The following is the first part of a three-part interview conducted by Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Ramonet has previously worked with Le Monde Diplomatique and Liberation and is an author of over a dozen works including a spoken biography of Fidel Castro.
The interview was published on Ramonet’s facebook page on January 1, 2019, and comes only days before Maduro is due to start his second constitutional term as president on January 10, which many regional right-wing governments have claimed is illegitimate. It also comes in a context of ongoing inflation, increased international pressure and sanctions against Venezuela, a solidification of the political hegemony of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) after winning five elections in the past 18 months, the implosion of the right-wing opposition alliance, a series of government-led economic reforms, and a recent attempt to assassinate the President with drone-laden explosives.
Ramonet, who has known Maduro for more than ten years, personally testifies to “the profound affection and confidence that Chávez had in him.”
Due to its length, VA will publish it in three parts, the first of which addresses political issues, the second economic affairs, and the last part looking at the international picture.
IR- Before we sit down in his office to do this interview in Miraflores Palace, Caracas, President Maduro invited me to join him in a public ceremony to hand over social housing units. Apartment number 2.5 million is about to be delivered… The buildings, erected in collaboration with a Chinese company, are located close to the El Valle neighbourhood, a middle class area, and precisely where Maduro was born and raised.
The small population here receive Maduro with a loud show of joy and affection. Maduro is wearing a white Guayabera shirt with the Venezuelan colours on the collar. Naturally elegant and with an imposing stature, – he is over 1,90m tall – Maduro is a calm, affable, serene person, gifted with a fine sense of humour.
In his short speech he denounces the “indolence” of many of his own collaborators in the government or in local institutions. The locals enthusiastically cheer these criticisms. And they shout their lungs out when the president rails against corruption and pledges to punish it “regardless of who falls.”
He alternates pleasant comments, almost personal, with some of the families (among them a young couple with hearing disabilities and their baby) who receive keys to their new apartments, with deep reflections on economic policy or international relations. A bit how Hugo Chávez used to do it. He oscillates from the personal to the collective, from the concrete to the general, from praxis to theory. Always giving a pedagogical impression of lightness so as not to overwhelm anyone.
The next day, December 27, we met in his working office in the government palace. In the very same room where, almost six years ago to the date, Chávez appointed Maduro as his successor. We greet and, as the team finish preparing the set, we take a stroll in the yard and the beautiful indoor gardens of Miraflores, decorated for the holidays.
Today, the President is wearing an elegant intense blue shirt. Although this is an interview for written press, some photos of our meeting will be shot and some of the answers will be recorded on video. As usual with him, he brought a bunch of books that he places on the table between us. Everything is ready. Therefore, without further ado, we get started.
IR: Good afternoon, President. Thank you for receiving us. In this interview we will essentially address three issues: politics, economics and international affairs.
Let's start with politics: perhaps the main political event of 2018 was your re-election in the elections of May 20, with more than six million votes and more than 40 percent of difference with respect to the main opposition candidate, Henri Falcon.
How do you explain, given the difficult context for citizens created by the economic war and the financial sanctions imposed by Washington, that voters gave you their massive support for the second time?
Nicolás Maduro: Indeed, the people of Venezuela gave their greater support to the Bolivarian revolution, to Chavismo, to my candidacy - which is a real political and social force on the streets, in neighbourhoods, in the countryside, in the cities and in the villages - with humility. In percentage terms, it was the greatest support that any candidate has ever received in a presidential election in Venezuela.
We had already started noticing that after the victory for peace with the constituent election of July 2017 our forces had undergone a sustained recovery, a strengthening of revolutionary unity. [In May] we received the support of all the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) parties and plenty of social movements. We have also seen an organized growth of our United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which is the political party with the greatest number of members in Latin America.
This good result is also explained, I must say, by the maturity and wisdom shown by our people in the midst of the most brutal aggression that we have suffered since our wars of independence. Our people have grown, have grown in awareness, in organized strength, in patriotism, and in spite of the psychological warfare and the illegal and illegitimate economic war perpetrated by the American empire along with its satellite governments of this continent and Europe, which look and subdue us. The result of this hostility has been the resilience shown by citizens in their determination to remain free, independent and sovereign.
Another fundamental, decisive factor, Ramonet, is that the Bolivarian revolution has, in the midst of difficulties and economic and financial harassment, managed to meet the needs of Venezuelan society. Not a single school or university has been closed here. On the contrary, the number of students in public education has increased. Here we continue to have free healthcare for everyone. We have protected, with much strength and determination, wages and employment for all. And approximately every three weeks we make sure that staple food products get to about six million households in Venezuela, the now famous "CLAP boxes," we deliver them directly to their homes.
On the walls of Caracas one may see some murals or grafitti which maybe sum up what I want to say: "I vote for who increases my wage, not for who makes products more expensive." Perhaps that explains why the Bolivarian revolution is now more robust, alive and amalgamated in a single constructive effort than ever.
IR: Within a few days, January 10, your new presidential term of six years starts. Some governments that did not recognize the results of the presidential election of May 20 have threatened to not recognise you as the constitutional President of Venezuela. What is your response to them?
NM: Well, first of all, that Venezuela is a country that has forged, throughout history, its own identity, its Republican character, its independence. Also, that Venezuela is ruled by a Constitution which is the most democratic that has existed in our history, approved by our people nineteen years ago by referendum, and this Constitution has been respected flawlessly during the nineteen years.
In 2018, we had two fully transparent electoral contests, governed by the country's electoral institutions. I must remind everyone that the Electoral Power in Venezuela is an [independent] public power, the fifth public power. This power used all of its logistics, its electronic [voting] system with the highest level of transparency. Recognized by international personalities of unquestionable prestige like [former President of the United States] Jimmy Carter who said at the time that "the Venezuelan electoral system is the most transparent and clean in the world; the most perfect."
The presidential election of May 20 2018 was held with the accompaniment of national and international observers, and our people made a decision. Venezuela’s decisions are not taken by foreign governments. We are not an intervened country, advised by any empire. Not by the empire of the North, its satellites in Latin America and the Caribbean, nor Europe. In Venezuela, the people rule and govern sovereignly. The people made a very clear and very forceful decision: for the first time we won 68 percent of the vote... as you pointed out: four million votes more than the main opposition candidate.
So: the people decided. And we are going to comply with the decision of the people. There is no way that any government can have a say, from abroad, on the correctness of recognizing or failing to recognise the constitutional and democratic legitimacy of the government which I will preside over as of January 10 2019 until January 10 2025. I have a plan, a project, experience, the strength. I have the people, with the military-civil union, and above all, [I have] the constitutional legitimacy which is the most important.
Let me repeat myself: the pressures and attacks of the North American empire and its satellite governments mean nothing compared to the voice of our people. Our democracy has a real strength that has been expressed in the 25 elections over the last 20 years... This means that in twenty years of Bolivarian Revolution, there has been almost three times the amount of elections carried out during the same period, for example, in the United States...
In the election campaign of April and May 2018, which lasted 21 days, I visited the 23 States of Venezuela several times. And I asked the people that filled the streets and avenues: "Who elects the President in Venezuela? Washington or Caracas? Miami or Maracaibo?" And the vigorous response of all the people, including those that vote for the opposition, is that we have the inalienable right to choose our rulers. Nothing and nobody is going to change that basic and sacred right.
For those who don't like this we say that Venezuela has a long tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. The Bolivarian Revolution has shown solidarity with all the countries of our continent and the world when they so required it due to natural disasters or other incidents. The least we can demand is that this is reciprocated, that others respect that we are sovereign and independent.
IR: Although you have not ceased to appeal to democratic dialogue, the most important opposition group - gathered in the so-called Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) - decided not to participate in the elections of May 20. The result is that the MUD is now fragmented, divided and, in fact, self-dissolved. What do think about you this opposition?
NM: I have invited the Venezuelan opposition to participate in a political dialogue on more than 300 occasions... And this doesn't even include the ongoing dialogue that my government maintains with the private sector and society in general. This dialogue has not sought to convince anyone to take on our model, we understand that we have very different ways of looking at life, that we [all] have different proposals to meet the challenges of our society. Our efforts have always consisted of strengthening the peaceful political coexistence of political forces in Venezuela.
But all those efforts of dialogue have been boycotted by the US Embassy in Venezuela. At some point the details of the house to house visits that the Chargé d'affaires of the US Embassy made to each of the opposition candidates to force them not to take part in the presidential election of 20 May will come to light. He managed to convince almost all of them, with two exceptions [Henry Falcón and Javier Bertucci] who participated and got the vote they got.
You don't know how happy I would be if we could count on an opposition in Venezuela that stayed attached to politics, which moved away from conspiracies and coup adventures, which defended a voice of their own. And not the authoritative voice of the US Embassy.
IR: Within the framework of the Bolivarian Revolution, what is the political space available to the opposition? In other words: will the Revolution accept an opposition which wins a presidential election?
NM: The opposition in Venezuela has all of the guarantees that the Constitution provides for the free exercise of politics. What more, of the twenty-five elections which have occurred in Venezuela in 20 years, we have won twenty-three, that is true, but we have lost two: the 2007 constitutional reform and the legislative elections of 2015. When we lost, we immediately recognized our defeat, minutes after the Electoral Council issued the results. Chavez in 2007 and myself in 2015 recognized the outcomes and called on the people to respect them in peace.
I presented my message to the nation, in January 2016, before the National Assembly's opposition majority, headed by the leader of the opposition Henry Ramos Allup. And what was the response of the right, which had become vain by its electoral victory? To say that they would take power in six months, in violation of the Constitution and the electoral mandate given by the people.
The consequences of their actions are that now we have a fragmented opposition, divided, hating their leaders among them, and very diminished in its political strength. I want to say that we have always recognized all the election results, when we have won and when we have lost. The opposition has exercised regional and local power in the election of governors and mayors that has been favourable for them with the same electronic electoral system which Venezuela has had since 2004.
The problem is that they recognize only electoral results when they win... They did not recognize the outcome of the recall referendum of 2004, which Chavez won by 20 points. Nor that of the presidential election of 2006, which Chavez took by 23 points, nor my 2014 victory, nor May 2018.
IR: On various occasions you have described some opposition forces as looking for a “coup.” This past August 4 you were the victim of a spectacular assassination attempt with explosives-laden drones. What can you say with regard to this attack?
NM: Indeed, on August 4, 2018, we lived what I never thought could happen: a terrorist attack with the use of advanced technology to kill me. And rather than kill myself as a human being, it was looking to end the Presidency of the Republic and put an end to the powers of the State. It was a truly terrible attack. Thanks to the technological security mechanisms that we have, we managed to partially neutralize the attack.
They used drones. A drone flew above the stage where I was, and was flown in front of me when I was making the keynote speech. Later it came closer but was neutralized by our technology. If it had exploded where the criminals wanted it to, it would had caused lots of blood, pain and death.
And there was a second drone that, fortunately, was disoriented by the same protective technology we possess. And it exploded... It was the most powerful drone because it carried a load of C-4, a plastic military-grade explosive. That drone exploded against an apartment building very close to the main stage. It made a huge hole in the outside wall of the building, and set fire to an apartment. The mission of this drone was to finish off, from above, the work of the first drone once this one had destroyed the main stage from the front.
We were able to - along with the Venezuelan people, the security and intelligence forces, and alongside the police - immediately apprehend the perpetrators. And then we started to capture the other perpetrators, those who organised it, and we were able to establish the identity of the masterminds of the attack.
The attack was ordered by [Colombian ex-] President Juan Manuel Santos, whose mandate ended curiously three days after the terrorist attack, on August 7, from Bogota... With the direct participation of former [Venezuelan First Justice] Deputy Julio Borges, leader of the Venezuelan opposition. The entire attack was prepared in Colombia. All direct drone operators were trained in Colombia. The drones and their explosives were prepared in Colombia under the direction of the government of then President Juan Manuel Santos.
The White House in Washington also had knowledge of it. I have no doubt. Behind that attack, there was a “yes,” an "okay" from the White House. We already know that John Bolton, current President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, is leading plans to kill me. I've reported it. Bolton had knowledge of the attack. And he gave his "ok" to run it. Washington and Bogota maintain a permanent policy of terrorism against us.
Why accuse me of being a "dictator"? When they label a progressive leader a "dictator" and build such a beastly global campaign against them... and all right and the extreme right forces in the world take up the accusation of "dictator" against Maduro, a union leader, a man of the people, forged in the struggles of the Caracas barrios, in the struggles of the student movement, in the struggles of the Constituent Assembly, in parliamentary debates, forged on the diplomatic front... When they accuse someone like me of being a "dictator" and term Venezuela a "dictatorship," it is to be able to justify anything against our country. There is a permanent conspiracy of the Colombian oligarchy and the U.S. empire against the Bolivarian Revolution.
I say that God saved me from this attack. He placed his protective cloak over me. The Virgin of la Chinita, very miraculous, patron saint of the Bolivarian National Guard, also saved me. Anyway, here we are, very committed, willing to go on. Obviously with special security measures so that the criminal purposes of those people are never carried out.
IR: Repeatedly, both Chávez and you have spoken of the need for a democratic opposition that abandons the coup strategy and their subordination to any foreign power. Do you consider that in 2018, there has there been any progress on that regard?
NM: In Venezuela, the opposition, the opposition bloc, the MUD, unfortunately has been falling apart, disintegrating. And I am convinced that the main cause of this collapse is its dependence on the policies of Washington and Bogota. It is not a national opposition, it has no policy based on national interests, an ideology or a national doctrine. It is an opposition supported, maintained, and directed - as if they were remote-controlled drones - from Washington and Bogota. And that has made them disintegrate, because they don't think with own heads, they are unable to make decisions.
Just look at the sad spectacle they gave in the last process of national dialogue, when the registration of candidates for the presidential elections of May 20, 2018 was raised. They only attended to the call of the international forces of American imperialism and the right. That was regrettable. Because Venezuela needs a political opposition. I have called them to come and dialogue hundreds of times.
And I am firm on this: every sector of the opposition which wants to talk will find me with my arms open, with an open mind, ready to discuss the future of the country.
I deeply believe that, sooner rather than later, in Venezuela a diverse political dialogue with all the ideological forces of the opposition will be set up. I have faith in that. And I will work to achieve that goal, so that, in Venezuela, in 2019, there is a fruitful political dialogue that would rebuild a real opposition that our country needs to have peace, to have peace of mind, as well as to have a diverse democracy which is what we need.
IR: Several opposition leaders have launched an international smear campaign against your government accusing it of holding "political prisoners." How do you assess these serious criticisms?
NM: Look, there are people who, being accused of committing a crime such as, for example, being involved in coups or attempted military coups, or even assassination attempts like that last August 4 that we just spoke about, must be held to justice. Whether they are political or not. One must not confuse a politician in prison with a political prisoner. This is so in Venezuela and in any country in the world.
Imagine for a moment that a political actor - a deputy, a mayor, a councillor, a former minister - attempts to assassinate the President of France, or launches a coup d'état against the President of Spain, what would be the legal response that they would receive from the courts of these nations? Well, in Venezuela, there is a rule of law which must be respected by all.
Also, as a result of dialogue with the opposition in 2017, a Truth Commission appointed by the National Constituent Assembly granted generous commutations of sentences and benefits for almost all of the accused who had acted against the Constitution and the law, since the coup of 2002 until the violent actions - the "guarimbas" - of 2014 and 2017, with the exception of those who had committed serious offences, such as murder or drug trafficking.
IR: There are currently two legislative assemblies in Venezuela. On the one hand, the National Assembly that emerged from elections in 2015 and is dominated by the opposition but that the Supreme Court has declared "in contempt." On the other hand, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) that emerged from the elections of July 30, 2017, and is dominated by the ruling party but which several international powers do not recognise. How do you think that this situation can be resolved?
NM: Really, they are two figures of popular representation clearly laid down in the Constitution and with specific functions which are also contained in the constitutional text.
On the one hand, the legislative power, which flagrantly disregarded a ruling of the highest court of the Republic, forcing this Court to take an action of constitutional protection. This action by the Supreme Court will be overcome straight away once the National Assembly takes corrective measures and follows the decision of the Supreme Court.
On the other hand, in response to the power of initiative that the Constitution gives me in its article 348, I convened the election of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) by popular vote, in a context in which the right had plunged sectors of the country in a serious, murderous violence with more than 130 dead, people burned alive due to their skin color, children who were induced to act with violence under the influence of drugs... In summary, a very unfortunate and painful situation. So as it turns out, the election of the ANC was wise and had a curing effect. It brought peace to the country.
In identical circumstances, I would do it again. I can assure you. And the ANC is now complying with the constitutional function set which is to transform the State, create a new legal system and write a new Constitution.
Translation by Ricardo Vaz and Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.com