Opposition-leaning Venezuelan newspaper El Universal interviewed Ali Rodriguez Araque recently, the current president of UNASUR, a top minister in the Chavez administration, and the next Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba. Rodriguez shares his thoughts on economic issues and the key future tasks of the Bolivarian project. Translated by VA.com.
Ali Rodriguez Araque affirms that he has an optimistic view of the country, but he immediately clarifies: “I am characterized as someone who has their feet on the ground, and I see problems that need to be solved in the economic sphere. I have no problem in saying it. The shape of the [government’s] economic policies must be better defined. Certain strategic definitions need to be made that are not sufficiently clear”.
The still-Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is preparing to hand over the post to former Colombian president Ernesto Samper next 22 August. He will then prepare his trip to Cuba, where he will serve as ambassador. “Important things have been achieved,” he responds about is passage through UNASUR. He leaves behind “a great many projects in motion” and “vital” proposals for the region.
“My project is to have time to write, read a pile of books, and I’m going to start regularly writing for the press to express my opinion about the situation in the country,” anticipates the person who has held the presidency of PDVSA [Venezuela’s state oil company] and the OPEC, as well as different ministries during the government of late President Hugo Chavez.
El Universal: Are you leaving UNASUR satisfied? What projects are you leaving behind?
Ali Rodriguez Araque: There are a great many projects in motion. You are never satisfied because there’s no natural resource that runs out faster than time, but important things have been achieved. Not only has the Secretariat General been structured, which has a very fluid performance, but there exist twelve ministerial councils and important working groups for specific issues.
Are you leaving something behind that you’d liked to have finished?
My greatest endeavour (and the experience that I had in the OPEC influences this a lot) has been to propose, as a dynamic, interlinked and strategic nexus, a policy that has the problem of natural resources as a central focus. One asks oneself, what do we have? What we’ve not had is vision: the power of the region is there. The proposal is to have a strategic policy that includes the relative problem of extraction but that goes beyond the extractive phase: one that establishes chains of production between the countries [of the region]. For example, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina have the largest lithium reserve in the world between them, which is in great demand today. What if our countries form a great company? Chavez called them “Great-nationals”. The proposal is to cover the extractive phase, the transformative phase, scientific and technological development, and the problem of financing which is always a headache and creates high levels of dependency. It’s about a coherent strategy, which still hasn’t been approved by the Unasur. I’ll keep insisting on it from the outside.
What is required for this to materialise? You see summits, meetings, agreements, but sometimes things don’t materialise.
What’s missing is concrete policies and plans. What is the problem? Each of these countries has many internal problems and this absorbs the attention of their leaders. There is the desire for integration, but their effort still isn’t sufficiently turned toward the processes of integration.
What is your view of the state of the dialogue between the [Venezuelan] government and opposition?
In my very personal opinion, the greatest difficulty is with the opposition’s internal dialogue. When there isn’t unity of criteria it’s very difficult to reach agreements with the national government. We’ll see what happens in the opposition. Based on elemental logic, they have to reach agreements with each other first before they can reach agreements with someone else.
The Democratic Unity Table (MUD – opposition coalition) proposes that “students and political prisoners” are freed?
They begin by putting conditions on the dialogue. These are proposals from the most radical sectors [of the opposition]. Well, even this issue can be discussed, but how, if they don’t come to the dialogue talks?
Doesn’t the government need a strong opposition?
The great problem of Venezuelan politics, in the government – opposition dynamic, is that the opposition doesn’t have a national proposal. During President Chavez’s life the proposal was to get rid of Chavez any way possible. What is their position in terms of petroleum royalties? Would they go back to the opening [to foreign companies] without royalties? An opposition without a proposal impoverishes the debate a lot; day to day it’s a permanent diatribe. It’s the old practice of fighting for power for power’s sake, but nothing to do with the transformation of the country. That is their great tragedy.
Various [opposition] spokespeople agree that it’s necessary to stop giving oil away.
What is giving oil away? Who used to give oil away? Them or this government? This government charges royalties of 30%, it charges taxes of 50%, it resolves controversies and has been able to make US $634 billion available [according to government estimates of social spending over the previous decade] to solve social problems. Of every 100 barrels of oil, 30 go to the Venezuelan people…and what we’ve done through Petrocaribe [oil sales at preferential conditions to Caribbean nations], contracts with payment plans, is very different from giving away.
Recently you said that the country’s main problem is economic. Some replied that this is a consequence of corruption, bureaucracy and bad management by the government.
I repeat what I said: The shape of [the government’s] economic policies needs to be better defined.
What do you propose?
Certain strategic definitions need to be made that are not clear. What is the state going to develop? Because the Venezuelan revolution isn’t the Soviet one, where armed workers assault power in the middle of an enormous crisis, and they destroy the old state and create a new one. Nor is it the Cuban revolution, where an armed process assaults power and constructs a new state. Here, [a revolutionary movement] got into government through an election. The state structure is basically the same [as before]. It is difficult for a revolution to successfully advance with a state of these characteristics. It’s going to require a process as long as the development of the communes takes. A new state has to base itself in the power of the people.
Meanwhile, for a long period, the actions of the state are going to be combined with the private sector. There needs to be a definition of this order, the roles that this private sector is going to fulfil, establishing regulations to avoid the formation of monopolies. It has been demonstrated that the state cannot take on all economic activity. What are we going to do with the [state run] steel plant [Sidor]? I’m not proposing that we privatise it, but are we going to keep passing more activities over to the state when its effectiveness is very limited? What are we going to do with a set of activities in which the state has been involving itself and are frankly in a bad way, and we can’t hide this? This isn’t a problem of the revolutionary process, its roots are historic.
The revolution has now been in power for 15 years, isn’t that time enough?
No, it’s not enough, because there’s a state structure that comes from when the petroleum industry appeared, and due to this the state continues having an overwhelming weight in the economy and society. The state has been a distributor of oil income and it continues being this.
This [process] generated a bureaucratic structure and tremendous inefficiency. There is nothing more difficult to change than culture, society’s system of values, whose apex is ethics. When society’s culture changes, there is a revolution.
But are these changes that you propose, in a long period, to be accompanied with the continuity of the government?
Exactly. The guarantee that this [the state and society] can be transformed in the direction of which I speak depends on the government’s handling. What is the situation? As it’s the government that receives the oil income, it’s the government that distributes it all. If you look at how oil income was distributed in the fourth republic [1958 - 1998], you’ll realise how this income largely favoured one minority sector of society. With the Bolivarian revolution more than $630 billion have been destined to resolve social matters. This is a new structure of the distribution of oil income.
After 15 years, do you think that the country is on course?
It’s on a better course, without a doubt. The problem is that because an enormous shift in its direction has occurred, it inevitably confronts enormous internal and external resistance, as with North American declarations. From the times of [former U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice they spoke of how Chavez was a negative influence for the region and that it was necessary to get rid of him, and they did everything possible to get rid of him.
Do you put the recent revocation of American visas for Venezuelan officials, and the case of General Hugo Carvajal [who was recently detained and then released in Dutch Aruba] in this scenario?
Yes, it forms part of this. What was the problem with General Carvajal? He held a very delicate position during times of great turbulence in which there were conspiracies, and paramilitaries were captured who had a plan to take Miraflores presidential palace and kill the president [Chavez]. Of course they [the U.S.] hate Carvajal, they have him marked as with many other leaders of the revolution, and so they set up this stunt [Carvajal’s arrest on drug trafficking charges] which left them looking ridiculous. Happily, the Dutch government acted as it had to act [eventually freeing Carvajal].
The U.S. government assures that the revocation of visas wasn’t retaliation for Carvajal’s release, but rather because of the violation of human rights during the street barricades [Feb – May 2014]?
May they say which human rights have been violated? Who violated them, the government or the street barricaders? Who caused the death of a motorcyclist with a metal wire, and the accidents when they removed manholes from the road? There is a constitution, there are laws and the fundamental job of the government is to make them be respected. Here they [opposition sectors] complain that there isn’t freedom of the press, and they say it with heart-rending cries in all outlets.
There is a rumour that the decision to send you as the ambassador to Cuba and take you out of the national scene was due to certain comments you made to AFP and Prensa Latina that annoyed the government. In them, you called for the overcoming of the mistakes of the 14 April [2013 presidential election] and you warned that Maduro’s verbal attacks strengthened Henrique Capriles.
No, it’s well known that I had serious health problems. This is a decision that was taken even when Hugo Chavez was still alive and it remained liked that. It couldn’t materialise before because I was still committed with UNASUR. In fact the decree (of designation as ambassador to Cuba) was emitted several months ago.
17 months after his death, do you think that the void left by Hugo Chavez inside the revolution has been filled?
Filling the void left by an absolutely exceptional man like President Chavez is very difficult and I don’t think that President Maduro has proposed himself to fill it. An extremely difficult, complex task fell to Maduro, because he wasn’t a consolidated national leader. Without a doubt he has been successful in this very complex task, and I think that he’s now adapted himself. The country recognises him as the president and the III PSUV congress recognised him as its leader, and this is going to mean a new step in the consolidation of his leadership. I think that up to now he has done well to take the required steps. Of course there are aspects that need to be better defined, like in the case of economic policy, the role of the state, and what the private sector is going to do. Because doubts about this order need to be cleared up and this isn’t about class consolidation, as one would say in the old language, but about realities in the country’s economy. If these realities aren’t taken into account, problems will arise.
Do you have a good relationship with Nicolas Maduro?
Very good. I have a lot of affection for him because I’ve known him for many years.
And with the president of the National Assmbly, Diosdado Cabello?
Also a good relationship. I’ve had less contact with Diosdado than with Nicolas.
Translated by Ewan Robertson for Venezuelanalysis.com