By Juan Andrés Misle
I want to begin with more recent events happening in Venezuela: the threat of military action by U.S. President Donald Trump and the new economic sanctions announced last week by the Treasury Department. Can you tell us how effective these actions are in achieving the goals of the Venezuelan opposition and whether they could potentially backfire?
J.C: Let’s separate the two issues: the threat of military action vs. economic sanctions. I think the threat of military action by the United States is very low. I understand that with President Trump there is a significant degree of unpredictability, but I don’t think that given Trump’s own isolationism and given the military’s assessment of its capabilities and interests that there is a real possibility there, so that’s a very hypothetical issue. I’m glad that it is because if the United States were to take military action in Venezuela under current conditions it would provoke so much opposition across the hemisphere and probably the world that it would ruin all the progress that the opposition in Venezuela has achieved in garnering support internationally for its cause. So that would be entirely counterproductive and again, I think it’s very hypothetical.
The economic sanctions that the Trump administration has chosen are going to take a bite. Basically, they are restricting Venezuela’s ability to borrow more money. These are pretty significant in terms of the consequences that they will have. However, it’s worth mentioning that they are not the most punitive actions that the U.S. government could have taken. The more punitive action would have been to interrupt trade between the United States and Venezuela. That is not what we’re getting from the United States. We’re getting simply restrictions on Venezuela’s ability to borrow money in international markets. And that’s going to take a bite. And remarkably it hasn’t produced a lot of international criticism, so it seems that it does escalate the conflict to a new level and it will be significantly felt by the Venezuelan government. Whether it will change politics, I don’t know, but it will definitely produce significant economic hardship in Venezuela.
We see a growing consensus in Latin America on the need for a negotiated solution out of the crisis in Venezuela; even among Venezuela’s traditional allies, most notably Ecuador and their new president Lenin Moreno. At the same time, most countries in the region have vast commercial interests at stake in an eventual transition to a new government in Venezuela. How would you compare this push towards dialogue with the more confrontational approach carried out by the United States? Is there a preferable approach in your view?
J.C: You know, in many ways what has happened is that the dialogue position, which was the predominant position in 2016, has given away to a position that is a little bit more hardline, closer to the U.S. position. This was actually an initiative of Latin Americans more so than the United States. The United States has taken a little longer to come to the more hardline position. The dialogue position was tried during 2016, there was a dialogue initiative: several rounds that produced nothing. And then in 2017 we see that not only did the government ignore the few commitments it made during the dialogue process but it actually did something even worse which is it created the Constituent Assembly process, which is almost like saying ‘I’m going to do exactly what the opposition wants the least.’
This, together with the crackdown of protests, changed the climate in Latin America to the point that at least twenty countries in the hemisphere were willing to condemn Venezuela by saying that the government of Venezuela is now in violation of democracy. This is a position that is not a position about dialogue. It’s now a position demanding that the Venezuelan government rectify. It’s a position that it is now supported by twenty OAS (Organization of American States) members. And this is very significant. Never in the history of OAS-Venezuela relations have we seen this level of desire to condemn the Venezuelan government. The problem is, of course, that not enough votes were obtained for this resolution to pass. It needed twenty-three votes and the resolution only managed to get twenty. Ultimately, even if it had passed, there’s no ability on the part of the OAS to enforce it. But symbolically, it is very significant. It’s a historical year for the history of democracy, not just in Venezuela but also Latin America.
I want to turn to the premier focus of your work which is the political economy of development. There’s a binary conjuncture explored in your book Dragon in the Tropics that revolves around the relationship between what you call the Four Types of social spending: Underfunding, Cronyism, Clientelism, and pro-poor spending as it relates to development. You say all countries engage in all four kinds of spending but I’m more interested in exploring the Venezuelan example of the last two decades, particularly as it relates to what you call RIDDS: Recession, Inflation, Debt, Dwindling Foreign Reserves and Scarcity. What has been the relationship between the type of social pending seen in Venezuela and the explosion of RIDDS?
J.C: That’s a very important question because you can’t understand Venezuela’s current economic crisis if you don’t understand what was wrong with the kind of social spending that existed in Venezuela during the Hugo Chávez years and which so many people praised. Michael Penfold and I in our book do not praise this at all. It’s important that we understand what the problem was.
A lot of the spending was, number 1, unsustainable, in other words, it was always way above the means. We’re talking about a moment during which Venezuela was receiving quite a bit of money. And yet, the deficits accumulated were enormous. Compared to OPEC countries, Venezuela’s deficits were almost record-level. Very few other OPEC countries spent at that level, so the first thing is that they were unsustainable.
The second is that they were very non-transparent. In other words, there were no mechanisms to hold anyone accountable for what they were doing. A lot of the social spending was directed to missions but we don’t know who ran those missions, so we can not even go to a single individual and say ‘what happened to these funds?’ So there was no mechanisms of accountability.
And third, there is evidence that a lot of this money did not go to people who needed the most, although a lot of people in need received help. That is absolutely true, it was a big spending spree and a lot of people who needed it got it.
But a lot of it went to either people who were already elites, or did not need this type of subsidy, or people who received it because of their loyalty to the ruling party. This form of, on the one hand, cronyism — that’s spending that’s directed people who are already well off — and sectarianism, which is spending that goes exclusively to those who are members of your sect. That combination is terrible and that is what Chávez did. And the result was, the cronyism produced inequality, sectarianism produced polarization, the deficits produced the inflation levels that we see, because the deficits needed to be monetized. And the lack of transparency meant that the president was able to achieve more power over the years because it was able to avoid the system of checks and balances, in fact, erode it.
So you’re absolutely right. In many ways, the major social spending that so many folks praised about Hugo Chávez is perhaps the real downfall of the whole model and the reason why Venezuela is in such bad shape. A lot of people simply focus on the amount spent and they did not focus on all these other elements that I think explain why the regime deteriorated away from democracy and why the economy crashed so dramatically after 2010 and 2011.
You recently published a very interesting NY Times Op-ed where you claim that contrary to this new wave of internal Chavismo criticism, President Maduro is actually fulfilling the policies and legacy of his predecessor, and thus somehow this brand of Chavismo is not entirely to the point. But you also claim that this newfound dissent of Chavismo and the international left is politically relevant. How is this so?
J.C: I was basically saying that a lot of people, many who are Chavistas, are arguing that what Maduro is trying to do with his Constituent Assembly represents a departure from Chávez’ ideals and a real betrayal even. And while I welcome the fact that many Chavistas are recognizing that what is happening in Venezuela is a distortion of democracy, I was arguing in my Op-ed that Chávez did the same thing in 1999 when he came up with a process for a Constituent Assembly. A lot of the issues that Maduro has been criticized for were repeated by Chávez.
The one difference is that Chávez back then was very popular, so he was able to consult the people whether they wanted to have a Constituent Assembly or not. That is the biggest difference: Maduro didn’t consult.
But in terms of designing an electoral system in order to favor the incumbent and disfavor the opposition, the extent to which the Constituent Assembly was designed to destroy the existing powers, including the National Assembly and the courts, and in addition to the extent to which the process was organized by sectors — which is another feature of Maduro’s Constituent Assembly — that too was part of Chávez’ way of reforming the Constitution in 1999.
So my argument was, I am sorry, but he is right. Maduro is right when he is saying that he is fulfilling Chávez’ legacy because from my perspective, the way that Chávez changed the Constitution in 1999 had far more parallels with the Maduro process than differences.
Some people would argue that — intentions aside, of course — that during Chavismo’s early years more rights were actually expanded under the 1999 Constitution: voting rights, gender-inclusive language, even article 350 which allows for civil disobedience in the outcome of a government not following through with that Constitution. How do you respond to those who see Maduro’s actions as being at odds with the popular legacy of former president Chávez?
J.C: That’s a terrific point. It is true that the 1999 Constitution has a long list of new rights offered to citizens. But the way that I come to the conclusion that in the end those rights proved to be less significant than they seemed at first is that I actually paid more attention to the rights obtained by the executive branch. And if you look at the 1999 Constitution and you add the rights and powers that the executive branch obtained relative to its predecessor versus those obtained by citizens in general, there is a clear winner. The executive branch won far more rights than any other actor in that constitution.
To me this is very clear, I’m about to publish a book where I discuss this in greater detail. I compared that Constituent Assembly with previous constituent assemblies in Venezuela as well as other constituent assemblies in Latin America, and it’s very clear that the biggest winner, the institution that wins the most in the 1999 Constitution is the executive branch of the Venezuelan state. And that trumps all other rights.
So if you have a process in which citizens’ rights are expanding but you are also eroding the system of checks and balances, as the 1999 Constitution does, ultimately it’s obvious who is going to prevail in a struggle between the presidency and civil society.
I do not deny that the 1999 will expand rights. I am sure that the Maduro constitution will expand rights of citizens. But again, the difference is that I focus on the gains achieved by the executive branch as the most important actor to have emerged. And there, to me there is no question. The 1999 Constitution expanded the powers of the presidency far more than what I am comfortable with.
We’ve spoken about the challenges that the Maduro government faces in dealing with this out-of-control crisis in Venezuela. But you also emphasize the need for opposition unity in order to effectively take on the government. And as of now it seems the opposition coalition known as MUD is anything but united, and that is without even counting those who prefer to identify with the dissident branch of Chavismo. What would you say are the main obstacles that Maduro’s opponents face? And what can be done to overcome these obstacles?
J.C: They face one of the hardest forces to defeat in politics, which is a civil-military alliance of individuals who control all institutions of the state and have no desire to compete in elections. There is no other Latin American opposition other than Cuba’s opposition that faces such a problem.
But I think you were also referring to the internal problems of the opposition, what are their biggest challenges. Let me begin by saying that I agree that the opposition is always at the risk of falling apart and breaking apart. But objectively speaking, the Venezuelan opposition, since 2016, has maintained a significant degree of unity where it matters, which is in elections.
It has had splits on a number of issues but in building elections it has maintained unity. In fact, if you go through America, I bet that you will be hardpressed to find any other country whose opposition is as united as the opposition in Venezuela.
But you’re absolutely right, they still haven’t achieved their biggest aim which is to make themselves a power holder in Venezuela.
I wish I knew what the answer is, what is the problem that they’re having the most. I think today what I would say is that right now they need to be able to figure out a strategy to convince Chavistas that theirs is not a vengeful movement. That they are interested in a transition to democracy, in an establishment of the rule of law, but that their notion of transitional justice involves a significant degree of amnesty.
And this is ethically a very difficult moral dilemma for all oppositions in authoritarian regimes, but the Venezuelan opposition is going to have to, at some point, talk about the kind of amnesties that they wish to grant to some Chavistas. I think without that, they are unable to establish bridges with folks within Chavismo who might be a bit willing to perhaps consider a change of rules.
But in general, I think that they have done a lot of things right. They have done more things right than wrong. They have mobilized the vote, they have maintained unity at election time, they have fought against abstention, they have changed the international climate — the opposition used to have a terrible reputation abroad, now they have a fantastic reputation abroad. The problem is that they have not achieved their most important goal, which is to re-democratize Venezuela, and that is terrible.
Javier Corrales teaches political science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His latest book co-authored with Michael Penfold is Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez. You can follow him on Twitter @jcorrales2011
Juan Andrés Misle is a DC-based independent writer, researcher, and political analyst. He is Director of Latin American Affairs at Latino Giant.
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