Venezuela has two claimants to power: Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro. Western countries back Guaidó, Putin and China favor Maduro, and the people of Venezuela are looking for a way out of their country's rolling economic disaster. Latin America expert Peter Schechter and veteran diplomat Cecile Shea join this week’s Deep Dish to discuss.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're discussing the situation in Venezuela, a country that currently has two people claiming to be president. I should also note that because of the extreme cold in Chicago, this episode's posting has been delayed. Last April, Nicolas Maduro was reelected President of Venezuela in an election that was widely condemned as being fraudulent. Then recently, the National Assembly of Venezuela has declared President Maduro's election illegitimate, and they've been joined by the United States, other countries in Latin America, and Western countries to recognize national assembly president and opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela. Now in retaliation, Maduro has ordered US diplomats to leave the country, and the US has responded by sanctioning Venezuela's state run oil company. More broadly in the world, President Putin of Russia has backed Maduro. And back in Venezuela, mass protests have filled the streets since this presidential crisis began.
To help us understand what's happening and where this may be going, I'm joined by two returnees to Deep Dish, Peter Schecter, who's a Latin American expert, and co-host of the terrific podcast, Altamar. Welcome back, Peter, it's good to have you on Deep Dish.
Peter Schechter: Thanks for having me.
Brian Hanson: And also here is Cecile Shea, a 20 year State Department veteran who is now a non-resident senior fellow on security and diplomacy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Welcome Cecile.
Cécile Shea: Hi Brian, thanks for having me.
Brian Hanson: So Peter, I want to start with you. Venezuela was in crisis long before this presidential power struggle began. Some have called the country being in a meltdown. Briefly, help us understand what's been going on in the country.
Peter Schechter: Sure Brian, I mean Venezuela for all of the listeners is a unique country. Because it's a country in total meltdown. We don't have a lot of those in the world. It's a country that is coming apart at the seams. It has spewed out over the last two years at a rate larger than Syria did before about 2.4 million refugees out of the country that have spread across Latin America, most of them in Columbia. But it's a country literally melt down is the right word to use. It's an economic collapse. There are food shortages. There are medicine shortages. People are spending entire days scavenging for where they can buy basic staples for their kids, or where they can buy medicines to take care of their mom and dad. And so, it's the highest inflation rate in the world, the highest crime rate in the world in homicide rates. And so, it's a country that's falling apart. And added to this as a country that is becoming increasingly authoritarian in the last couple of years, to the point where the government avoided the election of a national assembly.
And everybody thought that the opposition had become more abundant. And we've seen in the last couple of weeks, led by, as you mentioned, Juan Guaido, a resurgence of opposition strength. And for the first time in many, many years, the government, the Venezuela led by the authoritarian dictator, Nicolas Maduro is wobbling.
Brian Hanson: And I went to pick up on that, Peter, and just follow up on, why is this opposition move happening now? The election was all the way back in the Spring. Why do we see this happening at this time?
Peter Schechter: Politics is a funny thing. People predict all the time, and they predict wrong because the timing of things can't be controlled. And while everybody thought that the opposition was sort of dead in the water, that the government had become so strong that the opposition really was leaderless, rudderless, didn't have a sense of direction. And here comes a young man, 35 years old, from a relatively humble background. Went to school. He is a protege of the jailed political leader, Leopoldo Lopez was jailed five or six years ago, and still languishes in jail. And he was elected the president of the band's national assembly. And this basically galvanized the notion that there was a young leader, a new leader, a new face who is both smart, and savvy, and believable, incredible, religious, comes from not an elite background. All of this have come together to really create and provide new hope to the Venezuelan opposition. And so, we've seen these protests which basically have come from him. And I guess I should just add one thing.
I mean, there has been a curious symmetry to these protests, right? I mean, these protests have happened almost on a perfect message. The United States recognizes him as the interim president. So do a number of other important Latin American countries. Europe sort of hems and haws, but ends up also recognizing him. So I mean clearly, there has been some preparation in the works.
Brian Hanson: And Cecile, let me pick up on that point with you. Having been a US diplomat, and involved in international crises and decision making about what the US should do in situations like this. I want to actually ask you a question that comes from our Facebook page, from one of our listeners, Christina Irene Collins, who says, "I'd like to understand the Trump Administration's motivation for intervening as they're doing in this crisis." What do you see as the motivation of the Trump Administration here, Cecile?
Cécile Shea: I mean, that's really an excellent question. And it's one of the risks to the Trump Administration's policy. Which is that we end up looking a little hypocritical. Because we are dropping the boom on Venezuela, but we stand by and do very little about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, where clearly there are no democratic elections. And we stand by and do very little about some of the troubling downturns in say Hungary, Poland, Turkey. So, there are people in the world who say that Venezuela is on President Trump's radar, for either ideological reasons, or because of oil. And there's probably a little truth to both of that. The current regime in Venezuela is very leftist. It has nationalized a lot of resources and companies. And so, that's been problematic. And also obviously Venezuela is an oil producer. I think the other thing that we shouldn't forget though is that as well as also in our hemisphere. It's a country that is surrounded by fairly fragile democracies. And we really don't want things to escalate to a point that those countries are made further unstable because of refugee flows and economic crises in Venezuela.
So you're asking President Trump's and his administration's motivation. I think there's probably a variety of motivations. And I don't think that they have been very clear about why Venezuela is different than some of the other countries where there are pretty significant problems right now.
Peter Schechter: I just wanted to react to something Cecile said, because it just ... And pardon, I'm going to be a little ironic and humorous here. I mean, I completely agree with Cecile that it is so vastly different from everything else in the Trump Administration. I mean, we ignore human rights, the lack of democracy, authoritarianism in so many places in the world. But somehow Venezuela is this itch that Mr. Trump has to scratch. But even though that is sort of ironic and troubling, I have to say that I am a big critic of this administration. And in particular a big critic of the president. But I have to say, that in the dead of night, after midnight, after I close my bedroom door, I do whisper to my wife that I admire what President Trump is doing on Venezuela.
Brian Hanson: And why is that, Peter? What makes this different?
Peter Schechter: Well, I think that there have been many, many secretaries of state, and a number of presidents who have tried to move the needle on Venezuela, and none of it has been possible. And I think we have to face the fact that forcefulness, and a tough stand do sometimes make a difference. And I think the president has continued the policy of personal targeted sanctions that President Obama started, but then he's also added to this and built on this by creating broader, broader sanctions on the country. And now certainly sort of by obviously having choreographed, having participated in the choreography of creating a new grounds fall for the opposition by recognizing Mr. Guaido as the interim president, and by making sure that all proceeds from oil sold in the United States by Citgo no longer goes to the government of Venezuela that is in power, but rather to the government of Venezuela that the United States now recognizes, which is led by Mr. Guaido.
Essentially what that does is cuts off all funds. But this is a pretty elegant solution to a blockade, or freezing assets, or it simply says we don't recognize the government. But of course this money is Venezuela's and nobody's disputing that. And when the right person comes to power and tells us where to send the money, of course we'll do that. I mean, this has been done with some level of elegance. And I think that that's something at least I believe is moving the needle in ways that it hasn't moved before.
Cécile Shea: Just let me say, I'm not necessarily opposed to our leaning on Venezuela. I do think that we need to be aware of some significant risks to this policy. I don't think the administration is being honest about some of those. What I do wish, though, is that the administration was better at presenting a narrative, to answer your Facebook reader's question. Why are we doing this on Venezuela and we're not doing it in a lot of other countries? Because there's our international reputation outside of Venezuela that also matters in all of this.
Brian Hanson: So I want to get to some of those implications, those broader implications in just a moment. Before we go there, Cécile, I want to just engage on this point that Peter made about the US essentially saying that it was going to redirect the funds that are produced by Venezuelan oil sales in the United States to the contender to the presidency here. How does that practice? Is this just simply shutting off money flowing to the Maduro government or is there a way to actually get funds to the other person?
Cécile Shea: Let's take a step back and say Venezuela political parties on all sides have a long history or corruption and malfeasance and misuse of funds. So we would have to be very, very careful that anything we do with this money actually ends up in the right hands, going to help the Venezuelan people. Because these sanctions are really going to hurt. As Peter described, the country is already in economic free fall. People are hungry. People can't afford medication. There's a lot of really serious problems in the country. This latest decision is going to cause even more pain there. Post-World War II, obviously, we were funneling money to governments in exile during World War II. I don't remember a time when we were actually funneling money directly to a government in exile.
There have been times when we've had very relationships and under the table, certainly, the intelligence agencies were propping up some of these governments in exile, which very often are located, say, in London and other places. But in terms of directly funneling a so-called government in exile money that comes out of its treasury, I honestly don't remember a time that we've done that. You are absolutely right, Peter, the modality for doing this is going to be very complicated.
Brian Hanson: I want to pull back and look a little bit more broadly at the coalition of support for the Trump administration. You both have alluded to this a little bit. Of course, the United States has a long history of intervening in its hemisphere and not always with the support of other countries in the region. One of the things that strikes me about this current situation is that several important countries, as you pointed out, Peter, in Latin America, are actually supporting this action. So what is the kind of cast of characters in the region, and more broadly in the globe, of who's supporting this action and who are the countries that are standing behind Maduro?
Peter Schechter: There's not a lot of countries that are standing behind Maduro for ideological reason. I mean, I would say in Latin America there are very few left that are ... I mean, when Chávez was alive, Latin America was thought to be dividing along ideological lines. Perhaps it would've different if Chávez would've stayed alive. But this is now very different under Maduro. I mean, the level of Latin American support for Maduro has collapsed. It used to be that Ecuador was among those countries that supported Venezuela's government, and they certainly are far from that now. So, really, what is left in Latin America is Nicaragua, another absolute dictatorship, and Bolivia, with Evo Morales, who has continues to support. So in Latin America, there really are no longer almost anybody of significance and who hold merits, respect, supporting the government of Venezuela. It's an untenable position. I mean-
Cécile Shea: But Peter, what is Mexico's position?
Peter Schechter: Mexico has taken almost no position. The new government of Mexico is trying to remain silent and out of this, not wanting to offend Trump. But on the other hand, President López Obrador, you're right to ask that question. Because President López Obrador, his instinctive approach is non-intervention. So I think he's critical of the government of Venezuela and particularly some of the accusations of corruption and that it's a narco-kleptocracy, but that doesn't take him all the way to then support an intervention. So you're absolutely right to point that out. But I think that Mexico is different from Nicaragua and Bolivia, who actually support Maduro and his government.
I think the more interesting one, and I think we should make this a conversation because it's really the more interesting part is the role of Russia and China. There are billions and billion and billions, it's worth three emphases, of dollars invested by Russia and China in Venezuela, which they stand to lose if the Maduro government falls. So this has become now a geopolitical hot potato in which the ... in particular Russia. China has been somewhat more circumspect. But in particularly Russia, has taken the side in which it opposes the US sanctions, US recognition of Guaidó. So there's a lot of ... This is an interesting component to this problem.
Brian Hanson: Yeah, and let me push on that a little bit. Because one of the things the US did, which was call for a UN Security Council debate. And of course, China and Russia both have vetoes in the Security Council, so trying to pull together that institution as a way to resolve this process sounds like a non-starter. But what can Russia and China actually do in order to help influence the outcome of this crisis?
Peter Schechter: Not a lot, frankly. I mean, I think that they are going to be not sidelined players but they're going to be relatively minor players in this game. I mean, I think the United States still is the major purchaser of Venezuelan oil. China is also a large purchaser. But I think that there is ... Neither of those countries, in my view, are going to play it all out for the Maduro government in Venezuela. We're not going to start a global fight with Russia and China on this issue. I think that there is going to be tension. There's going to be words. I don't think that it's going to go much beyond that between the United States and Maduro's strategic supporters in Russia and in China.
Brian Hanson: Cécile, do you agree?
Cécile Shea: Yeah. I mean, I don't think we know ... This goes back to what I think the biggest risk in all of this is in terms of recognizing the Guaidó government, is that we really don't know this man. We don't know a lot about the opposition. We don't know that they're going to be America's best friend if they come to power. Remember that we spent 15 years ... And this was something that I worked very hard on in my own career. We spent 15 years trying to force Burma to recognize that Aung San Suu Kyi was the democratically elected leader of the country. Remember, she was in house arrest all that time after the junta refused to recognized the results of a very free and fair election in the early '90s.
Now that she's in power, it turns out that she may not be the great paragon of democracy and human rights that everyone assumed she was going to be. But there are a lot of really significant human rights problems now in Burma, Myanmar, to the point that there is talk of the Nobel Committee trying to pull her Nobel Prize away from her. So I think that one of the things we have to remember is that we are hoping that the opposition will turn out to be a decent government and good neighbors to other great countries here in this hemisphere. But we don't really seem to know a lot about them.
Peter Schechter: We certainly don't know a lot about Juan Guaidó. I think that Cécile's point is very well taken. We do know a lot about the opposition. I mean, the opposition parties are ... There's no new ones. They're well known. They've been the opposition parties. The contacts between the Venezuela opposition and the US government is deep, profound, and most of the-
Cécile Shea: But are they ready to lead? I mean, they've had such a hard time just getting their acts together over these last seven or eight years. Are they actually ready to lead the country? This is the big question.
Peter Schechter: That's a great question. But I'm not sure it's the question. I think that the question is what we do know is that Venezuela is a narco-kleptocracy that has decimated the country, that has divided up the country in the most horrific way, providing free air strips for the transport of drugs from Columbia, Bolivia, Ecuador, through Venezuela to Africa and Europe. It's dividing up tracks of land to permit, among ministers and the military [inaudible 00:21:35] to permit illegal mining, which has decimated the Orinoco Delta environment. We do know that it is an authoritarian government that is not decreasingly authoritarian but increasingly authoritarian. I think that, sure, the question about whether the opposition is ready to run a country is a very legitimate question, but what we do know is that the government of Venezuela is among the most horrible, certainly in the hemisphere, and among most horrible in the world.
Brian Hanson: So I want to jump in on another set of actors that seem central in determining where this crisis goes and how it's resolved. And, we have another Facebook question from one of our listeners, Leon Holly, who asks, you know, a chunk of the police and military forces appear to back Maduro. What is the role that the Venezuelan military will play in this crisis? So far, they seem to have stuck close to Maduro. What might drive, are they as critical as we believe they are? And what might drive a repositioning of their support?
Peter Schechter: They're very critical and what has been happening in the Venezuelan military is fascinating because they are certainly politically supportive of Maduro, but I think one of the most interesting things of the last couple of weeks is they haven't actually exercised any orders. So they've said that you know, we are defending the government, the military's behind the government. And the reason they haven't actually implemented any orders, any repression orders is because I think that the cupula of military leaders in charge today, is very worried that the middle commanders and the foot soldiers would actually desert if orders were given to shoot on protestors.
And I think this is a really interesting part of this story, but it's an important part of the story, which is, can the government actually trust the military to implement the orders, to defend the government if that would become necessary? And, I think that nobody wants to try this, because they're not sure. So, you know, my conclusion in this is that, that is why you see Maduro basically playing for time. Time is Maduro's best friend. If he is playing for time, he's suggesting negotiations, he's suggesting talks, he's suggesting that other countries get involved.
So, you see him playing for time. And what you don't see is him with, ordering his military to repress, massively repress, I'm talking about, there have been selected rests and even some killings. But, massively repress the protests, and another big protest is planned for Saturday. So, we're going to see if that continues. But there has been a restraint. And my guess is the restraint is not because these are nice people. They're not nice people. They're restrained because they don't trust the military, the middle and foot, and soldiers, to actually implement the orders.
Cécile Shea: Yeah, and don't forget that you know, while some of the big shots in the military have been able to enrich themselves through corruption and, as Peter said, through deals, even with the narcotics traffickers. The mid level and the lower level troops are being decimated by this runaway inflation, by the fact that the money that they're being paid in their paychecks isn't actually worth anything.
Peter Schechter: Absolutely.
Cécile Shea: And so it's hard to depend on a military when you're not paying them. There's a really troubling story in the New York Times this week about this secret police force that has been specially trained by the Maduro government and is going to the homes of people who showed up at protests and just shooting the protestors in the head. There's one story of an 18 year old boy who had just attended a protest and these police showed up at his home and killed him. And that's a sign, I think, of a couple of things.
One is that Maduro is really ready to play rough and to try to intimidate these protestors any way that he can. But two, he can't call in the National Guard this time to try to go after some of the protestors, or he's worried that he can't. Getting back to what Peter said. So, it's you know, clearly Guaido is counting on some kind of coup, he pretty much calls for one in the piece that he has published in the New York Times this week. And he's called on the military to end its support of Maduro and to turn to him. He seems to be fairly confident that the military then could be trusted to turn around and call for free and fair elections within 30 days.
I think that Peter indicates in a really nice piece that he wrote this week, that he's also confident the military would do that. You know, there's a long history of Latin America, of the military coming to power and not turning to democratic elections and indeed engaging in some pretty horrific reprisals of their own. I hope that wouldn't be true in Venezuela. But again, this is one of the great unknowns of this policy that we've now really moved ahead with.
Brian Hanson: So, as we close here, I want to ask each of you, what, this is clearly a very quickly, rapidly developing situation. There's a lot we don't know about how it's going to come out. For each of you, what is the one thing, the most important thing that you would encourage our listeners to pay attention to as this situation unfolds? And perhaps something that's not as well covered or is emphasized in the press.
Peter, what would you encourage people to pay attention to?
Peter Schechter: Watch the protests and watch two things about the protests. Are they fizzling out? Or are they strengthening? So, there's another protest on Saturday as I mentioned. Are we going to get more people in the street, or less people in the street. I mean, this is a place where people have to spend enormous amounts of time surviving. And so, you know, going to a protest is a big thing because you're taking time away from finding rice, beans, meat, medicines, et cetera, et cetera. So, it's a, so let's look at the size of the protest and whether they are accelerating or decelerating. And then, concomitantly, as Cecile and I have been saying, let's also look at the response of the government as to whether they are continuing to play cautious or are they going to try to repress the protests with some type of considerable violence?
Brian Hanson: And Cecile?
Cécile Shea: Yeah, so you know, one of the things that we're going to see in the next month is whether the relationships that our military forces have created with Venezuela and Latin American military forces over the recent decades, at the School of the Americas, which has been occasionally very controversial. Whether those relationships are going to bear fruit. Because if there is a coupe, or if the military does decide to really pressure the current government to step back, to call for some kind of elections to recognize Guaido, then we're going to really need kind of the phone calls, General to General, Colonel to Colonel, friend to friend, to push the military to move in the right direction and to move toward democracy and respect for human rights in the country.
And I hope that, that's true. I hope that those relationships that have been built over the decades are going to turn out to have been money well spent and well invested.
Brian Hanson: Well, Peter and Cecile, thank you both for coming back on Deep Dish. I anticipate that we'll be gathering again together as these events unfold. 'Cause as you've pointed out, they have not only important implications for Venezuela, but also for the region and geopolitically are important as well. So, thank you very much for being on Deep Dish.
Peter Schechter: Thank you for having us.
Cécile Shea: Thanks very much.
Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish On Global Affairs, wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please tap the share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, where you can ask our guests follow up questions about anything you heard today. Or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.