‘We are confronted by the threat of civil war’

Edgardo Lander talks to Red Pepper about the mounting tensions in Venezuela

February 14, 2019 · 21 min read
Photo by Fotografías Emergentes (Flickr)

Edgardo Lander, Professor of Sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and previously the negotiator representing the Chavez government  in negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement of the America. He since became a ‘critical Chavista’. He talked with Red Pepper from a perspective critical of both the Maduro government and US intervention in Venezuela.  

The situation in Venezuela is extremely difficult: on one hand we have a government that’s become more and more authoritarian, corrupt, and inefficient. For most Venezuelans, life today is more difficult even than it was before the beginning of the Chavez period, almost 20 years ago. The sanctions by the Trump government, that started a year and a half ago have made the crisis even deeper. US sanctions and all the different economic decisions that have been made to blockade Venezuela – the latest being the blocking of the state oil company from selling oil to the US and from buying the necessary chemicals for oil processing from the US – are having a huge impact. But these sanctions are certainly not the cause of the crisis. Now we have both the internal issues of corruption and inefficiency and reinforcing these, the very damaging US sanctions. So there’s an incredible amount of discontent among the population.

There’s still a solid core of backers for Maduro in the popular sectors. But that’s certainly a minority. There have been massive rallies against the government, not only just middle class rallies as had been the case in previous years. There have also been many ‘cacerolazos’ – the banging of pots and pans to show opposition to the government. These have been concentrated amongst the poorer sections of the population.

On the other hand, it is a fact that this attempted coup – to replace President Maduro is something that has been orchestrated in every detail by the U.S. government. This has been a process in which the US government has been backing politically and financially the more radical right-wing sectors of the Venezuelan opposition. They have orchestrated the statement by the Lima Group (an informal pressure group of the many right wing and centre right Latin American countries plus Canada. The US does not directly participate but effectively pulls the strings) in which they decided not to recognise Maduro . Basically, it’s an attempt to orchestrate a displacement of Maduro by any means possible.

Juan Guaido from a small opposition party, president of the National Assembly, has proclaimed himself as president. The different opposition parties have come together through the National Assembly and have cleverly made that their base. There’s nothing in the Constitution that allows him to declare himself president – even other opposition parties were not aware of what he was going to do. But the US government clearly was. The US Vice President Pence called on the Venezuelan population to go out in the streets against Maduro on the 23rd, -an important anniversary in Venezuela– date of the ousting of the last military dictatorship. In that rally, Guaido proclaimed himself as president. And literally a few minutes after that the official statement by the Trump government came out, backing Guaido. Which shows that the connection with the US wasn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s very clear that this was coordinated in much detail.

Election writers’ fund

So for people in the left in Venezuela today, we are faced with an extremely difficult situation. On one hand, we reject the Maduro government as it becomes more and more authoritarian, and all the political, electoral, constitutional ways of approaching the crisis are being denied by him and his government. But on the other hand, we are facing a direct imperial intervention in Venezuelan affairs with strong geopolitical interests. The US interest is to get back control of a country where Chinese and Russian investments have been growing over the last few years. Latin America had already become a continent at the centre of this geopolitical struggle and with the shift to the right in Brazil, in Argentina and elsewhere, the US has been effectively getting back its control over its backyard. Venezuela was the last important block to advance this agenda of getting back absolute control, and pushing back leftist governments, and the presence of China, Russia.

So the threat right now is of confrontation between, on one hand, the Maduro government which, although it doesn’t have popular support, and is in a minority in terms of electoral votes , does have the solid support so far of the armed forces. And the other hand is the right-wing opposition that’s coming out as the head of a massive, popular discontent. This was shown in the rallies that were held across the country January 23. We had the biggest rallies in a very long time, not only in Caracas but across the country. But this opposition is backed and financed by the United States, and there’s all sorts of threats, including the threat of military intervention.

There’s a need to find some alternative way of negotiation that brings down this level of intensity of the confrontation, because there is a severe risk of a civil war.

Over the last three or four years a few leftists critical of the Maduro government many of whom were also critical of Chavez , have been meeting to work out what can be done to find a basis of such a negotiation. Some of the participants were ministers in the Chavez government who left because they found a lot a reasons for discontent, mainly corruption. There are a few ex-ministers, there is a small leftist party that’s called Marea Socialista—that means socialist wave—there is a very well-known Venezuelan linguist, a very important anthropologist, some labour activists. It’s not much more than a dozen people so it’s more of an opinion group but it has been quite effective in putting issues into the national political debate.

We call ourselves ‘Platform in Defence of the Constitution’ because we realised that we didn’t want to have a third way, a Blair ‘third way’. Instead, we believed that the constitution provided a possibility of finding a common ground for alternatives in Venezuela. Moreover, the constitution was being attacked, or cut down, by both sides–by the right-wing opposition and the government. The government was no longer governing within the constitution, it was against the constitution in many ways. At the same time, the right-wing opposition confronted the constitution because it was state-centred, anti-market, in other words because it was a Chavista constitution. If you hear them now, they are the great defenders of the constitution, just because they want to present themselves as democratic, but obviously they reject the constitution. One of the first things they did during the coup in 2002 was to announce that the constitution was no longer valid. We argue that we have a situation in which both the government and the right-wing opposition are confronting the constitution. The constitution can be the common ground for  democratic for Venezuela.. We aren’t a party, we don’t have a lot of people we can call upon to rally but we manage to have some impact in terms of public opinion. We are recognised as a national opinion group.

We have a very close relationship with the most important leftist website in the country, Aporrea. This is a very popular web page, basically the place where debates on the left are carried out. It emerged during the 2002 coup and lockout of the oil industry in the beginning of the Chavista government. It was basically a Chavista page but has evolved into the most important venue for critical debates and confrontations in the left. Now it’s more critical of the government but still open to anybody that’s willing to participate. It’s the main place for critical leftist analysis of Venezuela.

One important aspect of our impact is that our arguments and very existence demonstrate that there are leftist alternatives to the Maduro government. The government is certainly not the left – which is how it tries to portray itself. So against the current polarisation in Venezuela, the very existence of the Citizen’s Platform for the Defence of the Constitution, as well as other leftist groups critical of the government shows that it is possible to have leftist perspectives, that are very critical of Maduro, and still self-identify and work as left, and not go to the right. In this context of extreme polarisation, it is usually assumed that if you aren’t with Maduro then you go to the right. By contrast, we (and others) show that It’s possible to have left-wing alternatives and left positions that don’t identify with the right and don’t identify with Maduro. Some of these groups are identified as democratic Chavistas, some are called critical Chavistas, but the important point to highlight here is that there is a left wing opposition to the Maduro government.

The danger now is a serious threat of violence  which could even lead to a civil war. The government just absolutely refuses to carry out any significant negotiations which might open up democratic alternatives.

The government is today highly isolated both internationally and nationally. It has lost most of the popular support it once had. For legitimacy it appeals to the presidential elections that were carried out in May 2018. These were not however, legitimate, and free elections. Most of the opposition parties had been outlawed and could not participate. It’s main support today come not from popular backing or constitutional legitimacy, but from its control over the armed forces. Thus the government continually emphasises the military option in defence of “the Revolution” and the fatherland, increasing the threat of a violent confrontation.

Maduro has announced that the best Russian military technology  has been arriving in Venezuela. He is constantly repeating a militaristic discourse going around the country talking to the military about defence of the country against US imperialism. So far, the armed forces seem to be united in backing Maduro. This is a result of many, many years of Chavez working with the armed forces on this notion that it is a Bolivarian armed force and not an imperial armed force. He completely cut ties from the School of the Americas to free the Venezuelan armed forces from US influence. So far no cracks have appeared in military backing for the government. Time will tell whether increased popular anti-government mobilizations and increased pressure and threats from de United States government will change this.

Some of the 15% or so of the population who support Maduro is highly militant. There are different armed groupings within this core. The Venezuelan population is highly armed. We have the second highest homicide rate in the world today. Guns are so easily available that many personal problems are solved with guns. Some of the Colombian guerrillas operate in Venezuela and are likely to become more involved as the confrontation increases.

That’s one side of the confrontation. On the other hand, the opposition doesn’t control many institutions in the country except for, a few governors and the National Assembly, but they obviously have the unconditional backing of the United States government. And the United States government has announced that it will overthrow Maduro. Trump has insisted once and again that no options are off the table, including a military intervention. This will probably not be their first option because the economic sanctions are being so effective at destroying what’s left of the economy, that it’s possible that the government will collapse. However the arrival of USAID “humanitarian” aid at the Colombian frontier with Venezuela, and the attempt to introduce it into the country in spite of the opposition by the Maduro government could be the spark that leads to armed confrontation. . Supporter of the radical right opposition are armed too. Colombian right wing paramilitary groups operate on both sides of the frontier between Venezuela and Colombia. The situation, I insist, is tense and dangerous.

Here I’ll point to one basic fact: four years ago Venezuela had imports of $52 billion. Venezuela is highly, highly dependent on imports for everything –for food, medicine, spare parts, whatever. Last year the total imports were something like $12 Billion That’s an incredible collapse in just four years. That means that there is less food available, less medicine available, less spare parts. The transportation system is collapsing because of the lack of batteries, tyres and spare parts for cars, buses and trucks. Significant parts of the economy have been approaching a standstill. The whole of the economy has slowed down. Industry lacks basic inputs as well as access to spare parts and new machinery. This is also the case public enterprises, large and small. The spokespeople for the private sector argue that something like 30 per cent of industrial capacity is being used in Venezuela today. So something like 70 per cent of the industrial capacity cannot be used because of a lack of imports and new investments. Militarily there is no way that Venezuela can confront the United States.

The Citizens Platform has put out a statement, along with a few of the other left groups that have come together around this issue saying that the biggest threat to Venezuela today is the threat of a civil war. Our most important challenge is to guarantee that there is no war. How can we do that? I would say two things. There has to be some sort of institutional negotiation between the government and the National Assembly. But there is deep distrust of negotiations, all previous attempts have failed miserably. That’s one problem. There have been a few efforts towards negotiations over the past three or four years which have achieved absolutely nothing. Secondly, who will participate in the negotiations? It’s critically important that governments of Mexico and Uruguay called for negotiations, and convened an international conference on Venezuela in order to facilitate a non-violent outcome. Pepe Mujica the widely respected ex President of Uruguay, has made a statement saying that the only solution for Maduro is to be willing to call elections. On the other hand, we are calling for a referendum, with a new consensual National Electoral Council. This is part of the participatory democracy present in the Venezuelan constitution: a referendum calling for people to decide whether they want to have new elections for every elected government official in the country, in the short term. This could be called by the National Assembly, it could be called by the president, or it could be called by citizens gathering 10 per cent of the national electoral register. So we’re saying to people: ‘get together and call this referendum, we are confronted by the threat of civil war, let people have a voice and decide what they want’. Maduro says that he has the backing of the population. Ok, if you have the backing of the population then consult the population. Otherwise, we are willing to start a movement to collect signatures and try to get 10 per cent of the national electoral register. That’s obviously an uphill battle. For many people this is just too slow, and consider that it is not an adequate response to the desperation for getting rid of Maduro.

On January 23, there were massive, massive mobilisations across the country. These massive mobilisations can’t be identified with the political right. It involved a great diversity of people both socially and politically who agreed on just one thing: Maduro out! ‘Let’s get him out and then we’ll see.’

People are desperate, and want some very short term solution. At times it seems like people are expecting a magical solution ‘Let’s get rid of Maduro and then…’  It is however clear that it’s impossible to even start the reconstruction of the country if Maduro stays in power. In spite of all the evidence, he continues to argue that there is no such thing as a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

As I’ve said, an overwhelming majority of the population wants Maduro to leave. Whether that means that they back Guaidó or they will back any of the political parties in the opposition is another question. A huge majority of the population wants Maduro out, as soon as possible. That’s become a widespread a sentiment. A lot of left-wing people in Venezuela, some of my friends, say: ‘We’ll solve the problems afterwards, but first we have to get rid of Maduro. This is a feeling that is hard to convey to people outside of Venezuela.

To be honest, the Citizen’s Platform itself has no mass capacity to mobilise to collect the signatures to call for a consultative referendum. But over the last few months there has been a new convergence of labour unions and other types of organisations that have come together to create a  very heterogeneous and plural coalition to fight for basic rights. Some of those who participate are Chavista, some belong to right-wing parties: they have all withdrawn themselves from the day-to-day political confrontation and have been working on people’s rights: human rights, working rights, the right to labour negotiations on salary, access to food, water, medicines, etc. This is quite an interesting experience because it’s a convergence of different struggles – struggles of the nurses, the university professors, people who work in the electricity company, the Caracas Metro. Diverse groupings have come together, and have been quite active. The nurses’ struggle has been very, very important because they put the public health system as a whole into question. They are confronted with seeing both sides of the problem. As nurses they don’t have salaries that allow them to keep their families and, at the same time, as nurses they don’t have the resources to be able to attend their patients in the hospitals. They got a lot of sympathy from the population, a lot of backing. The Platform is present there through this small leftist party that I mentioned.

Students are basically in the opposition. One of the things that the Bolivarian revolution has caused in Venezuelan society is the displacement of society to the right. In the case of students, and universities in general, the displacement to the right has been just incredible. In Venezuela, universities at all levels—I mean professors, students, workers—were tended to lean to the left. That is no longer the case. The majority of members of the university community are far more conservative than was historically the case.

As to the armed forces, for civilians, in general, the armed forces are a black box. So far, the armed forces continue to present themselves as completely unified but it’s hard to tell to what extent this incredible pressure from the outside will make them change their minds and break from Maduro. That’s critical, if the armed forces crack, that’s the end of it. But, as I said before, Chavez did a tremendous job on the education and ideology of these national, anti-imperialist armed forces at the service of the people. Whether they are really at the service of the people is another question; some of their actions are extremely regressive and have killed a lot of people. But the discourse is that the armed forces are the servants of the people. Apart from that, the armed forces have much to lose with a change of government. The top brass are deeply involved in corruption and in a process of increasing corporativization, they directly control many important industries.

In this context, there were high hopes that the initiative of the Mexican and the Uruguayan governments could open up other options and possibilities. However the international conference on Venezuela was basically highjacked by the European Unión ad no real space for credible negotiations was created.

As of this moment, the possibilities for a negotiated non-violent outcome are quite limited. Maduro is not willing to even consider the possibility of new presidential elections. Guaidó is so convinced that, with firm US backing, the ousting of Maduro is just around the corner and thus there is nothing to negotiate. These are precisely the conditions that make a violent outcome more likely.

I think it’s very important for people on the left in Europe  not to fall into the trap of saying: ‘Ok, we don’t like Maduro, he’s made some errors, there is some corruption, etc., but at this moment the most critical issue is US imperialism, the need to oppose United States intervention. ‘ The problem with this is that this fails to recognise the need for solidarity with the Venezuelan population that is suffering the simultaneous impact of an authoritarian, corrupt , repressive government that has destroyed the economy and caused a deep social crisis, and the imperial blockade and threat of military intervention that has made the situation much worse and brought the country to the verge of a civil, war. There is a serious problem if the left fails to recognise the fact that the great majority of the population in Venezuela blame Maduro for the dire situation they are facing and want Maduro out as soon as possible. If this population sees that a significant proportion of the international left continues to back Maduro and continue to identify him as part of the left, they will not, now or in the future, want to do anything with the left. It’s important for the left outside of Venezuela to try and understand the complexity of the situation, try to understand that just because it is rightly, opposed to US imperialism that doesn’t mean that it has to back Maduro. The majority of the population is suffering from the consequences of the US blockade on one hand, and government corruption, inefficiency and repression on the other. And they will be the victims if there is a civil war or a military intervention. So I would urge the need to defend the Venezuelan population, to have solidarity with the Venezuelan people, not solidarity with the Maduro government. We have to both confront the threats of US intervention and ask for a democratic outcome to a situation that’s simply unbearable for the majority of the population. That’s complex situation to deal with, but that’s the reality of the country today. Above all, we must confront the escalation of violence and the threat of a US military intervention and a civil war.

The two main internal actors in this dangerous confrontation are the National Executive, headed by Nicolás   Maduro, and the National Assembly controlled by the opposition parties. Since the possibility of avoiding a civil war is today in their hands, the Citizens Platform in Defence of the Constitution decided to talk to both in other to request an urgent basic agreement in order to avoid a violent outcome, otherwise they would be responsible for the possibility of a civil war.  We met with Juan Guaidó as president of the National Assembly, not as president of the country, since we do not recognise him as such. We have been accused by many in the left of recognising Guaidó as president. That was certainly not the case. In spite of many efforts, we are still waiting for a meeting with Maduro.

 


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