Venezuelan government on the brink of collapse: former UN ambassador | Video

World Finance interviews Diego Arria, former UN ambassador and renowned diplomat, about the escalating civil unrest in Venezuela

May 8, 2014

Sky-high inflation and a lack of basic goods are fuelling protests on the streets of Venezuela, despite the country being one of the world’s largest oil producers. According to diplomat Diego Arria, today’s civil unrest is largely the consequence of Hugo Chavez’ broken policies. How can the people of Venezuela overcome his legacy of violence, destruction and corruption?

World Finance: Diego, it’s been 15 years since the opposition has even had a chance to sit down with the government. Wouldn’t you call this a watershed moment?

Diego Arria: This definitely is a very worrisome event. Because in a way the opposition today is much grander and larger than what is represented by the political parties who sat together with Mr Maduro. Actually, the political parties have been overwhelmed and surpassed by the student leaders and the young people of the country. It’s very worrisome because it gives the image that something may come out of this, that is beneficial to the country. It gives the image of a government that is tolerant enough to enter and to engage the opposition; and that’s not the case. At the same time it gave the political parties sort of a legitimacy as representative of the official opposition which is not the case.

World Finance: Is there any sort of a unifying opposition voice? I mean, clearly, there are some groups that believe that there should be more of a movement away from the socialist inspired policy and others who believe there should be a bit of a middle ground.

There is nothing larger, more important than freedom

Diego Arria: What you have today is people who are in the opposition and people who are in the resistance. I believe that the resistance represents much more of the aspirations of the Venezuelan people. It’s very difficult because the main inspiration for the resistance movement is actually to rescue freedom and liberty more than any specific smaller political objective. There is nothing larger, more important than freedom. And that’s precisely what many of us are trying to do.

World Finance: The government claims that these protests are being hatched by external sources, including Washington. What do you make of this assertion?

Diego Arria: The government always claims that we’re working with Empire – they call the United States Empire, they are forgetting that China now has become a bigger empire! No, not at all. The problem is that after 15 years, you cannot assign more responsibility to previous administration and so they have to blame Washington. Even though it’s only thanks to the United States that the only income that we have today for the government is coming from the United States.

World Finance: How politically and economically destabilising have these protests been for Latin America?

Young people realise the future is at stake today, not tomorrow

Diego Arria: Not for Latin America in general but for Venezuela. They are not only happening now, they will continue, they will never be stopped. Why? Because who are the ones who are leading it? The young people. And why? Because young people realise the future is at stake today, not tomorrow. And so they have more a sense of urgency. But I believe that the society is increasingly beginning to join them. Because, after all, they have fathers, mothers, sisters, who are joining them. This will not stop.

World Finance: But even some of their parents believe that Chavez was a saviour for the poor.

Diego Arria: I spoke these days in London in a debate with Mr Ken Livingstone at the House of Commons. There is an external belief that Chavez was crowned by the poor people of Venezuela. No: Chavez was crowned by the middle class people and the rich – the owners of banks in Venezuela – originally for one reason. These people thought it would be easier to manipulate a lieutenant colonel than it would have been to manoeuvre or negotiate with the political parties.

World Finance: Okay, but the country has that one percent as you said, the middle class who has not always sided with the government. I mean, yourself and people who are part of or considered to be part of the opposition are seen as being the wealthy few. What would you say to those who say they don’t speak to the needs of the those at the lower tier of society?

The problem is that even though Chavez died, he is alive. Because what we are suffering today is the consequences of his policies and his actions

Diego Arria: You know the lowest tier of society today… it’s amazing that the man who spoke more of helping the poor than Mr Chavez, is the man who designed the most cruel policies for the poor. Inflation: 60 percent. The mixture of violence, crime, assassination and inflation is an extraordinary and fatal combination for the poorest people, who proportionately have suffered more than anybody else.

But you see we are 30 million people. They voted 50 million people so actually the majority of Venezuelans would like to live better, regardless of whether they are on the Chavez side or not on the Chavez side. The problem is that even though Chavez died, he is alive. Because what we are suffering today is the consequences of his policies and his actions. His legacy is a legacy of violence, destruction and corruption of the country that we have today.

World Finance: You say that this legacy is going to push the country to 65 percent inflation by the end of the year.

Diego Arria: Some banks like Barclays, for example, have come to that: 65 percent. The International Monetary Fund says probably 70 percent. But still, you know, from March last year to March this year, we already have 55 percent inflation. But in full, we have 85 percent. What do you think this does to poor people? I mean: an 80 percent increase! And we have 28 percent scarcity in goods, but we have the biggest oil reserve in the world! And then you cannot find flour, you cannot find coffee, you cannot find milk. This is what happens in Venezuela.

World Finance: Let’s say the opposition party is able to take over control. Do you think we’re going to see this dramatic neoliberal policies and thus, perhaps get out of the situation the country’s in right now?

Diego Arria: The challenge we will have is to recreate a new republic. To change – to actually throw into the bin of history! – the political and economic model that they are using today, which actually resembles more the Cuban system.

We are facing to create actually a new country. Nothing less than a new country, not just change from one government to another. This is a government that has all the public powers: you know, control of the supreme court, the controller, the electoral board, the military, the congress; they have everything. So how do you get out of that?

To get out of that, you really have to change the whole thing. Chavez had many people who loved him. I mean, in a sincere way. But these people increasingly are not anymore… they are not from Maduro’s side. They like the man whom they thought helped them. And he helped many of them, undoubtedly that was the case. But he’s not there anymore. And I believe that Chavez’s legacy was to leave Maduro in place because he didn’t want a successor. And he wanted to make sure that nobody would live up to his size. And that’s what we’re facing today.

World Finance: You have to give him some credit for saying he wants to reform the country. He’s created this three prong economic offensive: forcing an increase in production, eradicating scarcity and controlling speculation. Do you think that’s effective in any way, or is it just window dressing for a larger issue?

All the time people associate Venezuela with the worst regimes in the world: North Korea, Saddam Hussein, Cuba

Diego Arria: It’s just a lie! For example, we have today not only inflation but we’re talking scarcity. We have the most corrupt political system in Venezuelan history! The Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance acknowledge that last year $25bn left the country, unaccountable. We have less foreign investment than anybody else – even less than Haiti. Colombia for example, has six or seven times more foreign investment than us. Why? Because they’re trustful, people have confidence in the country. They know what’s going to happen eventually.

In ours, these people expropriate, confiscate. All the time people associate Venezuela with the worst regimes in the world: North Korea, Saddam Hussein, Cuba. We have become a pariah state from many points of view in the international community.

World Finance: So you have no faith that Maduro can govern within a coalition?

Diego Arria: No. I think this government in a terminal stage. I think that the man at the head has already collapsed. He has collapsed before the eyes of most of his followers, before the eyes of the armed forces, before the eyes of the international community. And this regime will not be able to recuperate. There is no revolution when you don’t have the students and the workers. And they don’t have them.

World Finance: If it’s inevitable the government’s going to crumble, who’s going to bring it down?

The worst enemies that this regime have are the man at the head of state and his main accomplices in the region

Diego Arria: Who’s going to bring it down? Themselves! The worst enemies that this regime have are the man at the head of state and his main accomplices in the region. They are the worst enemies of the system. I am trusting that they will be very efficient at bringing down their own system.

World Finance: Is that all it is? It’s just going to be the people at the top? Of course there has to be some sort of external player.

Diego Arria: But why would that happen? It happens when you have failed economic policies. When you fail to provide food for the people. For example they were giving it away, actually: they subsidised so much foodstuff, they almost gave it away.
What happened, they don’t have now the money to do it. So they were every time appeasing fewer people than they can rent. I should say, they have tried to rent people! They don’t want people to be free, really. They don’t want them to have free reign.

World Finance: Latin American neighbours are calling for some sort of a change at this point. How effective is that going to be in bringing about what you’ve been discussing?

Diego Arria: The oil – which should be a blessing for us – sometimes becomes a terrible thing for us. Because with oil Venezuela has forced, or tempted, many countries in the region to be accomplices.

Colombia has been since Santos has been in. Brazil has been the biggest accomplice of Venezuela. So they accommodate them. The only country in the whole region that has expressed real concern for Venezuela was Panama – one of the smallest countries in the region. The rest? No! Because they sell to us. We import everything. I told you at the beginning: the only income that we have in cash is from the US. And we only export to them half of what we used to export 14 years ago. Why? Because they keep talking against Empire.

If the Empire were to say “Well we won’t buy any more from you,” you know, “We’ll buy from someone else,” the regime will collapse in minutes.

World Finance: But there are international players who are now saying there needs to be some sort of a change, a shake-up at the top.

Diego Arria: Yeah, they don’t want a shake-up at the top. They say “both parties” should become… “both parties”. You know, that’s an immoral equalisation of the parties. There’s only one party: the regime. They have the armed forces, they have all their thugs armed, they have the money. And then you have the other people and the students; you cannot compare them.

So like you said: it’s lip service. They are forced to say, you know, that they are the good guys in the region, that they’re concerned for the Venezuelan people. But they have been defending the regime actually for many years. And I don’t see any change in sight.

World Finance: Outside of Latin America, who should be getting involved?

Diego Arria: The EU are very concerned about Ukraine, for example. And rightly so. But Ukraine has specific issues for Europe. The borders of Europe are very important with Ukraine. Russia. And the gas. So actually Ukraine has covered up what’s happening in my own country. Because they pull attention to the event. I understand.

So even when we begin to have victims, they cannot compete with these international events. For example, sanctions. Sanctions not to the country; sanctions to leaders of the regime. The US started what they call the ‘kingpin’ list, which the US Treasury keeps. Which is either people linked to drug trafficking, arms trafficking. The European Union could start considering this kind of thing to individuals. Not against the country.

World Finance: What do you think is going to happen? Do you think there is actually going to be some movement?

There’s a policy code of responsibility to protect, which is to anticipate and prevent. We are at precisely that stage, when the world should take a closer look at my country

Diego Arria: I’ll tell you something. It’s very painful to me to talk about this, because for many years I also was the Minister for Information for my country, in the Ministry of Tourism. And I only spoke about the beauties and advantage of my people. Then I went to the Security Council of the United Nations, representing my own country. And what they would do to promote liberty, to try to save people in Bosnia, in Somalia, in Rwanda. I never thought that one day I would have to go abroad all over the world, to ask to put some attention to our own problems.

And I understand the international community waits until they kill 200,000 Bosnians, and rape 20,000 women, or kill half a million people in Rwanda. Or two million in Congo. And then intervene. So they see us as a minor issue. But there is a responsibility. There’s a policy code of responsibility to protect, which is to anticipate and prevent. We are at precisely that stage, when the world should take a closer look at my country. It is potentially very important for the stability of the whole region.

World Finance: Okay, well thank you so much for joining us today ambassador.

Diego Arria: Thank you. Thank you very much.