Venezuela has been riven by protracted political and economic crises that have prompted mass protests and sparked a wave of migration. Venezuelans have fled throughout the region, with some going as far afield as Spain.
The many who remain live in a deeply divided country, where President Nicolas Maduro maintains power – solidified in a May 20 presidential election granting him another term amid widespread doubts about its legitimacy – in spite of rampant shortages, high rates of crime and violence, and a deteriorating economy.
Geoff Ramsey, the associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington, DC-based research and advocacy group, spent April in Venezuela, meeting with members of the public, the government, the opposition, civil-society groups, and others.
Ramsey spoke with Business Insider in late May, describing the conditions Venezuelans face at home as well as the political outlook fora situation that has frustrated the region and the world.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
‘It’s one thing to hear about them and another to see them firsthand.’
Christopher Woody: Being on the ground [in Venezuela] … was there anything that was unexpected, that surprised you, that wasn’t in line with what you’d heard before you got to the country?
Geoff Ramsey: It was not my first time in Venezuela, or actually in any of the three countries, and I’ve certainly been following the reports of the humanitarian situation on the ground and talking to people about it, but it’s one thing to hear about them and another to see them firsthand.
It was really just heartbreaking to meet with people over and over that are reeling from this economic crisis. I met people that lost their savings due to hyperinflation. Elderly people that … waited in line for their regular pension, and it amounts to essentially pocket change. It’s truly devastating. And I think the best sense of the scope of the crisis that I’ve gotten so far was in speaking to people who have been fleeing, because I got a much better sense of how bad it is outside of Caracas, in the interior of the country.
In Brazil in particular, I was struck by the fact that I saw one guy standing on the side of the road selling oranges to passing motorists, and he was in a bright red PDVSA jumpsuit, a uniform. I went up to him and I spoke with him and he told that his state salary, working as a technician for PDVSA, just simply didn’t allow him to make ends meet or support his family, so he now makes more money essentially living in the streets in Boa Vista [in Brazil] and selling odd fruits, cigarettes, candy in the streets, and he’s able to support his family with a greater income doing that than he did working in the oil sector.
And I heard stories like that over and over. I met with one woman in Cucuta [in Colombia], I believe, who has a thyroid condition, and her husband also is a public employee, and she was saying that his monthly salary barely covers a week – essentially five or six pills – of the medication that she needs to take for her thyroid condition. So it’s truly just devastating stories.
‘Cash is worthless, but at the same time, nobody has any cash.’
Woody: You mentioned hyperinflation, and that has obviously destroyed people’s ability to save and to buy things. At the same time, shortages are rampant, and that makes it impossible to get essential items like food and medicine. From what you saw, what are the processes people have to go through to buy basic things they need to meet basic needs or to get cash to make those purchases?
Ramsey: The interesting sort of irony of the situation in Venezuela is that there is hyperinflation, so cash is worthless, but at the same time, nobody has any cash. So … most economic transactions are done with credit and debit cards, and in a country where the electronic infrastructure is crumbling, you can imagine that that presents serious logistical problems.
People routinely have to deal with their bank’s electronic systems not working or the cash points, their readers of cards, not working correctly, so even something as simple as buying a cup of coffee can take an hour trying to go back and forth and slide your card multiple times, call up your bank, that sort of thing.
“‘Eh, what’s the difference.'”
Woody: I know in the run-up to the May 20 elections, there were still government supporters [backing Maduro], and Maduro maintains around 20% support, which is not nothing. What did you hear from them? How did they view the situation? How do they reconcile what’s going on in the country with their support for the government?
Ramsey: I met with several government supporters, and I heard some sort of people straying from the official discourse, but not much. In general, I think there is acceptance of the idea that Venezuela is under what they call a “bloqueo financiero” or a financial blockade, and that the country’s economic problems are the result of the collusion of the opposition with the international community in its sort of imperialist desire to get rid of Maduro.
Obviously we know that’s not the case, but I think the government has, through state media, been particularly effective in pumping that message to its base.
However, I did talk to people that supported the government, but were, like most Venezuelans, not at all enthused about voting for Maduro, and so you had this interesting dynamic where I spoke to people that would go on about Chavez’s legacy and how Venezuela is suffering from some international conspiracy and then … I would ask them, ‘So are you going to vote in these elections on May 20?’ And what I heard in many cases was, ‘Eh, what’s the difference. what can I really expect to come out of that?’
‘I think he continues to try to cast himself as a son of Chavez.’
Woody: For Maduro himself, it seems like a trend over the past couple of years is something of a shift from Chavismo [referring to the governance of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez] to what could be called Madurismo, and now he has this party, Somos Venezuela, so … are we seeing kind of a shift from the party of Chavez to a government that is built in Maduro’s image? Is he assuming that kind of stature?
Ramsey: I think that that’s certainly a play that Maduro wants to make. He, I think, would love to be able to capture the same crowds that Chavez did and command that same loyalty, but I think ultimately he hasn’t been terribly successful at that.
There was a lot of speculation that the creation of this new party, Somos Venezuela, would amount to the herald of a new era of Madurismo, and the government did create this new party, and it certainly avoids using the traditional symbols of the ruling party, and it does espouse rhetoric that’s more openly Madurista, but it actually didn’t get that much support in the election.
If we’re to believe the election results … candidates for municipal councils of Somos Venezuela received less votes than [opposition candidates Javier Bertucci and Henri Falcon’s] parties. So I think that that’s definitely what Maduro would like, but I think it’s easier said than done.
And I was watching his, whatever you want to call it, his swearing-in ceremony, [on Friday], I listened to his speech, and as much as I’m sure he would rather not have to rely on it, he invoked Chavez’s name multiple times, and I think continues to try to cast himself as a son of Chavez.
‘Blind to the problems within their coalition.’
Woody: The vast majority of Venezuelans are unhappy with the situation, so in terms of the opposition, people who are opposed to the government, what attitudes did you pick up from them. Is there resignation? Do they see any signs of change? What’s their mood generally?
Ramsey: I spoke to people at different levels in the opposition. I think if you speak to opposition leaders, they’re convinced that this is a government that’s in its final days and that change will come any minute now, and I think they’re probably, I mean, essentially blind to the problems within their coalition and their internal divisions and the fact that they have struggled to put together some kind of agenda or some kind of alternative to Venezuelans coming out of these electiosn.
I think the result of infighting within the opposition can be seen in speaking to Venezuelans who oppose the government. Everyday Venezuelans that I spoke with told me that, ‘Yeah, I identify with the opposition. I certainly am no fan of Chavismo, but I feel that the opposition isn’t representing me or my best interests.’ I actually went to a rally that was convened by mothers who lost their children in the round protests that we saw last year and the repression [of them], and I was struck by the fact that I spoke with three separate mothers… of students who were killed in the protests last year, who told me, each one individually, that they felt like the opposition had sold them out and that they didn’t feel they could trust the opposition leadership.
‘Extremely disorganized and sapped of morale.’
Woody: Regarding the May 20 election specifically, the impression I got in the run-up to that is that many assumed Maduro’s victory was a foregone conclusion. On the ground there, did you see that attitude present, and in the aftermath of that election … has that mood changed?
Ramsey: Very much so. Nobody was expecting any kind of meaningful change to come out of these elections – or I should say the people that were expecting something to come out of them were a very, very slim minority. People that I spoke with, even the ones that said that they were planning on voting, didn’t really have much faith that it would produce any kind of change.
I do think it’s interesting though, because these elections have been the main stumbling block for the opposition over the last five months, and … they have divided the opposition between people who believe in some kind of electoral solution to the crisis and those who don’t, and I think now those divisions are somewhat irrelevant.
I think even Falcon and Bertucci came out and criticised the government and its handling of the electoral process. Falcon said he wouldn’t recognise the results, which puts him on the same side as the traditional opposition, and I think we can hope to see more unity among the opposition moving forward, but again I’m crossing my fingers on that. Everything we’ve seen so far suggests that they’re extremely disorganized and sapped of morale.
‘This government has been so effective at isolating and silencing dissent.’
Woody: It seems like a trend within Maduro’s government is … trying to rein in what appears to be some signs of dissent within the security apparatus, especially in the military. In your conversations and in your travels, did you get the feeling that divides were opening up in the security services in regard to their support for the government?
Ramsey: Well, I think it’s no secret that … there’s plenty of discontent with the current state of affairs and with Maduro among the military, but I think ultimately the government’s just been extremely effective at purging dissidents from the ranks.
Before I got there in early April, or rather I should say this occurred in March, there was a coup attempt, led by [former Interior Minister Miguel] Rodriguez Torres and other officials in the security forces. There were plans. There was a date already set for an attempted overthrow of Maduro, led by the security forces, and that fell through. The people who were involved in that were rounded up and put in jail, and I think we’ve seen the same thing this week. There were reports … [military] officers had been arrested. …
I would say people I spoke with in government were open about the fact that there is discontent with the current situation in government and among the security forces, but I didn’t get the sense that they truly fear an imminent military-led coup against the government, and I think ultimately that’s just because this government has been so effective at isolating and silencing dissent.
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