Tension continues to grow in Venezuela this week after the government held elections over the weekend to elect a constituent assembly that can rewrite the country’s constitution. President Nicolás Maduro plans to move forward with 545-member body that is loyal to him. Opposition parties boycotted the election, calling it unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, violent protests continue in the street. Over 125 people have died in clashes with government forces during the past four months. The Guardian reports over 5,000 people have been detained and more than 1,300 remain in custody, according to the human rights group Foro Penal.
Opposition leaders, such as Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez, have been arrested or confined to house arrest.
Growing unemployment, an increase in violence and a lack of basic goods led Venezuelans to protest against Maduro, who ascended to the country’s presidency following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013. But more countries are calling the weekend elections a sham. The United States has imposed new sanctions against Maduro, and President Donald Trump has called Maduro “a dictator.”
For some background on the politics underlying the ongoing conflict, World Views host Suzette Grillot spoke with University of Oklahoma political scientist Charlie Kenney about the causes of this week’s crisis.
On corruption in Venezuela
There is a great deal of corruption in Venezuela. This is not new with [Hugo] Chavez. There was a great deal of corruption in the old system and this is one of the things that made him very popular. He came in as a leader of an anti-corruption effort to sweep away or drain the swamp, get rid of all the old people who were so highly identified with corruption. But again his regime did not improve matters. And so we have now created a new class, a new groups of people who benefit from this corruption. So corruption is very much a problem. But I think that even more basic is that the policies that he followed strongly disincentived investments. He nfter a the productive capabilities within the country are now much lower than they used to be. And so I think the problem is actually more of an economic problem than one of corruption per se. Corruption has been there and it is a part of the problem. But I think that the fundamental economic problems aren't really due to corruption per se but just bad policy.
On how Venezuela’s neighbor’s approach the country’s instability
I think that the regional powers are attempting to deal with a country that is collapsing economically and politically and the consequences of this for the population as you say are extremely dire. I don't want to make light of the 100 people or so who've died in these protests but they are but a blip if you will compared to the people who have died due to the economic policies followed by the government and its and their failures. So we're talking about massive increases in poverty and destruction of health care systems and such that have led people to the streets. And I'm sure that far many more people have died due to these other problems than actually in these conflicts in the streets. We also know that for many years now Venezuela has been descending into one of the leading murder capitals of the world. It is law and order has been destroyed there in many ways and so this criminal violence is also taking the lives of many people. So what can the region do about this? It's very hard to know. When you have a sitting government that was legally established that overreaches and engages in unconstitutional or undemocratic behavior it's different than say just what a military comes to power that you can more clearly oppose. And the regional authorities have tried to grapple with this over the years in various circumstances and they're doing so now.
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Suzette Grillot: Charlie Kenney, welcome to World Views.
Charlie Kenney: It's nice to be here. Thank you.
Grillot: Well let's stick with this conversation about Venezuela. We spoke last week about it briefly and I'd like to have a deeper conversation about it. You know, just as a background that we've had about four months now of ongoing protests and violence in Venezuela, lots of concern with kind of a breaking down of the government, presidential stretch, a grab for power. But can you kind of give us kind of set this up for us a little bit, Charlie, in terms of some of the historical factors that matter here and maybe some of the economic, political, social factors that have kind of led us to where we are now kind of where we've been in Venezuela in the last four months or so.
Kenney: Well we might go back to the latter part of the last century in which there is a strong two party political system in Venezuela and when many other countries in Latin America became undemocratic, dictatorial, it was one of the few democracies that stood there. Corruption, distancing from the population and the collapse of oil prices led to the collapse of that political system and a lieutenant colonel Hugo Chavez staged a military coup attempt in 1992 to try to overthrow it militarily. In 1998 he successfully became the president of the country through free and fair elections and launched the country into a process of populist leadership from which it has not left. It was a very innovative process in many ways, but ultimately quite destructive to the country's productive capabilities. It did appeal in many ways to the poor and to those who had not benefited from the previous system. This is one of the characteristics of populism. It appeals to those who've been excluded from the benefits of a previously existing political system. But it also personalizes power. It brings power to a single individual who seeks to rule without any mediation, both from the press, wants direct contact and with the people and usually abhors the press, and also does not want to live within the checks and balances of a democratic system.
Kenney: So under Hugo Chavez we saw the systematic destruction of checks and balances. Ultimately the destruction of freedom of the press and the decline of the country away from democracy. This was not immediate and many times Hugo Chavez won elections freely and fairly. He had a very strong popular support, but he used that power in a way that was destructive of democracy. When he died in 2013, the country's economic policies were no longer yielding benefits for many people and things were turning down if you will. And then he died. So Nicolás Maduro inherited a political system that was highly, highly concentrated power in his hands and an economic system that was failing.
Kenney: At this point the world oil prices begin to collapse. And one of the characteristics of the Venezuelan economy for the last 50 years or so has been its utter dependence on oil. And that tendency was not reverted under Chavez. It became even more concentrated. So the economy then further collapsed, not only due to the policies of the government and those failures, but to the oil price collapse.
Grillot: Well, I want to get to the larger oil market issue and kind of some of the regional and global issues in just a second. But obviously what we've heard coming out of Venezuela is that there are tremendous food shortages, just basic goods shortages. Obviously the economic situation is dire there but let's give just a little bit further about kind of the corruption and the patronage. I mean, from my understanding and I don't see it is part of the world which is why you're here, is that there's a tremendous amount of kind of patronage and cronyism. And is this the kind of corruption that you're referring to is that there's a tremendous amount of of use of government resources to to benefit just a few rather than the the popular you know or that the population I guess and particularly the role of the military in that.
Kenney: There is a great deal of corruption in Venezuela. This is not new with Chavez. There was a great deal of corruption in the old system and this is one of the things that made him very popular. He came in as a leader of an anti-corruption effort to sweep away or drain the swamp, get rid of all the old people who were so highly identified with corruption. But again his regime did not improve matters. And so we have now created a new class, a new groups of people who benefit from this corruption. So corruption is very much a problem. But I think that even more basic is that the policies that he followed strongly disincentived investments. He nationalized a great deal of companies. Many companies have pulled out or collapsed and failed. And so the productive capabilities within the country are now much lower than they used to be. And so I think the problem is actually more of an economic problem than one of corruption per se. Corruption has been there and it is a part of the problem. But I think that the fundamental economic problems aren't really due to corruption per se but just bad policy.
Grillot: So lack of investment clearly brings us to this broader maybe regional and global impact of what's going on in Venezuela. I mean, one and a half million Venezuelans have left the country because of the economic crisis and the violence. And you know about 100 people have died over the past few months in the violent protests. But at. So tell us a little bit about kind of the regional concerns and particularly the Organization of American States and how it's attempting to deal with this crisis in Venezuela and how the United States plays into that. As a member of the OAS and one that's had some difficult relations with Venezuela in the past and currently and is critical of Maduro's attempts here kind of. Can you give us kind of a regional picture of what's happening here?
Kenney: So I think that the regional powers are attempting to deal with a country that is collapsing economically and politically, and the consequences of this for the population, as you say, are extremely dire. I don't want to make light of the 100 people or so who've died in these protests, but they are but a blip if you will compared to the people who have died due to the economic policies followed by the government and its and their failures. So we're talking about massive increases in poverty and destruction of health care systems and such that have led people to the streets. And I'm sure that far many more people have died due to these other problems than actually in these conflicts in the streets. We also know that for many years now, Venezuela has been descending into one of the leading murder capitals of the world. It is law and order has been destroyed there in many ways and so this criminal violence is also taking the lives of many people. So what can the region do about this? It's very hard to know. When you have a sitting government that was legally established that overreaches and engages in unconstitutional or undemocratic behavior, it's different than say just what a military comes to power that you can more clearly oppose. And the regional authorities have tried to grapple with this over the years in various circumstances and they're doing so now.
Kenney: At the present, the polarization around Venezuela penetrates the OAS. And so the Organization of American States works on a more or less consensus basis. And while there are a majority of states that are calling for strong changes in Venezuela, there is a minority that is very much in solidarity with Venezuela and their resistance to these moves have kept the Organization of American States from being a more effective agent in trying to overcome what's going on in Venezuela today.
Grillot: Just quickly what, which countries are those? And why is there tremendous solidarity given the regional implications of what's happening there?
Kenney: Well, as I said earlier o,n when Chavez came to power he came to power leading a populist movement. And there have been other leaders who have risen in a similar mold. And so they see what's going on in Venezuela as a matter of U.S. imperialism, trying to destroy a socialist state that is a brother of theirs, something along those lines. And so as much as they might question some of Maduro's policies and such, they don't want to see anything happen to this country. So we're talking about Bolivia. Suriname recently voiced support for not intervening in the OAS. Ecuador has been an ally. Nicaragua is a strong ally. So there are a core of countries that are more or less ideological brothers, if you will, to the Chavista movement.
Grillot: What about a country like Brazil, a major leader in the region? They I think are more supportive of trying to figure out what to do about Venezuela have been more critical. How successful might they be especially given their own internal concerns politically and economically?
Kenney: Well Brazil has at times been the most important. It is a leading country, is the leading country in South America and they have exercised that leadership in a variety of ways. They in the past neither supported everything Chavez did nor supported efforts to oppose him. They tried to mediate, if you will. The leadership of course has changed. We've gone from Dilma Rousseff being impeached to Michel Temer who is very much of an anti-Chavez type figure, but who lacks legitimacy in his own country. And I said before that Nicolas Maduro has a 23 or 22 percent approval rating. Michel Temer has a 7 percent approval rating. So the ability of of Brazil to act internationally at this point I think is quite undercut by its own internal problems.
Grillot: Well as you referred to the United States is a bit, their hands are tied more or less in what they can do here in the Organization of American States. So, in that case then what can should the United States do? What can and should others do in the region or what kind of you know what should Venezuela do. I mean, what are we looking at here moving forward in terms of you know any progress on this issue or are we just going to see a continued spiral in Venezuela of violence and corruption and economic crisis and political crisis. And are we headed in a in a very very bad place even worse place?
Kenney: In response to the question of what to do. I honestly have to say I do not know what would be best. I do think that we're heading into it we are already in a spiral downward spiral a destructive spiral. And I do not see how this is going to end. It's not going to end well. But exactly how it ends, I'm not sure. When you have people like this in power, the problem that they face if you're Nicolas Maduro is that you stay in power or you go to jail. Or you stay in power or you get killed. So it is very difficult to remove people from power who are facing those kinds of choices. So I don't know how best to deal with this. I do think that countries should insist on the rule of law. They should insist on a constitutional actions. They should push to try to get him to leave power. But I don't know how they can be successful at that as long as the military is consolidated in his support.
Grillot: Is there any concern about spillover here into other countries in the region? And then of course there's just the global implication again of oil markets and other economic concerns that we have that might be emanating from this area as well.
Kenney: Yeah I'm sure there's some kind of spillover concerns. Certainly there are people leaving the country today.
Grillot: Certainly the people who are leaving, they're referring to as refugees today.
Kenney: Or refugees such as those those are concerns especially for the neighbors, especially for Colombia, which is the main place where people go. The other countries being somewhat more distant and problematic to get to. So yeah countries are concerned but that concern doesn't translate into an immediate course of action that is clear and open and that's why I just don't know. I don't know what the best answer is.
Grillot: Well it's tough to end any discussion without some sort of consideration of bright spots. But it doesn't sound like at this point there any bright spots other than Venezuelans are are persistent. They're determined. There is an organized opposition to this. There are people that are really trying to to address these these issues and concerns of Venezuela. I mean is that at least you know something we can look to in terms of you know hope for the future?
Kenney: Quite so. I think the Venezuelans have shown remarkable tenacity in defending their rights. And while the opposition often suffers from disunity they have unified at crucial moments and I think that if the one crucial aspect of this is that the opposition remain unified in their struggle to retain constitutional rule and return to democracy.
Kenney: I will say one last thing and I think that the final way that this will be resolved is through elections. Free and fair elections will at some point happen in Venezuela and will give forth a legitimate government.
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