A presentation on Venezuela was made February 27 at the headquarters of the Washington Office on Latin America, WOLA, by one of their Senior Fellows, Professor David Smilde. Professor Smilde is currently working on a book manuscript called Venezuela’s Transition to Socialism: Politics and Human Rights under Chávez, 2008-2012. His presentation can be seen in: http://www.wola.org/video/one_year_after_chavez_venezuela_chavismo_and_democracy, unfortunately not of the best visual or audio quality. .
I had the opportunity to comment twice on professor Smilde’s presentation, the first at about 54 minutes, for about 3 minutes and a second one, almost at the end of the program. I am most appreciative of the latitude given to me by the moderator, Mr. John Walsh, since the normal format of this type of programs only allows for short, concrete questions from the audience.
I had two choices of events on Venezuela: the one at WOLA and a presentation to be made, at the same time, at the Center For Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, by Secretary General of the OAS, Mr. Jose Miguel Insulza, on the Latin American situation, where he would probably discuss the Venezuelan situation. I chose WOLA’s because I felt that professor Smilde would be far more informative than Mr. Insulza. I had read two recent articles by Mr. Insulza on the Venezuelan situation, one in La Tercera, Chile and the other in El Pais, Madrid, and – frankly – I felt that attending the event at CSIS would have been very damaging to my blood pressure. At the WOLA event my blood pressure was only moderately raised, since professor Smilde made a creditable effort to be impartial. However, I believe his analysis was clearly pro-government and failed to grasp the true complexities of the Venezuelan situation. I will try to discuss what I considered the main weak components of his analysis.
- Professor Smilde said that, for a long time, the opposition had claimed that they represented the majority and considered the government illegitimate. Capriles, he added, modified this strategy to favor a pro-elections strategy but radicals like Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado have, again, returned to the earlier strategy by promoting the protests which Professor Smilde termed a regression in the path to solving Venezuela’s problemsI disagree: Elections and protests are both valid strategies in a democratic environment. Elections in Venezuela during these 15 years have not been transparent enough to guarantee Venezuelans that no fraud has been committed. The Electoral Council is totally in the hands of the government and the electoral registry has never been properly audited. Electoral fraud is a process that takes place before, during and after election day, through abuse of power, lopsided propaganda in favor of the government and populist measures such as allowing the populace to sack stores with impunity. The electoral process during these 15 years has been invariably tainted. Therefore, after 15 years of frustration and playing with the electoral rules of the game imposed by the regime, in light of the systematic violations of the electoral rules and procedures on the part of the regime, frustrated Venezuelans have taken to the streets.Professor Smilde recognized that violence has been essentially started by the government. I would like to say that protests have a multiplicity of reasons, probably not the same for everyone. Some protest because of the high crime rate, others because they have no dollars to travel, others because they have no milk or toilet paper and still others because they want to unseat what is, in their eyes, a corrupt, inept government. Few non-Venezuelans (and even Venezuelans) realize that an article of our constitution, number 350, actually makes it imperative for citizens to act to recover democracy in the country if this fundamental right has been violated, as it can be abundantly documented.
- Professor Smilde says that protests have been spearheaded by the students, which is correct, but that they have not been able to incorporate the poorer sector of the population. He perceives the protests as a middle class event, without much popular support.Again, I disagree: Professor Smilde is not alone in this perception. There are excellent Venezuelan analysts who have shared this perception. And they might have been right for hours and days but I believe this is not the case today. The protests have rapidly acquired a multi-class composition. Students come from all sectors of life in Venezuela, many from the poorest neighborhoods and they are all protesting. Protests are taking place in Petare, in Puerto Ordaz, in Maracaibo, throughout the Andean states, in cities with a predominance of lower middle class and working class. Yesterday thousands of Venezuelan women from all social strata marched together in Montalban, a poorer section in the west side of Caracas (where the Universidad Catolica is located). Protests also took place in 150 cities around the world on February 22 and in about 20 Venezuelan cities. There is not enough middle class in Venezuela to make up the legions of people marching. The opposition had over 7 million votes in the last presidential elections while middle class voters do not exceed 3 million. The other 4 million are poorer Venezuelans voting against the regime.There is a reason why we do not see as many protests in the Caracas poorer neighborhoods, such as the 23 de Enero or Catia (where I was born). In those areas the urban shock troops of the regime called the Colectivos, in motorcycles and heavily armed, terrorize the population But many of the poor go to where the protests are being held and they do participate. The graphic material about the protests is very eloquent along these lines.
- Professor Smilde and WOLA as an institution, call for dialogue as the solution to Venezuela’s problems. Conceptually, this call sounds logical and desirable.But I disagree: calling for dialogue in Venezuela at this moment, in spite of how good it sounds, it would just play into the hands of the regime. I fail to understand how the call for dialogue by Maduro can be taken by shrewd political and social analysts as sincere. Dialogue can and should exist between two groups that share the same rules of the game and the same essential ethical posture. But there can be no dialogue between lovers of democracy and a rogue regime. Such a “dialogue” would validate the regime without offering any possibilities of progress. Let me explain why. Suppose that we take the dialogue scenario a step further. We are now around a table with the government, smiling to each other. The government says:“Mr. Opposition, what are your proposals”?And we say:(a), We ask that the 60,000 Cubans who are in Venezuela are sent back to Cuba since they control sensitive areas of your government and weaken our national sovereignty. They even dictate military tactics and foreign policy(b), We ask that Venezuela stops immediately the delivery of 100,000 barrels per day to Cuba, which represents a subsidy of over $3 billion per year to that country, at the expense of the Venezuelan people;( c ), we ask that you cease handing out billions of dollars per year in oil supplies and cash handouts to ALBA and PETROCARIBE countries without getting a fair remuneration for the oil. The accumulated debt of these countries to Venezuela is already over $20 billion;(d), we ask that you cancel the exchange controls that have run our economy into the ground(e), we ask that you dismiss the PDVSA corrupt and inept management. We can present you with abundant evidence of this corruption;(f), we ask you to free political prisoners immediately, specifically Simonovis and Lopez;(g), we ask you to name new officers for the positions of Ombudsman, Prosecutor, Comptroller and members of the Electoral Council Board, all of whom are there in violation of the laws and the constitution;(h), we ask you to name an impartial Supreme Tribunal of Justice, instead of the group of people currently there, who are only serving you;(i) We ask you to stop the Venezuelan Central Bank printing paper money to finance the operation of the Petroleum Company since this leads to hyper-inflation;(j), We ask you to stop getting into debt, as national debt already mounts to $200 billion and keeps growingI mentioned Professor Smilde a few of these proposals for dialogue and asked him what would be the reaction of the regime to them. Would they agree to dismantle their revolution? Would they self-destruct ideologically? I doubt it. This is why this “dialogue” has no future and is a red herring. In his reply, professor Smilde made, in my opinion, his biggest error of the morning. He said: “The opposition should not be asking for these things but for basic rules of the game. If they asked for these things, President Maduro could tell them: “When you win an election you can do these things, but don’t ask me to do them because I won”. Of course, this would be the end of the dialogue.The exact reply from professor Smilde is in the video but this is the essence as I recall it. This is not right! A president winning with less than a two point margin (if this was the case), could not talk like that. An ideologically driven national policy that undermines national sovereignty and destroys national wealth, as this policy has done, is the concern of all Venezuelans. The government cannot impose corruption and ineptitude on half of the population.Chavez statue lost his head yesterday I think WOLA could become an arena for a wider exchange of views on Venezuela. I sincerely hope so and I offer my disinterested help to make it so.