Venezuelan legislators tell FP why Chávez must stay in power.
To his supporters, Hugo Chvez has implemented much-needed social programs, empowered the masses, and boosted the quality of life for the average citizen. To his critics, the Venezuelan president has stifled expression, shattered the economy through nationalization, and pushed his country to the brink of catastrophe. Recent local elections showed Chvez losing ground in key constituencies, but he remains remarkably popular for a decade-long leader. On Feb. 15, Venezuelans will go to the polls to vote on a single question: Should term limits be lifted for all politicians -- from the president to the mayors?
To his supporters, Hugo Chvez has implemented much-needed social programs, empowered the masses, and boosted the quality of life for the average citizen. To his critics, the Venezuelan president has stifled expression, shattered the economy through nationalization, and pushed his country to the brink of catastrophe. Recent local elections showed Chvez losing ground in key constituencies, but he remains remarkably popular for a decade-long leader. On Feb. 15, Venezuelans will go to the polls to vote on a single question: Should term limits be lifted for all politicians — from the president to the mayors?
If Venezuela votes yes, Chvez will almost certainly face a very different country when he runs for office in 2012. Having ridden to popularity on record oil revenues and public spending, Chvez will certainly feel the end of the commodity boom. Likewise, Venezuela will have to craft a new relationship with the White House, where President Barack Obama may prove less natural a nemesis as his predecessor. At a time of imminent change, two Venezuelan legislators from the governing party invited journalists, including FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson, to breakfast at the country’s embassy in Washington to discuss. Excerpts:
On the Referendum
Calixto Ortega: We are especially interested in having a discussion with the facts of the political reality in Venezuela. Venezuela is a victim of an ongoing campaign of disinformation, poor information, and sometimes demonization of our own [electoral] process and those who lead the electoral process.
There are positions that state that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela, that there’s no freedom of expression; but if you come to Venezuela and you turn on the TV, you will see that there is plenty of freedom of expression.
If the opposition wants to [make their voices heard], perhaps on Feb. 15, they should come out and vote, and defeat the proposal. And that would mean a defeat for President Chvez. But they know for sure that’s not likely to happen. We know this for a fact. And on Feb. 15, when the Electoral Council announces the vote, we’ll make an announcement.
[Chvez’s] term is over on Feb. 2, 2013. If the reform is not approved, then we will have another candidate. [But] we believe that we need Chvez to be the leader of Venezuela. If we lose the amendment, we will contemplate other proposals, because the Constitution provides for that.
Francisco Torrealba: The process that we hope to conclude with approval on Feb. 15 is just a recognition of the political rights of Venezuelans. We want to perfect our democracy. According to our Constitution, an official who has been elected for a four-year term may be terminated after two years if the citizens decide that he performs poorly. The [proposed] amendment will bring an added balance [so] that we can also reward good government. The presidency of Chvez has been giving concrete answers to the social debt accumulated for more than 40 years in Venezuela. Venezuelans need a mechanism to keep in government those who have performed well, and most people think that President Chvez has performed well.
Some are trying to stain the process of the amendment; they have done it in the past, and they will do it again. Those who are violent will be isolated, detained, and subjected to a trial. Nothing will get in the way of freedom of expression, and from our point of view, this process to be decided Feb. 15 defines largely the future of our republic.
On Relations with U.S. President Barack Obama
CO: We are persuaded that President Obama [erred despite] good faith when he made a statement that does not correlate with reality: President Obama stated that President Chvez should clarify his relation with the [Colombian rebel group] FARC — taking for granted that President Chvez has a relation with the FARC. This is clearly not the case. The problem of the FARC is a problem of Colombia. We have established support mechanisms [that are] only used at the request of the government of Colombia, specifically the administration of [President lvaro] Uribe that has requested [assistance in negotiating the] release of hostages. [Colombia] also requested support from the International Red Cross, and nobody would think that the Red Cross has ties with the FARC. In the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was a representative of the FARC acting from inside, and it made no sense for him to be there, and he was removed.
As pertains to our relations with the Obama administration, we have great expectations. President Chvez has said that he is reaching his hand to the Obama administration to restore relations that had been deteriorating in the previous administration.
There are several international factors that have created [the impression of] an anti-American sentiment that is absolutely false. It is simply that we have been completely against the international politics, in particular the relations that President [George W.] Bush had with Venezuela. But 80 percent of North America was not in agreement with President Bush’s international politics either. We want a cordial, respectful relationship between one sovereign country and another.
On the Financial Crisis
CO: In Venezuela, scholars [predicted the collapse of capitalism], and the government echoed the announcement. For the last three or four years, we have been displacing our international reserves that were in U.S. banks to European banks and banks in other countries. Now, 85 percent of our international reserves are not in U.S. banks because we foresaw the process [of unfolding crisis]. This [crisis] will still hit us, but not as hard. We have to be ready because the U.S. is our main purchaser of oil — 3.2 million barrels of oil every day that come to the U.S., to the network of 14,000 gas stations owned by Citgo.
FT: [The crisis] has affected oil prices, and that is snowballing into other effects. But regardless of how deep the crisis is, the social programs [in Venezuela] will remain in effect. The government has introduced concrete measures to reduce public spending; there are austerity measures to fend off any negative impact. Because the social programs will remain the same and we have a food program, the level of inflation is zero for the sectors that are the poorest.
With our savings, we have a macroeconomic stabilization fund, and we can perfectly pass 2009 toward 2010 without problems. We believe that the prices will not remain low for very much time. With all the measures being taken across the world, in Europe, in the United States, it’s very probable that before this year ends, we will have a reactivated world economy.
Also on ForeignPolicy.com: How money woes may soon crush Chvez’s plans for Venezuela and the Latin America.
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