Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco

On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative branch, declared himself president of Venezuela. Within minutes, the US and several Latin American countries recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president and simultaneously rejected the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s sitting president who had been sworn into office for his second term earlier in the month. Since then, tensions have escalated as the US has imposed harsh new sanctions on Caracas and has boasted that military intervention is on the table.

As with all news related to Venezuela in the West, there’s a ton of glib analysis out there tainted by a reflex to treat the country as a battleground for narratives on socialism or foreign intervention, and there’s a scarcity of specific engagement with the Venezuelan experience. To cut through the noise last week I called up Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian of Latin America at NYU, to get his perspective on what’s driving this extraordinary turn of events, how the US left should be positioning itself on the issue, and why he feels overwhelmed by pessimism about his home country.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: How does someone who hasn’t been a presidential candidate simply declare himself president?

Alejandro Velasco: That has to do with a particular reading of the Venezuelan constitution that says when there’s a vacuum in the executive power, then it falls upon the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch, to assume those duties.

The legitimacy at the international level is being claimed upon by appealing to Article 233 of the constitution. They claim, not without reason, that the elections that brought Maduro last year into office were highly irregular, were fraudulent, and so therefore he is not a legitimate president as of January 10th, when he swore himself into a new term of office.

It’s a legal argument that Guaidó’s banking on to assert legitimacy. The problem is that same Article 233 of the constitution also says new elections need to be held within 30 days. Even though Guaidó has said the plan is to hold elections, it’s been very vague. In fact it’s the third of 3 plans that he’s announced. (The first one is seizing the usurpation, the second one is establishing an interim governments.) The argument makes sense insofar as you won’t be able to call new elections with the existing institutional apparatus, which is controlled by chavistas. But the second you say that then you get into all sorts of legal confusion as to why are you calling upon this article in order to assert the legitimacy of rule.

Which is why it’s important to understand that what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t actually a matter of legality, it’s a matter of who can claim legitimacy of rule.

What are the US and the other countries that instantly recognized Guaidó trying to accomplish?

What they’re trying to accomplish is a very quick resolution to what they see as a power struggle. I personally was extremely surprised; this was kind of the nuclear option. By announcing this, there’s really no way back, there’s only escalation that’s possible. You can’t imagine someone like Mike Pompeo or John Bolton or Marco Rubio or Elliott Abrams suddenly saying, “What we really need to do now is negotiate with the government.”

So, this really sets up only one outcome of increased escalation in order to try to break the stalemate — which ultimately benefits Maduro. Maduro is basically seeing things like this: all he has to do is win this day. He’s not seeing things in terms of six months, a year, two years. All he has to do is win this day, because each day he wakes up in the presidential palace is a day that Guaidó and his international supporters need to force an outcome in short order, and that increasingly becomes something that’s more outside of any kind of constitutional framework.

What does seem to be clear is that [Guaidó/the international coalition] expected that the military would turn on Maduro much more quickly — that there would be a lot more fracturing and splintering within the upper echelons of the military, and that would lead to a kind of rapid cascade. I think to some extent they’ve been kind of caught off guard by how little of that we’ve seen. If that continues to be the case, if the military continues to be behind Maduro, then we’re in this upward spiral of escalation.

The military took a little bit of time before announcing that it was backing Maduro. What are the odds that the military turns on him, and what factors are most likely to cause it?

I think everybody in the government was caught off guard — that was part of the orchestration behind the scenes. What does that mean in terms of the military? Why did they take hours, as opposed to immediately announcing their support for Maduro?

There are fissures within the military, but those fissures aren’t actually on the part of the higher ranks. The middle layers are the ones we usually see lead small scale insurrections. If there’s going to be any fracturing, it’s going to be from there. What I’m looking for is not at the upper echelons — they’re so tied to the fortunes of Maduro that they have much more to lose without him than with him.

[It’s worth noting that after this interview was conducted early last week there was at least one major military defection.]

The Trump administration’s stated rationale for its support — to restore democracy in Venezuela — rings hollow, given the way it’s dealt with authoritarians like MBS, Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, Putin etc. What’s really driving this?

You don’t have even to go to MBS, just go to Honduras and Guatemala. Certainly Honduras is another illegitimate government that stages fraudulent elections. We know that democracy and human rights is not what’s driving this. I don’t think you have to be a leftist to recognize that. So what is driving it?

I think it’s a little bit silly for folks on the left to say that it’s about oil — it’s a much larger thing. It’s about reasserting control over the agenda in Latin America, which had been lost in the context of the left turn and the pink tide. Now the US sees the regional geopolitical landscape shifting in its favor. They’re saying, “We’re reclaiming hegemony over Latin America, this is in fact our backyard.” In that sense it’s a much bigger play than Venezuela itself.  

A lot of people on the US left feel struck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand Maduro’s mismanagement of the economy is causing tremendous suffering and he’s undermined Venezuela’s democratic institutions in many ways, on the other hand, the US is trying to trigger a coup has a long history of interfering with Venezuela and other Latin American countries as part of a broader imperialistic project. How do you think people on the left should be thinking about this?

I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to be able to say Maduro’s government has been authoritarian and disastrous for Venezuela on its own — as well as aided by US sanctions and other factors — and, at the same time, resist vocally US imperialism and interventions for all the reasons that we know.  There’s no US intervention that leads to anything that is in any way positive.

It’s been a little bit surprising to me how difficult that has been for some people, to be able to say Maduro is an illegitimate president and what we really need to be calling for are free and fair elections, which are not what brought him into his six year term of office last year.

Mexico and Uruguay have positioned themselves as parties to be able to broker that kind of agreement. They’ve said is what Venezuela needs is negotiated solutions to this crisis, and they do not recognize Guaidó, but they also do not recognize Maduro. They basically state the neutral position to try to be able to bring both sides to the negotiating table, to try and broker an electoral solution: that we pass through renovating the electoral council and to make sure there are free and fair elections that happen in short order.

There are some who say that the [international pressure campaign] that Guaidó is enjoying gives him the leverage to be able to bring Maduro to the negotiating table and say, “elections or nothing.” But that does not seem to be the play on part of the US. For them, the play is, “We now know who the president is, and we don’t need to have elections, we just know that this is the president.”

The people I’ve been talking to on the ground in Caracas are saying that so far the protests against Maduro aren’t as intense as they were in 2017. I was surprised by that, given that the economic crisis has continues to worsen since then, and it seems the perennially divided opposition in Venezuela finally has a leader to unite behind. Why are the protests not enormous?

I was just in Caracas for a couple weeks. The level of discontent with Maduro is widespread and cross-cutting. But in terms of the actual economic crisis, it’s not at the levels of where it was in 2017 — meaning, you go into markets, and you don’t see the kinds of shortages you saw in 2017, when you’d walk into a store and there was just nothing. What you have now is effective shortages, meaning that because hyperinflation is so pronounced, prices are astronomical. If you don’t have access to money, then it’s a double kind of frustration — you see things that are available, but you just can’t afford them. Even though there’s discontent, it’s not at the level that we had been seeing in 2017, is partly my sense.

To your question that one would think that the opposition seems united around Guaidó — I think there is some trepidation surrounding the protagonismo, or the center staging, that the US has played for some of the opposition.

To the extent that the US takes on a greater role in and has greater stakes in what’s going on, it very easily feeds into the narrative that the government has long been playing, which is that the opposition is controlled from abroad. It might account for a little bit of the hesitation, certainly on the part of the military, which is now a major player, in terms of why they’re not rebelling.

To end on a more personal note, I wanted to ask you: as somebody who grew up in Venezuela, as a scholar of Venezuela, as somebody who is of the left but also critical of Maduro, as somebody who sees foreign intervention developing, how do you feel right now?

It’s heartbreaking. My father is in Venezuela, he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, and so when I go back we get into these pitched arguments. This time there was a real sense of hopelessness. This is to some extent the worst possible outcome — the US is leading this charge so dramatically, and not just any US, it’s the worst elements of the US foreign policy establishment, especially because of people like Elliot Abrams being appointed as US special envoy to Venezuela. [During the Reagan era, Abrams helped subvert democratic governments and attempted to whitewash massacres committed by death squads in Latin America; he also was a prominent player in the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.]

It’s heartbreaking and it’s also extremely scary, because I just don’t see how somebody like Abrams, like Pompeo, like Bolton, like Rubio tone it down. I think they’re committed to this escalating strategy, and the last that they care about is what actually happens to people like my father in Venezuela who would otherwise be very supportive of regime change, but not under these terms.

Many of my closest friends and contacts are people who are in barrios in Caracas. These are the people who regardless will bear the brunt, and bear the brunt in a way that is not publicized, that is just used as cannon fodder. 

All of that gives me tremendous anxiety and hesitation, you can imagine I’ve been sleeping very restlessly over the last few days when I’ve had the chance to sleep at all. Hope is the last thing that I have right now.

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