A Debate After Maduro’s Close Election Victory
HAVANA TIMES – Hugo Chávez’s former foreign minister and vice president, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won Sunday’s election to fill out the remainder of Chávez’s term following his death from cancer last month. The National Electoral Council of Venezuela says Maduro received 50.7 percent of the vote, besting opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski’s 49.1 percent.
The race was far closer than the contest in October when Chávez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points. We host a debate between Rory Carroll, author of “Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela,” and Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin in Venezuela, where Nicolás Maduro has narrowly won Sunday’s election to choose a replacement for Chávez, who died of cancer last month. Maduro had served as vice president and foreign minister under President Hugo Chávez. The National Electoral Council said Maduro received 50.7 percent of the vote, Henrique Capriles Radonski won 49.1 percent. The vote was far closer than one in October when Chávez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points.
In his victory speech, Maduro, a former bus driver, said a new era for the Bolivarian revolution is beginning.
PRESIDENT–ELECT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Long live Chávez! Long live Chávez! Long live Chávez! Until victory forever, let’s go to the streets to defend this victory, to defend the triumph, in peace and in order to celebrate with the people and to remember that we have complied with the commander. Chávez, I swear to you, we have fulfilled your promise for independence and a socialist fatherland.
AMY GOODMAN: Sunday’s vote was the closest presidential election in Venezuela since 1968. Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, is refusing to concede defeat and has demanded a recount.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI: [translated] I want to say to the government’s candidate, the loser today is you. And I say that firmly. You are the loser, you and your government. I say that with firmness and with all the compromise and transparency. We will not recognize the results until each and every Venezuelan vote, one by one, has been counted. We demand here that the National Electoral Council open all of the boxes and that each Venezuelan vote be counted.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Venezuelan voters talked about the significance of the election to pick a successor to the late Hugo Chávez.
DANIEL TORRES: [translated] Without a doubt, this is an act that will leave a relevant mark in our history. But it is forming the start of another era, an era 14 years before, and we’ll have to wait and see what will happen in the 14 years after.
RONNIE GONZALEZ: [translated] I am here early in hopes of improving the situation. I am anxious to execute my right and try to implement the change to the situation that has been agitating all Venezuelans.
MARIA RODRIGUEZ: [translated] Now, with Maduro, we also have to carry out the tasks he gives us, and, God willing, we hope this president will carry on with what the past president left behind.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the election and the state of Venezuela after the death of Chávez, we’re joined by two guests.
Rory Carroll is author of Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. He was The Guardian‘s Latin America correspondent and was based in Caracas until last year. He’s now the U.S. West Coast correspondent for The Guardian, based in Los Angeles.
Mark Weisbrot joins us from Washington, D.C., an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Mark, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the significance of what took place yesterday, the election of Nicolás Maduro?
MARK WEISBROT: Well, I think it is—you know, the majority, at least, did vote for continuity, and I think they did so mainly because there was a large increase in living standards for people over the past 14 years, you know? If you take the point where the government got control over the oil industry, since then—because they couldn’t really do anything before that—since then, the poverty was reduced by 50 percent, extreme poverty by 70 percent. You had millions of people got access to free healthcare for the first time. Unemployment was 14-and-a-half percent when Chávez took office; it was 8 percent last year. So, big increases in employment and living standards. And I think, you know, that’s why they voted for.
I think also it was very lucky for the country that the Chávez government established this really secure electoral system. Now, you can see Capriles is—he’s kind of playing to the part of the opposition that in every election has not wanted to accept the results. Every election since 2004, there’s been a part of the opposition that just says, you know, “We don’t buy it.” But he’s not really going to do anything, I don’t think, because it’s very easy to have an audit. The system they have, Jimmy Carter called it the best in the world, and it really is quite good. I mean, they have two records of every vote. You push a touch screen: You have an electronic record. And then you have a receipt that goes in the ballot box. And all you have to do is compare those. And they will do that. And I’m sure it won’t change the result, because the margin is still large enough. It’s around 275,000 votes. So, it’s good—it’s very good for the country that they have a system like that and will be able to resolve it.
I think the election also has enormous significance for the region. That’s why you already saw the congratulations coming in, you know, from Argentina, from Ecuador. And all of the governments, I think, will, you know, stand behind if there’s any conflict over it. They’ll stand behind the government of Venezuela.
And, of course, on the other side is the United States, and I think that’s something that your viewers and listeners should really understand, is that whenever we talk about Venezuela here in the United States, you know, there’s really only two reasons you have as much news—and all of it’s bad—about Venezuela. One is that Venezuela is the primary target for regime change from the United States government, has been since the coup that the U.S. was involved in in 2002, you know, the primary target in the world probably, with the possible exception of Iran. And secondly, it has the largest oil reserves in the world. And those two things of course are related.
And that’s going to continue to shape relations with the United States. The United States is not really going to change its policy in the foreseeable future. They’ll still be trying to get rid of this government and really any target of opportunity they have among the left governments in South America. You know, you can see what happened in Paraguay last year, for example. There’s a nice article in The Nation by Natalia Viana showing that the USAID supported the coup there. And you had Honduras. You know, President Zelaya was on your show saying that the U.S. was involved in that coup in 2009. So, there’s always going to—the U.S. stepped up funding after the coup in 2002 to Venezuela, and I think they’ll continue to be active there.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory Carroll, you wrote Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Your assessment of the significance of the election in Venezuela, and your response to economist Mark Weisbrot?
RORY CARROLL: Hi. Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Mark.
I think the significance of the result was written on the faces of the people, of the ministers behind Nicolás Maduro on the balcony last night. I mean, they were extremely somber, and they were shaken. I mean, this is not a good result for Nicolás Maduro or Chavismo, although they have won, and very, very narrowly. And it’s shockingly narrow. And the opinion polls and they themselves have been suggesting a sweeping double-digit victory. And the fact that they’ve just squeaked in is a major blow to his authority, his authority in terms of just the country nationally. It shows just how polarized the country is: It’s a 50-50 nation now. And also, it will undermine his own authority within the ranks of Chavismo. And I think many people within the movement will wonder now whether Nicolás Maduro really is the best man to lead them, because they have been so accustomed to these huge landslides that Hugo Chávez used to win, time after time.
And I think the reason this time that the landslide didn’t happen is really quite revealing, in some ways, because this is a government that had huge advantages of incumbency. And firstly, it controls the—pretty much most of the money in the country. As a petro state at a time of high oil prices, it has had huge powers of patronage, which it used lavishly to bolster its position, and happily blending party and state’s resources to cement that advantage. Also, you had civil servants whom, as ever, were instructed that you will vote for the government, or perhaps you won’t have a job. You had the head of the armed forces telling people, either hinting or also saying so explicitly, that you will vote for the government. And so, these are very strong advantages for the government.
And the fact that, with all of that, they still so narrowly won—basically lost 49-point-something percent of the population, shows that a lot of Venezuelans are unhappy. And they’re unhappy with insecurity, the fact that murder rates are out of control in Venezuela, especially in Caracas. They’re not happy with the fact that the economy is really quite dysfunctional and the fact that there are shortages of many basic goods and the fact that currency controls means that it’s very difficult for any businesses to do anything. And the fact that inflation is so strong means that daily life is often quite, quite difficult for people. And Venezuelans are no different to anybody else, in the sense that they just want—they want good jobs, and they want to be safe. And I think the vote that we saw was a sign that many people are not happy there.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this discussion with Rory Carroll, author of Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, also a reporter for The Guardian, and Mark Weisbrot, who’s speaking to us from D.C.—Center for Economic and Policy Research is his organization—an economist. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the results of the election in Venezuela: winning by a very slim margin, Nicolás Maduro, over Henrique Capriles. We urge folks to go to the website, democracynow.org. Our guests are Rory Carroll, author of Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and the—of The Guardian, and Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Mark, your response to the critique of Rory Carroll to what’s happened in Venezuela today?
MARK WEISBROT: Well, first, we don’t want to exaggerate the advantage—or, I’m not even sure the government really had an advantage. You know, their state television has about a 6 percent audience share, so that’s not that much. And, you know, they even showed commercials for Capriles, for the opposition candidate, on state TV. And so—and then, of course, the print media is very much against the government, and the radio is probably against the government, as well. And so—and, of course, most of the wealth and income of the country is in the hands of the opposition, and they had plenty of ads. They were very sophisticated, very—a lot of resources. They ran a very good campaign. They did the same thing in the last election. So, I think this is a fairly level playing field compared especially to other—the average election in Latin America. I mean, look at Mexico, for example, where you had the media really determine the outcome of the election in 2006, and probably 2012, as well. where the left-of-center candidate doesn’t even have a chance, you know, with that kind of media duopoly as 95 percent of the media. So, this is a competitive election.
And I do think that there are serious problems the government has to deal with, and this is—this should be a wake-up call for them. I mean, you know, what happened since the last election that I think might have moved some of the 3 or 4 percent that moved from Chávez to the other camp was the economy deteriorated some—you know, the shortages that Rory was talking about. This is a problem mostly in the exchange rate system that has been badly managed. So, I think they need to stabilize the exchange rate. They need to make sure that foreign exchange is available, like it was. You know, you had a recovery. I mean, the economy has been growing for almost three years now. And so, it began to grow in—after the world recession and the recession they had in the middle of 2010. And it grew, and growth accelerated, and inflation was actually falling, right up to the last—almost to the last election, while the economy accelerated. And so, you didn’t have other problems that you’ve had in the last five months with the shortages, and so—and the increasing inflation you’ve had in the last few months. So I think that, definitely, the government needs to stabilize the exchange rate. They need to bring inflation down. And those two things together will get rid of the shortages, as they have in the past. They’ve reduced them and gotten rid of them at some points. And I think that’s some of the things they’re going to have to do. And they have to keep the economy growing and employment growing.
I think they—you know, if the other side would have won, you would have had a classic austerity plan immediately, and they would have brought down inflation by having a recession. I hope that this government doesn’t do that. They would have brought down imports, as well, the same way. I think this government can in fact resolve the problems of the exchange rate system and inflation while allowing the economy to grow, as they were doing right up to the last quarter of last year.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory Carroll, I wanted to get your response to Mark, as well as this comment. Following Chávez’s death last month, we spoke to Carol Delgado, the Venezuelan consul general in New York. She had returned to Caracas for the state funeral and praised Chávez’s work for the poor.
CAROL DELGADO: Venezuela has reduced poverty dramatically, particularly extreme poverty. Venezuelans right now have education, free up to the university level. We have free, universal health for everyone. And those kind of achievements are fantastic.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory Carroll, your response?
RORY CARROLL: Certainly there have been impressive social gains made in the past 10 years, but unfortunately there’s a problem of sustainability, and a lot of those social gains appear to be fraying. Those deep falls in poverty appear to have more or less halted, or certainly slowed very much, since 2010, and in social programs. If you visit public hospitals in Venezuela, as I’ve done many times, it’s pretty Dickensian, in terms of—there’s broken glass. Often there are power shortages in the hospitals. People have to bring their own medicines. They have to bring their own bedsheets. Criminals can break into hospitals and threaten staff. And these are—these are the main public hospitals in Caracas that we’re talking about. If you go outside the capital, it can be even more grim. So, I think there has to be a bit of a health warning, if you like, over some of the acclaim for some of these social programs, unfortunately.
That said, yes, poverty has fallen, and people have more money in their pockets, so they—and that’s great. But the country is increasingly lost in a labyrinth of petro populism. You need just to look at the statistics about the dependence on oil exports. I mean, now they’re about 94 percent dependent on—for their foreign revenue, revenue on oil exports. And the reason for that—or the consequence of that is that there really—there are hidden degrees of unemployment, because factories are—especially state-owned factories are either working at half capacity—I went to Ciudad Guayana, the industrial heartland of Venezuela, and there’s a whole chapter in the book about that, which shows that this great kind of manufacturing potential that Venezuela has has really been squandered.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory, I wanted—I wanted to ask you something. In your own newspaper, The Guardian, it said infant mortality is now lower than in 1999, from a rate of 20 per thousand live births to 13 in 2011; that poverty has decreased, in 1999 23.4 percent of the population recorded as being in extreme poverty, fell to 8.5 percent in 2011, according to official government figures. Can you talk about your trajectory of changing your view of Hugo Chávez when you first went down as a reporter and what made you shift to your critique of him?
RORY CARROLL: Yeah, I did—I was there for six years, from 2006 ’til last year, full time, although I still regularly visit. And I think, for me, the leitmotif is waste, wasted opportunity, that with Hugo Chávez, it was an immensely gifted politician, and he had such a strong mandate, he had—he had the great fortune to coincide with this explosion in oil revenues, and there was such goodwill behind him, and yet—and he was such a brilliant campaigner, but unfortunately, as a governor, as a ruler, he was—he was incompetent. And he more or less admitted this towards the end. I mean, he was asked one time, “Do have any regrets?” And he thought about it, and he said, “Well, mi gestión,” you know, most like “My management.” And we could—we see that in this kind of profound dysfunction. And just one example will be the infrastructure, the fact that they neglected to invest in infrastructure or maintain it, as the result of which now there are power cuts all the time, especially outside the city, outside Caracas. And yet the government, under Hugo Chávez and also now Nicolás Maduro, they resort to these kind of surreal excuses, like they blame mercenaries or maybe the CIA for sabotage, rather than the fact—the more banal fact is that this reflects a decade of mismanagement. And that applies really to the wider economy. And I just think it’s a wasted opportunity, because you just look further south to Brazil, and you can see there how they’ve made increasing—just as impressive reductions in poverty that are clearly much more sustainable.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to, well, at the time Foreign Minister Maduro in our studio. Juan González and I interviewed the new elected president, Nicolás Maduro, in October of 2007. This was during the Bush years, when he served as Chávez’s foreign minister. It was a year after Chávez had famously referred to then-President George W. Bush as the devil in a speech before the United Nations, saying, quote, “The devil came here yesterday. It smells like sulfur today.” I asked Maduro what message he had for the United States.
NICOLÁS MADURO MOROS: [translated] Our message is a message, first of all, to draw a balance of what has happened over the last months in the world, what happened in the world, what’s been the role of the United Nations to guarantee peace, how much the world has lost as a result of this crazy policy that apparently will be prolonged with this attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It could reach a crazy level if we pretend to take the way of war to aggress, to attack the Iranian people.
Our message remains the same. The world should open their eyes. The U.S. society should react. The U.S. people can do a lot for peace, for stability in the planet, for the recovery of the planet. The awareness in the world today, it’s also expressed in the United States, and we need a large humane alliance between the U.S. people and the peoples of the world, respecting our diversity, cultural diversity, our different ways to see the world, and establishing a relationship of equality. That’s the main message, and that’s been the message of President Chávez a year ago.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, who was just elected president yesterday in Venezuela. Mark Weisbrot, if you could tell us exactly who Nicolás Maduro is, where he comes from, and the significance of this election, and if you think, in the call for the recount, is it possible that they would come up with different figures, since this was such a razor-slim margin that he won by yesterday?
MARK WEISBROT: Yes, well, it wasn’t that slim. I mean, it was 1.6 percentage points and around 300,000 votes, so it’s not going to be changed. And, I mean, it’s—anything is possible. There could have been some mistake, but it’s just really, really, really unlikely. And given the secure system they, I—and Maduro has said, by the way, you know, Capriles asked for 100 percent of the ballots instead of the—normally do like 54 percent, which is way more than you need. And he said, basically, yes. So, I don’t think there’s going to be any doubt.
In terms of Maduro, you know, he was the foreign minister for six years. He did a pretty good job, really. I think most people would recognize that. He comes from a left background. He was a union organizer and a bus driver. And I think he’s going to continue, you know, a lot of the same policies.
I want to just respond to Rory, if I can, because I think he presented what you see in the media every day. Now, he didn’t challenge the statistics that you gave on poverty and extreme poverty, and nobody does, but these are—you know, and those are huge changes in people’s lives, you know? And, of course, all the other changes that we talked about—employment. I didn’t even mention income, real income growth. But instead, the media focuses on everything that’s bad. I mean, you could do that with the Clinton years. You know, Clinton presided over the largest economic—longest economic expansion in U.S. history, and there were still a lot of bad things, you know, going on in the United States, even though unemployment hit record lows and, you know, poverty reduced sharply—and it came back, by the way, after he was gone. But, you know, this is just presenting this completely one-sided picture that you see every single day. Yeah, the public hospitals deteriorated, but that’s one of the reasons why they created—because they couldn’t control the health ministry, so that’s why they created the misiones to provide healthcare for millions of people there. And so, yeah, you know, there’s no doubt that Rory’s talking about problems—there were serious problems in administration. But to say that—you know, to just say that this was a failure? I mean, if you look at Venezuela the 20 years prior to Chávez, where the economy actually shrank in a per capita basis, I mean, this is a huge improvement in people’s living standards. And that’s why they’ve won 15 out of the last 16 elections. It’s not, as the media would have it, just because Chávez was a great performer and had a lot of charisma. I think that’s very important for people to understand.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory Carroll, on the issue of those statistics, the figures that I just read, according to your own paper and to the government figures, the serious reduction in extreme poverty, your response to that?
RORY CARROLL: Yes. Well, I think—I mean, those are the function of two things. One is the oil prices increased from about $8 or $9 a barrel when Hugo Chávez took over; in 1999, they exploded up to more than $100 a barrel. And this put huge amounts of money into the Venezuelan treasury. And we saw in the 1970s, during a previous boom, that there are falls in poverty and that this generates lots of money in the economy. And Venezuela, above all, is a petro state. And that, in a sense, the—this fall of poverty, in many ways, reflected that. But it did also reflect the lavish spending that Hugo Chávez’s government did with this boom. They spent very generously on social programs, and rightly so. They invested a lot on reducing poverty, and that’s all great.
The problem, the catch—and it’s a big one—is that the way they did it was clearly not sustainable. And many of—instead of building an economy that—with real jobs, which would give the poor people like a permanent leg up, I think we see a lot of the money has been spent on subsidies, the fact that gasoline is basically free—which is, in a way, a regressive subsidy: It benefits the middle class more than the poor. The fact that so many prices are kind of frozen and that they have to send out the police and the army to try to enforce these price controls is just one indication of just how things are distorted there. And as Mark himself said, I mean, for example, they couldn’t control the health ministry. Well, why not? I mean, they were the health ministry. And that’s reflective of the wider dysfunction in the government. And therein lies the tragedy.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Weisbrot—
MARK WEISBROT: Can I respond to that? Yeah. First of all—
AMY GOODMAN: If you would respond, and also if you could talk about what has been the U.S. role in Venezuela.
MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, that’s very important, too. I mean, that’s—well, but first let’s talk about sustainability. For 14 years, all of the media, and especially the business press, you know, 90 percent of the media, has been predicting economic collapse in Venezuela. They’ve always said it’s unsustainable. You know, I have these debates with opposition economists, and they don’t dispute any of the statistics; all they say is next year it’s going to collapse. Well, they’ve been saying this for 14 years, and it hasn’t collapsed yet. They’ve had two recessions. One was caused by an opposition oil strike in 2002 and 2003—certainly not the government’s fault—and the other that was caused at the—in 2009 and half of 2010 that was brought on by the world recession. So, it’s not going to collapse. This idea of sustainability, that’s just saying, you know, “We hope it collapses, and it’s going to collapse some day, and we hope it’s soon.” And it’s not going to. And, you know, they don’t have an unsustainable debt. So, unsustainable is like what we had in 2006, when you had an $8 trillion housing bubble, and everybody who was looking at it, which unfortunately wasn’t most economists, could tell you that it was going to burst and it was going to cause a huge recession, OK? They don’t have those kinds of imbalances. They have a problem: You know, they have inflation, and inflation is higher than their trading partners, and so that appreciates their real exchange rate, and that’s why you had a devaluation. And this is an ongoing problem that they have to fix. But that isn’t like what we had, where you have a giant bubble, asset bubble, collapses, and you get a great recession out of it. So, this is all—a lot of this is really exaggerated.
Now, the other question about the U.S. role, that’s very important, because, you know, Rory points to Brazil and says, “Well, they were able to do a lot of nice things, and they didn’t have this polarization and conflict and all these things that we don’t like.” Well, that’s great, but they weren’t facing the same kind of opposition that had, you know, according to Petkoff—Teodoro Petkoff, a leader of the opposition himself, said they had a strategy of military overthrow from 1999 to 2003, OK? Brazil didn’t have that. They had the military—was as nationalistic as the government. And they had—they didn’t have the United States, on the side of this—not only the military, but the opposition—telling them all along and pouring money in there and saying, “You just—you know, we get rid of everybody we don’t like in this region, and you just hang in there, and you don’t have to deal with this guy. You don’t have to be part of a government. You can boycott the 2005 elections,” as they did for the National Assembly. “You can pretend that the 2004 referendum was stolen,” even though Jimmy Carter—the Carter Center certified it, and so did the OAS. This is what Chávez had to deal with.
So, yeah, he was a polarizing figure, if you want to say that, but he was dealing with people who, every time he offered them an olive branch, they just slapped him in the face. And they had no intention of ever dealing with him. And, you know, in that sense, you can say there’s progress, because here, at least, you know, they’re participating in elections. They started doing that in 2006. And they have started accepting the results. So there’s some progress there. But again, you know, this is the U.S. main—as I said, it’s the number one or two target for regime change. The opposition knows that. And they don’t feel like there’s any reason to work with the government the way the opposition in Brazil does.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory Carroll, your quick response, as we wrap up?
RORY CARROLL: Well, I think there’s so much bluster, really, in terms of the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. Venezuela continues, and has always, under Chávez, and will continue to do so, sells oil to the United States. Companies like Chevron operate in Venezuela. And the United States will continue to buy Venezuela’s oil. And I think the U.S.’s shameful role in the 2002 coup has been well documented, but that was, you know, more than a decade ago. And I think this heightened rhetorical attacks between—from Caracas really have been—served largely now as a distraction, and the fact that we saw it reaching kind of surreal levels with Nicolás Maduro basically accusing the CIA or the United States of poisoning Hugo Chávez, of giving him cancer, and really—and that’s ridiculous.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Weisbrot, on that one issue of the charges and the belief of many in Venezuela that the United States killed Hugo Chávez?
MARK WEISBROT: Well, they haven’t presented any evidence, so until they do I can’t say that it has any validity. But I can understand why people would believe it. How many times did they try to kill Castro? And how many times have they, you know, done things like this? They have a—White House has a kill list where they kill people they don’t like every week. So, yeah, I mean, I can see why the people would believe that, but I have no idea whether there’s any validity to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to, of course, continue to follow politics in Venezuela. I want to thank Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Rory Carroll, author of Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. He also writes for The Guardian newspaper.
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