Podcast: The US-Supported ‘Opposition’ in Venezuela & How They Threaten Country’s Democracy
Posted in: Podcast
Venezuela has been experiencing threats to democracy for the past ten to fifteen years from aristocrats, people of “extreme old wealth,” whose families had traditionally been in power for many generations. But, in recent history, the oligarchs have had to contend with profound disgust toward the reality that Venezuelans from lower classes have had power in the country
Classism and racism—because most of these people in power who the extremely wealthy despise are darker skinned—has fueled hatred and a refusal to recognize the Bolivarian revolution brought about by President Hugo Chavez. It has inspired a rejection of participatory democracy at almost every level of society. And, the contempt and hatred has been amplified by the support and backing these leaders and funders of the “opposition” enjoy internationally, particularly from the United States.
For this week’s episode of “Unauthorized Disclosure,” Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake.com and Rania Khalek of the “Dispatches from the Underclass” blog are joined for the interview segment by Eva Golinger, an American-Venezuelan lawyer and author of The Chavez Code who was recently featured by the New York Times. She puts the recent “crisis” in Venezuela into context by comparing it to the 2002 coup. She also highlights the role of private media in Venezuelan society, who are the leaders of the “opposition” and why the US government and American elites have considered the Bolivarian revolution a threat (oil, threat of a good example, etc).
During the discussion portion of the show, Gosztola and Khalek laugh at a mini-spat between Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake and national security journalist Joshua Foust. And, ahead of the Oscars, Gosztola calls attention to some of the films nominated that actually are worth seeing.
A transcript of the interview appears below. The podcast is now available on iTunes for download. (We’re working on getting a non-iTunes feed for listeners.) And, for a direct link (and direct download), go here. And, below is a player for listening to the podcast without getting it from iTunes:
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake.com: Would you begin by setting the scene and describing what has developed in the last weeks?
EVA GOLINGER, author and lawyer: I think also putting into context really why this is happening now in Venezuela [inaudible] This has become a topic of the international media scrutinizing the situation going on there. In reality, Venezuela’s been experiencing these kinds of threats against their democracy for over a decade really, about fourteen or fifteen years from the time when Hugo Chavez was first elected president in 1998.
And when Chavez was elected president, he inherited a country that was ruins, an economy that was completely run into the ground and an escalating poverty rate reaching near 80 percent. There was a suspension of constitutional rights in the country. A national curfew had been imposed. It really was a country that was far from a democracy.
Chavez was elected basically to break free of a two-party system that had a hold on power for the previous 40 years and that was completely subordinate to US interests and other foreign interests but mainly the United States. Venezuela, of course, has the largest oil reserves in the world so it’s always been a country of strategic importance to the United States government and to multinational corporations.
Oil was nationalized in 1976 in Venezuela but the company being run when Chavez gets into office is a private company, practically, on the verge of privatization. And, of course, the immense oil wealth coming into the country wasn’t going to the people or the country itself, the infrastructure, but rather into the pockets of those wealthy elites that were running the country.
When Chavez runs office and proposes his Bolivarian revolution, a total transformation of the country, of every aspect of society, that was heavily favored by the people sick of the corrupt alienating past that they had been living for decades. So the changes started to take place and, as he began to implement policies that were restructuring—the redistribution of the oil wealth, investing more in social programs, even just the bare minimum, just starting to make fundamental changes in the country.
Groups that were supported and backed by US, with taxpayer dollar-funding coming out of the United States, that were traditional political parties from the past—business groups, Chamber of Commerce, the Workers’ Federation that was corrupted and aligned with business interests and NGOs that put themselves out as NGOs that really were funded by foreign entities, mainly to promote regime change—They overthrew Chavez in a coup in 2002, April 2002.
The coup lasted about 48 hours, but during that time period these key figures of the opposition coalition took over the government. One of the guys who’s head of the Chamber of Commerce declared himself president and dissolved all of the democratic institutions in the country, literally. The legislative bodies, the Supreme Court, they threw out the constitution that had just been ratified three years earlier in a national referendum by the people—over 70% had ratified that constitution. So, they completely eroded democracy, stepped on everyone’s rights, began repression, had detained Chavez. He was under a threat of assassination.
In 48 hours, it all unraveled. Extraordinary showing of popular support and democratic principles of people of the Venezuela came out into the streets and rescued Chavez. The millions that came out, they outnumbered the elite that had tried to take back power.
So I tell that story because what we’re living today is almost a repetition of that past. The media, mass media, in Venezuela and abroad played a key role not only justifying the coup but even executing the coup. In Venezuela, they manipulated the images of what was happening to say that the president had ordered killings in the streets and had repressed peaceful demonstrators.
And at the same time New York Times, Washington Post and CNN—all the media around the world but mainly in the US—showed those very same images and repeated that very same line that it was Chavez. It was Chavez. It was Chavez, the evil dictator and now the democratic opposition of Venezuela. The people have spoken and now they have taken back power. The State Department’s spokespeople and White House spokespeople came out and applauded the coup and said they immediately recognize the coup government—not calling it a coup but a democratic transition.
After all of that fell apart and became clear who had been involved because this was all public, and what had happened and who was behind it—like the US government and its agencies, they were exposed for what they were doing. But they didn’t give up that opposition, that sort of hardline undemocratic opposition didn’t give up on their tactics to try to overthrow Chavez, destabilize his government, destroy the Bolivarian revolution. So that continued for years and they employed different tactics over the years but always sort of keeping with that dirty media war, destabilizing the economy and all different things to try to throw elections to get him out of office.
The truth is the majority supported Chavez and continued to support the Venezuelan government, the Bolivarian revolution. So he kept winning over and over again. They’ve had 19 elections in Venezuela in the past 14 years. I mean, can’t really get more democratic than that to show that the people have spoken over and over again and the Chavistas, the supporters of the Bolivarian revolution, have won 18 of 19 of those elections.
Today, basically what’s going on is that we’re seeing now that Chavez has passed away and his leadership has left sort of a void, even though of course there’s a new president who he actually recommended, who won the election and even though the vote was very close and last April, still it was a majority voted. And then there were mayoral elections in December. The government socialist party took 70% of the mayors across the country showing again a clear support for the socialist party and the Bolivarian revolution. But nonetheless these very same groups led by the very same people who executed the coup twelve years ago still refuse to accept the legitimacy of this government and the existence of the Bolivarian revolution.
Now, [they’re] using sort of a fresh face to get out there and do a protest. The traditional opposition is burned. They’re credibility is ruined. The people don’t really want them. They want something new and so a lot of what we are seeing, youthful faces and so-called student protesters, who are coming out and what the underlying goal is again regime change. So they are using the same methodology of peaceful protest that engage in confrontations and then we’ve got the media manipulations distortion…
RANIA KHALEK: Real quick. That’s one thing I wanted to ask about with the media is a lot of what you hear in the US media is pointing at them and saying, “Oh, look at them. They’re involved in media suppression. The private entities that aren’t aligned with the government are being kicked out.”
You mentioned briefly back in 2002 the media played a major role in making the coup happen. Could you talk about how that’s contributed to the current government being suspicious of certain media outlets that are in fact still involved in spreading disinformation?
GOLINGER: I would say that in general most Venezuelans are suspicious of all media, period, because of what they’ve lived through, because of what happened in coup. And again it was public and open and notorious and in fact some of the people directly involved in the coup at the time, even some of the military and the opposition leaders, went on television and thanked the media, naming the stations. Thank you, RCTV. Thank you, Venevision. Thank you, Globovision. We couldn’t have done without you. You can’t get any clearer than that.
And, actually, after the coup unraveled later in December, there was an attempt to cripple the economy by going and sabotaging the oil industry, which of course is Venezuela’s lifeline. Thousands of workers, high-level managers, walked off the job illegally violating their contract just with the goal of shutting it down. They were with the opposition. At the same time, the opposition called for a national strike. People began striking. This is December 2002.
The media joined in. This was extraordinary. The private media, which was the majority, including the TV stations. They had four out of five national broadcast stations. They shut down all the regular programming twenty-hours a day, seven days a week for 64 days. And all they showed nonstop was opposition propaganda and interviews and their marches and commercials that had been well-crafted with US funds and strategic communications [inaudible] showing Chavez as a dictator. They showed movies. They were documentaries about Hitler and Mussolini.
I mean, it was crazy and it went on through Christmas. And there were no cartoons for kids. It was crazy. The government had to setup big screens and public [inaudible] to show movies and cartoons for kids so there was other entertainment for people on television and to get them away from that. It was like a terror, like a psycho-terror being imposed on the population. So, having gone through that, Venezuelans became inherently suspicious and critical of media in general.
Something extraordinary [inaudible] I was thinking about is this is the line, editorial line and thing that a lot of media are saying, “Well they cracked down on journalists in Venezuela or they shut down media.” But the truth is more media outlets have been opened in the past ten years than probably in almost any other country in the world. You’ve got hundreds of community media outlets and new newspapers everywhere but the difference is it’s not corporate media. But who sets the standard to say that corporate media defines freedom of expression or freedom of the press?
Because what we are looking at here is community media or alternative media, the voice of the people. It’s not being driven by corporate interests or an economic agenda. It’s just really information sharing. That’s the reality taking place in Venezuela and the government even supports that with resources in communities for people to setup TV stations with training for them and help to get the equipment. And not to be able to control it but to give that opportunity to people because it’s guaranteed in the constitution in 1999 that media and access to media is a right of the people.
The problem is that when you have certain media outlets that were involved in the coup or for example there was an issue with CNN in Spanish a couple days ago and one of the journalists got expelled because she was accused of really inciting violence and promoting what was called war propaganda through her reporting. You look at it and they come to the country, for example, it happened with another CNN reporter who is still there. There’s a retired general, who is a crazy right wing opposition extremist, armed to the teeth. And he had instructed the young protesters on how to kill motorcyclists by setting up cables and barbed wire in the streets like running across an avenue. They beheaded four people this way killing them. He instructed it on Twitter.
KHALEK: It’s been retweeted like over 2,000 times. At least that was yesterday that was the last count.
GOLINGER: Right. The Attorney General’s office called for an investigation and then he was supposed to be detained so they went to detain him and he was armed to the teeth with machine guns and refused to let himself be detained or arrested by the security forces. So what does CNN do? They send in a journalist to go meet with this guy and that’s the inteview they do. They go down and meet with him and it’s all sympathetic to this person and they don’t even go into depth about what he is accused of.
It’s not to say that it is wrong to do that, legally, but when you are in a situation where that person caused deaths intentionally of people and obviously people were following what he was saying and then you promote that person …
KHALEK: I just want to point out to listeners. This was General Angel Vivas, is that right?
KHALEK: Yeah, and he was like at his house like holed up with a machine gun on his roof like making threats. I mean, if someone were in the United States were to do that after having incited violence over the internet, whether you agree with that’s okay or not, you could imagine how the United States law enforcement would act in response so it is a little bit rich for the media to say, oh, the government’s gone too far because they want to arrest this man.
GOLINGER: Well, imagine even further if Venezeulan media or Russian media or Chinese media. Who knows. Someone who is not the friendliest with the US came to the US to specficially interview that person and project them as sympathetic. I don’t think that would be well-received by the United States government.
Again, these nations are sovereign. I know that in the United States there’s a mentality that everywhere belongs to the United States and that goes for media as well and so therefore they can go to any country they want and do whatever they want. But in reality that’s not the case and nations do have something called sovereignty and they have their own laws. In Venezuela, they have laws. In US, we have laws about instigating violence and hate and war propaganda. It’s illegal to do that in the media or to call for the deaths of people as they do in Venezuela. So when the government chooses to act, then they’re seen as the pariah state and a dictatorship whereas they’re just really implementing the law and trying to guarantee the protection of their people.
In any case, the president of Venezuela, Maduro, backtracked and they reinstated the credentials of the CNN journalist, and they called on CNN to please do a more balanced reporting. So, in the end, it didn’t come out the way as most media had portrayed it. And the same goes for a lot of the other journalists who say they have had difficulties in Venezuela. You have difficulties anywhere but especially when you go into a polarized environment and you expect to do just to whatever you want. And especially one that’s political and suspicious of particular corporate and foreign media.
GOSZTOLA: This seems like a good point to get into what are the forces or the policies that if you are Venezuelan you feel like are being imposed on you by a country like the United States and why it is difficult for a lot of Venezuelans a lot of the opposition that has sprung up is organic and is this force against Maduro that actually should have a right to push for something like regime change.
GOLINGER: I’m not sure there is a right to regime change, period. You can do that through elections or constitutional process or democratic procedure but not through violent overthrow of the government, which is what many of them are seeking. or this kind of new kind of model of just constant chaos destabilizing to create a state of ungovernablility so the president is somehow forced out of power by his own will.
There are people, obviously—It’s not perfect there, by any means, and there certainly are problems. So there are people who have legitimate concerns that they can manifest. There’s no question about that, and there’s all the freedom in the world to do that. That’s not the issue.
The issue is the violence that is coming out of those protests that is extremely violent and has already caused dozens of deaths and massive disruption in the areas that it’s taken place. Even though it’s pretty much confined to middle and upper class neighborhoods, still it’s affecting those areas, businesses and people’s everyday lives and transit. Now it’s a holiday in Venezuela. It’s Carnaval. So people are trying to spend that time with their family and they’re having to deal with Molotov cocktails out their doors and tear gas and all this stuff because these protesters refuse to accept the rules of democracy.
Sort of driving the protesters are the opposition leadership that I was talking about before, that were involved in the coup twelve years ago against Chavez and today are calling for the same thing. They’ve said very clearly that they don’t even recognize the legitimacy of President Maduro. They say the elections were fraudulent. Yet when they’re elected governor or legislature or mayor then the electoral rules work perfectly. But when they lose, then it’s fraud.
Venezuela actually has one of the most transparent electoral systems on the planet with electronic selections machines that produce paper ballots so you have like a double check. And they do an automatic audit of like 56% of all the votes after elections, and they have international observers in elections, which is not something even the United States allows.
But, beyond that, there’s also this US government funding and training of many of these groups that have been involved in these protests and different attempts before to destabilize the government in Venezuela.”
KHALEK: Can you talk a little bit about two things? First, I find it really interesting that the opposition that executed the coup in 2002, a lot of those leaders are not in prison. One of the ones that’s been in the media a lot is Leopoldo Lopez, who was involved or was connected in that coup in 2002 and is now I believe now in prison for calling for the overthrow of the government and these violent protests, and a lot of people if they’re reading the US media are getting a very very different picture of him. The US media’s not pointing out his involvement in that previous coup and he’s being portrayed as this sort of heroic opposition figure who’s being oppressed by the government just for wanting to protest in the street.
If I, for example, were to orchestrate protests and call for the overthrow of the Obama regime, I would likely be imprisoned especially if me and my followers were lighting things on fire and destroying government buildings.
So could you talk a bit about the people, like Lopez, in the opposition and who they are, where they come from.
And also maybe talk a little bit about some of the grievances, because like you said there are legitimate grievances that people in the streets are protesting about, so I guess could you talk a little bit about those.
GOLINGER: So the main opposition leaders are Leopoldo Lopez, Henrique Capriles—who ran and lost against Maduro in April and also lost in 2012 against Chavez—and the other one, Maria Corina Machado. These are the three figures that are most visible in the opposition right now.
They all come from the three wealthiest families in Venezuela. They’re the aristocrats. Literally, these are people of extreme old wealth who have basically been in power, they’re families, for generations and pretty much own everything in the country in terms of businesses and distribution of products and movie theatres, pharmacies—everything, everything—food and beverage distribution. And so of course these are the oligarchs, as they’re referred to in Venezuela, who also represent very conservative ideals.
Now of course most of them have been educated in the United States. They have close connections with also the elite in the US. It’s not like they’ve gone to just any educational institution. They’ve gone to the top—to Yale, to Harvard, to Princeton. Leopoldo Lopez, for example, went to boarding school in Princeton, very prestigious and costly. And he’s a foreigner so imagine what that means when coming from South America, to go to boarding school in Princeton. The level of just wealth and isolation that person has in regards to the rest of that Latin American County.
So these are people that come from that background and also share this very neocon—we were talking before, I was saying it’s like a tropical Tea Party.
Their values are far right. They’re absolute free market neoliberals and they want to privatize everything in the country even though they’re using the discourse that Chavez used, because he believed in it, so successfully about the people and the people’s needs and social justice. They’ve usurped that now and try to use it but it’s not genuine because their actions show differently as does their past.
And Lopez and Capriles belonged to a neo-Nazi group in the 1990s in Venezuela called the Fatherland, Tradition and Freedom, or something like that. So they were involved with a sort of like a white supremacist type of group in the country.
There’s images of Maria Corina Machado when she was campaigning (she’s a legislator right now) and she was in Amazon and people would come up to her and they would touch her. In Venezuela it’s very touchy feely affectionate, you know, you kiss people on the cheeks. And she got kissed by some of the indigenous people and there are some images of her where she turns her head in disgust and wipes it off. It’s like, they’re trying really hard.
KHALEK: There’s a bit of a racial element here too, because a lot of the elites, like the people you’re talking about in Venezuela, are the sort of European-ish, whiter South Americans.
GOLINGER: Definitely, all of them are white and they have that European look basically and again they speak English and many other languages.
And beyond that, the discourse out of that part of the opposition is extremely racist. Chavez was always referred to as a monkey or a gorilla. And all of the caricatures that were made of him for years, and still some people do that, were always in that kind of image like some kind of animal. And still that’s the way they refer to Chavista supporters and people in general in Venezuela who aren’t a part of that group. Even the current president, he’s referred to as a donkey because he was Chavez’s donkey.
And I saw something just recently on twitter. It’s not as valid in terms of a true showing of people’s—anyone can say anything there in anonymity. But still it was someone from the Venezuelan opposition, she was saying, “Oh well, someone as poor and limited as him should not be president,” because Maduro was a bus driver and a union organizer and came up from the working class. Chavez was poor. He had a college education but through a military academy. These aren’t people educated in Harvard and Yale that come from the crème de la crème in Venezuela.
So there’s a definite class issue, there’s a race issue. So these three people represent that.
And during the coup, just to mention, Leopoldo Lopez was mayor of Chacao, which is Venezuela’s wealthiest municipality. It’s also one of the smallest in Caracas. It looks like a little Miami. All the US chains are there and restaurants and stuff. Anyway, he was mayor of that municipality at the time and when they went after Chavez briefly, they went after all the members of the cabinet and his key supporters and there’s footage where you see Capriles, who’s also one of the opposition leaders and now governor of the Miranda state, which comprises a lot of greater Caracas. He was mayor of the next wealthiest municipality in Caracas, which is Baruta.
And there’s images of them detaining one of Chavez’s ministers, the Minister of Interior, where they’re literally beating him to a pulp and they’re allowing all the people that were out there, because they brought hordes to detain him, to just beat him and pull out his hair and rip at him. This is how they detained him, this public official, during that coup. No rights were guaranteed at all. And that happened to several others, there’s a lot images of them.
And then there’s other footage of Lopez, for example, a couple years later when he tried the same violent street protest strategy called the “guarimbas” to destabilize and oust Chavez again in 2004. There’s these images of Lopez in the streets with the violent protests throwing garbage and throwing rocks at the police and he was the mayor of Chacao. So just to give an example of, who is this person? This is not someone who believes in democracy. This is someone who lives above the rules of the law because that’s how he and his family have always lived in Venezuela.
And they, and the same with Machado, all of them—for them it’s a feeling of disgust that these people are in power, these poor people, these darker skinned people, they’ve taken over, they want to share this space with us, they’re coming into our areas, they’re coming into our stores, they’re coming into our lives. And we don’t want to see them on TV; we don’t want to hear about them, we don’t want to know about them.
That’s how the country was before Chavez won. That’s how it was. It was, “we don’t see them.” That’s why they build walls around their homes. They don’t want to see what’s going on outside their doors. All they want to see on TV are their soap operas that have upper class white people like them with superficial problems.
That’s part of the intense passion and I would say hatred, there is hatred, mainly from the sectors towards the government and the whole concept of Chavismo is this intense hatred. And I think that spurs from that racism and that classism that, like “you don’t deserve this, you shouldn’t be here, who are you, get away from me, you’re different.”
And it’s very dangerous because these are people with a lot of power and beyond the power that they have in Venezuela, the connections that they have internationally. They’re backed by the US government across the line—Democrat, Republican. They’re backed by multinationals. They’re backed by a lot of countries in Europe and also their conservatives and the right wing throughout Latin America, which may not be in power in most places but they still are wealthy, they’re the elite and they still have all of that behind them. And the media, the corporate media worldwide, which is why you don’t hear anything about what I’m saying. You hear a completely different image of Venezuela in a civil war with a brutal dictatorship and these poor peaceful protesters who are just trying to get access to their fundamental rights, are being repressed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a country with more human rights guarantees probably than almost anywhere in the world. Under the new constitution universal healthcare is a right; free accessible education from primary level up to doctoral level. Thousands of new universities have been built to bring universities into remote areas that didn’t have access before to higher education. They built info centers throughout the countries to provide free Internet access.
Just this week the president was at several events giving out computers, laptops, tablets that they’ve been producing in Venezuela for a couple years together with the Portuguese and there’s some others involved, maybe the Chinese. They’re giving them out free to students at grade level and now high school so that they have computers and they’re not limiting the access to the Internet, for example, as is portrayed also in the media. The government provides subsidies for housing, for food so that people who need help to be able to afford basic products can do so.
At the same time, poverty’s been reduced by over 50 percent, extreme poverty 70 percent. The consumer power and demand has increased dramatically. That’s then created this whole other situation, which is part of what some of these protests refer to in terms of product shortages and inflation. It’s a combination of factors, some mismanagement on behalf of the government in the economy and other being this massive increase in demand and not enough supply.
And then there’s an angle of sabotage, where we have business owners and distribution companies purposely and intentionally hoarding products to create shortages and then to push for inflation and speculation.
So all of that has created some discontent but not to the extent where like a majority of Venezuelans want to roll back everything they’ve achieved over the past 10, 15 years and have the same people, the elite, come back into power. That’s not the feeling in the country. The feeling is, let’s figure out a way to resolve these issues and move forward, but we don’t want to give up what we’ve gotten.
GOSZTOLA: We need to wrap up here, but I really want to make sure that I get you to address this quick question that I have, which is, what do you think the US elites are afraid of when it comes to Venezuela as you’ve covered this for the last decade? Is it the exact same fears of the people inside Venezuela? Is it that Venezuela is bringing a movement inside of the larger continent of South America? What do you see being the prime driver of the US feeing this need to be in Venezuela driving the future?
GOLINGER: Well, the number one reason is oil because Venezuela has the largest oil reserves on the planet and it’s right there south of the US border. And there’s a government in place that’s been in place now going on 15 years, Chavez to Maduro, that’s not subordinate to US interests. So that’s clearly the number one threat to the United States is that they want that oil.
Beyond that you’ve got this movement that’s influenced the entire region. From the time Chavez was elected in ’98, we’ve seen changes throughout all of Latin America. A majority, now 80 percent of the countries have leftist-socialist governments. And they’ve all implemented similar social justice policies and they’ve created this whole concept of Latin American integration that’s pushed the US out.
Latin America is no longer the backyard of the United States. The US has lost its influence in the region and is not getting it back anytime soon and in large part that’s thanks to Chavez and Venezuela. So they hate him for that and they still want to find a way to recover Venezuela for US power.
And then there’s the issue of the overall model in the country, which now is having problems and is being portrayed more as a failed state. But still there’s this concept of the threat of a good example, like you can do good things for your people and still have a vibrant democracy. You can guarantee their basic services and rights and have a more grassroots government. It doesn’t always have to be this two-party system run by the elites.
I just want to get one last thing in about the funding because it’s very important for people in the US.
*(Note: Check back here for the final six minutes of the interview later today.)