Hugo Chavez, R.I.P. - Leader Broke Venezuela Out of America's Imperial Orbit, Threw Neoliberal 'Economics' in the Trash
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Venezuela has announced seven days of mourning for its president, Hugo Chávez, who has died at the age of 58. Chávez died after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis in June of 2011. He had suffered multiple complications following his latest operation in Cuba on December 11th and had not been seen in public since then. News of Chávez’s death was delivered Tuesday in an emotional address by Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
VICE PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] We accompanied his daughters, his brother, his family members, and we received the hardest and the most tragic of news that we will ever transmit to our people: At 4:25 in the afternoon today, the 5th of March, Comandante President Hugo Chávez Frías died.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hugo Chávez’s body will be taken in a procession to the Military Academy in Caracas, where it will lie in state until his funeral on Friday. Venezuela’s schools and universities have been shut for the week. Vice President Maduro will assume the presidency until an election is called within 30 days. Foreign Minister Elías Jaua told state television that Maduro would also be the candidate of Chávez’s governing United Socialist Party.
FOREIGN MINISTER ELÍAS JAUA: [translated] The president read the constitution correctly on December 8th during his last public speech that he was able to give, and it is clearly established what will follow and what we always defended. He is gone now, and the vice president assumes power, and we hold elections in the next 30 days. That’s the mandate that Hugo Chávez issued last December 8th, and he asked all of his Bolivarian revolutionaries to accompany Nicolás Maduro in this task. And that is what we are going to do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was defeated by Chávez last October, offered his condolences to the president’s family and called for unity as the nation mourns.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES: [translated] To the government, who are burdened with the principal responsibility of guaranteeing coexistence in freedom and in peace, we hope, like all Venezuelans do, that they act in strict accordance with their constitutional duties. And our national armed forces should remain for all, because they belong to everyone, as it is in the constitution and its proud history.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leaders from around the world sent their condolences to the Chávez family. Some allies, like Ecuador, called for national days of mourning in their own country. This is Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, but first this is Bolivian President Evo Morales remembering Chávez.
PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] He fought for his country, for the great nation, like Simón Bolívar, a friend who gave his entire life for the liberation of the Venezuelan people, the people of Latin America and all anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists of the world.
PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] On many occasions, the Brazilian government did not completely agree with President Hugo Chávez. But today, as always, we must recognize that he was a great leader, an irreparable loss, and above all, a friend of Brazil, a friend of the Brazilian people.
PRESIDENT OLLANTA HUMALA: [translated] To the Venezuelan people, we wish to express our unity of reflection and our hope that things can progress in a passive manner with the cause of democracy in mind. We want to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people, with the family of our friend, President Hugo Chávez Frías.
AMY GOODMAN: The presidents of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.
Here in the United States, President Obama called Chávez’s passing a "challenging time" for Venezuela. This comes as Vice President Maduro of Venezuela announced Tuesday he is expelling a U.S. embassy military attaché, accusing him of spying on the Venezuelan military and meeting with right-wing military officers in a plan to destabilize Venezuela. Maduro also said a "scientific commission" would look into Chávez’s death and the possibility his "historical enemies" had somehow induced his cancer.
Well, today we host a roundtable to look at the life of Hugo Chávez, his legacy and what may come next for Venezuela. We’ll begin in California, where we’re joined by Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College of Claremont, California, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and the forthcoming Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Your response to the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez?
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Good morning.
I think it’s a tremendous loss for Venezuela and a loss for Latin America and as an advocate for South-South relationships. Just recall where Venezuela was in 1998. It had no real presence on the international stage. He had this oil-producing country that had 60 percent people living in poverty. Today, that has dramatically changed. Poverty has been reduced significantly within Venezuela, and you have a new sense, a new empowerment, a new feeling and a new sentiment, not only within Venezuela but within Latin America as a whole, and as an advocate of South-South relationships. And I think that, even in death, he will continue to be an important symbol for the very policies he advocated in life and for the integration of Latin America and its new role on the international stage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to also welcome Eva Golinger. She has been well known as an American lawyer who has worked with the Venezuelan government and was close to President Chávez. Your reaction on this day after his death?
EVA GOLINGER: Well, it’s incredibly sad, of course. It’s a tremendous tragedy for Venezuela, for people of Venezuela, for people of Latin America, I would say also for people around the world who fight for social justice. Chávez was a champion for the poor, for social justice, against imperialism, against aggression, against war. He’s someone who has left an extraordinary legacy, not just in his own country, I think, but around the world. It’s an unbelievable tragedy that someone so young, with so much energy, with so much charisma, and with so much determination to continue building his great country and this concept of la Patria Grande, the Great Homeland, in Latin America, would leave us so soon. So I think that Venezuelans and peoples around the world are going to mourn seriously his loss.
AMY GOODMAN: From two Venezuelan Americans, we go to Greg Grandin, also in our New York studio, currently a Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library, author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. His most recent book, Fordlandia, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. His new book is called Empire of Necessity. It will be published later this year. Greg Grandin, talk about who Hugo Chávez was. Give us a little, short history of his life.
GREG GRANDIN: Well, in many ways, if you look at how his life tracks the history of Latin America, it’s quite amazing. He was born a few days after the 1954 coup in Guatemala that drove Jacobo Árbenz from power. And that coup, in many ways, culminated the subordination of Latin America to the United States in the Cold War.
AMY GOODMAN: Because the U.S. was involved.
GREG GRANDIN: The U.S. led that coup, yeah. And that happened in a few days. And his life pretty much ran the whole trajectory, from that moment forward, of U.S. power in Latin America. It saw the rise and extension of U.S.-backed militarism throughout the region, Venezuela a little bit less than some of the other more homicidal anti-communist countries, but nonetheless Venezuela was closely allied to the United States during the Cold War. He came of age under a political regime that was often held up as a little United States, in which two ideologically indistinguishable parties traded power back and forth between 1958, ’59 up through the 1990s.
And then he died, and Latin America has largely led this remarkable movement for independence that he was—that he helped broker. When he came to power in—elected in 1998, when you think about it, the whole region was governed by neoliberals or, you know, pretty much allies and executors of the Washington Consensus neoliberalism. And he was the first person that began to challenge that in power. Lula in Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected in 2002; Néstor Kirchner in 2002; Evo Morales a few years later; Rafael Correa in Ecuador. But it really was, in some ways, Chávez that led that remarkable, incredible movement that’s world historical. It’s unprecedented.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one point I made in my column in the Daily News today on Chávez is that, to the degree that he was seen by the United States and Europe as the most radical of Latin American leaders, he created space for an enormous diversity of other left-oriented leaders that seemed almost more acceptable to the West up against the figure, the lightning-rod figure, of Chávez.
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, for a long time, Washington policymakers and opinion makers were trying to create this idea that there were two lefts—a good left and a bad left—in Latin America, vegetarian left and a carnivore left. And the kind of emblematic leaders of that was Lula in Brazil, a reformist, you know, administered within the institutions of law, and Chávez. You know, fiery populist is a word—a description that I’m sure has been used kind of like Mad Libs, you know, in obituaries of Chávez. But in reality, they actually worked together very nicely. I mean, if you read the WikiLeaks cables, it was no—the U.S. was constantly trying to push this notion of a division or a divide between Brazil and Venezuela, and Brazil constantly rebuffed it. And certainly, Chávez’s more flamboyant style on the world stage created a much more willingness to work with so-called more moderate reformers like Lula. And I would argue that their differences had more to do with the political structures that they inherited than anything. And I think they both, in very real ways, had exactly the same goal.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and continue this roundtable discussion and also bring you clips of our exclusive discussions with President Hugo Chávez, as well as the vice president, Nicolás Maduro, who will run for president in this next 30 days. And the question is: Where will Venezuela go? This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You can go to our website to see an in-depth look atDemocracy Now!’s coverage of Hugo Chávez over the years and related stories at democracynow.org, as we continue on this day after the death of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Gregory Wilpert, you have written extensively on the Venezuelan revolution, but especially you have focused on what most of the rest of the people in the United States and other parts of the world have not seen, which is the domestic impact of Chávez’s revolution on the everyday life of the Venezuelan people. I’m wondering if you could talk about that. For instance, you’ve written that the number of cooperatives in Venezuela escalated from about a thousand to 100,000 during the Chávez years. Could you speak about that?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah. I mean, Miguel Tinker Salas mentioned a couple of those changes, such as the decline in poverty, which is very important. I mean, there are certain things that people always focus on, and certainly the poverty one is very important, which declined by half during the—during Chávez’s presidency. Also, extreme poverty declined by more than two-thirds.
But in addition to these kind of standard-of-living improvements that happened for Venezuela’s poor majority, there were also these elements of participatory democracy that had been introduced with Chávez’s election. One of the most important, I think, is actually the introduction of communal councils in Venezuela. Over 30,000 communal councils were introduced, which are basically direct participatory, direct democratic structures throughout the country where people work on neighborhood improvement projects, and they really feel like they have a stake and acquire an ownership of their community. This is just one example. And, of course, the cooperatives and self-managed workplaces are others.
I mean, Chávez was really trying to introduce socialism and putting it on the map, really, back again on the map for the 21st century. And it wasn’t just an economic socialism, but also a political socialism, by which he meant a participatory democracy, which is what he was trying to create.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that’s an image quite different from what we receive here of an authoritarian leader.
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, certainly Chávez had his top-down management style, which certainly clashed and bothered many people. But on the other hand, one cannot deny, I think, that participation in Venezuela increased, from any measure that you look at, whether it’s the Latinobarómetro polls, which show that Venezuelans believe that their democracy is more democratic than it had ever been and in comparison to what other people say of other countries in Latin America, and also that they’ve—they’re participating much more in elections. I mean, participation and registration have increased dramatically. Voting centers and polling stations throughout the country have been distributed to poor neighborhoods where people used to have to wait a whole day in order to vote. Now it’s reduced tremendously, and it’s much faster. So there’s—just in every measure, like I said, there’s more participation in the democratic process.
AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands celebrated in the streets of the capital Caracas after the results of the 2012 election were announced. Chávez held a replica of the sword of independence hero Simón Bolívar during the victory celebration at a rally outside the presidential palace. Chávez reached out to the political opposition and called for unity among Venezuelans.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] To those who promote hate, to those who promote social poison, to those who are always trying to deny all the good things that happen in Venezuela, I invite them to dialogue, to debate and to work together for Venezuela, for the Bolivarian people, for the Bolivarian Venezuela. That’s why I start by sending these greetings to them and extending these two hands and heart to them in the name of all of us, because we are brothers in the fatherland of Bolívar.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez last year after his election. We’re also joined by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs, adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Your assessment of President Chávez’s legacy and what he represented?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think he did—Chávez really put his finger on legitimate grievance of social injustice and social inequality in Venezuela and throughout much of Latin America. He deserves a lot of credit for that, and I think that was his great contribution.
The problem is, I don’t think he really constructed an alternative after 14 years, and I think mainly because his style, his approach, was that he made all the decisions. He concentrated power in his own hands. And that’s very, very difficult to construct an effective system, a governance model, when only one person makes all the decisions. So, my sense is that he had a great opportunity because he had tremendous charisma, connected with the Venezuelan people, cared about the Venezuelan people, and the Venezuelans felt that. And he had a lot of resources. Oil prices went up substantially from the time he came in in 1999 'til now. He really had an opportunity to reshape in a significant way and put the country on a sustainable path of development. I'm not sure that if one looks at Venezuela today that it’s on that path.
And I think you have enormous problems that are there. There are shortages of basic goods. There is the highest inflation rate in Latin America. Crime is off the charts. If you look at the crime rate when he came in versus the crime rate today, there’s tremendous insecurity. Caracas is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world today. So, this is not a government that I think has been very competent and very effective. And I think it’s a product of the fact that he is somebody who believed that he represents the general will of Venezuelan people. He is a legitimate president, there’s no question about that, but you also need to, I think, bring in other sectors of the society, and he was a very polarizing figure. So I think he deserves credit. I think his legacy is a mixed one. But I think, in the end, this will be seen as a great opportunity for Venezuela that was squandered in the end.
AMY GOODMAN: Eva Golinger, your response?
EVA GOLINGER: Well, I think that at least Michael Shifter recognized Chávez’s legacy in terms of changing the lives of Venezuelans, and particularly the poor, but I strongly disagree with the assessment of the fact that he didn’t build, one, a sustainable model, two, an alternative, viable alternative, for the country and for the region, because, before as Greg was saying, Chávez opened the door, opened a pathway, began that pathway and took that road to transforming Latin America forever. I mean, Venezuela has been transformed forever.
Talking about the level of participation, today in Venezuela more Venezuelans participate than ever before in history. Everyone has a voice. Everyone wants to be active and involved. Before Chávez came into power—and I lived there during that time—it was a country full of apathy, full of apathy, full of exclusion, people who didn’t even care about participating because their participation meant nothing. That’s changed 100 percent and will never reverse its course.
At the same time, much has been focused on Chávez the man, Chávez Chávez, because he was an all-encompassing figure, he was larger than life. You know, he had this enormous personality and tremendous charisma. But at the same time, the vision that he had and that he began to implement collectively along with the people of Venezuela was about power to the people. And I think there’s no question that that has taken root in the country today. And we’ve seen it: Even after Chávez was elected in October and then was diagnosed again that the cancer had returned, and he was unable to participate in elections that followed after that for governors, for regional elections, nonetheless—he didn’t appear in one campaign event—his party won in 20 out of 23 states in the country. I mean, it was a clear showing of the leadership that was growing within the ranks of his party. At the same time, we’ve seen, you know, people are pouring into the streets of Venezuela, and have been throughout this time period, saying, "I am Chávez." And that doesn’t just mean, you know, "I love Chávez." It means "Chávez represented me, represented my family, my community, my interests."
And I think that today what we’re seeing in Venezuela, through these communal councils, through all this popular participation, is a collective leadership that has grown. And I think that in the end, that was Chávez’s overall objective, how to transfer that power into the hands of the people, empower the people so that they feel they have the capacity to govern their nation. And I think that that has unquestionably happened in Venezuela, and that’s one of the strongest elements of Chávez’s legacy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Greg Wilpert, what about these issues that Michael Shifter raises of the increasing crime rate in Venezuela—I’m not sure that Caracas is yet at the level of the place of my birth, Puerto Rico, in terms of crime rates, but it certainly has escalated dramatically—and the inflation situation and the unsustainability of the economic model that Chávez has developed?
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, I mean, I obviously disagree, as well, that I think it’s definitely sustainable. Venezuela, for example—I mean, people keep mentioning the inflation. True, it’s very high, but it’s lower than it was in the pre-Chávez years. It averaged 50 percent per year in the two presidents before Chávez. And he brought it—Chávez brought it down to around 20 percent in these last couple years. The average, I think, is around 22 percent per year. So that’s a decent achievement for an oil-producing country that basically earns its foreign currency in oil and funnels it back into the social programs, into the economy. And that, of course, generates inflation. But as long as incomes rise faster than inflation, it’s not really that big a deal. I mean, it’s a hassle, it’s a problem, but it’s not unsustainable.
The other thing is, I think that certainly crime is an issue, and it is a serious problem. I think it was basically based on a miscalculation on the part of the government. They believed that once you get poverty down, crime would go down by itself. And they didn’t do enough to actually make sure that there’s enough police, a decently functioning judicial system. And that’s really one of the big areas where a lot more needs to be done. But other than that, really, I think that, like I said, economically and socially, there’s been tremendous achievements in the last couple of years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, I’d like to ask you about the issue of oil and the importance of oil in Venezuela to the Chávez revolution. But first, I’d like to play a clip of an interview that we did back in 2005 when President Chávez was here for the United Nations General Assembly, one of the first televised interviews that he did here in the United States, where he spoke to Democracy Now! about the role of oil in his country.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] So we’re now providing—first we’re ensuring the supply of oil, direct supply of oil from state to state, in order to avoid the speculation of multinationals and traders. They buy gasoline in Venezuela, and then they go to a Caribbean country and they charge double. So we are selling the products to the states directly. We are not charging for freight. We assume the cost of freight. But apart from that, this discount is not of 25 percent. It goes to 40 percent of the total. And this money will be paid back in 25 years’ time, with two years of grace and 1 percent interest rates. So, if you make all of the mathematical calculations, the donation percentage is almost 70 percent, because it’s a long-term adjusted 1 percent. So what Venezuela’s doing is supplying 200,000 barrels of oil to the Caribbean and other Central American and South American countries, such as Paraguay, Uruguay and smaller nations in South America—200,000 millions of barrels. If you apply calculations, mathematical calculations, by 1.5 percent of our GDP—1.5 percent of the GDP is devoted to this cooperation—it means that we are financing these sister nations that next year will reach $1.7 billion a year. In 10 years, it’s $17 billion. It’s a way for us to share, to share our resources with these countries.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Hugo Chávez in September of 2005 in an interview, exclusive interview, with Democracy Now! that he held with Amy and myself. I wanted to ask you, Miguel Tinker Salas, the impact of the oil policies of President Chávez on the independence of the Latin American region and the ability to export the idea of a social revolution throughout Latin America?
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yeah, I think oil has to be understood as something that is not simply an economic question for Venezuela. It’s also a very important political, symbolic and cultural element within Venezuelan society. For Venezuelans, it was supposed to be the vehicle to modernization. And when Chávez comes to power in 1998, oil prices were less than $7 a barrel. So, in many ways, what the government had to do was to reconstruct a vision of Venezuela that included oil as part of the motor of change, of social change in Venezuela, not only for Venezuela, but also for the region. And oil was its most important cachet.
So, the first stage we saw was an effort to reclaim the oil industry, which began to operate essentially as an international conglomerate that was housed in Venezuela but did not really consider itself Venezuelan. So that was the first stage we saw in the context of reclaiming oil and attempting to create oil within a sustainable bandwidth in which Venezuela could sell oil commercially and then also initiate social programs and then also be able to provide it, as it did in the San José Accords in the 1970s, along with Mexico, to Central American countries, to Caribbean countries, that had to pay very onerous prices. So what Chávez’s government does is to use oil not simply to buttress relations with the U.S., but to buttress relations with Latin America in a very important way, to provide oil and long-term credits to countries like Nicaragua, like Dominican Republic, like Jamaica and other countries in the region, and including Cuba, and using that to create a tremendous amount of political goodwill, because it recognized that Venezuela has an important role, not simply as a purveyor of energy to the First World, to the U.S., which was its dominant trading partner, but really to Latin America.
And then that notion of economic nationalism, of economic sovereignty, spread throughout Latin America. We saw the same example in Bolivia nationalizing the gas industry. We saw Ecuador rejoining OPEC. We saw the creation of Petrocaribe, a Caribbean initiative that provided oil at short-term—long-term credit rates to the Caribbean. We saw the provision of oil to—of heating oil to communities in the U.S. under the banner of Citgo, so that Northeastern communities that had to pay onerous prices received oils at subsidized prices, as well. And we saw also Petrosur, the creation of a South American oil body that actually helped negotiate conditions for oil industry.
So, in many ways, many of that is attributable to the policies that the Chávez government instituted. And I think that’s what was sustainable. I think the previous system that had existed before 1998 was unsustainable. And the reality is that with that kind of recasting of oil, and of its symbolic importance as a part of the integral development of social development of Venezuela, we saw that clash between the imaginary Venezuela that saw itself simply as an international oil-producing country, and now reclaiming the oil industry as part and parcel of the social development within Venezuela, a major chasm had developed. And I think that’s what was healed under the Chávez administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Miguel Tinker Salas; and Gregory Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis; Eva Golinger, Venezuelan-American attorney, close friend of President Chávez; Greg Grandin of New York University, New York Public Library; and Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion—also ask the question: How is it that President Chávez managed to survive a coup against him, that other leaders, from Aristide to Salvador Allende, to President Zelaya of Honduras, did not manage to survive? Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: On this day after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, we’re going to talk right now about how it is that he survived an attempted coup when other Latin American and Caribbean leaders could not. I want to turn to an excerpt of a documentary made by two filmmakers who were in Caracas during the 2002 coup. The film is called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The excerpt begins with then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.
PRESS SECRETARY ARI FLEISCHER: Let me share with you the administration’s thoughts about what’s taking place in Venezuela. We know that the action encouraged by the Chávez government provoked this crisis. The Chávez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations, fired on unarmed peaceful protesters, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. That is what took place. And a transitional civilian government has been installed.
NARRATOR: Despite the blackout by the Venezuelan private media, members of Chávez’s government had managed to communicate with international television networks, getting the message back to Venezuela via cable TV that Chávez had not resigned and was being held captive.
The palace guard, who had remained loyal to Chávez decided to act. Behind Carmona’s back, a plot was being hatched by Chávez’s men to retake the palace. The plan was for the guard to take up key positions, surround the palace and to wait for a given signal.
With all their positions secured, the signal was given, and the presidential guard moved in. Several members of the newly installed government were taken prisoner, but in the confusion, Carmona and the generals had managed to slip away.
As the guards secured the building, Chávez’s ministers, who had been in hiding for the last two days, began to arrive back to the palace to try and reestablish the legitimate Cabinet.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Michael Shifter in Washington, D.C., of the Inter-American Dialogue, how is it that President Chávez managed to survive this coup and retain power, when so many, from President Aristide of Haiti to Honduras’s Zelaya, to, well, famously, of course, President Allende in Chile, did not survive their coups?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, there’s a lot of—
AMY GOODMAN: The coups against them, I should say, that the U.S. was involved with.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Sure. There’s a lot of history of failed coups in Latin America. And there are other cases, as well. President Chávez himself attempted a coup in 1992 in Venezuela that failed. And this one failed, as well. Fortunately, I think, it failed. And, you know, there are a lot of cases where there’s an attempted overthrow of a democratically elected legitimate government, like Chávez in April of 2002. And obviously, he had a lot of support. Obviously this was, you know, terribly done. And I’m glad that it failed. I think that the statement from the White House was terrible and shameful and disgraceful.
But I think that this is—you know, this is why he didn’t follow the—you know, of Allende and others, I think that the circumstances were just very, very different. I don’t think you can compare this and put this in the same category. The time was different. The circumstances were different. The role of the United States was different. And again, I think that if one looks at a variety of countries, one can see other cases and examples of coups that didn’t succeed. And I’m happy when they don’t succeed, because I think when you have a legitimate government that’s elected by the people and you have an interruption in democracy, that that is a very serious, troubling development.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan, there’s an old Latin—
MICHAEL SHIFTER: So I’m glad it didn’t succeed in April 2002.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s an old Latin American—
MICHAEL SHIFTER: And I’m glad Chávez’s didn’t, either.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s an old Latin American joke that says, "Why hasn’t the U.S. ever undergone a coup?" And that’s because there’s no U.S. embassy here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Michael Shifter, your sense of where—what the future now holds in terms of Venezuela, the ability of the opposition to mount a strong campaign against Nicolás Maduro, because obviously Maduro is going to be the candidate of the Chávez forces? What do you look for now in the coming days in terms of indications of where the situation in Venezuela will go?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think there are going to be elections. I think Maduro is going to be the candidate. I think he has—the chances are that he’s going to be elected. All the polls show that. The opposition is very, very demoralized, very fragmented. They lost in October by 11 points. They lost the governorships in December. They’re looking for a strategy. They’re wondering about their leadership. So I think the government certainly has the upper hand, and I think that the government will come together. There are different factions within Chavismo, but I think they’ll come together, certainly in the short term. So I look, for the short term, for things to be fairly stable and fairly steady under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro. I think that’s probably the likely scenario.
What I’m going to look for is more in the next six to eight months when, if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, and you might want to look for some strains and infighting within the Chávez camp. Nobody can match Chávez’s charisma and his ability to hold together the different forces within Chavismo. He had that unique ability. Maduro, for all of his whatever skills he has, he doesn’t have that talent. And I think that we could see developing some real tensions within the Chávez camp that could really—has the potential, at least, to create some turmoil.
But for the short term, my guess is that things will—that Maduro will be the president. The opposition has a long way to go to regroup and come up with an alternative strategy. Hopefully they’ll work on that and do that. But they just suffered two defeats, and they are figuring out what to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Nicolás Maduro, of course, now is the Venezuelan vice president. In October 2007, when he was Venezuela’s foreign minister, we had a chance to interview him. It was a year after President Chávez had famously referred to then-President George W. Bush as the devil in a speech before the General Assembly. Before we hear from Maduro, let’s go to that clip of Chávez at the U.N. in 2006.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday, the devil came here, right here, right here. And it smells of sulfur still today.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, speaking at the U.N. in 2006, referring to George W. Bush. Well, the next year, in 2007, I askedNicolás Maduro what message he had for the United States.
NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Our message is a message, first of all, to draw a balance of what has happened over the last months in the world, what happened in the world, what’s been the role of the United Nations to guarantee peace, how much the world has lost as a result of this crazy policy that apparently will be prolonged with this attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It could reach a crazy level if we pretend to take the way of war to aggress, to attack the Iranian people.
Our message remains the same. The world should open their eyes. The U.S. society should react. The U.S. people can do a lot for peace, for stability in the planet, for the recovery of the planet. The awareness in the world today, it’s also expressed in the United States, and we need a large humane alliance between the U.S. people and the peoples of the world, respecting our diversity, cultural diversity, our different ways to see the world, and establishing a relationship of equality. That’s the main message, and that’s been the message of President Chávez a year ago.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Vice President Nicolás Maduro, then foreign minister of Venezuela, talking with Democracy Now! I wanted to ask you, Eva, you know Nicolás Maduro well. Could you tell us who is he, his origins and development as part of the Chávez movement? And there are some who say that he’s actually more politically to the left than Chávez was in terms of his perspectives and his analysis.
EVA GOLINGER: Yeah, well, I think also the previous response, when talking about the coup and why it didn’t function in Venezuela, even though it did for a 48-hour period—and that needs to be remembered—and talking about, you know, what will happen from now on, showed the sort of position that you see out of a lot of analysts in the United States and around the world that underestimates entirely the Venezuelan people and their capacity, the capacity of President Chávez, as well as others, like Nicolás Maduro.
Nicolás comes from working-class roots. He was a bus driver. He was a union organizer. He’s someone who, you know, was a part of grassroots movements. And he became a part of Chávez’s movement when Chávez led a military rebellion in 1992 to try to oust a murderous and corrupt president at the time, that most of Venezuelans actually supported that rebellion, which did fail. And that’s when Chávez came on the scene, took responsibility for that publicly. He actually went to prison. While he was in prison, Nicolás joined in his movement. And the movement that Chávez had built had originally been out of the military. Chávez was a soldier. He was a lieutenant colonel in the armed forces, in the army.
AMY GOODMAN: And, as Shifter said, attempted a coup first, before he did become—
EVA GOLINGER: Attempted a military rebellion to overthrow the then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had, in two-and-a-half years before, ordered the state security forces to massacre the people of Venezuela when they protested his implementing neoliberal reforms in the country, privatization. More than 3,000 Venezuelans were killed. Mass grave sites were dug. And, you know, no one really knows the numbers that were killed by the government of that time. So a lot of people supported what Chávez was trying to do. Nobody knew him at the time. I mean, that’s when he became known. And that’s when Nicolás Maduro also began to know him.
And so, Chávez began to build, together with this group of grassroots organizers, a movement based on civil-military unity. And that was one of the key factors, actually, that defeated the coup in April 2002 against Chávez, was the fact that the military and the people came together, that people in Venezuela, who had begun a transformation of the country—because a lot of times also what happens in Venezuela is underestimated. It’s seen as, you know, this government came into power, Chávez was elected, and he began to do all these radical reforms. But it’s actually—we call it a revolution because that’s what it is. It’s a systematic transformation of every sector of society. And, you know, that was beginning to take root in 2002 when the coup happened.
And so, that movement of people that Nicolás Maduro was a part of, he was then a member of parliament. He later became the head of parliament, of Venezuela’s National Assembly, president of the assembly. Chávez named him foreign minister in 2006, and he continued in that movement in that position. He was ridiculed nonstop by Venezuelan media, internationally, by the opposition, saying, you know, "Oh, he’s a bus driver. You know, he knows nothing. He has no education. How could he be the top diplomat of the country?" But he became, I think, one of Venezuela’s best foreign ministers that they’ve ever had. I mean, he has led all kinds of treaties and agreements that Venezuela has entered into with countries throughout the world that have benefited Venezuela substantially. You know, most of Venezuelan foreign policy is now based on integration, cooperation and mutual benefit, transfer of technology. I mean, no longer it’s about just what can we get from the other guy.
And so, Nicolás has then become the most intimate adviser of the president, by his side, especially throughout this very difficult period. He was the one who was always with Chávez while he was undergoing his treatments in Cuba, and he was the one that clearly came through as the person with the most capacity to unify Chavismo and to carry on those policies. And I would definitely say that he certainly maintains a very radical and profound leftist position and wholeheartedly will carry on the movement led by Chávez.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gregory Wilpert, I wanted to ask you about the role of the Venezuelan media, both in opposition to Chávez all this time, especially its role in Venezuelan society, because he’s often been criticized as attempting to muzzle the media.
GREGORY WILPERT: Right. Well, you know, that’s one of the things that constantly critics point out to, is that the media is somehow being repressed in Venezuela. But if you turn on the TV or look at the newspapers, you see constant diatribes and constant criticisms and raising of problems that exist in Venezuela. And so, I mean, it’s very difficult to reconcile that with this claim that there’s some kind of repression against the private media.
The other thing is, people say that Chávez created all these other media outlets that are completely swamping their airwaves, but that’s not true. It’s true that there are many new media outlets, but they only actually get a very small percentage of the viewership. And so, the private media actually still predominates in Venezuela, despite what—the impression that people get from what’s going on. And so—but there’s a much greater diversity of opinions and of freedom of speech, really, because you also have tons of community media. So there’s an incredible amount of debate going on in Venezuela.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion. There will be a seven-day period of mourning. President Hugo Chávez will be buried on Friday. That’s when his funeral will be. That does it for our show, and I want to thank all of our guests: Gregory Wilpert, founder of Venezuelanalysis.com; Eva Golinger, friend and adviser to President Hugo Chávez, author of The Chávez Code ; Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California; Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington; and Greg Grandin, currently Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for complete coverage of Hugo Chávez with our exclusive interviews of both Chávez and Maduro. That’s democracynow.org.