Pos­i­tive ef­fects seen from Trump’s blunt diplomacy

Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion fights ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

CARA­CAS, VENEZUELA | Pres­i­dent Trump’s tougher talk and blunt diplomacy is hav­ing a pos­i­tive ef­fect in at least one coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the man who stands at the epi­cen­ter of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic earth­quake rock­ing Venezuela.

Wash­ing­ton’s hands-on ap­proach un­der Mr. Trump to the cri­sis could help Venezuela over­come the “clas­sic dic­ta­tor­ship” led by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, Julio Borges, speaker of the op­po­si­tion­dom­i­nated Na­tional Assem­bly, told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view at a cafe in this restive cap­i­tal city.

“In all of Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions with lead­ers in Latin Amer­ica, the topic of Venezuela comes up — and it’s raised by him,” Mr. Borges said. “This top-of-mind con­cern Trump has about Venezuela is very valu­able for us.”

It is “very im­por­tant to us that he be a fac­tor help­ing to cre­ate max­i­mum in­ter­na­tional pres­sure” on Mr. Maduro, who has ruled with an in­creas­ingly

au­thor­i­tar­ian bent since the 2013 death of his pop­ulist pre­de­ces­sor and men­tor, Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Borges, who has headed the largely dis­en­fran­chised Na­tional Assem­bly since Jan­uary, on Satur­day was hud­dling with top brass of his Jus­tice First party at a Cara­cas cafe to talk strat­egy after a bloody week of antigov­ern­ment protests had claimed the lives of up to seven cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing a 13-year-old boy. They were con­sid­er­ing a di­rect ap­peal to the coun­try’s mil­i­tary to help stop the blood­shed.

Amid the un­rest, Venezuela’s econ­omy con­tin­ues to crater. Al­though the na­tion holds one of the world’s largest en­ergy re­serves, the econ­omy has been hurt by the Maduro gov­ern­ment’s mis­man­age­ment, weak world oil and com­mod­ity prices, and the re­luc­tance of in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies to in­vest in the do­mes­tic econ­omy.

Mr. Trump is among a grow­ing num­ber of world lead­ers who un­der­stand that Venezuela’s melt­down is hav­ing har­row­ing ef­fects and spark­ing in­sta­bil­ity far be­yond its bor­ders, Mr. Borges said.

“Venezuela no longer is a lo­cal prob­lem [of] gov­ern­abil­ity and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism but a con­ta­gious dis­ease that has roots and ten­ta­cles in all of the re­gion’s prob­lems,” he said. “Never be­fore in these years of strug­gle had there been this clear a di­ag­no­sis that Venezuela is a dic­ta­tor­ship and that all pres­sure is needed to bring about change.”

While Mr. Chavez and Mr. Maduro were in­tent on amass­ing power and chal­leng­ing the U.S., they were also shrewd enough politi­cians to make many lead­ers be­lieve that Venezuela was a func­tion­ing democ­racy and not the “cor­rupt” and “dark” dic­ta­tor­ship it re­ally is, Mr. Borges said.

“What is the dif­fer­ence with what’s hap­pen­ing in re­cent times? It’s that the dis­guise no longer ex­ists,” he said. “It was a dic­ta­tor­ship dis­guised as a democ­racy, and many peo­ple fell for it — in­side the coun­try and out. What’s in­ter­est­ing is that now, no­body’s fooled any­more.”

Venezue­lans have long voted with their feet, and the re­sult is a mas­sive wave of em­i­gra­tion of mostly young and highly ed­u­cated cit­i­zens. An­nual in­fla­tion is ap­proach­ing four dig­its, and short­ages of ba­sic con­sumer goods and drugs of­ten re­quire wait­ing in line for hours — if the items can be found at all.

“Right now, there are 500,000 Venezue­lans in Colom­bia. We make up 3 per­cent of Panama’s pop­u­la­tion. The Do­mini­can Repub­lic is chang­ing its laws to keep Venezue­lans from en­ter­ing,” Mr. Borges said. “The mi­gra­tion prob­lem, added to those of or­ga­nized crime, of the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment’s po­lit­i­cal med­dling [in for­eign] coun­tries [and] of ter­ror­ism and drug traf­fick­ing means that [Venezuela] is an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem.”

Sanc­tion­ing a vice pres­i­dent

Pres­i­dent Obama also took ac­tion against the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing econ­omy and state of civil lib­er­ties here, is­su­ing an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in 2015 declar­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Venezuela an “ex­tra­or­di­nary threat to the na­tional se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy of the United States” and freez­ing the U.S. as­sets of seven high­rank­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

Though it was Mr. Trump who — barely four weeks into his pres­i­dency — ex­tended those sanc­tions to Mr. Maduro’s se­cond in com­mand, Vice Pres­i­dent Tareck El Ais­sami, Mr. Borges said Mr. Obama de­served some credit for that bold step, too.

“The tough­est mea­sure that has been taken — the one against the vice pres­i­dent — was not born in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion but was de­vel­oped and in­ves­ti­gated two years ear­lier in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said. It was Mr. Trump, how­ever, who gave the or­der to pull the trig­ger.

In re­sponse to Mr. Trump’s brand­ing of Mr. El Ais­sami as a nar­cotics traf­ficker, Mr. Maduro threat­ened that the U.S. “em­pire” would fall sooner or later. Mr. Borges, how­ever, coun­tered that Wash­ing­ton was merely de­fend­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Why does the United States have to sanc­tion a Venezue­lan of­fi­cial?’ For a very sim­ple rea­son: Be­cause cor­rupt Venezue­lan of­fi­cials love to have their ac­counts in dol­lars,” he said. “They use the U.S. fi­nan­cial sys­tem to com­mit crimes. So the United States has ev­ery right to pun­ish [them].”

The sanc­tions also high­light how Mr. Maduro’s four-year ef­fort to deepen Mr. Chavez’s so­cial­ist “Bo­li­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion” means, in the fa­mous Or­wellian for­mu­la­tion, that some are “more equal than oth­ers.”

“We have some rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who love Dis­ney World. They love to go there, they all have houses in Or­lando,” Mr. Borges said. “It’s a very hyp­o­crit­i­cal gov­ern­ment that talks about im­pe­ri­al­ism and the like, but many of them have ac­counts in the United States, own prop­er­ties in the United States — as a re­sult of cor­rup­tion and or­ga­nized crime.”

U.S. bank records thus be­lie Mr. Maduro’s vi­o­lently in­flam­ma­tory speeches, in which he of­ten blames Wash­ing­ton for in­sti­gat­ing an eco­nomic war against his gov­ern­ment.

“I think that’s no longer in vogue al­ready,” Mr. Borges joked. “Ev­ery at­tempt to reignite the Cold War has failed, [even] in Cuba: Was Obama not there? Did they not give him a hero’s wel­come? Are the Cubans not hun­gry for the grin­gos to come and in­vest? All this rhetoric in Venezuela is ab­so­lutely un­real. It’s an ex­cuse for a cor­rupt regime.”

But be­yond Ha­vana — still the

gov­ern­ment’s clos­est friend — Mr. Maduro has lost key al­lies in the re­gion, most no­tably per­haps in Ar­gentina, where cen­ter-right Buenos Aires Mayor Mauri­cio Macri in late 2015 re­placed pop­ulist Cristina Fer­nan­dez, who ad­mired Mr. Chavez to the ex­tent that his por­trait graced her pres­i­den­tial palace.

Mr. Macri, on the other hand, led ef­forts this year to sus­pend Cara­cas from the Mer­co­sur trade bloc and is due to visit Mr. Trump on April 27. Venezuela is ex­pected to be among the top is­sues on the agenda.

Mr. Borges said that if Mr. Maduro con­tin­ues to ig­nore calls for long-over­due re­gional elec­tions and the re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, then the pres­i­dents and their peers have the power to ratchet up pres­sure.

“[They could ban] com­mer­cial or po­lit­i­cal ex­change with Venezuela, up to en­forc­ing the In­ter-Amer­i­can Demo­cratic Char­ter, which would mean the coun­try’s com­plete iso­la­tion — a coun­try un­der quar­an­tine,” he said. “We are very aware that in­ter­na­tional pres­sure weak­ens the gov­ern­ment. But ul­ti­mately, it’s us [Venezue­lans] who have to do the work of demo­crat­i­cally re­plac­ing this gov­ern­ment.”

To that ef­fect, he and other op­po­si­tion lead­ers are call­ing for another round of protests in Cara­cas and state cap­i­tals this week — even in the face of dan­ger. Protesters last week were met by riot po­lice mak­ing wide use of tear gas — be­lieved to be dan­ger­ously past its ex­pi­ra­tion date and in one case dropped from a he­li­copter into the crowd.

“The gov­ern­ment has no re­spect for life, nor has it re­spect for peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing and dig­nity. Not just [last] week, but ev­ery week, peo­ple die as a di­rect re­sult of its poli­cies,” Mr. Borges said. “Chil­dren die from hunger, the el­derly die be­cause they have no drugs and young­sters die at the hands of vi­o­lence.”

Worse yet, Mr. Borges said, the death toll may be more method than col­lat­eral dam­age.

“Un­for­tu­nately, [last] week’s fa­tal­i­ties are not a one-time event,” he said.

“It’s a peak in a day-to-day sce­nario of death, to which the gov­ern­ment is not just in­dif­fer­ent but which it some­times even pro­motes as a form of sup­pres­sion of our peo­ple. … Be­cause of the demon­stra­tions, more than 300 peo­ple are un­der ar­rest. They ‘dis­ap­pear’ them like any clas­sic dic­ta­tor­ship. It hap­pens ev­ery day.”

Un­de­terred

Still, Mr. Borges, a 47-year-old lawyer and fa­ther of quadru­plets, said he re­fuses to yield to fear — de­spite the reprisals against other op­po­si­tion lead­ers, in­clud­ing for­mer Cha­cao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez — im­pris­oned since 2014 — and cur­rent Mi­randa Gov. Hen­rique Capriles, who was pun­ished this month with a 15year ban from po­lit­i­cal of­fice.

“I have been beaten by peo­ple from the gov­ern­ment some five times, [as­saults] even cel­e­brated by Maduro on tele­vi­sion broad­casts,” Mr. Borges said. “The Na­tional Assem­bly [has] vi­o­lent groups at its door ev­ery day. Peo­ple who in­sult you, who throw stones at you. But it’s a mi­nor­ity that’s paid to be there, [and they use] the po­lice and na­tional guard, too, to beat law­mak­ers, even in the very Na­tional Assem­bly, with to­tal im­punity.”

The speaker saw a glim­mer of hope in late March, though, when At­tor­ney Gen­eral Luisa Ortega Diaz — con­sid­ered a loyal Maduro ap­pointee — broke with the rub­ber-stamp Supreme Tri­bunal jus­tices after they tried to grab the lit­tle power that the Na­tional Assem­bly still holds. A day after Ms. Ortega’s pub­lic re­buke, the court re­versed its de­ci­sion.

The pros­e­cu­tor’s prin­ci­pled stance sent a pow­er­ful mes­sage to the mil­i­tary, which Mr. Maduro said is much less loy­al­ist to Mr. Maduro than of­ten per­ceived and could play a crit­i­cal role in end­ing his grasp on power, Mr. Borges said.

“When a per­son like the at­tor­ney gen­eral uses her con­science and uses her val­ues and the truth, that pro­duces an enor­mous earth­quake,” he said. “The sys­tem col­lapses in the way it col­lapsed. It gets messed up com­pletely. … And that pro­duced a domino ef­fect that, I am cer­tain, has cre­ated con­tra­dic­tions [and] de­bates within the armed forces.”

Al­though all Venezue­lan sol­diers have a duty to help re­store the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion, the re­turn to democ­racy must come through the bal­lot box, Mr. Borges said.

“That is a much more pow­er­ful route than a mil­i­tary, in­ter­ven­tion­ist or coup d’etat route,” he said. “To us, the bal­lot is the most pow­er­ful tool we have — and, at the same time, the most sub­ver­sive.”

Latin Amer­i­can neigh­bors, such as Peru and Colom­bia, have shown that na­tions once con­sid­ered “failed states” can turn things around. “To­day, they are coun­ties at full speed,” he said. “And Venezuela can achieve the same with clear sig­nals and clear lead­er­ship.”

His mes­sage of hope­ful­ness seems to res­onate with many. At the cafe in the posh Cara­cas neigh­bor­hood of Los Pa­los Gran­des on Satur­day, a hand­ful of guests who spot­ted the speaker walked up to him to shake his hand and wish him well.

If his party as­sumes gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at some point, Mr. Borges said, he would push to rein­tro­duce term lim­its, weaken pres­i­den­tial pow­ers, try to re­duce Venezuela’s near to­tal de­pen­dence on oil ex­ports — and ul­ti­mately end al­most two decades of hard-line so­cial­ism.

“I be­lieve in an open econ­omy, to­tally,” he said. “But I also be­lieve in so­cial jus­tice. When we talk about jus­tice, we talk about the co­ex­is­tence of lib­erty and equal­ity. That is jus­tice. … And I be­lieve that is per­fectly pos­si­ble.”

Given the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of Mr. Capriles, Jus­tice First’s orig­i­nal can­di­date in the pri­maries of the op­po­si­tion MUD coali­tion, mean­while, Mr. Borges might be well-po­si­tioned to make his own run for the pres­i­dency next year. But the speaker in­sists that if the ban is not re­versed, then the na­tional vote could not be con­sid­ered le­git­i­mate in the first place.

“To hold pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in which the gov­ern­ment presents us with the menu of can­di­dates — that’s not an elec­tion,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

CON­CERNED: Na­tional Assem­bly Pres­i­dent Julio Borges is look­ing for “max­i­mum in­ter­na­tional pres­sure” against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

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