Venezuelan opposition politicians have visited South Africa to deliver a warning to this country not to emulate the “left-wing populism” of their government which they say has destroyed their oil-rich country over the last two decades.
They believe the ANC ‘s strong friendship with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is blinding it to the reality that it is bad governance and not US meddling which has crippled what used to be the richest economy in Latin America and has impoverished most of its people.
Miguel Pizarro, 30 and Jose Manuel Olivares Marquina, 33, are members of parliament for the Primero Justicia party. Pizarro is president of the Commission for Social Development in the National Assembly. One of the youngest MPs, and one of the most articulate, he is considered very influential in Venezuelan politics.
Olivaries, a medical doctor is a member of the same Commission for Social Development, focussing on health issues. He fled into exile in Columbia earlier this year after the Venezuelan government tried to arrest his wife. His party believes they were going after her as he enjoys immunity from prosecution, as an MP. He is praised for making big opposition inroads into government support in Vargas, one of the most Chavista states in Venezuela.
The two are also veterans of the huge student protests against the referendum which Maduro’s predecessor Hugu Chavez held in 2007 to try to change the constitution, ostensibly to expand socialism but in reality to give him dictatorial powers, his opponents alleged. Chavez narrowly lost the referendum, his only electoral defeat. But he found other ways of seizing political and economic control and Maduro has gone further.
Pizarro and Olivares addressed a meeting in Johannesburg last week organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the University of Johannesburg Business School (UJBS).
The foundation’s South Africa director Henning Suhr, who has also served with the foundation in Venezuela, said the Venezuelan crisis was man-made. No natural catastrophe or warfare had caused the crisis, it was the result purely of bad governance. UJBS director Lyal White said Venezuela was now a failed state, heading for one million percent inflation this year. At least ten percent of the population had fled the country and social order had broken down. The capital Caracas had a murder rate of 144 per 100,000, higher than any other country not at war.
Pizarro said as a left-wing populist, Maduro claimed to do everything he did in the name of the people. “When the people are starving, they say it’s the result of economic war from the imperialists,” Pizarro said. The Chavez and Maduro governments had always offered benefits to the people as though they were free. But nothing was for free and now the country was picking up the cheque for decades of their populist policies.
“We are now living through the worst economic and social crisis of our history; 50% of the people are eating only once or with good luck twice a day. Four out of 10 children are not growing normally because they don’t eat any form of protein.
“Our minimum salary per month is only $2. And to buy the minimum amount of money you need, you need US$30 or $40. So it’s impossible for a low-income family to cover all its needs.”
Politically, he says after the opposition won the National Assembly elections in 2015 “the new era of dictatorship started and the Chavez government refused to recognise the National Assembly so they made a new parliament, the National Constitutional Assembly which was not in fact making a constitution but just trying to be a parallel parliament.
Since 2015 the government had killed more than 150 people in the street protests and has taken control of 20% more of Venezuela’s economic activity. “We don’t have private property right now. The May elections this year were a massive fraud he said with only 30% turnout yet officially Maduro won 8 million votes. So in the worst crisis in Venezuela’s history Maduro gets more votes than Chavez in his best moment.
“We have to draw some parallels with what’s happening in SA. The corruption, this state capture you call it here. In Venezuela, it’s the norm. It’s the only way they can preserve power. It’s a kleptocracy.”
Pizarro feared that South Africa’s “extreme left-winger” policy of land reform suggested it was following Venezuela’s example. “They say let’s take back the land to the people, in this abstract manner. It was the same speech in Venezuela about the factories.” Yet not a single factory which the state took over was ever given to the workers, he said.
“The state took the land and there is no mini-landlord going to work those lands. The state is the owner. Two or three people are the owner of everything. And they lend you some land or factories to exploit sometimes. And we make this warning because it’s the beginning of the end of institutions of democracies and values that countries need.
“I used to be a real hard left-winger. I came from a Marxist family,” he said, and so he had never imagined where left-wing politics would lead his country.
Venezuela was a warning not just to South Africa but to the world, because it was a model of exploitation, Pizarro elaborated, in an interview with Daily Maverick. “You don’t need to be a left-winger or a right-winger to use democracy to destroy democracy,” he said. “In the name of law and order or in the name of the people, you can achieve the same thing, absolute institutional control, using people’s needs to gain control over them, using repression and fear to control the society.”
Pizarro rejected what he calls the Marxist-Leninist propaganda of the Maduro regime – which is also believed by many South Africans – that US “imperialism” is the author in any way of Venezuela’s suffering and that Venezuelan oppositionists like him are mere “employees of the imperialists”.
He noted that the economic and humanitarian crises started well before international sanctions and pressure on the Venezuelan government. And the pressure came as a consequence of the crisis. “If they were enemies of North America, why don’t they stop selling oil to them? Why they don’t close the refinery in Texas?” he says, referring to Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA’s ownership of the Citgo refineries in Texas – and also Louisiana.
Pizarro said one of the purposes of their trip was to seek support from South Africa. They met DA leader Mmusi Maimane and other political leaders and analysts but the government did not reply to a request for a meeting. The two politicians clearly wanted to counter the Maduro government’s imperialist explanation for the crisis, which Olivares said the SA government shares, noting that Pretoria had expressed no sympathy for the suffering of the Venezuelan people.
Pizarro said the Maduro government was looking for new allies as Venezuela economy imploded. “And they found a huge ally in SA. The foreign minister (Jorge Arreaza) came here (in July) and talked about Alice in Wonderland. He said in my country people are not starving. That people are really happy because we have good weather, and good beaches and good mountains. But it’s not enough to have good weather to be happy. The foreign minister came here and said Venezuela was in the middle of an economic war (against the US). And I say it’s sort of true, (but) it’s a war of the government against the people.”
Asked what South Africa could do to help the Venezuelan people, Pizarro said the first thing South Africa could do was to speak loudly about the crisis and then not to follow Venezuela’s example in dealing with the land question. He also expressed concern that if the ANC formed a closer alliance with Venezuela before South Africa goes onto the UN Security Council in January next year, “Maduro will get a huge ally in the world.” He recalled with concern how SA’s ambassador to Venezuela Joseph Nkosi had recently offered to put SA’s army at Venezuela’s disposal to fight off the US.
However, Malcolm Ferguson, a former South African diplomat who served as ambassador to Mexico, reminded Pizarro and Olivares at the meeting that Pretoria had forced Nkosi to retract and apologise for his offer. He assured the Venezuelan politicians that South Africa was a “vibrant constitutional democracy” which would not go the same way as Venezuela.
Ferguson advised them that ultimately the Venezuelan people themselves would have to solve their own political problems, though suggesting that the first step would have to be to mobilise support in their region, as the ANC had first mobilised African support and then used this as a springboard to gain wider international support.
Some Venezuelan analysts have suggested the only solution to the crisis is outside military intervention but Pizarro said that they knew the solution to the problem was ultimately in their hands. “We are not going to go to the world, to the US or the UN to say invade Venezuela.” Nevertheless, he said Venezuela’s crisis had become a regional problem as some 12% of Venezuela’s population had now flowed across the borders into neighbouring countries, creating a huge refugee crisis. And that crisis would soon become an international problem as the region would run out of space to receive the refugees and they would start arriving in Europe and other parts of the world.
“We don’t want to be Syria with the international community saying we can’t change things inside the country, so let’s stop the people, contain them in Venezuela. Because that’s the real worst scenario for us in Venezuela where already we have no food and medicine.”
If not military intervention, then what will solve the problem? Those same Venezuelan analysts wonder if the Venezuelan opposition has not become stale and jaded, needing an infusion of fresh blood. They note that Pizarro and Olivares are part of a generation of politicians that gained large popularity due to the protests organized by the student movement in 2007, over 10 years ago.
“Since then, all Venezuelan political parties still have the same leadership and presidents. Has the student movement accomplished its goal of renovating politics in Venezuela? Can things change if there is no change in strategies or actors?” one analyst asked.
Olivares replies: “ You can’t put this down as a chronological problem. It’s not a problem of old people against young people. We are all needed in society. The irreverence and the originality of young people and of course the experience in government of older people. Our generation had their success in putting down Chavez in 2007. We have gained important places in the National Assembly and have taken seats in major towns.
“But we definitely do need to renew ourselves, for many reasons; the tyranny of some leaders, or their lack of ideas or innovation of leadership. Maybe the comfort zone that 20 years has given them, of taking the beatings from the government . We are all needed to give sense to politics.”
One of the biggest problems in Venezuela was that ordinary citizens no longer found meaning in politics. The opposition’s major challenge was to get people interested in politics again.
But the analyst noted that the opposition had decided not to participate in the last presidential elections (in May this year) and had recently decided not to participate in the local elections scheduled for December. “What is the alternative to not participating? It seems as if the opposition has lost ground since the protests of 2017,” he said.
However, Pizarro said the May poll was not really an election. “When the people can’t freely vote, when they’re under pressure, under social control, under some sort of blackmailing, for food, for gas, for medicines. People were voting, but people were not choosing. The opposition parties weren’t all legalised. The most important leadership was prevented from participating in the elections.”
And the voting was not transparent. The opposition was not allowed to audit the voters’ roll or the new electronic voting system.
So what then? Pizarro said the opposition had to unite behind a single candidate in the next elections if they were to have any hope of defeating Maduro But, probably, more importantly, they would also have to “divide the regime and take some of them out of the circle of power”.
“The only way is to build this alternative power pole so that everyone can see these are the guys who are going to rule the country in the future. They know how to do it. And most of all they won’t fight each other when Maduro is no longer in power. It’s not only a tactical issue, it’s also a strategic thing, not only to overthrow the Maduro regime but also a requirement to govern.”
Pizarro said there were times when the opposition was together, pushing in the same direction.
“And we have moments like now when we have two or three visions of the tactical ways to counter the regime.” Olivares said all the opposition agreed that Maduro should go. They also agreed on many important principles, political, economic, social and on how to manage the oil resource for the common good. It didn’t matter who came into power after Maduro, these basic principles would be implemented, he insisted.
There was also agreement about the transition to a new dispensation, including that whoever was elected into power for the transition could not be re-elected. But there was no agreement (yet) about who would govern during the transition.