehow going to lead to democracy. And actually, it’s just as likely that the military steps in and tries to, you know, put one of its own in power or put somebody that’s more amenable to it in power, and the whole situation can also break turn into a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He’s speaking to us from New Orleans. Miguel Tinker Salas is professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them on the crisis in Venezuela in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Alí Primera, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with our guests, David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, talking about the crisis right now in Venezuela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Miguel Tinker Salas, I’d like to ask you something that doesn’t normally get asked in most of the commercial media accounts of what’s going on there: What went wrong in the Bolivarian Revolution? Given the fact that you had a situation where, under Chávez at least, the Chávez government was deeply popular, despite the opposition of the U.S. government, but since Maduro has come in, he’s clearly lost—the government has clearly lost enormous amounts of popularity, what happened, from your perspective?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, I think that the cracks were evident even when Chávez was alive. We saw neighborhoods like Petare voting less and less for Chávez, 23 de Enero, others, as well. And Maduro inherits that process, and also inherits it at a time in which the price of oil was declining significantly and at the same time in which you had to maintain a series of social programs that had extended and overreached in many ways. But also you have to add mismanagement, economic improvisation, corruption, their inability to control the exchange rate. Then you add sanctions to that, as well, that make it more difficult to renegotiate debt and to purchase capital goods to renovate the oil industry. And you add the fact that you’re also trying to process heavy crude and make a profit on it at a lower margin. Those are all the components, so that there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that the Maduro government and those forces bear.

I also would have to add sanctions. You cannot exclude the fact that sanctions aggravated the crisis, as well. And in many ways, you also had an economic war by many sectors of the private sector who were refusing to participate. And you had, again, all those components coming together at a time in which Maduro didn’t prove to be the master politician that Hugo Chávez had been. In many ways, he was forced to negotiate arrangements with his own party and supporters, and that complicated the political and economic process in the country and aggravated already shortages of food, shortages of medicine, compelling many millions of people to leave the country.

AMY GOODMAN: In a recent interview on Fox Business, national security adviser John Bolton openly said U.S. oil companies could benefit from what’s happening in Venezuela. This is what he said.

JOHN BOLTON: We’re in conversation with major American companies now that are either in Venezuela or, in the case of Citgo, here in the United States. I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. You know, Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bolton on Fox. David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America, can you talk about this? The U.S., despite the widespread sanctions, has exempted U.S. oil companies. The significance of the message of Bolton right now?

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, anybody that studied Venezuela knows that Venezuela, one of its main characteristics is that it’s a petro-economy. It’s a petrostate. It has the largest proven reserves of oil in the world. And that makes it of extraordinary interest to the United States, to Europe, to other countries. And these interests are always going to be involved in what’s going on. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Bolton would be talking about this and trying to sell the administration’s approach to Big Oil, in part because these sanctions are impacting some of these oil interests on the Gulf Coast. At least the refining interests are, you know, going to have to replace some of this heavy crude that’s coming in. And so, I think Bolton is trying to sell this. And yeah, these interests are always involved in anything that happens with Venezuela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about the significance of Elliott Abrams now being the special envoy to Venezuela, the history of Abrams in Central and South America. He’s got a long, sordid history, in terms of his involvement. He provided military support to the dictator in Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, who was later convicted of genocide. He was responsible for—was involved in, during the Iran-Contra years, and was found guilty of lying to Congress about the Reagan administration’s efforts to provide aid to the Contras in Nicaragua despite a congressional ban. So, Abrams has a long history to any—especially to leaders in Latin America. They all know who he is, and they all know what he does. So, him coming in at this stage?

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I think that’s one of the most disturbing things that has happened in the past couple of weeks, is the naming of Elliott Abrams as envoy for Venezuela. I think, you know, oftentimes U.S. presidential administrations do things that they don’t seem to really be aware of the optics and that really set off alarm bells in the region. I think, in this case, this is the point that really told me that the Trump administration are sort of making Venezuela part of its foreign policy. You know, it almost seems like a sort of “Make America Great Again”-type foreign policy, as Elliott Abrams, as you mentioned, was the architect of one of the darkest periods of U.S. involvement in Latin America, and that is Ronald Reagan’s Central American policy in the 1980s. You know, not only was he involved in Iran-Contra, he was also involved in repeatedly denying the El Mozote massacre.

And so, I think, you know, having him there speaks clearly to everyone in Latin America and speaks clearly to those of us who have watched Latin America and studied it for a long time, that the U.S.'s intentions here are regime change, and the U.S.'s intentions here are to really impose itself on the situation. I think that’s really unfortunate. I think it really clouds the water and makes the situation much more difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Tinker Salas, your response to Elliott Abrams, the point person on Venezuela now?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: But I think it doesn’t speak clearly to the opposition in Venezuela. They have met with Elliott Abrams. They have connected with him. They have not condemned his nomination. The same thing with John Bolton. Why doesn’t Guaidó simply say to the U.S. president, “We don’t want troops on the table as an option. We don’t want a foreign invasion. We do not want U.S. marines. We don’t want John Bolton talking about how he’s going to benefit U.S. companies from our oil. We don’t want Marco Rubio talking about the conditions in Venezuela. We don’t want John Bolton making us part of your geopolitical arrangement for the troika of tyranny and trying to insert us in what you want to revive as a cold war in Latin America. And we don’t want Mr. Elliott Abrams running U.S. policy for Venezuela, because we don’t want his bloodstained hands on our country”? But again, we don’t hear that from the opposition. And that’s what’s troubling about the context in which they’re operating, because they don’t want to talk about this being a coup.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Friday, national security adviser John Bolton threatened to send President Maduro to the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo. He made the remark during a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt.

HUGH HEWITT: Ceausescu and Mussolini met bad ends. Idi Amin and “Baby Doc” Duvalier did not. Is that the choice facing Maduro right now?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, I tweeted yesterday, you know, I wish him a long, quiet retirement on a pretty beach far from Venezuela. And the sooner he takes advantage of that, the sooner he’s likely to have a nice, quiet retirement on a pretty beach rather than being in some other beach area like Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton. David Smilde, your response?

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I mean, I think, clearly, he’s posturing. They’re trying to put the pressure on Maduro, trying to get Maduro to step aside. You know, I don’t think that’s going to do it. I think there actually has to be some sort of process of negotiations, some sort of process of transitional justice, that’s going to make it amenable, because all these people have very high exit costs. I mean, a lot of them, you know, are compromised by human rights violations, by corruption, and they fear that they’ll end up being extradited or face something worse in Venezuela. And so, there’s got to be some sort of transitional justice process that will be involved, to make it actually attractive for these guys.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, I’d like to ask you about—in terms of the effort to marshal international support from different countries for one or the other side. Clearly, two major countries, China and Russia, have not been supportive. And, of course, China is a huge creditor to Venezuela, something like $60 billion in loans that China has extended to Venezuela over the past decade or so. Could you talk about the battle for the hearts and minds of the world leaders in other parts of the country—in other parts of the world? I’m sorry.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yeah, and I think—I think we’ve seen that clearly. The opposition, in 2017, after the failure of the negotiations in the Dominican Republic, opted for an international strategy. They gave up, in many ways, on the electoral process in Venezuela and began to see the way of getting Maduro out was to try to consolidate power among a rising conservative force in South America, hence the Grupo de Lima, also with Luis Almagro in the OAS, and then also winning over European countries and the U.S. The election of Donald Trump facilitated that. And that was obviously their strategy.

Now, the government of Venezuela has the support of Russia and China, who are heavily invested in the country’s oil industry, and in terms of Russia, militarily. So, again—and you also have other countries. In Turkey, you’re hearing “today Venezuela, tomorrow Turkey.” South Africa—it’s funny, when all you see those maps that show all the supporters, they always leave Africa out. I always find that interesting.

But the reality is that Venezuela is being inserted into potentially an international conflict. And it’s being done so, in large part, because, again, it’s been signaled as the first member of the “troika of tyranny” that must fall, and then Cuba will be next. The Wall Street Journal article earlier this week, in which—talks about that first will be Venezuela, then it’ll be Cuba, and then pressure will be applied to Nicaragua. And that’s unfortunate, because that emboldens both positions in Venezuela and emboldens the opposition for a zero-sum game—in other words, all-or-nothing strategy—which I think, in the long run, will prove harmful for the country. The only solution here has to be some mediated, negotiated process. And the offer by Mexico and by Uruguay and by the United Nations general-secretary and the Vatican needs to be considered.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that Wall Street Journal piece last week, with the U.S.-backed effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro just the first step in the Trump administration’s plan to reshape Latin America, with Cuba next on its radar. According to the report, the U.S. is planning to announce new measures against Cuba in the coming weeks, including new sanctions and restoring Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The moves could severely hamper foreign investment in Cuba. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. then plans to target Nicaragua. In November, national security adviser John Bolton dubbed the three nations the “troika of tyranny.” Last week, Vice President Mike Pence said President Trump is, quote, “not a fan of U.S. interventions abroad,” except for, quote, “in this hemisphere.” David Smilde?

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah, I have no doubt that this—you know, what’s going on in Venezuela—is part of a larger strategy of the neocons that have now inhabited the Trump administration. But I would suggest that I think, you know, it’s good to take Venezuela on its own. I think, you know, simply reacting to this—I’m no fan of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but I think we have to look at Venezuela and prioritize the people there. I don’t think that, you know, “enemy of my enemy is my friend” or “enemy of my enemy gets a critical bye” is a proper response. I don’t think that’s a progressive response. I think it dehumanizes people. I think Venezuelans have to be prioritized. And in every case, I think you have to look at the situation, look at who’s suffering, who has power, who needs to change, and criticize and comment as needed.

And so, I think—in the case of Venezuela, I don’t think that the actions of the Trump administration should be held against the Venezuelan opposition and their struggles. And I think, you know, Maduro’s legacy and Maduro’s record, I think, is very clear to everybody. I think he’s been an absolute disaster in Venezuela in the past few years, and now he’s become a very undemocratic disaster. And I think that’s really what’s got to be prioritized here. I mean, I think, you know, the Trump foreign policy is very worrying. But I think we have to treat contacts and people as ends in themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us, David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Of course, we will continue to cover what’s happening in Venezuela. You can go to our hour with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza and also our hour with Allan Nairn on the appointment of Elliott Abrams that we did last week.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the trial of “El Chapo” and the information that has come out that should inform President Trump when he talks about national security. Stay with us.

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