This article was last modified on June 10, 2010.


Interview with Brian Nelson on Venezuela

The following interview took place in early June 2010, in preparation for my July 2010 column…

Nelson is an expert on Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, and the author of “The Silence and the Scorpion”.

GS: You sort of mention this in the book, but how does Chavez reconcile his pro-military beliefs with his pro-socialist beliefs? (Socialists tend to be largely anti-war.)

BN: This is a great question and it speaks to what is perhaps the most important epiphany I had about Chávez when I was living in Venezuela. And that is that there are two lefts. There’s the left and there’s THE LEFT. I’m on the left (lowercase). I opposed the war in Iraq (from the beginning, mind you), I worked on the Obama campaign, and I supported healthcare reform. Many leftists, like me, initially looked at Chávez as he criticized Bush or opposed US intervention in Iraq and thought, “Heh, this guy’s got it right.” However, what they don’t realize (and what I didn’t realize until I actually went to live in Venezuela) is that Chávez is on the LEFT. He is part of a more radical tradition that believes in bringing about revolution using any and all means necessary—regardless of the oppression and human rights violations that occur along the way. In fact, Chávez long felt that true revolution could only be accomplished by a mass violent uprising against the capitalist system (hence his coup attempt in 1992). In fact, after he was released from prison and Luis Miquilena (a famous Venezuelan Communist) tried to get him to run for office, Chávez initially refused, saying that would never lead to true revolution. Visiting Cuba in 1994, Chávez said this: “We do not rule out the path of weapons in Venezuela” and that his project had a great deal to offer Cuba, “a project with a horizon that stretches for twenty to forty years.” After this visit, Chávez spent six months in Colombia where he met with both FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) leaders.

I’ll add that the idea of the leftist/socialist as a pacifist is largely an American stereotype. There is a long list of militant socialists —Mao, Lenin and Castro —who are more devout to Marx and feel that violence is a justifiable means to an end.

I think that a lot of moderate lefties in the US still support Chávez because they don’t realize how radical he is. Perhaps if I had not gone to Venezuela, I would actually still support him, too. However, on closer inspection, most leftists would not support Chávez because he goes contrary to many of their core values—freedom of expression, the rule of law, and human rights—all things that Chávez has shown little respect for. It’s a shame really, because Chávez has blown a good thing. When he was voted into office he had broad popular support. If he could have been more moderate and used the oil profits wisely, Venezuela could have made good progress over the last decade. Instead it’s the only country in South America that hasn’t pulled out of the global recession, despite being the most resource rich.

For those people on the left who cheered when Chávez criticized Bush and the neocons, they should know that the enemy of their enemy is not necessarily their friend.

GS: If it is so unpopular, why does Plan Avila exist?

BN: That is also a good question because, technically, Plan Avila should NOT exist. After all, using the military to control civilians was outlawed by the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. What’s more, in August of 2002 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) ruled that Plan Avila was illegal and had to be changed to comply with human rights standards.

So, why wasn’t the plan scraped, especially after it was used in 1989 and so many people died? Well, put yourself in Chávez’s shoes for a moment: You are the president of a Latin American country that has a long history of military coups and civil unrest. Would you sleep better at night knowing that you could give an order and the army would come and help you, whatever the situation might be? Wouldn’t you want an easy way to essentially declare martial law?

I speculate that Chávez—knowing as much as he did about coups—felt a lot better knowing he could call Plan Avila if need be.

GS: Following his attempted coup in 1992, why was Chavez not arrested for longer? I imagine in America, such action would easily get you a life sentence.

Ah, this speaks to the rather pathetic and corrupt nature of Venezuela’s justice system. In Venezuela there is a saying, “Only pendejos (idiots) go to jail.” Meaning, that if you are not an idiot, you should be able to bribe, swindle or get a good enough lawyer to get you out.

In the case of Hugo Chávez, he was never even charged with a crime. There was never a trial. The government just kept him in custody. At this point Chávez was sort of a pawn for different Venezuelan politicians. He was a cult hero, but few people took him seriously. When President Caldera released him, he gained points as someone who empathized with the widespread frustration that many Venezuelans felt and that Hugo Chávez personified.

As it turns out, never holding a trial turned out to be enormously important for Chávez. If he had been convicted of a felony (which he surely would have been, since he confessed), he would have never become president because Venezuelan law stipulates that no convicted felon can be president. Amazing, huh?

GS: How corrupt is/was Chavez compared to previous presidents?

BN: Venezuela was obscenely corrupt before Chávez came to power; yet, somewhat incredibly, it is even more corrupt now. Transparency International is a German NGO that tracks corruption worldwide. Before Chávez was elected, Venezuela was ranked the 4th most corrupt country in Latin America. Today it is ranked as the most corrupt. It’s corruption’s perception score fell from 2.6 to 1.9 since 1998 (the lower the score, the more corrupt).

I think the major reason for this increase in corruption is the “politicization” of the country under Chávez. By that I mean that in Venezuela today the institutions of the state assist (almost exclusively) people who pledge loyalty to Chávez and the revolution. In the old days, under the two-party system, an individual had a much better chance of getting fair treatment from the state—whether it be for a permit to open a business or a legal dispute or simply having your passport renewed—regardless of his or her political beliefs. Unfortunately, Chávez’s near-absolute control over the government means that the state is used as a perpetual vote-collection-machine. Bartering, cajoling, and extorting from it’s citizens in order to perpetuate itself.

A good example of this was the referendum to change the constitution so that Chávez could be re-elected indefinitely. The measure was defeated in a popular vote in 2007 and was a major setback for the president. Chávez, however, was undeterred and wanted to have a second referendum. The only problem was that this was illegal—since it had already been defeated, it couldn’t be put back on the ballot. Chávez found a loophole however. If he could collect enough signatures, indefinite re-election could be put on the ballot again. Chávez then used the government food stores, Mercal, to get the signatures. People who wanted to get the cheap goods offered by these stores found that they had to sign the petition before they could check out. In this way, a second referendum was held in February 2009, which Chávez won. Now he can be re-elected indefinitely.

GS: My impression is that the American media was more critical of Chavez during the Bush Administration than they are today. Do you agree, and (if yes) why has this changed?

BN: I think this was actually a two-way street. Meaning, that during the Bush Administration Chávez spent a lot more time criticizing Bush (for example, calling him the Devil in front of the United Nations), because it was smart politics for him. Bush was Chávez’s piñata! An president who was very unpopular outside of the US and who personified the worst of US foreign policy—unilateralism, interventionism, and, well, imperialism. By bashing Bush, Chávez gained a lot of support all over the globe. This got Chávez a lot of media attention—most of it negative in the US—but much of it positive in other parts of the world where people saw Chávez as someone with enough cojones to defy “the empire.”

With Obama, Chávez has to tone down his rhetoric because Obama is not (nearly) the imperialist that Bush was. Obama is a lot more popular internationally than Bush was, too. Plus Obama is on the left, which means that Fox news isn’t defending the President anymore (and simultaneously ranting about Chávez). Instead they try to tie Chávez to Obama, claiming they are both communists who will destroy their respective countries. Ridiculous, but it’s simple and it plays to a lot of people’s fears about Obama. Again, there are two lefts, and Obama is a lowercase leftist.

GS: As briefly as possible, what good and what harm has Chavez done to Venezuela?

BN: Chávez has attempted to do a lot of good things for Venezuela. Most of these good things concern helping the poor because Chávez sincerely does want to help them. The more obvious examples are giving free lunches to kids in public schools (often the only good meal they get all day) and his Barrio Adentro program which gives healthcare in poor areas. I say attempt because only a very small number of his dozens and dozens of initiatives appear to have had much impact.

At the same time, Chávez has been a disaster in most regards, particularly with Venezuela’s economy and the oil industry. Today Venezuela has extremely high inflation (over 30 percent annually), very high unemployment and incredible underemployment, shortages of basic goods like milk, rice, sugar, and cooking oil, and skyrocketing crime (Foreign Policy magazine says the Caracas is now the murder capital of the world).
Perhaps the most telling statistic is the country’s deepening dependence on oil. The goal of any petrostate must be to wean the country off this dependence—not only will it not last forever, but dependence means that the country is completely at the whim of global energy prices. When Chávez was elected, 64 percent of the country’s export revenue came from oil. Now it’s 93 percent. What that means is that so many other businesses have closed or been expropriated that the country is now almost totally reliant on oil for it’s survival. That was all fine and dandy during the oil boom of 2003-2008, but now Venezuela is in trouble and Chávez is quickly running out of money. What Chávez is doing now is selling future oil production; he is essentially mortgaging Venezuela’s future to keep his political machine alive. The next generation of Venezuelans will be paying for his mismanagement for a long time.

Why has Chávez been such a disaster for the economy despite the 5-year oil boom? Because, despite his good intentions, he doesn’t have a clue to what he is doing. This is the central problem with being a devout Marxist, because Marx never told us what was supposed to happen after the revolution. He only told us that Capitalism would eventually collapse and that the proletariat would create a new system. But what kind of system???? This is, by the way, why we have Stalinism, Leninism, Maoism, Fidelismo, etc. Each one of these leaders tried to invent a new post-revolutionary system. And all of them, unfortunately, trended toward totalitarianism and oppression.

So Chávez wants his post-revolution society/economy, but he doesn’t know what it is. He only knows what it isn’t. It isn’t capitalist. So he initiates all these programs that hurt businesses of all sizes and scare off investors and destroy jobs.

This is the great irony and the great tragedy of Chávez. He doesn’t understand that the engine of the revolution is the Venezuelan economy. All he has to do is keep that going! But he’s shooting himself in the foot. He’s too intolerant to be moderate in his reforms. Without economic power, Chávez will turn Venezuela into a poor country like Cuba, that will have very little impact on the global stage.

GS: After the 2002 coup attempt, how did Chavez get democratically re-elected?

BN: I’m not sure what you mean by this question. Do you mean the 2006 presidential election? Chávez wasn’t re-elected immediately after the coup, he was reinstated.

GS: Yes, in 2006.

BN: He won the 2006 election because his popularity did rebound quite a bit after the coup. By that time he was making a lot of money off the global spike in oil prices and he began a lot of his progressive social programs. Many of these programs did not work in the long-run, but they were popular because they essentially gave money to people.

It also helped that the opposition could not launch an effective counter-campaign—in part because they were a little incompetent, and in part because Chávez had run some of their most viable candidates out of the country.

GS: How does the American media’s presentation of Chavez differ from the Venezuelan media?

BN: Well, in Venezuela the media outlets are extremely polarized: most of the independent newspapers are anti-Chávez and spend a lot of time pointing out all the bad things about him and omitting the good. This is counterbalanced by the six pro-Chávez TV stations and the dozens of newspaper and websites the government runs. These do the exact opposite. In fact, their “news” is little more than propaganda—spinning any and every event in the governments favor.

This creates an environment where nothing seems real. You end up doubting everything, because every story has another version that is completely contradictory. All you have to do is pick up a different newspaper or change the channel. It’s rather maddening, really, because you end up trusting nothing.

GS: In the book, you characterize media outlets as pro- or anti-Chavez. Does Venezuela not have anything comparable to “fair and balanced” news?

BN: Well, that would depend on your point of view, I suppose. As much as Chávez complains about the private media outlets in Venezuela that oppose him, none of them are as outlandish to me as Fox News. In fact, Globovisión, the last surviving anti-Chávez station is, in my opinion, pretty moderate—perhaps just a little to the right of CNN (the new CNN). Yes, at times they are a bit sensationalistic, but, again, the stuff I see on Fox is much more manipulative.

It has a lot to do with one’s relative position on the political spectrum. Since Chávez is so far on the left, even a station like Globovisión, which I think is close to the center and is generally fair, gets criticized by Chávez as being “fascist.”

Did you hear about the Chávez media attacking Michael Moore? That’s a very good example of how intolerant the regime has become to any criticism. Apparently Chávez and Moore met at the Venice film festival last year and Moore talked about it on Jimmy Kimmel. Moore was lighthearted and funny about it; saying that he told Chávez to tone it down and that doing things like calling Bush the Devil weren’t cool. Well, the Chávez controlled media in Venezuela went rather ballistic about it—calling Moore a liar and a coward because he had the audacity to give advice to such an eloquent and accomplished statesman as Hugo Chávez.

Here’s the story (from a pro-Chávez writer who gets her funding from the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture):

http://www.chavezcode.com/2009/10/lies-of-michael-moore-about-hugo-chavez.html

When you are so far on the left that you’re attacking Michael Moore, something is seriously wrong.

GS: What (if any) threat did/does Venezuela pose to America, militarily, economically, culturally or otherwise?

BN: Venezuela poses very little threat to the U.S. at the moment. While Chávez has threatened to shut off his oil supplies to the U.S., he won’t because he needs to sell it to us much more than we need to buy it. Also, since oil production is down in Venezuela, it would not be particularly painful for the U.S. if we lost Venezuela as a supplier—it has become one of our smaller suppliers. But, again, Chávez won’t cut off the pump because the U.S. has several refineries made specifically to process Venezuelan oil that no other country has. If Chávez didn’t sell it to us, he’d have to eat it, and that would be political and economic suicide.

At the moment, Chávez is content on spreading the idea of the revolution around the developing world as much as possible. He wants to set up a “Bolivarian” power bloc—somewhat like the EU, in his eyes—that could be a challenge to the U.S. and Europe. He calls this initiative ALBA. Simultaneously, Chávez is also trying to expand the revolution by illegal means: He funds the election campaigns of foreign candidates that he thinks he can influence and control, like he has already done in Peru, El Salvador, Mexico, Argentina, and Honduras. He views Colombia as an enemy because of it’s close ties to the U.S. and his long alliance with the Colombian FARC (remember he visited them after he was released from jail and they also gave him 200,000 dollars around that same time). Therefore, he will continue to give them money, weapons, and safe haven in Venezuela.

Depending on how successful these efforts are, Chávez could have a long-term impact Latin America that would be problematic for the US, but I don’t think it is as dangerous as many conservatives think—that’s because these foreign leaders and candidates are happy to take Chávez’s money and cheap oil, but will ultimately do what’s in their best interest, not Chávez’s.

Finally, Chávez does want a nuclear bomb. He has a very poor military when compared to neighboring Brazil and Colombia, so having the bomb would be the ideal deterrent for them (and the United States). I believe that getting the bomb is the primary driver in Chávez’s new alliance with Iran. Right now the Venezuelan government is letting Iran search for Uranium in Venezuela. When and if Iran gets the bomb, Chávez will get his quid pro quo. This, of course, will have a major impact on power politics in the region.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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