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Latin America: What's happening in Venezuela?

 
Friday, 18 April 2014 19:05
 
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Epos converses with Riccardo Carcano Casali

by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Conversations

It has been more than one year now since the death, after a long bout with cancer, of President Hugo Chávez. His chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, was sworn in as the new President of Venezuela on 19 March 2013. He won the presidential elections by a scant 1.8 per cent, a narrow victory over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda.

Since the election of Maduro, Venezuela has been in trouble.

Opposition legislators still do not want recognize Nicolás Maduro as the elected President, although the Electoral Commission has declared that the results of the election are "irreversible".

Venezuela is in dire straits. It closed 2013 with 56 per cent inflation, and this year began with a massive devaluation of its currency. In a country that is one of the world’s great oil producers, people line up outside the markets, waiting for basic goods such as oil, milk, sugar, toilet paper and the aforementioned flour.

The economic crisis has been crippling Venezuela since the death of Hugo Chávez, but in the last months it has become unbearable. President Nicolás Maduro insists that he is victim of an "economic war" in which businesses refuse to produce the necessary amounts to meet demand, and the opposition leads campaigns to promote consumption that cannot be met.

Since February, riots have broken out sporadically with forty-one deaths so far. Opposition leaders have been thrown in jail. And murder has become, almost, a way of life: Venezuela has the second highest homicide rate in the world, after Honduras, according to the latest Union Nation statistics.

What is happening in Venezuela? Who is protesting and what are the protesters asking for? What is the role of the opposition and what has been the response of President Maduro and the Government? EPOS has interviewed Riccardo Carcano Casali, free-lance journalist and expert in Latin American issues. He works as a political and economic analyst on Latin America and the Caribbean for the daily independent newspaper L'Indro and the online magazine Cronache Internazionali. You can follow Riccardo Carcano Casali on Twitter, @RiccardoCarcano.

Nicolamaria Coppola: Dear Riccardo, first of all thank you for accepting our interview.

A wave of anti-government demonstrations, the largest in a decade, has been sweeping through Venezuela since early February. Could you please tell us who is protesting and what are the reasons of these demonstrations?

Riccardo Carcano Casali: At the beginning only university students started to protest, worried for the lack of security inside their campus after an attempted rape at the University of the Andes, in San Cristóbal. With the harsh government repression that followed, some hardline leaders of the opposition, like Leopoldo López, who is now jailed with charges of criminal incitement, decided to take advantage to start nationwide protest under the name La salida, which in Spanish means both "the exit" and "the solution". The unrest spread through a middle class which was already acerbated by rising inflation, scarcity of basic goods, criminality and lack of freedom in the press. Issues that the Maduro’s leadership was not able to solve. The goal of the protesters is to force the government to renounce, since they doubt victory can be obtained through electoral contests, which they believe cannot be fair.

NC: Both protesters and members of the security forces have died during some violent demonstrations in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. The opposition has accused pro-government motorcycle gangs, as well as the security forces, of shooting live rounds into opposition crowd. The Government continues to state that "fascists" are behind the violence, instigating riots and encouraging people to erect barricades. According to your information as a reporter, who is, or are, behind the violence?

RC: Although opposition leaders are trying to persuade their supporters to protest in a non-violent way, demonstrations are not always pacific. Of course, the Government has more power, since it controls the National Guard. There are many photos and videos showing security forces beating and shooting unarmed protesters. Also, the Colectivos, paramilitary groups supporting the Government, are involved in repressive actions, although it is not clear if the Government is supporting them or not. If you consider the people who died, you can notice that members of both parties are represented, and a great number of common citizens, showing that violence is not being carried out by a single actor. Of course, due to the high level of political polarization, both sides depict their position as victims.

NC: What about on the Government side: how unified is the Maduro administration behind him?

RC: This is another controversial issue. Chavismo has never been a monolithic movement, but Hugo Chavez had enough charisma to keep all the different sectors under his control. There are at least three factions inside the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, Ed.) majority in charge of the country. One supports Maduro, and it is the most moderate. Then there is the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello’s faction, which is more radical. The third one has no clear leadership, but it has links with that part of the army which is not satisfied with the current chavista egemony inside the institutions. General Raúl Isaías Baduel, a former Defence Minister under Hugo Chávez, is often described as one of its leaders, but after he criticized Chávez on the 2007 referendum he was accused of corruption and jailed. Divisions have not yet come out, although many observers predicted an incoming period of instability inside the PSUV, especially after the protests started. It seems that, instead of dividing them, the fear of losing control of the country has worked to put them together.

NC: Nicolás Maduro became President one year ago. He has been a controversial politician, respected but criticized, dreaded but admired. The last twelve months have been the most difficult ever for Venezuela: after the death of the leader maximo Hugo Chávez, the country has faced one of the world's highest inflation rates ever; President Maduro has struggled to cope as Chávez's successor while the opposition has always tried to prove that he is an illegitimate leader. Chavismo still has historical viability within Venezuela, and Maduro has been accepted within Chavismo. How much popular support does President Nicolás Maduro still have?

RC: It may be surprising, but the Government can still rely on the support of its electoral base. The structure of the much discussed public welfare system that Chávez built through petrol rent may have led to the current economic instabilty, but the benefit that generated for the poorest Venezuelans is still a very powerful propaganda weapon for the PSUV. There is no public speech by chavistas that does not start with a sort of "remember we saved you from poverty" statement. This, together with the non-pluralistic media environment and the inability of the opposition to reach the poor barrios for electoral support, are the main reasons that prevent the political establishment from losing its old supporters.

NC: President Maduro has met the opposition leaders in crisis talk in order to quell the protest. What is the political meaning of the meeting? What do you think will be the reaction of the "street"?

RC: Both the moderate politicians inside the Government and the opposition probably realized that the current situation could not be solved by further confrontation in the streets. The Government will have the chanche to present itself as a reasonable interlocutor, while the opposition can show that, in spite of accusations, it is clearly not "a bunch of fascists". The involvement of UNASUR (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, Ed.), one of the only regional organizations which Maduro trusts, and the Catholic Church, an istitution welcomed by the opposition, can help give this talks an international legitimacy. That said, although many believe that these meetings can lead to an agreement which could spare the country more violence, the protesters and their leaders might feel betrayed by the MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, Ed.) the main opposition party, and this could lead to another wave of street protests.

NC: What do you see as the way forward?

RC: Much depends on the Government. If they make some reasonable concessions, like freeing political prisoners and committing themselves to punish the violence perpetrated by security forces and Colectivos, it could be the premise for a decrease in violence and unrest. But I am very skeptical about this outcome. It would surprise me if, after all the accusations and the repression and the propaganda against a fascist conspiracy to topple the economy of the country, Maduro made such a big step back. It would contradict years of political strategy carried out by the Bolivarian Revolution. It seems to me that in many democracies in Latin America, and Venezuela is no exception, politics are a zero-sum game. Those who, even if democratically, win the country shape its institutions in an ideological fashion in order to exclude any opposition. This is what has been happening in Venezuela since 1998. It is clearly not a dictatorship, but an "excluding democracy". In this case, the excluded will hardly find a place in the current insitutional structure of the country.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Monday, 18 August 2014 15:09
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