Renowned political scientist George Maher discusses the latest developments in Venezuela: a new UN human rights report, US sanctions and the begrudging admission by Maduro’s foes that he still has popular support.
Jaisal Noor: Venezuela remains in crisis after a highly contested vote on a constituent assembly and ongoing violence between government and opposition forces while the country’s mired in a deep economic crisis. We speak to author and professor George Ciccariello-Maher.
George Maher: Venezuela finds itself currently in a deep and prolonged economic, social, political and institutional crisis and is seeking some kind of solution and some kind of exit. The constituent assembly was posed as the possibility of an exit, this has been rejected by the opposition, which has threatened to continue protests in the streets.
Jaisal Noor: On Tuesday, the UN human rights office said Venezuelan security forces have wielded excessive force to suppress protest, killing dozens, and have arbitrarily detained 5,000 people since April. In preliminary findings based on 135 interviews conducted remotely and in Panama, it said it investigated 124 deaths and found 46 attributable to security forces, 27 to pro-government armed forces, with the rest unclear.
George Maher: So I don’t think anyone has said, at any point, that the government wasn’t responsible for deaths in the streets and that no one should be held responsible for these. There have been cases in which police have been arrested very quickly, surprisingly quickly, for acting with excessive force and yet we do know of course that the government is responsible for some deaths in these … What are really battles in the streets, and I call them battles quite consciously, because what you’re seeing is people being killed on both sides. And what’s strange about this UN report is that it finds very decisively the cause of death for half of these deaths that have occurred in Venezuela, attributes these entirely to government and pro-government forces, and then doesn’t comment on the remainder of the deaths. And actually what you see when you’re with other sources is almost a mirror image, in other words those in which cause of death is determined are very heavily on the side of Chavismo. In other words, Chavistas being killed.
Jaisal Noor: On Monday, Venezuela opposition said it was the government’s fault people in the military and beyond think the current political crisis should be “escalated to armed conflict” the first vice president of the opposition led … Freddy Guevara said the armed conflict would lead to more bloodshed.
Freddy Guevara: In Venezuela there are Venezuelan military who are thinking that the conflict should be escalated to an armed conflict even though there have been considerable falling in the current political conflict. There have already been more than 120 people killed in the armed conflict. They would be a substantial exponentiation of this. That there are Venezuelans and Venezuelan military that are thinking this, it is the complete responsibility of the dictatorship.
George Maher: This is the same Freddy Guevara who is calling people into the street, calling people to essentially engage in combat against the government, that he deems a dictatorship, with of course no grounding in reality. And what is interesting about these claims coming from the opposition is that they drape themselves in the language of the constitution and yet they themselves urge military intervention. So if you look at the consultation that was carried out by the Venezuelan opposition this sort of informal plebiscite which was carried out outside of the auspices of any recognised institution and after which the ballots were burned to destroy any evidence of whether their count was accurate or not. One of the questions asked about whether or not people felt that the military should intervene to defend the national assembly. This is a clear call for military intervention to take sides in an institutional crisis and a suggestion of the constitution lay on the side of one branch of government rather than all three. This is very troubling indeed and this consultation also called for the establishment of a national unity government with no constitutional basis whatsoever. So the opposition uses this language of defending the constitution which by the way is a constitution that they themselves opposed ferociously when it was being written and approved by the majority of Venezuelans.
Jaisal Noor: The dismissal of attorney general Luisa Ortega has raised alarmed bells in many quarters as critics argued this move proves the constitutional assembly represents the usurpation of all political power in Venezuela and definitive sidelining of the legislator, the national assembly.
George Maher: I think these things are complicated. People have different understandings of what should and can happen with in this Bolivarian process, this is nothing new, this happens during periods of heighten tension, around 2006 and 2007 when there was a previous constitutional reform attempt, some high profile Chavistas left the rank in 1999 to the year 2000 when Chavismo as a much more moderate and reformist project gave ways to something a little more radical. Many people left, this happens, these debates are complicated and fraught and tense, but we need to understand that these kind of things happen and people have different visions of what should happen and of what the proper path is forward. There are, for example, disagreements over the legality of the calling of the constituent assembly. I don’t think that’s a closed question but it is certainly not closed in the sense that the international media would have us believe. To call the constitutional assembly election was a constitutional overstep, and there is complete disagreement about what articles 347 and 348 of the Venezuelan constitution mean when it comes to how you convoke a constituent assembly. These kind of debates exist within Chavismo, they have always been there, this is really the key point, there has always been a sharp debate. There have always been dynamics and tensions and conflicts between very different sectors, more so the centrist reformist sectors, military sectors, far left revolutionary and communist sectors, the grassroots sectors and the leadership of the party and of the state. And these are always difficult conflicts and always difficult tensions but this is precisely part of what makes Chavismo such an important force historically, not that there are no debates, but that these debates have emerged in such a dynamic way.
Jaisal Noor: Opposition writer Emiliana Duarte on a recent visit to a constituent assembly polling station wrote that she had gone there “Thinking I’d see a gaggle of coursed slaves being frog marched into an election, each of them secretly loathed as much as I do but that’s not what I saw…baffling though as it is to us there are still millions of Chavistas who are generally, intimately, excited to vote in support of the constituent assembly.”
George Maher: I mean it’s good to see the opposition recognising this reality that they’ve been blind to for so long, namely the fact that Chavismo has been historically and immensely popular force. More than ten years ago when Chavez won two thirds of the votes in the 2006 election, a huge landslide, majority opposition leaders deem this a fraud. It didn’t feel right to them because their neighbours all voted against him, because the entire feeling in their wealthy and light skinned upper classed Caracas neighbourhoods was that no one was voting for Chaves, therefore there must be a fraud. So it shows that the opposition has been historically out of touch with reality and the fact that they can still remain out of touch and the fact that they can be surprised that there are millions of Chavistas even deep in an economic crisis really shows their inability to grasp the function of Chavismo, the popularity of Chavismo, what it is meant for millions of Venezuelans. It shows the fact that you can simultaneously be so utterly condescending. You can say, “I’m surprised that people love Chavismo and are voting for it and are excited to vote for it, they clearly must not know what they are voting for.” You know that poor people and people that don’t look the same as you and have darker skin and who talk differently, they are entirely capable of knowing what it is that you’re voting for and they’re certainly capable of knowing what it is that they’re not voting for and what they’re opposed to. Namely the historic brutality of the Venezuelan opposition, the fact that this is just below the surface and the fact that if we’re talking about the constituent assembly vote that many people were voting against this wave of protests in the streets.
Jaisal Noor: We also got a response to recent sanctions imposed by the US.
Rex Tillerson: We are very, very troubled by what we’re seeing unfold following the constituent assembly vote which went about as we expected with the re-arrest of opposition leaders last night is very alarming. This could lead to an outbreak of further violence in the country. The situation from a humanitarian stand point is already becoming dire. We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions, where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave on his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.
George Maher: The US government in general has absolutely no moral authority to say a damn word when it comes to the Venezuelan government or Nicolas Maduro and especially not the government of Donald Trump. In other words, someone who aside from being a brutal xenophobe and misogynist was also himself elected on the basis of voter disenfranchisement, primarily of black and brown people in the US. So we’re not on the terrain of moral criticism when it comes to what the Trump regime wants on the terrain of realpolitik. The attempt to get rid of this Venezuelan government as quickly as possible, which has been a continuous policy not only of Trump but also of Obama, of Hilary Clinton of the State Department and of George W. Bush. This is nothing new that they want to get rid of Chavismo. They think that they can do it now, they’ve got to know however that these kind of sanctions don’t help even that strategic goal because to be opposed by Trump is a mark of honour for anyone at this point and certainly for Nicolas Maduro. If Trump is against you, then it means you must be doing something right and so this isn’t going to play out the way that the US government wants but they’re just simply trying to talk tough to show some support for the Venezuela opposition while behind the scenes they help to escalate this conflict to a crisis point.
George Ciccariello-Maher is an Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
This article was originally published on The Real News Network.