'Basically A Tinderbox': Venezuela-Born Scholar On His Home Country's Political Crisis

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A woman chants anti-government slogans in a walkout against President Nicolas Maduro, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Boris Vergara/AP)
A woman chants anti-government slogans in a walkout against President Nicolas Maduro, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Boris Vergara/AP)

Vice President Mike Pence is in Miami on Friday to speak with Venezuelans who left the country and are now living in Florida — part of a push by the United States to support Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power.

On Jan. 23, Guaidó, who leads the country's legislature, called for new elections, denounced Maduro's government as illegitimate and declared himself interim president. Now, the two opposing parties are in a stalemate, says New York University associate professor Alejandro Velasco.

“They've basically backed themselves into corners with their respective international partners: the United States on the one hand and then Russia, China on the other,” Velasco, author of "Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela,” tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins.

The situation “is basically a tinderbox,” says Velasco (@AleVelascoNYU), “where any misstep, certainly on the part of the Maduro government, could elicit a very aggressive response, especially on the part of the United States, where officials have explicitly stated that such a response would happen.”

Guaidó has called for protests on Saturday, which will be a big test for Maduro's opposition, Velasco says. “If things go wrong, you may see even further escalation.”

Interview Highlights

On how Maduro has been able to retain power despite 80 percent of Venezuelans wanting him gone

“The military. That's how you retain support in a country where you have the people against you.”

"The last thing I would characterize it as is democracy promotion and respect for human rights."

Alejandro Velasco on the White House's intervention in Venezuela

On why a significant portion of the military supports Maduro

“I think for a variety of reasons, and it's important to understand that the military is not a homogeneous group. Certainly, you have the upper echelons of the military, and one of the things that the Maduro government has done pretty well over the past few years is reward … generals. It's appointed something like 3,000 generals for an army of 250,000 people, which is a little bit ridiculous, but these generals have their hands in the pie of corruption. They've been folded into the inner circle, and their stakes, their futures and fortunes are literally and figuratively tied to Maduro's survival. That's not quite the case with the middle sectors of the military, the so-called ‘comacates’ — in Spanish, commanders, lieutenants, majors and captains — those are the ones where we have already and may yet see some movement against Maduro.

“They wield the power of guns, and so, a couple of days before January 23, there was a small uprising on the part of a National Guard contingent in Caracas, which was quickly squashed, and that is exactly what Maduro is and the generals and around him are looking at: any kind of sign of any of these middle ranks rising up somewhere in Venezuela that might then escalate and lead to a cascade where it would be very difficult to put down without significant amounts of violence.”

On the critique of the White House’s intervention in Venezuela

“The last thing I would characterize it as is democracy promotion and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, the Trump administration's record in that score in Latin America has not been promising. They've supported the government of Honduras, which also staged fraudulent elections. In Guatemala, they've also supported a government that has shaky democratic credentials.

“The play on the part of the United States goes beyond Venezuela. It's really to reassert a lost relevance in the context of what in the previous 20 years had been left-wing governments throughout the region.

“As more and more of these left-wing governments of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ lose office and more conservative governments come into the fold, the United States is really well positioned to reassert control or at least sway over the region in a way that it that it had last for a long time.”

On what the U.S. gains by supporting Guaidó

“They gain a couple of things. First, they gain again this leadership role in affairs in Latin America that they had lost. But more importantly and more concretely — and Senator Marco Rubio has been very much spearheading the U.S. policy on Venezuela for a couple of years now — Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and [national security adviser] John Bolton have openly stated that one of the things that they're seeking is very friendly, favorable terms of investment especially in the oil industry. Launching this has of course yielded speculation that they're interested primarily in oil. So we'll see what happens in terms of their actual interests as events unfold.”

On the possibility of Guaidó receiving military support from the U.S.

“Anything is possible. A couple of days ago at a press conference, John Bolton somewhat cheekily had a notepad where there was the phrase ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’ written out, which launched tremendous amount of speculation as to whether in fact the United States would deploy troops to Colombia as a way to prepare for any kind of ground assault.

“[Colombia’s] a country that has long been at odds with the Venezuelan government, first under Hugo Chávez and later with Maduro, and so, even though they've recently denied that there is any troop movement, that certainly is on the table. My own sense is that the cards point in that direction if escalation obviously continues, and there are few signs of de-escalation at this stage. On the other hand, any kind of troop movement would fracture what is actually a pretty fragile international coalition, especially around the European Union that has been much more hesitant than Latin America in standing behind Guaidó and standing behind U.S. policy towards regime change.”

"I never anticipated what happened [on] January 23 and what has happened since, and I think many in Venezuela are caught in this similar state of surprise and shock."

Alejandro Velasco

On how Velasco’s family, who lives in Venezuela, is faring during the instability and turmoil

“I just came back a couple of weeks ago from Caracas. ... My family is in a city called Maracay, which is a couple hours west of Caracas, which is useful insofar as most news that we hear out of Venezuela [comes] from Caracas, but really, it's beyond the capital city where some of the problems that you're mentioning — in terms of shortages, in terms of blackouts, in terms of lack of water and other kinds of services — are really more severe.

“What I saw that was extremely surprising: no. 1 ... the notable absence of people in the streets of Caracas. It feels like millions have left. You see it at night with [the] lack of lights, not ... because of blackouts; it's just because people aren't in buildings. You see it in shops where you actually find more products on shelves than you did before, but they're completely out of reach in terms of prices for most people, so in some way, it kind of adds insult to injury.

“I left on January 22, and I confess that I left thinking that this status quo would remain for certainly months, if perhaps a couple of years. I never anticipated what happened [on] January 23 and what has happened since, and I think many in Venezuela are caught in this similar state of surprise and shock, whether it be positive or negative.”

On what resources he brought his family from the U.S.

“My father loves Milky Way chocolates, and oddly, one of the things that is most expensive in Caracas, or in Venezuela really, is chocolate. ... But mostly what I brought was cash. The economy has been virtually dollarized for the past six months or so, and so mostly what I brought was single bills, $5 bills and $10 bills for them to have for however long until I'm back.”

Chris Bentley produced this interview, and Todd Mundt edited it for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 1, 2019.


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Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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