A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Venezuela after Chavez: What the death of the Socialist leader will mean for the country, the region and the U.S.
- Geoff Thale program director of Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
- Tom Gjelten NPR national security correspondent and author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause."
- Moises Naim senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, chief international columnist, El Pais, and author of "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Hugo Chavez supporters in Venezuela are mourning his death, especially the nation's poor. They've been the recipients of generous economic benefits. But a power struggle is likely to emerge over just who his successor will be. Joining me to talk about the uncertainly in Venezuela and the implications for the region and the U.S.: Tom Gjelten of NPR, Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, and, joining us by phone from New York, Moises Naim.
MS. DIANE REHMHe's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Do call us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, Tom. Good morning, Geoff. And good morning, Moises.
MR. TOM GJELTENGood morning, Diane.
MR. GEOFF THALEHi. Thanks for inviting me.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Tom Gjelten, some in Venezuela are deeply mourning Chavez but not everybody. What is the feeling?
GJELTENI think that reaction shows how polarized Venezuela has become under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. He was a very polarizing president. I mean, he advocated the interests of the poor and working classes in Venezuela and directed a lot of Venezuela's oil wealth to that sector of society. But in doing so, he alienated the professional, and to some extent, the middle class and educated classes. And his rhetoric was also very polarizing because he tended to demonize those who were not on his side.
GJELTENWell, the bourgeoisie, as he called it in Venezuela, but, of course, also the United States and those outside powers that he saw as being opposed to his rule.
REHMEven the Vatican.
GJELTENEven -- I didn't know that.
REHMEven the Vatican, even Catholics. He really talked negatively about them as being traitors in long dresses.
GJELTENIn spite of that -- and I certainly take that -- he did consider himself a Christian. And, you know, in his sort of final pronouncement and some of the final statements from his bedside, you know, he was saying, I put all my faith in Christ, et cetera. But clearly he believed in kind of a church of his own design.
REHMIndeed. Geoff Thale.
THALEYeah. Just a quick comment. I think it's really clear that Chavez was a polarizing figure and that he used polarizing rhetoric to advance his political career. And so he said things about the church. He said things about King Juan Carlos, all that sort of thing. At the same time, I think part of that is a political style, which was tremendously appealing to the poor and kind of the majorities Chavez came to represent. And his sort of populous style really worked for him domestically.
REHMMoises Naim, you're there in New York. How is the snow?
MR. MOISES NAIMYes. Well, it hasn't arrived as hard as it is, I understand, in Washington, but very cold.
REHMIt's pretty bad here. Tell us your impressions of what's likely going on in Venezuela now.
NAIMThere's going to be an outpour of popular emotion and support and mourning for the president. This was a beloved president by an important segment of the country, but I say he's equally -- was equally disliked and opposed by another segment of the country. As Tom was saying before, Chavez thrived on the polarization and divisiveness of his actions, his policies and his behavior, so this is a very divided country.
NAIMHis legacy is not one that -- you know, this is not a country that is better off 14 years after his rule and 14 years in which he had practically a tsunami of money coming from oil exports and indebtedness. This is a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And there is no doubt that a lot of that money went to help the poor, the subsidies and hand-outs.
NAIMBut we don't have a stronger economic structure that we had 14 years ago, and we don't have a stronger democracy that we had 14 years ago. I say we because, as you know, I'm Venezuelan.
REHMAnd we should point out you served as Venezuela's minister of trade and industry in the early '90s and as director of Venezuela's central bank. What happened, Moises?
NAIMWell, this was a country that -- well, what happened essentially was that oil prices went down drastically and created a crisis that -- not unlike the one we're seeing elsewhere in Europe these days and even the United States, a country that was very, very highly indebted that could -- that thought it could live off oil forever and did not do well in managing its economy.
NAIMAnd then when the show stopped, when the money stopped coming in because the oil prices plummeted, it was a need to undertake a whole series of adjustments and restructuring and an austerity program, not unlike the one we're seeing in many countries in Europe these days. And, of course, that was a great opportunity for President Chavez or then Lt. Col. Chavez, who staged a military coup against the elected -- the democratically elected government.
NAIMAnd then he won an election. He went to jail. He was pardoned. And then he went out, and he won an election very legitimately by appealing to the sentiments of rage, revenge, frustration and hope for a change that were widespread in the country, for very justified reasons.
REHMMoises Naim, he is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And we do welcome your calls, 800-433-8850. This is an interesting email: "Right here and now, as a U.S. citizen, why should I be interested in the death of Hugo Chavez?" Geoff.
THALESure. I think there are two really different but important questions here. One has to do with kind of a direct national interest in the United States, which is Venezuela is our fourth largest oil supplier and has been for all of the ups and downs and all through the Chavez government. So we have real interest in ensuring that that flow is stable and that we have enough diplomatic and political relations for that to continue, I think. That's one.
THALETwo, I think we have a set of values and interests in Venezuela in -- as we do in all of the region, in terms of both democracy and social justice. And I think the Chavez regime -- the Chavez government has left a very mixed legacy on both those issues.
REHMBut, Tom, how is it that Hugo Chavez became such an outspoken critic of the U.S., and why?
GJELTENWell, as Jeff mentioned earlier, this is a kind of a rhetoric that, I think, sells well in Latin America. I mean, the unfortunate truth is that the United States has not had a glorious record in Latin America. It's been associated with some pretty unsavory governments and has not -- I think it's fair to say, has not always advocated the interests of the working-class populations in Latin America.
GJELTENSo there is, I think, a historic resentment of U.S. power, U.S. economic power, U.S. political power, and Chavez was able to tap into that. Now, not only tap into it, but sort of fan it, exploit it, enlarge it and really sort of put it to kind of nefarious political views.
REHMAnd, Moises, there is currently an interim president in place. What's the process going forward?
NAIMAccording to the constitution, Diane, today, the president of the National Assembly, a man by the name Diosdado Cabello, who was one of the people that worked with Chavez when he staged a coup as a former military person, he should be now the president of the country. And he -- the constitution also says that elections ought to be called in 30 days. They have not yet made clear what the plans are, but that's what -- that's the guideline set by the constitution.
THALEJust a quick comment there. I think that it's right that the -- actually, I think it's the executive vice president who will hold the interim office. But in any case, they need to hold elections within 30 days. I think the likelihood is that they will do so and that the current vice president, Nicolas Maduro, will run against Henrique Capriles, who ran last year and lost narrowly.
GJELTENInteresting little discrepancy here between Moises and Geoff on who should be the acting president.
NAIMNo, no, no. Let me clarify what the actual situation is. The executive vice president of the country is Nicolas Maduro, who President Chavez appointed as the acting president. But that is only if the president was still alive and still in -- the president. The constitution says that when that ceases to be the case, then the immediate -- the person that ought to be fulfilling the position -- filling the position of president is the president of the National Assembly.
NAIMSo in theory today or whenever, very soon, Nicolas Maduro should step down and hand over the presidency to Diosdado Cabello, who then is obliged by the constitution to call election in 30 days.
GJELTENThe problem here is that Moises is citing the constitution, and in any country, the arbiter of what's constitutional or not is the court system. And the court system has not always -- and I think, Moises, you would agree with me on this, the court system has not always acted with independence in Venezuela. And given that Chavez designated Maduro as his vice president...
GJELTEN...we have so far -- correct me if I'm wrong, Moises -- we have so far seen the supreme court in Venezuela sort of deferring to the political leadership. So whether they will uphold what I think is the correct interpretation the constitution as you lie it -- lay it out, whether they will uphold that, I think, is an open question.
NAIMThat's right, Tom. And what we have seen throughout the years is that the judicial system was not independent. It was just as appendix of the government, of President Chavez in a very personal way. He directed them on what to decide and how and when. And also, the electoral council, the main electoral arbiter of the country is also clearly an appendix of the government.
REHMAll right. Moises Naim, he's chief international columnist for El Pais. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the death yesterday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the age of 58. He has been ill for quite sometime. He has gone back and forth to Cuba for treatment and now, yesterday, the news came of his death. Here in the studio with me: Geoff Thale, he is program director of Washington Office on Latin America, Tom Gjelten, NPR national security correspondent. And Moises Naim joins us from New York.
REHMHe served as Venezuela's minister of trade and industry in the early 1990s. He was also director of Venezuela's central bank. He is the author of a brand new book titled "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be." And that's certainly the case in this situation. How will Cuba, Tom Gjelten, be affected by Hugo Chavez's death?
GJELTENYou know, Diane, in the early 1990s, Cuba went through a very difficult period as it had to adjust to the loss of huge amounts, billions of dollars a year in subsidies from the Soviet Union, and that initiated a period of very deep suffering in Cuba. It was called the special period. Many people saw their income and their livelihoods threatened. You had 35,000 people take to the rafts to flee Cuba. It was the most difficult period Cuba had gone through since the revolution.
GJELTENNow, theoretically, we are facing sort of a comparable situation because Cuba has really benefited the subsidies that it has received from Venezuela in terms of -- in the form of oil, have been absolutely key to Cuba's sort of maintaining itself economically. Now, Maduro, the man who Chavez designated as his successor, is considered to be close to the Cuban leadership. I don't think we can jump to any conclusion that that supply of subsidized oil is going to be threatened now that Chavez is gone.
GJELTENBut it is an expensive -- it is a drain on the Venezuelan economy. And to the extent that Maduro, in the future, runs into political problems, he may be tempted to divert some of that oil wealth that he is sharing with Cuba back to Venezuela to sort of shore himself up at home. So I think in the medium and long term, I think the Cubans should concerned about losing that very important source of subsidy.
THALEYeah. Just following on that, the big virtue, the big advantage for the Cubans of the deal they have with Venezuela right now is that they pay for the oil they get with medical services. So it's bartered. They don't have to produce hard-currency payments. And that's a huge benefit for them in terms of their economic inputs and outputs. If that were to change in the short term, that would be a real challenge for them economically.
THALEI think Tom's right that assuming Maduro wins the upcoming elections, which the poll suggests he will, he is not going to cut that oil off or change that relationship in the near term. I mean, he's viewed as close to the Cubans and he's a trade union activist. He has a long history there. I think Tom is right. In the mid term, Venezuela will face economic problems of its own and budget problems of its own and it will have to relook at that. And if I were the Cubans, I would be thinking about how I diversify my oil resources.
REHMAnd, Moises, can you talk about Venezuela's economic outlook for the middle class? Not for the poor who have benefited by Chavez largesse, but what about the middle class? They are sort of angry.
NAIMYes. And they -- and let me, Diane, if I might, just give just a second about Cuba.
NAIMAnd the importance of Cuba in this story is very important, is very opaque, is not well-known, and it's immense. And it's, in fact, a lot of what's going in terms of the transition is being staged and managed by Cuba, by its intelligence services. And again, I want to stress that that's a story that is much, much more important and large than what we now know.
NAIMBut over time, it will become known as one of the big surprises about how a small bankrupt island with an ideology that was rejected around the world came to dominate and have such an influence in one of the world's largest oil producers. And this place, they influenced historically, was held by the United States. So that's a very fascinating story. And in many ways, it's a tragic story because it has to do with the erosion of democracy in Venezuela.
NAIMAnd, of course, Venezuela's support helped Cuba postpone any reforms that were necessary there. And you were asking, Diane, about the middle class and how the poor have benefited from Chavez. Of course, the poor had massive subsidies and handouts and support and a very strong emotional connection with the government. They felt very strongly that one of them, one representing their interests, was in charge finally.
NAIMAnd that was very, very important. But the poor are also the victims of one of the highest murder rates in the world. They are the victims of the highest inflation in the world and certainly the highest inflation in Latin America. They are the victims of no jobs. It's very, very hard to find a job. If the job is not with the government and if you don't show great enthusiasm for El Comandante, President Chavez and the revolution, almost impossible to find a job if you are not a sympathizer of the government and the president.
NAIMAnd those that are not part of that in the middle classes that are shrinking and declining while, in the rest of Latin America, the middle class is becoming larger. In Venezuela, the middle class is also suffering from inflation and everything else. But, of course, it's also suffering from exclusion. They are not allowed to have a lot of opportunities that are normally assumed in a democracy.
REHMThere is an ongoing campaign on television headed by Joseph Kennedy, which indicates that the Chavez government is willing to provide heating oil to the poor in this country. How did that get started? What's it all about? Tom.
GJELTENWell, the Citgo, which is a gas company that a lot of Americans will recognize, is actually a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company or it's partially owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, and Chavez has directed that some -- that Citgo share some fuel oil with needy populations in the Northeast, and Joe Kennedy was instrumental in negotiating that deal. And he clearly feels it appropriate to show some gratitude for that, show some appreciation for that assistance.
GJELTENI think this is one more example of what you call the largesse that Hugo Chavez displayed in sort of trying to build political support around the hemisphere. It was through the United States, but it was also, of course, to Nicaragua, to Ecuador, to a lot of countries he sort of gave. And we have already mentioned Cuba. He was using his oil wealth to sort of spread his reputation around.
GJELTENNow, you know, you can question, I think, whether that was the best use of Venezuela's oil wealth. I mean, imagine if all of that money had instead been invested in the educational system in Venezuela and the physical infrastructure. I mean, this has been a 10-year period of high oil prices where Chavez could've used that oil wealth to great advantage in really making Venezuela a prosperous, modern country. And instead, we see that the infrastructure in Venezuela has really deteriorated because, some would argue, he has squandered about a lot of his money.
REHMBut what it also meant as a thumb in the eye of the U.S.? Geoff.
THALEWell, two comments. One is, yeah, clearly Venezuela -- both Chavez domestically used anti-American sentiment to build his social base. There's no question about that. And it's clear that he helped build a set of political alliances through the region partly through his largesse and partly because, you know, as Tom mentioned, there's this sort of shared sense of frustration, sort of bad history with the United States.
THALEAnd he used that. I don't think there's any question. I was just going to comment more generally both about what Tom said and Moises' earlier comment that I think it's clear there are a lot of serious criticisms of the Chavez era in terms of governability, in terms of the centralization of power, in terms of how oil wealth was invested.
THALEI mean, at the same time, I think it's important to emphasize, he did build support from the poor majority. He won re-election three times, in elections that, by and large, were seen as pretty unfair. And so, you know, I think it's important to see that there's a balance to this view about what's going on and what's going on in Venezuela.
REHMOK. And before we open the phones, Tom, I want to ask you about this Washington Post editorial, the op-ed piece on two Cuban dissidents who lost their lives in a car crash. Can you talk about that and how it could relate to Venezuela?
GJELTENWell, if the death of Hugo Chavez is bad news for Cuba, the publication of this interview in The Washington Post today is sort of doubly bad news. Very briefly, Diane, Oswaldo Paya was probably Cuba's leading dissident, the most famous Cuban dissident around the world. He was, as you say, killed in a car crash along with one of his dissident colleagues in July. The official Cuban version of the accident was that he was traveling at an excessive -- the drive -- the car he was -- they were passengers in a car driven by a Spaniard and a Swede, who were there to sort of show solidarity.
REHMAnd they were in the backseat.
GJELTENThe Cubans were in the backseat.
GJELTENThe foreigners were in the front seat.
GJELTENAnd the Cuban version was that the Spaniard, Angel Carromero, who was driving the car, was at -- going at an excessive rate of speed, lost control, hit a tree. He and the Swede were not injured, but the two Cubans were, in fact, killed. And, in fact, under Cuban law, if you are at fault in an accident in which somebody dies, you can actually be charged with vehicular homicide, which Carromero was, and he was looking at a long prison sentence. Now, the Spanish government then intervened and got Carromero to be sent back to Spain, his native country.
GJELTENBefore he left, he appeared on television saying, in fact, it was an accident and that he had no one essentially to blame but himself. But now, what has happened is that The Washington Post has just published a detailed interview with him where he says that that confession was the product of I won't say torture, but mistreatment in Cuban prisons. He was forced to say those things. He was terrified. And, in fact, it was not an accident. He was -- he says he was forced off the road. He was not driving fast.
REHMHe was rammed.
GJELTENHe was rammed from behind by what he suspects was a Cuban state security agent.
REHMWho had been following closely.
GJELTENWho had been following them all the way from Havana, so this -- if this -- and he provides a lot of details in this interview that certainly seem persuasive and compelling. If his version of this accident is correct, essentially it means that the Cuban state security service was responsible, at least indirectly, for the death of these two dissidents and that it went to great lengths to cover it up and sort of twist the story afterwards.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850, first to Arlington, Texas. Lupe, you're on the air.
LUPEYeah, Diane, great show as always.
LUPEI wanted to bring up -- I have a point that was brought up earlier, that Chavez played to this populist idea that the U.S. was an evil empire, whatever. Some of it -- yet some of it was substantiated in a documentary that came out years ago called "The Revolution Will Be Televised," where there was an attempted coup of Chavez.
LUPEHe was making the allegation that the U.S. was involved, which I don't know if it was ever proven. But months after, the -- those who tried to depose him wound up in Miami. So you might have a reason to suspect the U.S. and say that the U.S. was unfairly involved in Venezuelan politics.
REHMAll right. Moises.
NAIMThat's a very controversial situation. Yet these -- the Chavistas and the Chavez government, of course, used that to stoke animosity against the United States, and they blamed the United States for that coup. There are significant research and books that show that the United States, in fact, did not play an important role. But that depends.
NAIMWhat I have found is that people have opinions that are immune to arguments and data. So people that are convinced that the United States played a role in that will not be dissuaded, and people that are convinced that otherwise will not. So it continues to be a highly controversial, highly ideologized...
REHMHah. Geoff Thale.
THALEYeah. It's certainly true. It's an ideological debate in a lot of ways, and there's no, I think, obvious evidence that the U.S. plotted a coup or anything like that. It is clear, though, that the Bush administration at the time welcomed the coup, and I think that certainly didn't help with President Chavez when he was restored to power.
REHMAll right. To Orono, Maine. Good morning, Sue.
SUEGood morning. My -- I have a comment. My understanding is that Chavez was influenced by liberation theology, and primarily in South America, that had a lot of concern for justice, for the poor, concerns about poverty, a theology that Oscar Romero of El Salvador was also interested in. And, again, my understanding is that's one of the reasons Chavez was not particularly supportive of the Roman Catholic Church because the Vatican didn't like that theology.
GJELTENYou know, that might be true. That might be true. I think, though, that when you discuss Chavez' commitment to social justice and human rights, you also have to take into account that he defended some of the worst human rights violators on the planet. I mean, he supports -- he, right to his dying day, supported the Syrian regime no matter how many thousands of people they killed.
GJELTENHe supported Omar al-Bashir, who was charged with war crimes, the head of Sudan. He supported, to the end, Qaddafi in Libya. He supported Lukashenko in Belarus. He aligned himself with some of the most egregious characters in the world, and I think given that record, that really taints any alleged support for human rights that he may have espoused.
THALENo, no. I -- yeah. Chavez -- the Chavez government's international alliances were primarily rhetorical, not like they're giving money to the Syrian regime. But the -- their rhetoric alliances are certainly as Tom described. Liberation theology, I think, was more kind of a grass roots movement, and I guess Chavez certainly saw himself as a Christian and may well have been influenced by liberation theology, but...
REHMAll right. And quick question: Could we see a second special period in Cuba if Venezuelan support is not maintained at the level we see today? Tom.
GJELTENYou know, I think that's a really interesting question in that -- and on the one hand, Cuba's economy, economic physical infrastructure, has actually deteriorated in the last 20 years. So, in some ways, Cuba's more vulnerable even now than it was back then. On the other hand, Cuba has really diversified its foreign trade and aid. It's getting help from a lot of other countries, is not as dependent on Venezuela alone as it had been on the Soviet Union.
REHMTom Gjelten of NPR. Short break, right back.
REHMWelcome back. We'll go back to the phones in just a moment. First, an email from Dave in Durham, N.C., "Someone mentioned that Chavez alienated the wealthier segments of the population in nearly every other country and especially in the U.S. The wealthier cared for to a degree that I would argue alienates the poor. With that in mind, what's wrong with one country prioritizing its poor citizens?" Geoff Thale.
THALESure. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think -- I do think that that's a political -- domestic political question, and they have to figure out their domestic political consequences, and they have to figure out how to deal with that. There are certainly people who would say that Chavez dealt with that by centralizing power and pushing back against his opposition in ways that weren't appropriate.
THALEBut clearly, the basic point of how you make decisions about where you direct your wealth and what kind of programs you have is a domestic political question, and the Venezuelans, you know, Venezuelan government made it.
GJELTENThe only other point I would make is that I think the -- to put it mildly, the jury is still out on whether the poor actually benefit from a system like Chavez implemented in Venezuela. I mean, oil output has dramatically declined because of mismanagement. The, you know, the loss of managerial and commercial and engineering expertise has been hugely costly to Venezuela.
GJELTENAnd if you look at countries like Cuba which Hugo Chavez held out as a model, I think you can hardly make the argument that the poorest people of Cuba are better off as a result of the kind of socialism that has been implemented there. So, you know, just saying you're in favor of the poor doesn't mean you really are benefiting them.
REHMAnd here from Kevin and Michael, two emails really on the same subject, "Is it true the Chavez accumulated over $2 billion of personal wealth while running Venezuela into great national debt?" Moises.
NAIMI don't know, and I don't think anybody can know that. What we know is the following: That people around Chavez -- family, friends, allies -- have accumulated huge fortunes. The notion that Chavez was a pro-poor government and person and despised the rich is buried by the fact that, around here, Venezuela has accumulated one of the most of the wealthiest oligarchies in the world.
NAIMThis is a Russia-like group of people with strong connection with the government that are essentially intermediaries in everything that is bought and sold by the government in the country and have amassed immense fortunes. And that includes not only members of his family that was quite a poor family initially, and now they have all sorts of external symbols of wealth.
NAIMThe other point I wanted to make is the notion that the poor are all with Chavez. This is also (word?) by the results of recent elections. In the most recent election, millions and millions of Venezuelans, almost 45 percent of Venezuelans, voted against Chavez. The elite in Venezuela are tiny. They are not millions. They're -- this is a very, very small group. In order for the opposition to get 45 percent of the vote, that means that millions of very poor people, the people that Chavez presumably favors, voted against him.
NAIMAnd again, this just shows that this is a highly polarized country not between rich and poor but between different segments of the population that cut across very different lines. But the notion that all the poor are with Chavez and all the rich are against him is not true. Many of the wealthiest people in the world today are Venezuelans that work with the Chavez government, and many of the poor are voting actively against him.
REHMAll right. To Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Jack.
JACKOh. Yes. Hi, Diane.
JACKThank you very much for your show, and thank you very much to all your guests. That's first of all what I wanted to say.
JACKAnd my question is, why is it that in Latin American countries, particularly like Venezuela, Colombia, places like that, that their constitutions are liquid? They change -- every time there's a new president, every time there's a new leader, they have a new constitution, a new rule of law which is entirely different from the one that was previous, and usually it's either more corrupt or less corrupt. But they are extremely different, whereas countries such as the United States or, say, Canada, even, they're pretty much in concrete. They're very stayed.
REHMAll right. Geoff Thale.
THALEYeah. I think there's a long history in Latin -- since Latin American independence, there -- a relatively narrow governing elite has tended to -- has not created a strong state and institutional foundation. Certainly, Latin America kind of went a different development path, started off in a different development path than the United States.
REHMSo each leader molds the government to his or her own liking, Tom?
GJELTENConstitutions are just words. You know, they're just documents, and they don't mean anything unless you have institutions, political institutions that can really put into practice the principles that are enshrined in the constitution. There's not necessarily any problem with these constitutions across the continent that Jack refers to, but if you don't have leadership and institutions committed to the implementation of those constitutions, they essentially become dead letters.
REHMAll right. To Lancaster, Pa. Good morning, Martha.
MARTHAGood morning, Diane. I was just wondering, first of all, the criticism of the -- his criticism on the Catholic clergy. I mean, compare this to the Irish, I mean, it's -- and to us, I mean, actually. And I was just wondering if there's something positive of this man's legacy. The news out of the musical system El Sistema that gave us this incredible young man, Dudamel in Los Angeles, is this part of something that he's given to Venezuela? I mean, this has certainly reached down into the poorer population and gave them the resources that they needed to really excel.
GJELTENWell, you know, I'm not so familiar with that. I know who she is talking about, and, in fact, this support for the music -- musical system in Venezuela was something that Chavez did believe in a lot and showered a lot of, you know, gave a lot of state resources to, and it did flourish, and it did produce some real stars.
NAIMMay I -- Diane, this is Moises.
NAIMI just want to just mention that the system which is this wonderful idea that is now copied everywhere that he's using training in classical music for poor children that have all sorts of consequences was not started by Chavez.
NAIMThis is not a Chavez program. This was started by other governments during the democratic period in Venezuela. And what Chavez did at the beginning, he was rejecting everything that has been started before, and he had been cutting programs that were not his. And then he discovered that this one was really very interesting and very successful. And then that's when he started essentially giving money to it.
NAIMBut this was essentially a continuation of something that has already been created before.
REHMAll right. To Pete in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
PETEGood morning, everyone.
PETEMoises, I'd like to ask you, the vice president blamed Chavez's cancer on enemies -- on his enemies. Now, given in today's world that everybody believes in their own facts, does he actually believe that, or is he just trying to shore up his support among Chavez's supporters?
REHMGood questions. Moises.
NAIMI was surprised that it had taken them so long to get to that -- I'm sorry -- apologies. And then the story here is that they -- they're facing a very, very difficult situation going on. President -- Vice President Maduro, who is going to run for president, will have to face very difficult and unpopular economic decisions that are unavoidable, and they will be blame on him and his government.
NAIMAnd people will start asking, why is it that when Chavez was in government we didn't undertake these adjustments and caught in difficult economic measures? And so blaming others is going to become a very important facet of this tragedy. It had already started a few weeks ago when they started accusing the opposition and specific leaders of the opposition, like Leopoldo Lopez.
NAIMThey went after all the members, deputies and others of the opposition. And it was just a matter of time where blaming this traditional enemies from abroad -- that is the United States -- was going to be part of the narrative and the way in which they're going to try to generate support for the successor to President Chavez.
GJELTENYou know, Diane, I think the question of whether Nicolas Maduro really believes that or not goes to the heart of the issue because the truth of the matter is that in November, Nicolas Maduro had a conversation with the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson in which the two of them sort of committed informally to trying to get the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship back on a better track, that there could be more cooperation to fight drug trafficking and so forth.
GJELTENSo certainly I know from my conversations with U.S. officials, there was some feeling after that conversation that a government headed by Maduro would be more open to better relations with the United States. If that is the case, then the fact that he is now, sort of, outrageously blaming the United States for infecting Hugo Chavez with cancer would certainly suggests, as Moises Naim just said, that he is looking -- is doing this for political purposes.
REHMAll right. To Mario, who's in Orlando, Fla. Good morning.
MARIOGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
MARIOThat it's going to be just a very quick comment that I wanted to make. Actually, it's two different comments. The first one is that based on my perspective on being Venezuelan and having studied sociology for many years, I wanted to say one thing. The first thing is that as far as Chavez being a president for the poor, I didn't think that's really the case. There is -- as far as the moral values of the social -- of the -- conglomerating my country, the people of my country, that has been broken through all the years.
MARIOIn my country, the fact that Chavez has money or that he had probably about $2 million of personal wealth or whatever it is the amount, he wouldn't be a problem because according them, he deserves it. Before he came on to power, there were other people that, you know, that were also corruption. There was corruption in my country before him. The problem that we're facing as Venezuelans and that we face once Chavez became the president of my country voted in, it was that he actually continued to become another corrupt president.
REHMAll right. And one wonders about the dissident community that left Venezuela, came to Miami, came to Florida. How large is that group? Do we know, Tom?
GJELTENNo. I don't think proportionally, it's as large as the exile community that left Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power, but it is significant. As we've been discussing, he did alienate large segments of the business class and the professional class. Many Venezuelans did leave. I don't really know. Maybe Geoff or Moises does.
THALENo, no, I don't know the numbers.
THALECould I just make a follow-up comment on that?
THALEI mean, I think from what you've heard among the three of us and from the caller suggests both how polarizing Chavez was and how polarizing the next electoral campaign is going to be in Venezuela itself and the rhetoric we're going to hear on all sides probably. I think just following up on Tom's comment, one of the questions is, what is the United States -- what kind of approach do we take here?
THALEAnd I think it's really important to emphasize, however polarizing things are in Venezuela and however much there's a red flag waved in front of us about our policy and our approach, that the big thing we need to do here is say, we want to see a free and fair election in which Venezuelans choose their future.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Moises, how likely is there to be a free and fair election?
NAIMThe elections in Venezuela, as I said before, are supervised by a body called the National Electoral Council. And we have strong evidence that that body is completely controlled by the president -- by President Chavez and the government. The person that used to be the head -- the former head of that body after one of the elections that President Chavez won became the vice president of the country.
NAIMAnd there is vast, vast evidence that the government uses massive amounts of public monies, public resources, government workers to support the electoral -- election -- the outcome that it wishes. So the elections are, you know, people go and people vote, but they are to profound doubts about the way the information is processed, about the lists of voters and how accurate they are, but mostly, there is a very prolonged and abusive use of public monies in support of the government and also an abusive use of the media.
NAIMThe government has massive control of a variety of radio stations and television stations and newspapers and the like that are completely devoted to the president and are very -- that they exclude the opposition candidates. So it's a very tilted, very skewed electoral system.
GJELTENJust one other quick question -- point, Diane. Moises referred earlier to the Cuban presence at Venezuela. The Cubans are very deeply enmeshed not just in the medical and the education fields but also in intelligence and security. And the Cubans have a real interest in seeing that there is not some sort of transition here away from the direction that Hugo Chavez was leading that country in.
GJELTENAnd I think one of the big questions is the extent to which through their intelligence presence -- and there may be several thousand Cuban intelligence agents in Venezuela -- whether the Cuban presence will mean some distortion of the political process because, you know, they are in position to play a pretty troublesome role.
REHMTom, we've gotten quite a few emails saying we are too anti-Chavez. Do you think that there is a huge segment of the population here that sees our government as looking askance at the poor in this country and, therefore, feeling praising of Chavez because of what he did?
GJELTENNo, I think that's probably true. I think that there -- but I think sort of coming to conclusions about the nature of the Venezuelan system on the basis of your feelings about what's happening in the United States is a little bit of a stretch.
REHMTom Gjelten, Geoff Thale, Moises Naim. We've been talking about the death yesterday of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. He died at age 58 of cancer. Thank you all so much.
GJELTENGood to see you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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