March 13, 2015
CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot recently appeared on The Diane Rehm Show to discuss Escalating Tensions Between The U.S. And Venezuela. The audio of the show is available here, and a transcript follows.
The Diane Rehm Show
Wednesday, March 11, 2015, 10AM
Thanks for joining us, I am Diane Rehm.
The US and Venezuela have not had full democratic relations since 2008. This week President Obama ordered sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials allegedly linked to human rights violations and corruption.
Here to talk about the escalating friction with Venezuela is Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Joining us from a studio in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, of the Kellogg School of Management; he is also a political columnist with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.
I hope you will join us at 800 433 8850, send in email at wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
And welcome to all of you.
ALL: Thanks for having us, Diane.
DIANE REHM: Good to see you. Michael McCarthy, talk about what prompted the White House to issue the executive order on Monday freezing American assets of seven of the Venezuelan officials.
MICHAEL McCARTHY: It is a great question. The timing of this executive order is very interesting I think. I would like to highlight two preceding events that I think are very important. On February 19 the Venezuelan government through its security forces detained the elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, in a highly militarized fashion. And he was jailed on charges of being involved in a coup attempt. And this suggested the Venezuelan government, I think, had crossed a new line in terms of its relationship with the opposition. Subsequently the Venezuelan government decided at the end of a rally held – an anti-imperialist rally – to announce sanctions against the United States in terms of visa restrictions for US officials. I don’t think that the US was willing to let that action stand unchecked in some fashion. So that leads us up to the recent Executive Order on Monday, in which the US has implemented, in effect, a law passed by the Senate last summer, and put into place by the President in December. And this takes us a step further in terms of going beyond visa restrictions and to freezing assets, which the US had not done yet, under the recent legal basis created by the law and by this executive order.
REHM: Why designate Venezuela as a national security threat?
McCARTHY: My understanding is that is the legal basis, and it is necessary for the US government to take the action of freezing assets of Venezuelan government officials for these specific accusations, for these specific problems that they have committed in terms of human rights. For example in 2008 the US government sanctioned three Venezuelan members of the armed forces for their involvement with narco trafficking, with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. But that action was taken under the authority of a legal declaration made about the US’s relationship with Colombia, with the state of Colombia, in which it said that Colombia presented a national security emergency. And since these Venezuelan armed forces officials had been in cahoots, so to speak, with the FARC guerrillas that this gave them a basis to sanction those Venezuelan officials; for the Colombian state of national emergency. Up to today we have a different situation in which the president has claimed that the political conflict and situation in Venezuela, presents and unusual and extraordinary threat to American national security, and thus it was necessary to make this declaration, according to the administration. I think that the rhetoric is highly inflammatory, we never saw this rhetoric even during the worse relations between the United States and Chavismo, the political movement that is in power in Venezuela now since 1999, and in particular after a coup in 2002 that the Bush administration tacitly supported. So this is a new low in US-Venezuelan relations, but it is important to note that the commercial relationship is still very strong. The United States still receives a lot of petroleum from Venezuela, it is its fourth most important supplier. And Venezuela depends quite a lot on the United States for this export market.
REHM: Michael McCarthy, he is a research fellow at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Turning to you in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez how do you feel about the sanctions, do you feel they are important, do you feel they come at the appropriate time?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I feel they are important, they will be very relevant for the discussion going on internally in Venezuela, and I think it will highlight what is happening in Venezuela in the United States, through programs like this. That will call attention to conflicts that have been going on in Venezuela for a very long time. I am a little bit conflicted internally about the actual sanctions themselves. I feel that the US will be on the right side of history, as a result of having spoken out against Chavismo, which in its current state has become significantly more authoritarian than its previous incarnation. President Maduro inherited a system that took certain things for granted, a charismatic front-man, a high popularity rating, and very expensive oil. And in a very short time, he has shown himself to have neither the first two, and he has lost the latter. So he has entered an emergency mode in which there has been a lot more suppression of independent media, you have a lot more political prisoners than you had under Chávez, and you are seeing a darker side of Chavismo, which may have existed under Chávez but was at least not as visible.
REHM: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Mark Weisbrot, you’re opposed to the sanctions, talk about why.
WEISBROT: First I want to say that every government in the hemisphere is against these sanctions. The Community of Latin America and Caribbean Nations [CELAC] put out a statement (that’s every country in the hemisphere except for the United States and Canada) and they said that we reiterate our strong repudiation of unilateral course of measures that are contrary to international law. And that was the last set of sanctions in December that Obama signed into law. So I want to tell your listeners, and I thank you very much for having an honest discussion here because this doesn’t happen, almost ever, in the United States. If you remember the media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war where most of the country was convinced that Iraq was involved in 9-11 (it wasn’t your fault, I know) but that’s actually, the coverage of Venezuela is worse than that, because there were notable exceptions during that period in the major US media. And there is almost nothing now, it is all kind of, you know, if you read George Orwell, “four legs good, two legs bad,” It is all bad news. So one of the things you are missing right here is this incredible isolation of the United States, for making this ridiculous statement, which, by the way, I haven’t heard a reporter even question them, how is Venezuela an extraordinary national security threat to the United States? What are they doing? A terrorist plot? Are they invading somebody? This is the situation we are facing, you had statement from CELAC and UNASUR immediately after these sanctions; you talk about rhetoric between the US and the Venezuelan government, it is not just the Venezuelan government. Here is the president of Bolivia, he called for an emergency meetings of CELAC and UNASUR against the aggression of the United States and this “unusual and extraordinary threat to national security of Latin America,” okay. And then President Correa of Ecuador, called it a “joke” and “bad taste,” and said this is reminiscent of the darkest days of imperialism, when the United States invaded countries and installed dictatorships. That is how Latin America is looking at it, and I am even going to make a prediction here, which I usually don’t like to do, I think because it is considered so outrageous, in this hemisphere, what the Obama administration just did, that they are going to have to take it back. Just like in April of 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry was the only foreign minister in the world who refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, and he had to take it back, because he had no support and the South American countries, which made quite a bit of noise about it.
REHM: So do you believe these charges against the actions of, first, the seven Venezuelans, and then saying that Venezuela has become a national security threat to the US has been totally concocted out of nothing?
WEISBROT: First of all, every government in the hemisphere, every president, every foreign minister, and I’m talking about any of the countries, okay, really just about anybody, they know that this has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. The Colombian military executed civilians, 5,700 between 2000-2010. What did the United States do? They just stepped up military support. In Honduras right now the security forces engage in extrajudicial executions; again the United States is just increasing military and security aid. So nobody believes this has anything to do with human rights.
REHM: Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy. A short break, and we will be right back.
REHM: Welcome back. We are talking about the escalating friction between the US and Venezuela that has truly been intensifying for months, and this week the White House declared that Venezuela is a national security threat, and as you have heard, sanctioned seven top officials. Here is a comment from our website: “Venezuela is on the road to become, or more likely is, the next failed state. I don’t know what anyone could have done to prevent it, certainly not anyone in this country, they will have to resolve their own problems themselves.” Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, how do you respond to that comment?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I think it is a great viewpoint to carry, at the same time touching back on one of the things Mark said before the break, I do think there is a human rights component in this. I am a South American, and I do believe there is an element of this that is human rights based. What makes Venezuela a human rights problem, and what makes it a risk, is not so much the death count necessarily, it is the culture of the lack of accountability in government. There is a culture of impunity at work. A couple of weeks ago, a 14 year-old boy was shot through the head for protesting. Yesterday, Roy Chaderton, a high-ranking Venezuelan official, made a joke about how when a bullet goes through an opposition member’s head it travels quickly and sounds hollow. In few countries would that be acceptable, and it speaks to a darkening relationship between the government and the opposition. When you have no independent judiciary, no independent investigative agencies within the state, the state can fail very quickly. Already you have rumors of narco-trafficking being on the rise, and rumors of instability. A failed state in the region is not something that is going to help the US foreign policy, and is not going to help Colombia in policing its border. And it could cause a crisis that could escalate quickly.
REHM: What’s fascinating to me, Michael McCarthy, you said the US and Venezuela continue their economic activity, we continue to get some of the petroleum. How can this go on in the face of that kind of friction?
McCARTHY: Well, money talks. We know that. And so we have a situation where the commercial relationship is so interdependent; it has been for a very long time. I think that the truth of the matter is, the cost for Venezuela of changing the way that it exports its petroleum in terms of its markets, the costs of making that change are very high. Some estimates are that if it were to move petroleum to different markets the shipping costs would cause it to lose about 15 percent of the value of its exports on a daily basis. It is right down the Caribbean, a little over a thousand miles away. It is a very close market to the US, and there are very close cultural ties at the level of human relations, in terms of different people. I want to come back to this issue though of the national security issue, which is raised by the comment. Venezuela is a thorny foreign policy challenge; it is not a security threat to the US. It is true that the broken state of the judicial system, and the really problematic situation with the rule of law, does create the domestic problems that could have a transnational nature, in terms of narco-trafficking in particular. But we haven’t seen these accusations of collaboration with the FARC or collaboration with Iranian funded groups really grow to be very important or to be a direct threat to the United States.
REHM: Therefore you don’t think that the national security threat label should be applied?
McCARTHY: I do not think it is an accurate characterization of the Venezuelan challenge, as it is represented.
REHM: All right, Daniel, I know you wanted to get in.
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Yes, responding to Michael directly, the national security threat language is a piece of legalese that has been used in the last 20 or 30 sanctions that the US has made through this mechanism. So I think we need to be careful in gauging the importance of that. And secondly building on why I think commercial ties have stayed as strong as they have, even as political ties have continued to grow weaker. It bears a strong dependency for Venezuela on dollars, Venezuela can’t really produce anything domestically, 94 percent of its exports are petroleum, which is dollarized. But because labor costs are higher, it is next to Colombia but it imports sugar, coffee, it imports basic grains; and without an ability to import, Venezuela starves very quickly. There is no medicine. So as a result of that you have a situation where Venezuela needs to get its hands on dollars essentially in any way it can, and the easiest way to do that logistically is to keep trade high with the US. Even its Asian partners like China—Venezuela has no Pacific coast. It is less efficient and it costs more.
REHM: Mark Weisbrot, talk about the people in Venezuela, and how they are faring right now.
WEISBROT: I mean it is tough; they had a recession last year. The GDP fell by about 3 percent. The inflation was about 68.5 percent for the year, there are widespread shortages, which you read about in the newspaper every day, of consumer goods. So they are going through a period that is much tougher than they have had for a while. These problems, as they are now, are really about two years old. The economy grew very fast in 2012. And they were doing, if you go back 10-11 years, since the government got control over its own oil industry, which they didn’t have for the first four years, and the opposition controlled it. And used it as they stated publicly to overthrow the government. Since that time they have done pretty well.
REHM: So what happened? What happened to turn the situation, turn the tide for the Venezuelan people and for the economy to contract by 3 percent?
WEISBROT: There wouldn’t be much disagreement with this. I think there are problems in the exchange rate system. You have the two official rates 6.3 and12 Bolivares Fuertes, which is the domestic currency per dollar. And most of the foreign exchange is given away at that price, and that is just not sustainable. It is completely overvalued exchange rate. That is why I think it is fixable. But in terms of the people, 75 percent, according to opposition polls, are still against these sanctions.
REHM: And president Maduro himself denounced president Obama’s decision. He said: “President Barack Obama, representing the US imperialist state, has personally decided to take on the task of defeating my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it.”
WEISBROT: One other thing you have to keep in mind is this government has won almost every election, almost, 14 out of 15 elections in the last 15 years. That is because the vast majority of people, even today, are much better off than they were before Chávez was elected. The economy actually shrunk for 20 years before this government came in. Inflation was even higher than it is today. That is why you have a very strong, hardcore base, around 35 percent, that is going to vote for this government anyway. And the rest will depend on what happens to the economy.
REHM: So now Maduro is asking for decree powers. Michael?
McCARTHY: It looks as though he is going to ask for decree powers, but one quick point on the economic overview of the Chávez period which began in 1998. Going back in history, Venezuela has seen boom periods before, and it has also seen the bust period kick in. In other words, there was an opportunity to learn from the previous boom and bust cycle, and the Chávez policy makers completely failed to learn the lessons of the boom and bust cycle of the 1970s and 1980s. Venezuela did not save for the rainy days. And while it is correct like Mark is suggesting, that people are better off than they were in the 1990s, it is possible with poverty rising, and the statistics are not in from last year, and the national government’s statistics bureau, that poverty could be increasing again this year. In other words, we could be back in the same position we were in the early 1990s.
REHM: Daniel, does the US want to see the overthrow of President Maduro?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Building quickly on what has been said, it is important to note that oil was at $8 a barrel when Chávez was elected and for most of the time he was president it was much higher than that. You had record prices, so yes, there were a lot of programs that were made for the poor, they weren’t terribly efficient in many cases, and there is a question, an open question, as to if pretty much any Latin American government, even terrible right-wing governments, would have also had social programs with that much easy spending money at hand. But to answer the question you gave me, I think there is an extent to which the region would benefit from having a stable Venezuela. That said, you don’t have as much of a stake from the US perspective, as Maduro seems to think that the US does. Maduro has claimed on 16 separate occasions since coming to power two years ago that there has been a coup against him. That is 16 separate coups. And most academic reports on coups around the world don’t have 16 coup attempts anywhere in that same period. In the African coups, the Middle East, add them all up. The attempts and the successful ones, and it doesn’t reach the number of times that Maduro has claimed that Joe Biden launched a coup against him, that local companies have launched a coup against him.
WEISBROT: He didn’t say that. He didn’t say Joe Biden launched a coup against him. I’m sorry, but this is what is wrong. You can say anything you want about Venezuela in this country, and it doesn’t matter if it is true, so long as it is bad. Biden—he didn’t say that.
REHM: What did he say?
WEISBROT: What he said was ambiguous, and it was misreported in the press. He was referring to a statement that Biden made in the Caribbean, at a meeting of countries, of governments.
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: The meeting was in Washington, for what it is worth.
WEISBROT: Okay, it was in Washington, fine, if that was the meeting where he said it. And he was telling these countries that this government may not be around for very long, so you are getting oil from Venezuela and you should be planning for something else. So Maduro took that as him saying that we wanted to get rid of this government, and that is kind of how he said it. And he didn’t say Biden was launching a coup.
REHM: Mark Weisbrot from the Center of Economic and Policy Research, and you are listening to the Diane Rehm show. So Mark, do you believe that the US wants to see Maduro out of office?
WEISBROT: The whole world knows that. Yes, of course. That is what these sanctions are for: the US government has been trying to get rid of the Venezuelan government for 15 years here. And they were involved in the 2002 coup; this is something that is not reported here. But there is a pile of documents from the US government, including the US State Department, which said that the Bush administration provided training and institution building, and other support to individuals understood to be actively involved in the military coup that ousted the president for 48 hours. Then they stepped up funding to the same people, who by the way are the same leadership now that we are talking about, in Venezuela, and they have continued to do everything they can. Obama himself has tried to change policy a couple of times, there were a couple of times he tried to restore ambassadorial relationships and he was blocked by the extreme right here in Congress – the same people who pushed him to do these sanctions. So you can say he has gone back and forth. Now, Michael mentioned the US was very angry about Venezuela placing visa restrictions on US government officials, who actually are guilty of human rights violations. These are people who have committed war crimes, some from the Bush administration, so that was in retaliation for the US putting restrictions on their government officials, whose connection to any kind of human right violations, is much more tenuous. So that is true, and it is a mafia-like mentality I would say. You know, “We do whatever we want, we are the United States, and if you do the same thing, we are going to get you one way or another, even if it is illegal under international law.”
REHM: Daniel, tell us how strong the opposition is in Venezuela, and how effective has President Maduro been against that opposition?
McCARTHY: Maduro has been very effective against the opposition, and it brings me back to a point that Mark was saying just now, that you can say anything negative in the US about Venezuela as long as it is negative. And that is something that in Venezuela you simply can’t do. I have worked in Venezuela for long periods of time, and I was recently fired from a newspaper along with 30 colleagues, because I was being critical of the government. Companies or NGOs that don’t toe the party line are fired all the time, or they have their assets seized, or their leaders are thrown in jail. So it is easy to sit here and criticize that the US does X and Y, but the fact you are allowed to have that criticism is something that the Venezuelan opposition could sorely use, because right now they are very disorganised and they are very much under siege. And I think the 75 percent of Venezuelans who are against the sanctions, a large part of that is that they are scared that the existence of the sanctions is going to give the government an opportunity to, as Maduro requested formally yesterday, use emergency powers to throw more people in jail, to close down more newspapers, to seize more assets from the private sector.
REHM: So are you arguing that the Obama administration actions are actually hurting the opposition, more than they are hurting the Maduro administration itself?
McCARTHY: In the short-term they are risky; there are a lot of risks that come about with the sanctions. The Venezuelan government has traditionally, and it started with Chávez but it has grown stronger since Maduro took over, blamed the US for a lot of the things that go wrong domestically. And Obama at various times has not been as easy a boogeyman to use as the Bush administration was, because of the Bush administration’s international reputation. As a result you have a situation where anything the US says or does against Venezuela can give ammunition to the government for cracking down.
REHM: We will take a break. When we come back we will open the phones for your comments, and I look forward to speaking with you.
REHM: Welcome back. Mark Weisbrot is here in the studio. He is from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Also Michael McCarthy; he is at American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. On the line with us from Chicago: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez; he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. We have an email here, which says, “Mark claims the government has popular legitimacy but if so, why does it need to shut down critical media outlets, why does it jail judges who don’t rule in favour of the government, why are outlets of the state used to promote the election campaign of the ruling party?”
WEISBROT: Well, I don’t want to defend. I don’t defend any government, I voted for Obama twice and I don’t defend the bad things he does either. But I don’t think we should exaggerate either.
REHM: You think we are?
WEISBROT: Daniel says the opposition doesn’t have a voice, I mean just go to the web, go to the major newspapers including, El Nacional, and El Universal, and Ultimas Noticias, there is an enormously critical reporting, probably more than you have in the US. The TV …the Carter Center did a study of the television coverage during the last presidential election in 2013, and if you look at those numbers, the opposition candidate has at least equal and probably more TV time than Maduro did. So there is a voice, and opposition leader María Corina Machado got on television, on the national TV, which would never happen here, and called for the overthrow of the government during the protests.
REHM: Let me ask you this, if in fact you believe that the charges against the Maduro government are being exaggerated, then people are talking about Venezuela in inflated and combative ways, the question is, why?
WEISBROT: That’s easy to answer, Venezuela has been the number one or the number two target for regime change for the past 15 years, and this you can see there is a mountain of evidence. I mean even what Kerry did in 2013 refusing to recognize the results of an election that nobody had any doubts about. The world knew, he got [OAS Secretary General] Insulza, and the right-wing government of Spain to back him, and then they backed off. This has been continuous, they don’t like this government. There is more than 100 years of history of the United States doing this to governments they don’t like. Everybody in this room knows that. Did something change in the last few years? I don’t think so.
REHM: I’m going to open the phones now, first to Miguel, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You are on the air.
CALLER: Good morning to all, it is good to hear such a good discussion. I am a Venezuelan national, I came to this country as a child, and I have since become a US citizen. I have lived most of my life here, except that I have roots there in Venezuela and I go constantly back and forth to see family and friends. The bottom line is, as all these gentlemen are talking about the economic situation, the oil situation, the change of regime, but we are not focusing on the right subject. The right subject is what created all of this? And what Chávez legacy is for Maduro? It is the Raul and Fidel Castro brothers, they have had a tremendous amount of influence, and send tens of thousands of advisors to Ecuador, to Venezuela, to Nicaragua, and to Argentina. And Chávez, with his oil and his power at the time, the oil was at the peak of its price, provided the means for Cuba to allow this penetration in all Latin American countries. Unfortunately the US got hit with September 11, and our focus became the focus of the Middle East. And since we have been focusing on the Middle East, and we have a mess out there, started decades ago, we have not focused on the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela is right now in a state of anarchy, I have a friend who got shot eight times the other day for no reason at all. People are in the streets with weapons. There is no food, there is no oil. Let’s focus on the human factor, and where all this came from, opening relationships with Cuba is the worst thing we can possibly do.
REHM: And Daniel, do you want to come in?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I agree wholeheartedly that the situation of the average Venezuelan is overlooked in the media, and that finding the roots of that is very important. The crime situation in Venezuela has gotten very, very out of control. I have not lived there in a couple of years. But the years before I left I was kidnapped. I have been mugged several times and I don’t know that many people in Venezuela who have not had a similar experience, and when I tell my kidnapping story in the US people are shocked. They probably have not met someone who has been kidnapped before, but in Venezuela, sadly, people are waiting to hear me stop talking so they can share their own kidnapping story, or mugging story, or tell me about their brother who was shot.
REHM: Daniel, why were you kidnapped and how were you freed? Why were you freed?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: It’s a funny story. It was actually my first date with the young lady who is now my wife. We were in a Volkswagen, which was about 5 years old, which is a reasonably okay car. And we were targeted and kidnapped for 9 hours, held for ransom. And luckily we were able to get out of it. But that is sadly a tragically common occurrence in Venezuela today. And on top of the shortages, and on top of the difficulties in not having medicine, and not finding gasoline, I think what makes people really leave, the reason Venezuela is hemorrhaging its middle class, its educated class right now, is because people are scared to be outside, and you can’t put a price on that.
REHM: And to you, Michael McCarthy, with the wealth that was coming in from the oil, the petroleum that Venezuela was selling, what was happening to all the money and why wasn’t it going to the people themselves?
McCARTHY: Arguably there was enough to skim quite a bit off the top and to give to the people, during the high point of the commodities boom between 2006 and up until 2008. Venezuela had enough money for corrupt officials to take their share and for there to be significant distribution in terms of social assistance programs. I would argue that a lot of the social assistance took place through cash assistance programs, which is the trend all throughout Latin America, and I think that is a problem for sustaining some of the progress made. That changed some of the expectations of the living standards of the population and what they had hoped for in their futures, and in terms of creating families. So right now within the Venezuelan population there is a sense of desperation about the future, and a changing sense of hope, as there being a sense of hope before with Chávez, and now it’s a much more gloomy picture going out over the future. On the issue of the media I do want to make a comment, in regard to what Mark said. There have been very significant changes since 2012 when Chávez was alive, and he had his last presidential race against Henrique Capriles in the election. During that race the opposition had a mean to get its voice out to the public via television and radio, much more easily than it does today. And television and radio are the main ways the average Venezuelan receives their news, not via the newspapers. Since 2012 we have seen a visible change in the media landscape in which the government has exerted much more control over the airwaves and I think this is much different situation. In fact, the study Mark cites about the Carter Center, I was a part of the Carter Center in the 2012 election study mission, I think it is the 2012 study…
WEISBROT: No it was 2013; it’s on the web.
McCARTHY: Well, I don’t think the 2013 study revealed the same thing as the 2012 study. That I’m pretty sure of, since I was a member of both study missions.
REHM: I want to go to Los Angeles, California. Antonio, you are on the air.
CALLER: Thank you for having me on. I have been in Venezuela many times, and I speak Spanish. From what I have been able to figure out, until Chávez was elected Venezuela was the kicking boy of the United States. The US bought off all the corrupt presidents, who were paid millions in exchange for giving away the petroleum, which is the country’s patrimony. Venezuela has the largest deposits of petroleum in the world; some of them haven’t been used, though, and that does not come out very often, but there are there, in the Eastern part of the country. The people got nothing at that time, and then since Chávez the people are living much better. The government built 1 million houses for the poor; that doesn’t seem to be something that comes out in the US media. Food is subsidized and much cheaper. The Maduro government had been putting those people who hide the food in jail, the word is acaparadores — I don’t know the word in English. The right-wing has been taking the food and the goods and services away from the stores and hiding them in deposits. So that is why there was scarcity. Chávez’ greatest achievement was the creation of UNASUR, so that other Latin American countries could get out from the yoke of the US influence. Several Latin American countries now have independence and dignity and can deal on an equal level with other countries. People should read the constitution of Venezuela, for example, where it says that housewives get a minimum wage, stipend, for working at home. The people who hate Chávez are the rich, whose illegally owned properties have been expropriated for the common good. In other words, maybe 100 years ago, maybe I am making this up, but it is certainly borne out by history.
REHM: All right, thank you so much for your call. And you are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Mark Weisbrot, there was a lot in that call.
WEISBROT: It is mostly true, you have these shortages and the other problems right now. I was there at the height of the protests, and I walked all over Caracas, everywhere, and the protests were confined to some of the richest areas: Alta Mira, Los Palos Grandes. That is where you saw there protests; they were not peaceful. But the rest of the city was fine. The people hardest hit by the shortages, the ones who have to wait in line, they don’t have servants, they don’t have storage space like the upper middle classes do. Those are not the ones who went out into the streets to protest the government. It really is the upper classes, and everybody knows that too.
REHM: What would happen if Maduro was removed from office, Mark?
WEISBROT: I don’t think that is going to happen, and I don’t see how that happens. There would probably be an insurrection to restore him, like when Chávez was removed in 2002.
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Mark raises an important point of the protests being confined to middle and upper class areas. A lot of that has to do with groups called colectivos that are pro-government, that have been armed by the government, and that tend to fill a lot of the community roles in some of the lower income areas. They have very close ties to the government, and there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable voicing negative opinions of the government in areas with a heavy colectivo presence. I think it is tricky to try and assume that all the people at these massive protests in middle class areas, like the middle of downtown, are people who live there. And the second part is that there are ways, even if the United States wants regime change in Venezuela, and I want regime change in Venezuela, there is a democratic way to do it. Maduro is at 22 percent popularity right now, and we haven’t talked about this yet but there are national assembly elections coming up in December. There can be a recall referendum next year. Chávez narrowly avoided a recall referendum right after the general strike, and he was polling much higher than Maduro is today. So I think there are peaceful ways out of this. But confusing self-defense from coups and self-defense from criticism are totally different things. And the government has used the under-siege, coup excuse to try and get rid of any negative feedback or proposals for change. And I think that represents a big problem.
REHM: Michael McCarthy, what do you see as the main differences between Chávez and Maduro?
McCARTHY: Great question. It is part of the reason the US has stepped up its role in this conflict between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Everyone in Venezuela whether they are opposition or supporters, will tell you Maduro is not Chávez. What they mean by that obvious statement, is he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, he is unable to illicit emotional responses with his public discourse, with is rhetoric, and he doesn’t seem to have control over his own cabinet, and over other institutions of the state. There is a real issue with the extent to which he has power, in that sense and the ability to exercise that leadership in a way that generates a sense of respect and symbolic power for the presidency itself. This contributes to the centrifugal forces within Chavismo, to a certain extent. But I don’t think that Maduro is about to fall off tomorrow, or anything like that. His position is certainly in a precarious place, but I don’t think it is about to change in the short term. But I do think the US government realized, or decided, during the Chávez period that a more robust US presence in this political conflict would have been exploited by Chávez much more effectively than Maduro might be able to exploit it currently. Although the sanctions are going to help Maduro in terms of fitting his narrative of being able to claim he is under attack in an international conspiracy fashion.
REHM: Do you agree, Mark?
WEISBROT: Which he is, I mean that is the part that is always left out. They say Maduro is going to use it to say the United States is trying to get rid of his government. Well the United States is trying to get rid of his government; it could hardly be more obvious. So this is the thing the whole world knows, this is why the Obama administration is so isolated, and more than the Bush administration was. You don’t see that from the press. Obama gets really good press, Bush didn’t. So everybody could see it. That’s why you have to look at the government, that is where the media never goes. They don’t ask the foreign ministers. They don’t ask the other presidents: “well, what do you think of this?” Because they know what they would say, they are saying it everyday through these organizations that include every government in the hemisphere, and that doesn’t get reported, that is what is really going on. The US is more isolated that it has ever been in the hemisphere and it is going to remain that way until they change their policy towards Venezuela.
REHM: That has to be the last word. Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. And Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Thank you all so much.
ALL: Thank you.
REHM: Thanks for listening, I am Diane Rehm.