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      What is Really Happening in Venezuela?
      Public Forum, October 22, 2018
      Excerpts of Alan Freeman's Talk

      From October 21-22, 2018 the “What is Really Happening in Venezuela?” speaking tour took place in British Columbia, Canada, organized by the Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. A total of three dynamic events were held: at the Vancouver Public Library, Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, and Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo - bringing the truth about Venezuela to hundreds of workers, students and activists who would not have otherwise heard about what is happening on the ground due to mass media lies and distortions.

      During the BC tour, Alan Freeman joined Professor Steve Ellner as a featured speaker. Alan Freeman is a Marxist scholar and a founding member of Winnipeg Venezuela Peace Committee (https://nosanctions.org).

      The following are excerpts from the talk given by Alan Freeman at the Vancouver Island University event which was co-hosted by Friends of Venezuela in Nanaimo and the Vancouver Island University Faculty Association International Solidarity and Human Rights Committee, and chaired by Professor Imogene Lim.

      This speaking tour was part of a larger tour coordinated between the U.S. and Canada by the Campaign to End U.S. & Canada Sanctions on Venezuela. For more information about the Campaign visit:https://afgj.org/focusareas/venezuela-solidarity-campaign/campaign-to-end-us-and-canadasanctions-against-venezuela

      To follow the FTT Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’s ongoing actions, which will include other speaking tours, please visit www.firethistime.net or follow on Facebook and Twitter @FTT_np.

      Alan Freeman's talk:
      I am going to start with a picture. Everybody knows, if they have been following CNN, and CBC, and so-on that Venezuela is now going through a military dictatorship, the people are starving, they are all leaving for Colombia. I thought it would be useful to give you a picture of a military dictatorship so that you all know what it looks like. This was when I and Radhika Desai, my partner in crime in the Geopolitical Economy Research Group visited the military academy in Venezuela. You can actually see from some of the pictures there; these are young people who are in the army. They are going through training in the military academy. Everybody goes into the army at the age of 18; these are young working-class people off the streets. So, it is not an army of the type that one associate with the word “military dictatorship,” in connection with, let’s say Colombia, which is a U.S.-trained army, or Brazil which is a U.S.-trained army, or Chile which an aristocratic, basically caste, army that is antagonistic to the people. One of the things is that the history of Venezuela, it goes a long time back in the past, has involved an interaction between the army, the people and the government which is complex and needs to be understood and is very specific. That’s the first point I want to make.

      The second is the critical event which starts the process that led to first Hugo Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, being the Presidents of Venezuela and all the turmoil that there has been, right up to the present day. And that is an event called the Caracazo. The Caracazo is named after the city, Caracas. It was an event in which people took to the streets in the early 1990s because they felt betrayed by a President who had promised to give them social advance. Who, instead of doing so, turned around after his election and stated ‘I am now going to implement the policies which were suggested by the International Monetary Fund.’ ‘I am going to privatize Venezuela’s resources; I am going to cut social spending, I am going to take away pension rights, health rights, education rights.

      This was in a country which is already extremely unequal and extremely divided. This provoked huge anger, and people turned out in the streets to protest. They were shot, 3,000 people died. You will have heard about, from the opposition of Venezuela in the pages of the press, how many people have died in recent disturbances involving the government. I think that it is 236, of whom, actually nearly half, from the government’s side. There have been clashes, and they have been very ugly, and they have been very important. But, to get a perspective you need to situate that against the Caracazo and the previous violence against poor people in Venezuela. You need to understand that the confrontation was engineered by the opposition in such a way that violence was on the agenda from the beginning, by the way, that the protests were organized. I am going to come back to that, to get a feel of the context for what that was about.

      The basic reason is Venezuela’s mineral wealth. It was until Saudi Arabia underwent the growth that took place after the Yom Kippur War and the OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] and then the re-opening of oil production, it was the greatest oil producer in the world, greater than Saudi Arabia. It has the second-greatest reserves of gold; it has reserves of Aluminum, Iron, it is a big steel producer, it has rare-earth. It is a great resource of mineral wealth.

      One of the problems with mineral wealth is that you can earn very very high profits when prices go up. You have a class in Venezuela that is basically what I would call a rentier class. It lives off mineral rents.

      So, you have an organized working class which is accustomed to striking with the intention of having a political impact. There is a constant involvement of the working class directly with politics. The character which you do find, you find that in Bolivia, you find that in Argentine to some extent, but it is very characteristic of Venezuela.

      The third thing that you have got is that it is the most urbanized country in Latin America. There is a mass of very poor people who have no employment, who are completely marginalized and completely excluded.

      Chavez stood for office, and to everybody’s horror, he stood and won, overwhelmingly by a landslide in a democratic election. He immediately set about a process of changing the Constitution of Venezuela, and that Constitutional reform, a reform I think it was 1998, is critical to understand everything that followed. It produced a tiny, slim book which you can get, called the “blue book.”

      It went like this, first there was a referendum on calling a Constituent Assembly. Now, a Constituent Assembly is a body in which you elect people, not necessarily by geographical area, but by representative classes. So, there are people that represent professionals, people who represent sectors of society. I was hoping to inform myself of the exact process of the election, I didn’t have time, but it is meant to be representative of the different sectors. The point is it was a very democratic process: a referendum on whether to have a Constituent Assembly, Constituent Assembly producing the new Constitution and then referendum on the Constitution. Hyper-democratic process.

      What then happened though, is Chavez embarked on a program of very large social spending, essentially using oil revenues. So that they took the revenues that came from the mineral wealth and said ‘we are going to use that to try and resolve some of the problems of the very poor.’ The important thing about that is probably the first time in Venezuelan history that there was an attempt to involve and include materially the marginalized sections of Venezuelan society, not just the working class. Who, actually regarding Venezuelan society, in a certain sense are a bit privileged because actually having a job conveys quite a lot of material wealth around you, with the system that the neoliberals tried to unwind which was one of the causes of the lack of popularity, called Prestaciones Sociales. At the end of each year of your work, when you leave work, you are entitled to get a one-month salary at the level of your salary as it is in the last year of your work.

      The social housing and education programs were directed at people who did not even have that level of security. I should add, much more represented in those marginal classes are people of aboriginal origin, people of African-Caribbean origin. The class divisions are also very highly racialized in Venezuela. What we have is something that is overwhelming privileges for the first time, and beings into Venezuelan society people of colour, Black people, aboriginal people, and poor people in general.

      The second thing that happened at the same time, and this is important to understanding how things subsequently evolved, is the formation of an organization called ALBA. This is actually, I discovered by talking to colleagues something that changed its name but its Alianza Bolivariana de America, but its the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. It is an attempt to bring together Latin American states by forging a Latin American program of development. One of Chavez’ great skills was being able to go to governments of Latin American states, who were sometimes quite hostile. At that time, for example, Brazil had a very right-wing government, but he nevertheless went and discussed with the capitalist classes of Brazil, he was very persuasive with the government o,f Brazil and said ‘you should be part of an association dedicated to Latin American advancement.’

      Now, that brings us on to the role of the USA. Because two things happened. The opposition in Venezuela beings to change its character. What an opposition would normally do in a liberal democracy? If it is not voted in, it goes along to the Parliament, and it puts forward its alternative. It attempts to get things voted through Parliament if it doesn’t succeed it goes to the people. It stands in the next election, and it hopes to win the majority of the vote because its policies are the best. There have been, I think we counted, 25 elections in Venezuela since the very first one, including gubernatorial elections, municipal elections and so on. Every single one of them the opposition has lost, except one and that one, was the one that took place when Chavez died, and Maduro took over. There was a vote for the Assembly. Maduro had been re-elected President, but in the Assembly, the opposition got a majority. That’s the only election of significance that the opposition won.

      Venezuela is the only country in Latin America where there a double system of vote counting: electronic and paper. They are checked against each other. In the occasions where fraud has been announced by the opposition, very frequently that is not done until they have lost. So, they have participated in the process, and have made no claim that there has been fraud till after the election is lost.

      President Carter, who was part of the supervision team for the recent election, said it was the most democratic election that he has ever seen. So, yes, it is contested, but the discourse and narrative of fraud is one that is used as part of a wider policy of the opposition. That policy is to be what is characterized as a disloyal opposition. What is meant by a disloyal opposition? It is an opposition that seeks regime change by means other than elections.

      What the opposition did was basically to organizes a series of measures of two characters. One was to use street protests as a means of organizing to bring about the downfall of the government. This came to a pitch after the Assembly had got the majority that was won by the opposition. It was declared by the majority in the Assembly that ‘Maduro will last six months.’

      Now, Maduro was the elected President. The Assembly does not have the Constitutional basis to overturn the government. That was, therefore, rejected by the courts. What then happened is the opposition goes to other states in Latin America, to North America, to Canada and says, ‘we want you to help us to bring the President down.’ So, what sets in is a regime change agenda. Same as what you have seen in Syria, same as what you have seen in other parts of the world. The United States is brought in by the opposition.

      The social programs cause great difficulty with the opposition, but also at the same time with ALBA the foreign policy orientation of Chavez causes great problems for North America because what is being posed is the Latin American unity, the formation of essentially an economic unity of Latin America. Now, why is that important?

      About the time of Chavez’ death and Maduro’s taking over, you get very serious economic problems. These are economic problems which everybody acknowledges. You get hyperinflation, and there are many reasons for that. Many of them involve mistakes that were made by the government. In particular, because it is a very import-sensitive country. Much of what the country uses is imported, especially because it is so urbanized, and much of the agriculture is underdeveloped in many respects.

      What happens is that the exchange rate between the dollar and the Bolivar starts to sky-rocket as capital flees the country. That is not only because firms leave the country, but because the government never really manages to establish a system of exchange controls. Which is a fault, everybody recognizes that this is a fault and a failure.

      There are two things that I want to say. One must not conflate the economic difficulties with the democratic question. In my opinion, and the opinion of many, the level of involvement and participation, the level of democracy in Venezuela has increased, and has not decreased in response to the economic difficulties. One cannot assume that because there are economic problems, that that is because it is a dictatorship. Whatever the cause is, that is not it. On the contrary, Venezuela has responded by increasing participation, and increasing involvement of the population, which I think actually puts many countries to shame. That’s the first point.

      The second point is this: can sanctions help? What should be the response of Canadians? Let’s take some of the measures that have been introduced.

      One of the measures is that it is no longer possible for banks and foreign subsidiaries of Venezuelan companies to make transactions which transfer money into Venezuela. The petrol refining company, Citgo I think it is called that is owned by the Venezuelan state in the United States of America is sitting on an estimated $1-1.5 billion, which it is not allowed to transfer back to Venezuela. How does it help starving people to deny them access to their own money? It does not.

      The first thing one has to understand is that the economic sanctions do not help the humanitarian situation, but they are preparing for an intervention. They are preparing for an attempt at regime change.

      The third point is this: there is almost no experience in history, certainly recent history, where an intervention either from the United States or sponsored by the United States, has made a country better off. The result will be basically a civil war.

      Canada should not be part of that. Canada should not be part of being responsible for the bloodbath and suffering that would follow for a successful policy of overthrow of the regime.

      I am not here to say ‘you must support Maduro,’ I am giving you my take on what I think is happening, other takes are perfectly possible. What I am here to say is that I don’t think that the Canadian government should be siding with regime change and sanctions.

      I am going to finish on one point which I think is very important. This is to understand the way in which the Canadian government got itself involved in imposing sanctions. There are two parts to the sanctions: the so-called Special Economic Measures Act, and there’s the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act is a Canadian shadow of an Act passes by America for it to impose sanctions on Russia, although it has been used in other contexts.

      The first one allows them to take economic measures; the second one allows them to target named individuals. There are about 40 named individuals in Venezuela who have had sanctions taken against them. It basically stops you hearing what they have to say; they can’t come here, they are prevented, they are not allowed. It is the denial of your freedom of information in my opinion.

      Regarding the first measure, under International Law, you actually need an International Association to legally impose sanctions. No International Association could be found which would agree to these measures. What Canada did was establish a special association on the spot, consisting of two countries, Canada and the United States of America. This is hardly conforming to the spirit of International Law which regards to multilateral action by nations.

      The second thing that they did, especially important to the Magnitsky measures is the evidence for making these sanctions has never been published. The grounds for these sanctions have never been published. The sanctions were actually implemented by the governor in council. They were never put before Parliament. Parliament has not seen them. We have, for one year now, been asking the government of Canada under the freedom of information to supply the evidence of the grounds. This is a violation of Natural Law. It means that the 40 people that have been targeted under the Magnitsky Act are not even entitled to know the charge against them, let alone the evidence that supports that charge, let alone contest that evidence. This is a flagrant violation of human rights, and it is being done in the name of the Canadian people. I don’t think that’s the way that the Canadian government should be going forward. The Canadian government should go back to the position that it used to take in the 70’s and 60’s which is essential that it only gets involved by an independent foreign policy of its own by an intermediary which will assist and by not taking sides on the internal politics of the country. It is saying national sovereignty is a pre-condition of effective relations between national states and that is the ground on which we stand, and ‘what we are going to do is talk nation to nation. At the same time, what can be done to help matters is to encourage dialogue.

      The more that we do, the more likely it is that there will be a dialogue, and that will lead to the opposition being listened to. If they have a valid point, and if we are acting to encourage dialogue instead of confrontation and overthrow, that will strengthen the sections within the opposition that actually do want dialogue. It will weaken the sections that want to run to the United States of America and ask for regime change or link up with the new president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, if he gets in, or with Colombia, and it will escalate the process of confrontation which is actually beginning to be almost as great a threat to world peace as the process that has been underway in the Middle East.

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