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A Conversation with Rodrigo Diamanti on Venezuela’s Freedom Crisis
Recent events in Venezuela sent a shockwave through the Americas. The country’s Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled national legislature of its powers and placed them in the hands of Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro is the heir to strongman Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s late president and self-proclaimed leader of South America’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”
To learn more about the situation, the Bush Institute talked with Venezuelan freedom advocate Rodrigo Diamanti. He’s currently studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is the Founder of Un Mundo Sin Mordaza (A World Without Censorship).
Generally, what is the political and economic situation in Venezuela today?
Our capital city Caracas has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Then you have problems with the availability of medicine and shortages of electricity and food, everything that you need to survive is under threat in Venezuela.
This is not only making Venezuelans desperate for solutions, it’s also placing more stress on the [authoritarian] government to control the population. Remember that the government has not allowed us to have our last two elections, last year’s presidential referendum, and also elections for governors and municipalities. Not allowing these two mechanisms for people to express themselves is creating a “time bomb” in Venezuela.
Is democracy under threat in Venezuela?
In our terms, we don’t have a democracy anymore. What happened [with the Supreme Court ruling] can only happen if you don’t have a democracy. So our democracy, or what’s left of our democratic institutions, every day is being destroyed because the government has been very effective moving toward an authoritarian system little-by-little, day-by-day.
In our terms, we don’t have a democracy anymore. What happened [with the Supreme Court ruling] can only happen if you don’t have a democracy.
They can’t survive these days by declaring themselves a dictatorship. So they have to pretend they’re not. Why? One reason is to maintain international agreements in order to get international funds to finance the [Bolivarian] Revolution. That’s the only way they can fund the Revolution because of the [low] price of oil. This never happened five-to-ten years ago when the price of oil was $100.
They didn’t need as much international support. Right now, they are dependent on international cooperation and funds to survive. Most of what we consume is from the outside. Basically the only thing we produce in Venezuela is oil. No one can survive eating and drinking oil, so we have to import the rest from the outside and that’s why they maintain the façade of democracy.
What was the recent Supreme Court ruling in Venezuela and why is it significant?
The Supreme Court’s ruling eliminated the National Assembly’s powers and transferred them to the executive branch and some of them to the Supreme Court.
Why did this happen? Well, go back to the concept of getting funds from international agreements, from countries like Russia and China. These type of agreements need to go through the National Assembly, and because [the opposition] has been stopping these agreements [which amount to loans] from other countries, the government was desperate for money to maintain the Revolution. The only way they could access these funds was by eliminating the National Assembly. It was a desperate measure by the government for cash.
The next day, international media called it a coup d’état. Then the government tried to backpedal and said, “Well, we made a mistake and this is not going to happen.”
They’re trying to eliminate that criticism. The thing is this crime already happened. They can’t just say they made a mistake.
Now people are protesting in the streets because they gave us another opportunity to express to the world that we’re not living in a democracy. The best way to solve this crisis is to call for general elections. It’s the best way to diffuse the crisis and get resolution by democratic means.
Some in the government criticized this ruling. Why?
Venezuela’s Attorney General [Luisa Ortega Diaz] opposed what was happening. This person had been in charge of a lot of activists’ detentions, even me. I was persecuted and imprisoned by them. But I think she perceived this commitment to the “Revolution” as going too far. Every time the dictatorship radicalizes there will be people [inside the government] who will say, “I’m not supporting this, it’s too much.”
There have also been others in Venezuela who have been punished internationally for human rights abuses. There are examples of sanctions from the United States related to corruption and narco-trafficking. Government officials are finally seeing the cost of being in and supporting the dictatorship.
That’s why I think the Attorney General stepped back. She knows it’s going to be impossible for her to defend this position. So that’s good. We want people in the government to wake up and consider their position. The sooner they stop doing what they’re doing, the better it’s going to be for them.
We want people in the government to wake up and consider their position.
Why should Americans be concerned about freedom in Venezuela?
Some months ago, it was discovered that the Venezuelan Embassy in Iraq was [allegedly] issuing Venezuelan passports to non-citizens. We don’t know their interests, but they weren’t Venezuelans and we were paying for their passports.
The government clearly didn’t want this information revealed as they closed CNN in Venezuela after breaking the story. Now people can’t access CNN anymore.
The point is, when you have a failed state like Venezuela, they’re always going to be related to criminal activity like this, narco-trafficking, and even acts of terrorism. They help other terrible regimes, ones that pose threats to the American people, in order to gain allies.
How should the new administration in Washington respond to events in Venezuela?
They have to maintain sanctions. They have to continue investigating officials related to narco-trafficking, corruption, and human rights violations. They need to continue placing sanctions on them, not letting them travel to the United States, but also to countries around the world. It’s the best way to let them know that they have to stop.
There is no way they will hide in the future if they continue. This policy has been applied successfully under the Obama administration. Now with a new president, it needs to continue and move forward. The United States should also encourage other countries to apply similar pressure.
Christopher Walsh serves as Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.Full Bio
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