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Opposing Populism and Nativism in Venezuela – At a Cost

Venezuelan dissident Rodrigo Diamanti explains the importance of protecting a free press from the reach of authoritarians; the way in which a populist dictator came to power in his home country; and how nativism, isolationism, populism, and protectionism are the symptoms of a disease that can destroy a democracy if left unchecked.

Interview with Rodrigo Diamanti July 21, 2020 //   15 minute read

Rodrigo Diamanti was forced into exile in 2014 from his home country of Venezuela after leading protests against the governments of dictator Hugo Chavez, who served as Venezuela’s president from 1999-2013, and Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro. Diamanti founded Un Mundo Sin Mordaza (A World Without Censorship) to protest the Chavez government’s encompassing crackdown on democratic institutions. He now is a Freedom Fellow with the Human Rights Foundation.

In this interview with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, Chris Walsh, senior program manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the Bush Institute, explains the importance of protecting a free press from the reach of authoritarians; the way in which a populist dictator came to power; and how nativism, isolationism, populism, and protectionism are the symptoms of a disease that can destroy a democracy if left unchecked. He also describes in an accompanying video his arrest and imprisonment in Venezuela for standing up for democratic freedoms.

Our country obviously has struggled with racism since its founding. How does the current manifestation of racial strife look to people outside of the United States? Does it have any effect on people's views of democracy, for better or for worse?

First, I really support the message expressed by President Bush regarding the situation. And I appreciate your acknowledgement that the United States has long wrestled with this issue.

From the outside, it doesn’t look basically different from the racial problems that we have in other countries. In Venezuela, the issue is more about social class than race. People with darker skin are more often poor than people who have white skin.

But the color of your skin doesn’t matter if you lack access to people who influence the rule of law in Venezuela. And that is more likely to arise because of your social class. Of course, we still have racism against indigenous or black communities throughout South America. We still deal with that problem even though we are more mixed race than in the United States.

What’s important is how you address the problem. The response of the authorities to George Floyd’s terrible death is what we are perhaps more disappointed with, not the response of the larger society. The massive mobilization of people across races, talking about the kind of society they want, is good. It shows people can’t be killed or mistreated because of the color of their skin. People, including former presidents, are trying to resolve this issue, not deny it.

The response of the authorities to George Floyd’s terrible death is what we are perhaps more disappointed with, not the response of the larger society. The massive mobilization of people across races, talking about the kind of society they want, is good. It shows people can’t be killed or mistreated because of the color of their skin.

Let's focus more on Venezuela. You've witnessed its transition from one of South America’s wealthiest democracies to a dictatorship where even basic goods are unobtainable. How did this happen? And what can other democracies learn from Venezuela's experience?

That’s easy to explain. It started with [former Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez’s attacks on freedom of the press. He decided to close the oldest and biggest national TV channel in 2007. That scared the rest of the media: radio stations, newspapers, and other TV channels. They knew that they could be closed if they continued to inform the population of what was happening and if they continued to interview opposition leaders or human rights activists.

By controlling freedom of the press and freedom of information, Chavez and his government could continue doing other changes: destroying the judicial system, imprisoning political opponents, and even torturing people. Without information going to citizens, they could move forward with that agenda.

That’s why we, with our organization Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, prioritize freedom of the press. All human rights matter, but a free press is the one human right that defends the other human rights.

We now have an interim president, Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by almost 60 countries around the world. But any TV channel left in the country isn't allowed to interview him. It's like he doesn't exist. By controlling the media, they can create a parallel reality. That is why we have to be careful to defend all journalists. [Editor’s Note: Venezuela remains under the control of the disputed presidency of Nicolas Maduro.]

They can create this parallel reality, since they control the media. So we have to be very careful to defend all the journalists and freedom of press. It's the main aspect that will defend our democracy.

By closing or forcing out the media, which they just did by restricting DirecTV and threatening to put their directors in prison, they cut the whole nation off from a free flow of information. They are not only transforming Venezuela into the next Cuba, they are transforming it into the next North Korea. People are isolated. They not only don’t know what is happening in Venezuela, they don’t know what is happening in the rest of the world. That’s how you control a society.

The most important factor to defend in a democracy is freedom of the press. Once you lose that, you start to lose all the rest of the elements of what makes a democracy.

The most important factor to defend in a democracy is freedom of press. Once you lose that, you start to lose all the rest of the elements of what makes a democracy.

Looking more generally, how do you see populism, nativism, isolationism, and protectionism affecting democracies around the world today? Does it give you alarm? Or are people just expressing their frustrations with international institutions, global trade, or the flow of capital and people across borders?

Those are symptoms of the disease that can destroy a democracy at some point. Chavez, for example, used populism to destroy Venezuela. He won a lot of elections at the beginning. People underestimated the importance of respecting the whole system and not just helping one part of the population. When people are in despair, they don’t notice changes in the larger system. Outsiders can then arrive and promise huge changes in a short period. They don’t fulfill the promise, but they will control more of society.

It’s important to give people information about this danger, but also give them the results they want. If they don't see changes in their countries, we will always deal with leaders trying to use populism to enact changes that are to the detriment of democracy.

Our people are poor and are tired of being poor and lacking access to justice. They will vote for a crazy person who promises them something, even though it risks the whole system. They are tired of the system. We need to understand their frustration if we want to reduce the populism that can affect our democracies.

Let’s dig more into blame. When you think about the rise of populism in Venezuela or elsewhere, did elites in business, politics, the media, or education fail to see the discontent rising in the population, that ordinary people saw their lives getting worse, not better? Do you place any blame on elites for failing to stop the rise of populism in Venezuela?

We made a lot of mistakes in the past. If we hadn’t made those, we would not have the worst humanitarian crisis on the continent or the worst migration crisis in the continent’s history.

Venezuela is no different than the rest of Latin American countries in terms of inequality. But the difference is that Venezuela is a rich state. It has money from the oil industry. The president and those with executive power do not need the whole of society to survive, even though people pay taxes. When a president doesn't fear society, and thinks he can survive without the people, something like Venezuela results.

The political elite did not understand the suffering of the people. They were disconnected, which is why the people voted for someone who pulled off a coup d'état and killed at least 100 people. People undervalued life and democracy, so they wanted a change. People were tired of corruption and problems.

This happened also because Chavez had all the power of the state. Even a charismatic leader cannot destroy a democracy without that kind of power.

Thinking about the connection between national identity and democracy, is a strong sense of national identity helpful to building a democracy or harmful?

In my opinion there is a trend in Venezuela. We have developed more national identity since we started this fight for our country. It's like you take your country and your democracy for granted. And maybe we're not even that aware of the importance of Venezuela as a nation.

When we started to see that we were going to lose our country and our democracy, that’s when we started to use the national flag every day. That was not normal in Venezuela. Because our democracy was threatened by the regime, we went back to the origins of what it means to be a Venezuelan. That feeling gives you the love and passion to fight for your country, or even risk your life. I have risked my life many ties in protest, and you can be killed in the process, but you do it because of your love for your nation.

It doesn’t make any sense to think your nation is better than other nations. That’s when you have a problem. We have to celebrate other nations and nationalities. But, of course, we have to be proud of our own nationality and keep it alive for the future.

Nationalism is important because it gives you energy to give back to your nation everything it has given you. But you should never think that you are better than other nations.

Nationalism is important because it gives you energy to give back to your nation everything it has given you. But you should never think that you are better than other nations.

What is the importance of regional institutions like the Organization of American States (OAS)? What role should they play as democracies face challenges from nativism, isolationism, and protectionism?

When we started this fight for democracy, we didn’t have strong institutions in our country. So, we asked for help from the outside. We reached out to the United Nations, but also to the Organization of American States. But the OAS and its secretary general at the time didn’t support us when the regime committed their first voter fraud. They didn’t ask for another election. We felt alone and couldn’t do anything about it.

Now, though, the OAS has a secretary general who is doing his best to restore democracy in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The OAS launched an investigation into crimes against humanity in Venezuela. As a result, the case has been referred to the International Criminal Court, where a preliminary investigation is being conducted.

You can’t defend your country alone. It’s like you are dealing with kidnappers who have taken citizens hostage. You need external police to help you. We continue to protest for free elections, but this regime sometimes cares more about its perception outside of Venezuela than inside it. That is why it is important that these institutions support us, including the Red Cross. And so are the United States, Canada, France, and almost every European and Latin American nation. That helps you continue the fight, so dictators can’t win.

You can’t defend your country alone. It’s like you are dealing with kidnappers who have taken citizens hostage. You need external police to help you.

It was interesting when you said you had completely different outcomes at the OAS under different leadership. Could you comment on the difference between when democracies like the United States and its allies lead international organizations versus when more authoritarian countries like China steer these organizations. What does that mean for democracies like Venezuela that have been backsliding or young democracies that are trying to strengthen themselves?

Every country is trying to create an international system that adapts better to them. We want a UN, an OAS, a World Health Organization to support democratic values. Countries like China and Russia, who don’t believe in democracy and who are not free, don't want the UN to put human rights above everything else. They don't want an impartial system that can bring justice everywhere. We have to be careful that nations that do not believe in democracy will not corrupt these international institutions and the values that guided their creation.

Cuba is another example. It is a very poor country that is trying to gain a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council. That is ironic. The country is not yet free or democratic. But as a non-aligned nation, it and other non-aligned states are trying to change the framework of human rights and diminish respect for human dignity, justice, and democracy.

We need to be aware of this so that we can win this fight for control of the international system so that it defends human rights and democracy.