Elections, Negotiation, and Dialogue in Venezuela: Interview with Emiliano Terán Mantovani
(This interview originally appeared, in Spanish, in Hora Cero, on October 8, 2021. Translated by Steven Johnson, and reviewed by Laura Sandoval.)
The government of Venezuela is sitting down to talk in hopes of freeing itself from the economic sanctions that prevent it from accessing its foreign assets and to survive the economic crisis. The Unitary Platform, on the other hand, seeks a return to the electoral realm to recover a share of power from the governing party.
In this interview with the Venezuelan sociologist and researcher Emiliano Terán Mantovani we trace the origins of the crisis and analyze the current situation in light of the negotiations that are taking place between the government and part of the Venezuelan opposition.
Can we say that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?
Beyond the debate over what is and what isn’t a dictatorship in the globalized 21st Century — a debate that I think is needed —with regard to Venezuela, there has been a great deal of abuse of the press, propaganda, Manicheisms, and frenzy. But let’s get past media generalizations and try to see in concrete terms the profile of this government as it is now: There is absolutely no separation of powers, and not only that, but institutions have dramatically deteriorated, at the same rate that the entire country has deteriorated in this crisis.
What prevails now is the law of the strongest, the will of those who have actual power linked to the state bureaucracy, the military sector, and those who operate businesses. Corruption is the principal mechanism by which wealth and power are distributed from above. Now there is not even the pretense of democratic protocols. Everything has degenerated into authoritarianism and open plunder. The electoral avenue has become completely corrupted, and people no longer trust the elections system. Decisions are made by naked power, without so much as a consultation of those affected, and even worse, with levels of secrecy that have increased with the lack of public data and statistics, since 2016 when a state of permanent emergency was declared, which makes everything run like a war economy. To top it off, there is the Anti-Blockade Law of 2020, which legalizes an unprecedented level of secrecy in projects and agreements.
And as I mentioned before, popular protest has been increasingly and violently repressed, a pattern that is being repeated throughout the country. The role of the various security bodies, legal and parallel, is crucial in this situation. And impunity is complete and ubiquitous; this political deterioration has crushed the rule of law, the foundation of rights that protects society.
All of this can be corroborated not only by international institutional actors like the United Nations Office of Human Rights, but also by Venezuelan social organizations, both those of the opposition and others that are chavista, as well as by the testimony of people in popular-class neighborhoods, where security forces have carried out massacres. This is something that everyone knows and is completely obvious. Even high-ranking state officials have acknowledged “excesses” committed by the security forces. Just recently the public prosecutor admitted the Venezuelan state’s responsibility for the death of city councilor Fernando Albán and of the student Juan Pablo Pernalete, which is very serious. There is considerable social intimidation against those who criticize and protest, and even more with the so-called “Law Against Hate” applied to many who raise direct criticisms. What are we to call all of this?
It’s true that the term “dictatorship” has been used and abused by an ultraconservative sector of the Latin American right, as well as by media organizations with repugnant, manipulative editorial slants, to contrast, very hypocritically, the current Venezuelan regime with the “democracies” of the hemisphere. But governments like those of Iván Duque of Colombia, Sebastián Piñera of Chile, or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, to mention some examples, are a disgrace even though they maintain a facade of democratic institutions. They are repressive, violent, and corrupt. However, this does not mean that the Maduro regime as it is developing today is not a dictatorship. Was it always this way? I don’t think so. The first five years of the Bolivarian process had a very interesting level of mass participation and passion.
The Venezuelan elections in which Chávez, his party, and his government won were clean elections. Everything changed starting in 2015, after the national government suffered a sweeping defeat in the parliamentary elections of that year, and the opposition gained two-thirds of the Assembly. It seemed that day was coming to an end for the government of Nicolás Maduro, who had almost lost the presidential race to Henrique Capriles in April 2013. In 2015 the national government began to disregard this or any other instance that was outside the control of the national government and undertook increasingly authoritarian actions which have become ever more drastic and violent. And I would insist, this was done even to dissident chavistas, no matter how chavista they were.
But what cannot be said is that in Venezuela the only political actor in the game is the government. Since the arrival of Chávez there have been various forms of intervention, principally by the United States, with varying impacts, strong in the first years of Chávez, that diminished later and intensified again with Maduro. The Trump administration did this with very intense, grotesque measures, more than by the threats of invasion — which in my opinion were never a first option — by means of international sanctions, which have had a strong impact, and are also crimes against humanity. However, it is crucial to state that the economic and social collapse of Venezuela began before the international sanctions.
The sanctions that truly affected us as a country were those that have been imposed since 2017, and especially since 2019, which strongly affected PDVSA [the Venezuelan state-owned petroleum company] and Venezuelan gold. The sanctions aren’t the main cause of the Venezuelan crisis. The main causes of the national collapse and of the decline of chavismo must be sought primarily in internal factors of the process.
Another element that should be added is that the interventions were not only by the United States: China had an important role in deepening extractivism and foreign debts in Venezuela and the subsequent economic weakening of the country. And Russia has played a crucial role in the period of crisis, linked to conditions for its petroleum companies, mining interests, and the sale of arms to Venezuela. We could also speak of Colombia, Iran, Turkey, Cuba, among others. What we have gone through in Venezuela has also been an international conflict.
The government and some sectors of the opposition conducted a round of negotiations with partial accords. What have been the key points of these negotiations?
As has already been announced, in August this new attempt at negotiations established seven points that they called “top priority”, which highlight the great emphasis that the government has placed on bringing the international sanctions to an end and recovering foreign Venezuelan assets — this last matter was agreed upon as a “partial accord” in September — while the opposition insists on free and fair elections and the return of fairness and guarantees in the elections. Other elements pertain to equal political rights for all actors, coexistence, and the rejection of violent approaches, as well as respect for the rule of law. And measures of “protection” were announced for the economy and the Venezuelan people, in addition to guarantees of respect for these accords. The other “partial accord” was that of Esequibo, the area that Venezuela is seeking to reclaim in a now historic dispute with our neighbors in Guyana, which is yet another ingredient that must be added to this soup which is the Venezuelan conflict, and that also involves petroleum production.
There are two highly sensitive issues at stake in these negotiations: one concerns the humanitarian crisis that the country is going through, which has compromised the living conditions of millions of Venezuelans, not to mention the other six million of our compatriots who have left the country. The other one is the possibility that the political conflict will get out of control, and therefore the need to avoid those outcomes. Both issues are so important for the population and the future of the country, and these and other negotiations could help open paths by which to avoid falling into such deep, dark pits and return to a certain space for doing politics and recovering basic living conditions.
But the truth is that this process has another side to it. The dominant groups that are negotiating are basically the political and economic elites that have their backs completely turned to the country, something that the population certainly knows very well. Their backs are turned to the country and they are deeply involved with private economic and political interests. In fact, while these groups have been opposed to each other politically, what they have on this negotiating table is a great consensus for selling out the country. Many of the liberalizing and deregulating policies of the Maduro government are seen positively by many actors from the opposition and business interests. Other groups that are not part of the negotiations are angry that they are not directly a part of those neoliberal reforms. So, neoliberalism is a political consensus of elites.
A grand neoliberal reform agreed to by consensus, in which transnational capital also participates, might raise some macroeconomic indicators, offer greater stability for capital, and cause the domestic market to grow to some degree, creating an appearance of prosperity. But all of that would come at the cost of selling out the country, with a high level of external debts and privatization, great environmental devastation, job insecurity for workers, and entrenchment of the social inequality that has been intensifying over the last years, all without resolving the root structural problems.
To mention two examples: The crisis has turned Venezuela into a giant factory, a great center of cheap labor, which in reality is something very attractive for international capital and its investments. This is being legalized de facto by the Special Economic Zones and the provisions for protecting capital. On the other hand, the country’s natural resources are being sold off, with great concessions made to give investors opportunities, at the cost of massive levels of environmental devastation and territorial dispossession.
For these reasons people are generally viewing these negotiations with cynicism and skepticism. And the people are not forgetting that in all of this conflict between the government and the opposition, both have used them as a tool, and as collateral damage, prioritizing the quest for power, above all else.
The negotiations are focused mainly on economic reform and the recovery of the channels and conditions for the reproduction of capital. The more institutional sectors will try to recover institutional foundations, but there is still this gap between these interests and those of the general population, which shows how political and social contradictions, of those from below against those from above, are being reshaped, in addition to the current contradictions among rival elite groups. And it is important to stress: The root problem that created this profound crisis is far from being solved, and so, truthfully, stability is not something that can be guaranteed. So, the game remains very much in progress.
Have the sanctions been effective measures to apply pressure?
The sanctions, especially those that have been imposed since 2017, have been drastically shutting down channels of international economic exchange and sources of funding. The sanctions of 2019 contributed greatly to the strangulation of PDVSA, which was already suffering a progressive collapse, but during these years petroleum production plummeted to 380,000 barrels a day in 2020, and is experiencing ups and downs that average out to 500,000 barrels. That is, production is lower than Colombia’s.
Of course, this has suffocated the Venezuelan economy and impacted the Venezuelan government, which has had tremendous cash flow problems, which also leads it to resort to underground channels of trade and funds acquisition — which relates to controversy over illegal gold mining, charges of low-quality petroleum, or foreign front companies. So, yes, the sanctions have been without question a means of political pressure.
The principal victim of the sanctions has been the Venezuelan people, while the government has learned to govern in these conditions, to develop means of social and political control in this situation of economic insecurity. The preservation of power prevails over the protection of Venezuelans’ human rights. It’s a kind of economic “externalization” on the population. There has been talk of CLAP, the food distribution program organized by the government, but clearly behind this there are strategies of political control, of affiliation, of managing the economic instability of the population. Meanwhile, the government has been paying the servicing of its debt on time. Sales tax has been collected from the population while exempting itself from paying taxes on imports and foreign capital. And super-privileged actors of the national economy are growing stronger from new business endeavors and the growth of private sectors (supermarkets, bodegones*, casinos, tourist sites, etc.).
Sadly, the humanitarian crisis has been taken advantage of, and this includes Guaidó and his political strategy, as well as international actors, such as the United States government and various Latin American governments that are allied with Washington. This is unthinkable. All of this is a crime against humanity. It’s a war, essentially, in which society is pursued as plunder!
Some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition called for abstaining from participation in the elections due to the lack of guarantees. What is different now? What is at stake here?
What’s happening is that Juan Guaidó’s strategy — of inducing collapse by economic means, rebellions, internal unrest, and the creation of a parallel state — was not successful. Meanwhile, the government participated in a new election by itself, and basically wound up with everything. The debate over opposition strategy has swung between participating and not participating in elections, between recognizing or not recognizing Maduro’s government. Today there is no consensus, but it is recognized that it is necessary to bring the fight to the electoral realm, to see it as an arena of political struggle, with all of the complexities and contradictions that go with it. Though it’s a hard pill to swallow, they understand that absolutely nothing will be achieved apart from the state.
The government presented a new National Electoral Council which was favorably received by some sectors of the opposition. And international actors looked favorably on it and opened the possibility of electoral observation. So, some conditions have enabled this acceptance of greater participation by sectors of the opposition, which are a significant part of it, but not all. From a pragmatic perspective, this represents the possibility for sectors of the opposition to gain parcels of power, in exchange for recognizing the legitimacy of the regime that is currently in power. But I would insist that the backdrop to these elections consists in attempts to form a stable foundation for capital and the great neoliberal economic restructuring that the country is experiencing.
Are there any alternatives or political formations beyond MUD and the reigning party in Venezuela?
This is a very important question, because too much attention tends to be given to the dynamics of the political leaders and the conflicts between the parties, and little is said of what is happening in the popular arena of Venezuela. As I’ve mentioned before, Venezuelan society is not, in my opinion, demobilized, but it is true that the discontent is very disorganized and erratic. There have been various forms of protest, with varying intensities, but lacking much of what is needed to converge into an alternative agenda and take shape in broad networks or platforms of political struggle. As previously mentioned, this country can no longer be sustained on the basis of the same dominant political codes of recent decades. And that is manifested in a certain vacuum of political leadership as well as in the reshaping, reordering, and reorienting of the popular arena, a process that is uneven, experimental, and uncertain. But it seems to me that there have been grassroots expressions from which another kind of politics is seeking to emerge.
In this regard I’ll mention three spheres: the protests, social organization, and the dissident party bases. The first mentioned don’t have the characteristics of the great national mobilizations of 2017, which fought directly for power against the Maduro government. Instead, they are mainly small-scale protests of a local character, mainly about living conditions. This, in addition to urban protests, includes Indigenous and peasant struggles. What’s interesting is that they have sometimes happened simultaneously in several states around the country, as happened in September 2020. Of those protests, the ones in Yaracuy stand out, where protesters also rose up against political leaderships of all kinds, and may suggest a possibility of new political subjects emerging.
With regard to social organizations, they are reformulating themselves in terms beyond polarization and centered around the construction of agendas of reproduction of life, but also around feminist, environmental, labor union, peasant, and Indigenous struggles. There are many people doing many things, though they are scattered experiences now affected by the new wave of the pandemic, which forge paths, and which also aim to recover the social fabric, and, what seems most interesting to me, the strengthening of a culture of social and environmental rights. This last thing is something that in the mid to long term is crucial for recovering a strong agenda of popular struggle.
Finally, there are the dissident party bases that are trying to build alternatives to the dominant parties. They are composed of leaders that are surviving, that are not so disillusioned, and other new ones, young activists influenced by these new horizons and conditions that have been formed in Venezuela, and that, in contexts like the upcoming regional elections in November, struggle to take a stand by somehow confronting the dominant groups (of the government and the opposition factions that are making agreements with each other). Their role is important too because they are fighting in this minefield and pursuing a certain balance in the face of such political inequality. There is something of everything there.
* Bodegones, as the term is used in Venezuela today, refers to stores that sell imported goods, usually from the U.S., whose rapid proliferation in recent years has been favored by, among other factors, government policies which exempt the importers from taxes and tariffs, as explained (in Spanish) by the Venezuelan economist Manuel Sutherland and his international colleagues in their article here.
Emiliano Terán Mantovani is a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela, researcher-activist, and political ecologist, with a focus on struggles against extractivism and for environmental justice in Latin America. He is a member of the Observatory on Political Ecology of Venezuela (OEP). He has a masters degree in Ecological Economics from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science and Technology at the same university. He is an Associate Researcher at the Center of Development Studies (CENDES). He participates in various spaces such as the Permanent Working Group on Alternatives to Development organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the CLASCO Working Group on Political Ecology.