Venezuela's decaying democracy as political factions fragment
Dr Joseph S. Tulchin and Dr Matias Bianchi
JT:We’re talking today with Dr Matias Bianchi who is Adjunct Professor at the University of Arizona and the director of a website called Asuntos del sur
Matias Bianchi has been in and out of Venezuela frequently over the past few years, and has been following events there. We’re going to talk about Venezuela today. Matias, how are you?
MB: I’m fine. Thank you for the invitation.
JT:Thank you for joining us on World Review. I want to talk to you about Venezuela. Why don’t you help us out, particularly on the issue on the strength or viability of democracy in Venezuela.
MB: Well, I see a decay in democracy in Venezuela. I’ve been visiting the country for the last six, seven years and you see a deterioration. What Hugo Chavez [Venezuelan President from 1999 to his death in 2013] meant at the beginning for several servers, including me, was the political inclusion of marginalised social actors into the political system. They, in the last seven years, haven’t been able to deliver. The situation has gotten worse and worse. So the opposition leaders have created this alliance, but they haven’t really been able to deliver to the population, and they seem to be trapped in some sort of ‘ego fight’ in which each one is looking for his own little piece, and they haven’t been able to propose something new to society.
In the meantime the government seems completely incapable even to keep up with their original promises. Even the missions are no longer in place, like the missions that you could see – the [the social welfare programme, the Mission Inside the Neighbourhood] Barrio Adentro, which was the most important one after the oil strike in 2002. You could see with the Cuban doctors operating in the marginal part of the country, you could see in the last year and half if you go to those parts of the country that those doctors are no longer there. It was a crucial part of that policy. So I see a decay in the entire system.
JT:When you talk about struggling egos, are you referring to the opposition fragmentation or a struggle within the governing group?
MB: There is fragmentation on both sides. In the government there has been several groups who were original Chavistas who have left, especially people who were connected to academia, the intelligencia of the regime, they left. And you can see places like Apporea , sites like that were highly supportive of the government, that provided ideas to the government, they are out. They called themselves Chavistas, but they no longer participate.
And within the government you see a division between the actors. The militaries that respond to one faction of the government, and the government is increasingly isolated in this crisis. And that response also to a disconnection with the basis of the regime. People like Chavez, the poor population like Chavez, but they don’t see with this inflation rate and this scarcity of resources, the government is not delivering.
JT:What do you think of the claim by some economists, Venezuelan economists living outside of the country, who claim the economy is about to collapse. [Venezuelan economist] Ricardo Housemann predicted a default on the bonds. What is your opinion on the economy and how it’s being run?
MB: The economy is difficult and will not default because they have oil revenue that will account for over US$100 billion per year. So that will never drive the economy to default. But that is a problem because it also makes the crisis last longer, because they have the resources to be fixing little pieces of the crisis but not the system.
JT:The price of oil has gone down recently to the magical threshold price of US$90 a barrel, so that the amount of money available as a windfall profit to the government will be much less than two years, or five years ago.
MB: That is crucial for the government because the whole idea of Venezuela – and this is even before Chavez – is how to distribute the revenues of oil. And that is what Chavez changed, but never changed the ranger profile of the state.
I see the crisis will worsen. You see that there’s no medicine for basic things like diabetes, or heart disease, not even to mention oncology – so people are dying. I’ve heard that people dying from heart disease has increased by 2500 per cent in the last couple of years. Those things have a real impact, and those things will continue. But I don’t see a bankruptcy of this country with these revenues coming from oil.
JT:So you think that this situation can continue – slow deterioration in the economy, particularly if the price of oil stays at US$90 or under, and the political infighting of both the opposition and the government are continuing arbitrarily, let’s just say for the next three to six months?
MB: I would say even longer. This situation goes longer. The opposition is not capable of offering an alternative to society. They don’t know if they want to issue a new constitution, if they want to go for election, or if they want to just bluntly say that [President Nicholas] Maduro is not a legitimate president.
And so they don’t know what to pursue, so the alliance, the most important parties in the alliance, they are all taking different strategies and they are even making national tours, but they are individually doing this – not even as a party. So I don’t see any improvement.
JT:And you see the government able to limp along for quite some time? No chaos ahead?
MB: The kind of chaos we’ll see is the kind of chaos we’ve seen so far. And the thing that we need to be aware of is the Caracazo crisis of 1989, that happened after a long decade of hyper-inflation and scarcity, and so on and so forth. So what’s been happening here in comparative terms is shorter, and there is a second detail for that. Is it that the deterioration impacts higher in the middle and upper-middle class. So comparatively, the poorest suffer, but not as much as the others because they benefited from these social plans. It’s not that they are doing well, but they are not doing worse than before.
JT:And you think that the factionalism within the Maduro government, rivals for power for example, will not be destabilising for the government over the next three to six months?
MB: No. I don’t see any political crisis like that. What is happening is that it is currently operating in chaos, in which each faction controls different parts of the state and they just use it. So there is no centralisation as there was with Chavez, but there is disorder, chaotic government that will continue.
JT:You don’t see, for example, a significant probability of the military group backing one of the factions, perhaps with help from Cuban intelligence agents to change the government?
MB: I’m pretty sure that is happening, but that will not succeed. First the US is looking somewhere else and they are not interested in intervening. There’s important support from other major countries in the region that they don’t want any kind of regime change, or anything like that.
So, even if they want to do it, there’s not much room for maneuver for non-democratic regime change.
JT:Do you think CELAC, the new Latin American regional group that operates without the United States, is capable of reacting to, or preventing, regime change in Venezuela?
MB: No, not as an institution. But I do see individual countries making pressure for that.
JT:Well that’s a very optimistic note. I think we should stop there, but we will revisit this another time to see whether our optimism is warranted and correct in our scenarios. We’ve been talking with Matias Bianchi, Doctor of Political Science, Adjunct Professor at the University of Arizona, and founding director of Asuntosdelsur.org.
Matias, thank you very much.
MB: Thank you very much.