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May 17, 2018

On Thursday, May 17, the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center held a timely conference call to discuss Venezuela's May 20 electoral event with Juan Andrés Mejía, Representative of the State of Miranda in Venezuela's National Assembly, and Phil Gunson, Andes Project Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group. Below is the full transcript. 

“Venezuela’s Sham Electoral Event: Preparing for May 20 and What Comes Next”

Speakers:

Juan Andrés Mejía,

Representative, State of Miranda,

National Assembly of Venezuela (Via Caracas)

Phil Gunson,

Senior Analyst, Andes,

International Crisis Group (Via Caracas)

Moderator:

Jason Marczak,

Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center,

Atlantic Council

Time:  11:00 a.m. EDT

Date:  Thursday, May 17, 2018




JASON MARCZAK:  Good morning, everyone, and welcome.  A few more people are – I think are still joining into the call, but we’re going to go ahead and get started.

I am Jason Marczak, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center here at the Atlantic Council, and I want to thank all of you for joining us today using our new, fancy zoom app, for this incredibly timely public, on-the-record conversation.  Today we’re here to take an in-depth look at the different scenarios surrounding Venezuela’s electoral event on Sunday, and I want to thank Juan Andrés Mejía and Phil Gunson for joining us today from Caracas.

Juan Andrés, Phil, you are both – you are both there?

JUAN ANDRÉS MEJÍA:  Hi, Jason, I’m here.

PHIL GUNSON:  Yes.

MR. MARCZAK:  Fantastic.  Fantastic.  Well, welcome.

A few words before we start, which will come as no surprise to all of you joining the call today, but I think it still must be said.

What we’ve seen in Venezuela is truly – it’s heartbreaking. And this Sunday, the regime of Nicolas Maduro will hold an electoral event, whose illegitimacy has been decried by most Latin American countries, the European Union, Canada, and the United States.

The main opposition parties have also denounced the upcoming vote given its lack to meet the minimal conditions to be considered free and fair, and of course, in the midst of this sham electoral event, Venezuelans are struggling every day to survive hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and fleeing in record numbers.  This tragic course has sparked a refugee and migrant exodus that could rival some of the world’s most massive outflows.

In the last few hours the country has been experiencing incredibly tense moments. After being enraged by the beating and torture of an incarcerated activist, inmates took control of Venezuela’s most notorious political prison, protesting government abuses and continuous human rights violations.  As well, just yesterday, thousands of Venezuelans also took to the streets in repudiation of Sunday’s electoral event, marching to the headquarters of the OAS in Caracas to request free and fair elections.

In light of this, the Atlantic Council is hosting this conversation to hear from leading actors on what is the on-the-ground situation as Venezuela prepares for Sunday’s electoral event.  In the days following May 20th, we will also publish the results of a flash poll to measure the views of Venezuelans surrounding the electoral event and also what’s next for the country.

And again, I want to thank our two very distinguished guests who are joining us today:  Juan Andrés Mejía and Phil Gunson, both from Caracas.  Let me introduce each of them briefly.

Juan Andrés is a representative of the state of Miranda and Venezuela’s National Assembly, and also a founding member of the political party, Voluntad Popular, one of the leading political parties within the Venezuelan opposition.  Juan Andrés was also an integral member of the student movement back in 2007 which protested the closure of Radio Caracas Television and then defeated the constitutional reform proposed by Hugo Chavez.  He is also currently the national coordinator of Voluntad Popular.

In addition to his leadership within Venezuela, he also has a distinguished academic background.  He has a master’s degree in public management from the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administracion and also a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Juan Andrés, welcome.

MR. MEJÍA:  Thank you.  It’s a pleasure to be with you.

MR. MARCZAK:  And Phil Gunson.  Phil is the Andes Project senior analyst of the Crisis Group, where he researches and produces policy materials and conducts advocacy on policy issues in the Andes region.  Phil is focused primarily on the Venezuelan political situation.  Phil has spent almost 40 years reporting on Latin America for a wide variety of news outlets.  In the 1980s he covered the wars in Central America.  In the late 1990s he was the Latin America correspondent for The Guardian.  He has co-authored two books on the region and is joining us as well from Caracas.

Phil, welcome to you as well.

MR. GUNSON:  Thank you very much for the invitation; pleasure to be with you.

MR. MARCZAK:  Great.

Well, you can follow today’s conversation as well using the hashtag #ACVenezuela on Twitter.

I’m going to start the conversation with Juan Andrés and with Phil, a couple of questions for each on the situation in Venezuela.  We’ll have a conversation among the three of us, and then we will open up to questions from all of you joining this call.  In order to ask a question, press the – there’s a raise-hand button that you press.  And we will be then taking questions based on who pushes that button.  So – or you can also type your questions.  There’s a chat feature on Zoom, so you can also ask your questions using the Zoom chat feature.

Juan Andrés, I want to start with you.  The results of Sunday’s electoral event seem pretty clear.  The big question is what may transpire that we may not be thinking about?  So if you could start off, what can you tell us about the situation on the ground right now here on Thursday, just three days before the electoral event on Sunday?

MR. MEJÍA:  Sure.  Well, it’s a pleasure to be with you all.

The atmosphere at this moment is – it’s very confusing for Venezuelans, because, to be honest, there is a polarized view on what’s going to happen on Sunday.  Even though most Venezuelans believe the electoral council is not transparent, they do – there are some people that have some kind of expectation on what’s going to happen on Sunday.

You have to understand the situation that we’re living through – the scarcity of basic goods, the lack of basic services – it’s very difficult for Venezuela to live in the situation.  And some have decided to put their hopes on Sunday.  I think that’s not the majority of Venezuelans, but it’s an important part of our people.  So some people might be expecting some kind of result on Sunday.

The rest of the country – and sometimes the same person can move from one point to the other – the rest of the country is not thinking about the election.  It’s thinking about their well-being.  It’s thinking about how to survive.  They know nothing’s going to change, that on Monday things are going to be pretty much as bad as they are right now.

So it’s an unusual election.  It’s not like the ones we had before where almost the entire population was looking forward to this event.  I think the campaign itself hasn’t been very notorious.  Of course there has been meetings here and there, but you don’t see the movement that you usually see before elections around the country.

You don’t see the media talking about the elections as much as they used to, because there’s a lot of more things happening – the protests yesterday, the protests by the inmates in the Helicoide, in the prison, political prison, today.  So there’s a lot of things happening at the same time.  And I think in general that’s a symptom that the process that’s going to happen on Sunday, it’s not a reelection.  It’s just one political event, an important political event – you cannot ignore that fact – but that’s not going to have any surprises.

MR. MARCZAK:  Phil, on that point, on the point of Venezuelans not having the ability at this point really to focus on the electoral event on Sunday, probably due to the situation that people are just struggling to survive every day, I’d like to get your thoughts on that, that, as Juan Andrés is saying, it’s a very difficult time for ordinary people to think about politics and the need for change when they’re struggling to get access to basic goods such as food and medicine.

Phil, in your opinion, what are some of the top-of-mind issues that Venezuelans are concerned about right now and in need of specific solutions?  We were talking just now about, of course, the food and medicine shortages.  And if you could elaborate on that and also additional issues that you think have risen to be top of mind.

MR. GUNSON:  Yeah, I mean, it’s absolutely right that, as Juan Andrés, is saying, the majority of the population are focused on the most basic needs of all, ideological needs.  I mean, people need food, they need shelter, they need water, they need electricity.  And most people’s daily life is consumed with trying to ‒ trying to obtain those, not least, of course, cash which is almost impossible to get from a bank these days.

But I don’t think that means necessarily that people are not thinking about what the solution might be.  And I think one of the ‒ one of the things here that’s very important to bear in mind is people are confused not just because the government has made it its business to confuse people and the government, of course, controls most of the media here, the footage that is pumped out most of the time is government propaganda, but it’s also due, I think, to a lack of leadership on the part of the opposition.  The opposition is split into three parts:  one part is taking part in the elections, one part is abstaining and another is calling for a, quote/unquote, “humanitarian intervention.”  But none of them really seem to have caught the public imagination, if you like.  People are bereft of leadership.

And I think a lot of the confusion is because people genuinely don’t know what they’re going to wake up to on the 21st of May.  And what will be important to see in those hours and days after the election is whether the political opposition can somehow come together around a coherent to resist and to ‒ and to push forward with demands for a democratic political transition.

MR. MARCZAK:  Juan Andrés, I’d like you to comment on Phil’s points there.

MR. MEJÍA:  Yes, I agree with Phil that the opposition is not as united as it should be.  There are different views on how to move forward and it’s understandable that in situations such as the one we have right now it’s not easy to come up with an easy solution.

I would say that Venezuelans used to vote.  They have regarded voting as a way to solve their problems or at least try to.  And since many people are starting to understand that that’s not the way that we are able to solve our differences, then there is a big confusion on the table.

I think from May 21st, there is a big challenge in that sense in trying to unite the entire opposition into one view.  I don’t know if it will be possible.  It depends on how the leadership reacts.  One of the things that we’re not sure about is what Falcón will do on Sunday and on Monday.  We can, of course, you know, anticipate some scenarios, but nobody knows for sure.

What I do know is that most Venezuelans, almost all Venezuelans on May 21st are going to look at each other and they’re going to understand that things have not changed.  Even those that voted for Maduro, even those that supported one of the so-called opposition candidates, and even those, like me, that won’t vote, we are all going to be in the same place on Monday because nothing is going to change, things are going to keep worsening and we’re going to have to find a way to work together to bring about change.

I would like to present in this call an issue route from point A to point B, B being democracy, but there is no such path.  This is a struggle that we are being ‒ we have been fighting within the constitution, protesting, raising our voices peacefully, because that’s the way we know how to do things here.  And we’re sure that eventually the majority of Venezuelans will unite in that sense.

So we also have been trying to approach Maria Corina and Antonio Ledezma, which is one of the groups that Phil was talking about.  And we’ve done some progress, in the international arena there have been meetings that Antonio Ledezma and Julio Borges and Carlos Vecchio have been attending together.  I think that’s an important step forward.  But at the end, we still have to solve the main issue, which is how to move forward, how to solve this situation.  And at this point at least, the Unity Roundtable and the Frente Amplio, United Front, don’t believe that the international intervention is the best way to do it.

So I would also like to say ‒ just to end, Jason, I’m sorry ‒ that for those listening, it’s important to know that the majority of the opposition, almost a hundred congressman and the main political parties and even, you know, social sectors, such as the church, such as universities, the student movement, labor movement, are all united in this Frente Amplio, the United Front.  And we all have agreed on that strategy within that Frente Amplio.

So even there is some division, it will be unfair to say that the opposition is divided into three parts.  I think it’s difficult to measure the divisions, but I will ‒ I think it’s fair also to say that most of the leadership is on the same page.

MR. MARCZAK:  Just a quick follow up and then I will go back to you, Phil.

But just a quick follow up on the point of opposition unity and cohesion.  You know, Phil raised a point that many raised about the cohesion and strength of it.  You know, Juan Andrés, you know, looking through your social media accounts, it’s clear that you and others are undertaking significant mobilization efforts every day, right?  You know, you referred in the opening to the mobilization of marching to the OAS headquarters in Caracas.  But if you could expand a little bit on some of the work that you are doing in Venezuela to rally the opposition’s base, but also expand that base to incorporate other disenchanted Venezuelans.

And then I’d like to turn back to you, Phil.

MR. MEJÍA:  Sure.  I think that’s a very important point.  We’ve been trying to mobilize the opposition, the people.  One way that we’re doing so is explaining to them the new scenario that we’re living through, the new challenges that we’re facing, especially without being able to really vote, to really choose in an election.  That’s something we’ve been trying to explain to the people.  And even though it’s a slow process because we don’t have the help of traditional media, we are doing ‒ we’re making some progress.

On the other hand, we still have a huge challenge because, as Phil was saying, the main issue facing most Venezuelans, especially the poorest sectors of the country, is, you know, just making it through every day, basic goods, food, medicine.  And we still have some work to do in linking those issues with the political debate.  It still appears that sometimes the political debate is on one page and the social and economic struggle is in a different page.

I think one of the huge challenges we have and the efforts that we’re making is to making people understand that it’s impossible to solve the social issues that we’re facing and the economic difficulties that we have unless we solve the political ‒ the political issues.  So, in a sense, we think that’s the key to move forward.  And if we’re able to do that, I think there is hope for the Venezuelan cause.

MR. MARCZAK:  Thank you.

Phil, turning back to you, I want to turn back to you on resolving, on kind of steps forward with regard to the hyperinflation, the scarcity of goods and whatnot.  And then ‒ and then I’d like to turn to drilling down a little bit more on what we can expect May 21st and then look at the international community’s reaction and actions thus far.

But, Phil, just going back to the point Juan Andrés is bringing up, that this is, of course, this electoral event is happening in the midst of hyperinflation like could never have been expected in the Western Hemisphere, you know, the scarcity of basic goods as well as even the attachment of assets in Caribbean countries like Curaçao.  What do ‒ what do ‒ if Maduro, assuming Maduro is declared the winner after Sunday’s electoral event, what do you ‒ what actions do you see being taken, government actions, with regard to economic policy, given, I think, the additional consolidation of his ‒ of his power that would be one byproduct of the electoral event on Sunday.

MR. GUNSON:  Yeah, well, first of all, I’m not absolutely sure that Maduro’s power will be consolidated on Sunday.  I mean, I think that certainly he needs to get the election out of the way.  He needs it because he – because he – you know, they’re determined – the government is determined to say in power, but equally determined that there should be some kind of story that they can tell about their, you know, supposed legitimacy.  You need to get it out of the way.  But I’m not sure that the election is going to resolve the deep problems that he has with governability, which is not just to do with the opposition, which at the moment is in bad shape, as we’ve already said.  But it’s also to do with the stresses and the stains within the ruling coalition.  And those may come to the fore after the election. 

So he may not be consolidated.  And that’s one reason why I think there won’t be any significant change in economic policy.  Maduro has been in power now since 2013.  He’s had at least half a dozen opportunities to reform economic policy.  He seemed to be point of doing it at a number of – on a number of occasions, most importantly perhaps when he put Rafael Ramirez in charge of the economy.  Ramirez came up with a plan, and Maduro sacked Ramirez.  So I don’t think that Maduro, who’s not done this for six years, is suddenly going to turn into an economist.  I think he’s going to make things worse.  We’ve seen in the run-up to the election of the last few weeks some very bad signs, like the supposedly temporary takeover of the country’s biggest private bank, forcing the only remaining manufacturer of car batteries in the country to sell at a loss.  Like everything, he’s going to continue as before.  And Maduro, the bus driver, is going to drive the bus over a cliff.

So I don’t think that on that space, on that side of things there’s much optimism.  And we also have to bear in mind that Maduro is trapped, to a large extent.  He’s facing international sanctions which make it impossible for him to get access to the U.S. financial system.  He needs to renegotiate a massive debt, which he basically can’t do unless there’s a credible economic and financial team in place.  And that, under Maduro, I think is absolutely –

MR. MARCZAK:  Phil?

MR. GUNSON:  Yeah?  Can you hear me?

MR. MARCZAK:  We lost you there for a second. 

MR. GUNSON:  OK.  I don’t know how far you – what I was saying –

MR. MARCZAK:  Just the – you were mentioning the economic – the lack of being able to put forward a credible economic policy.

MR. GUNSON:  Yeah.  That’s it.  I mean, he needs a credible team in place.  And no credible economic of financial team can be pulled together under the regime.  And it wouldn’t have any credibility.  And unless there’s democratic reform, the sanctions won’t be lifted.  So I basically don’t think that there’s any hope under Maduro of any kind of economic reform at all.

MR. MARCZAK:  Do you see – do you see this situation – I have concern that the situation will get much worse, humanitarian-wise, after the 20th because there’s been attempts to be try to, you know, prop up what little can be propped up leading up to the electoral event.  Do you – do you see an even more rapid decline in kind of the basic everyday situation following the electoral event on Sunday?

MR. GUNSON:  Unfortunately, yes, for two main reasons.  One is that for the last six months we’ve been in hyperinflation.  And the hyperinflationary crisis is exponential in its effects.  And that’s just going to get worse.  And on the other hand, we’re seeing the breakdown of basic infrastructure.  All the things that have not been repaired, not been maintained for the last 15 years or so, are falling apart – you know, electricity, water supply, you know, the internet – (laughs) – as you can tell.  You know, everything is on the verge of collapse.  The health system has largely collapsed.  And we have reached – you know, inflations don’t reach the bottom.  There’s always further to fall.  But it really does seem like life as we know it is not going to be possible for very much longer in Venezuela unless there is radical change.

MR. MARCZAK:  Juan Andrés, you were mentioning before – you were starting to talk about what we can expect to come May 21st.  I’d like to ask you to elaborate a little bit more on that.  What do you – what should all of us who are listening to this call be prepared for come May 21st?  And as well, not just kind of actions that might be taken by the Maduro regime, but also how will people like yourself – leaders in Venezuela who are fighting for democracy – how will you move forward after Sunday’s vote?

MR. MEJÍA:  Well, I would like to start talking about how the reality might be for the majority of Venezuelans, and then speak about the leadership a little bit.  I think the situation is going to keep worsening.  What Phil was describing is absolutely accurate.  The economic situation is unbearable.  I mean, it’s getting more difficult as each day passes by.  And I think the government will reach a point where they won’t be able to respond to basic needs.  At this point, you see hundreds of protests happening every day in every single state of the country.  But at least until now, the government has been able somehow to respond.  I mean, if there’s a protest for domestic gas, they will send some domestic gas.  If there’s a protest for lack of water, they will send some water.

But if the situation keeps worsening, as it is and nothing indicates that it’s going to change its course, they will reach a point where the government won’t be able to respond and the people will just keep protesting.  I’ve seen the behavior of the armed forces facing these protests.  And it’s very difficult for them to repress this kind of situation.  They know people are suffering.  So I think it’s going to be a huge challenge for Maduro and his people to manage this situation from May 21st. 

For the leadership and on the political arena, it won’t be easy as well.  I think that the government might try to come down on the opposition once again.  There has been – even though we always see some kind of repression – there has been some level of, you know, calm during the last few weeks.  But I think that might change after May 21st.  You might see the government going after congressmen such as Fiorigo (ph) or Julio Borges, or Juanita (sp), who knows. 

But I also think the government might try – and this speculation, of course – to put on an agenda, to put on forward some kind of initiative.  Some people have said that they might try to propose a referendum to approve a new constitution.  The government said a few days ago that it would try to have a recall referendum against us in the Assembly.  So I think they will not stand still.  They will put something on the agenda.  So they will keep distracting the people and the leadership from the main issues that we’re facing.

MR. MARCZAK:  And in that scenario, how do people, like yourself, who are working every day for a return to democracy, how do – how do you advance in that – in that type of environment?

MR. MEJÍA:  Well, I think it’s an important question, because many of the people that are listening to this call are either part of the diaspora or work in the international community.  And it’s important to understand the reality of those that are working on the ground here is different.  And it’s difficult every day.  So the things that we can do are not – I mean, we have some restraints that we cannot, I mean, overcome as easy.

So what we can do is organize the people.  We can keep preaching.  We can keep, I mean, letting people know our vision of a better Venezuela.  And to remind people.  I think this is one of the most important duties that we have here in Venezuela, to remind people that we do not deserve to live this way, that there is a different possibility for the future, that the only way out of this situation is not to emigrate, it’s not to leave the country. 

That if we fight together peacefully, if we raise our voices peacefully and united, and that if we understand that the struggle for domestic gas and water is the same struggle for the freedom of political prisoners or free elections – that if we all understand that, I think we are going to be able to mobilize most of the country.  At the same time, we need the pressure of the diaspora, of the international community to keep doing some of the things they have been doing that we cannot do from here.

MR. MARCZAK:  OK.  That’s a great conduit to our next part of the conversation on the international community.

I want to turn back to Phil first, then go back to you, Juan Andrés, on that, and then open it up to questions.

So, again, if you have questions, use the raise-hand button or type your questions into the zoom chat, and we’ll be opening up to questions in just a few minutes.

But on the point of the international community, Phil, many countries in the Western Hemisphere have been taking action.  They’ve been enacting sanctions.  They’ve been using diplomatic tools to pressure Maduro.  Phil, what is your perspective on some of the diplomatic tools that could best exert pressure on Maduro?  And then I’ll turn it to Juan Andrés for some more question after that.

MR. GUNSON:  Yeah.  I think that the sanctions are fine and necessary, but clearly, you know, they’re a blunt instrument.  Sanctions work best when the threat of them causes the target of the sanctions to change their behavior.  And that hasn’t happened in Venezuela.  And I suspect that cranking up the sanctions, although it’s almost inevitable, probably won’t have the needed effect either.

At Crisis Group, we do feel that it would be important for other Latin American nations – Panama has taken some steps, but other Latin American nations, members of the Grupo de Lima, for example, should be looking closely at what they can do after the 20th, mainly – perhaps not because it will have a major practical effect, but because the symbolic impact is important.

I mean, I think it’s very important that this should be multilateral.  And we’re very concerned that – you know, that, for example, the U.S. goes off on its own with an oil embargo, say, or, even worse still, military intervention.  It’s very important that this should be seen as a collective action.  And the more that that’s extended to other countries, particularly in the region, that’s good.

But there also needs to be a way out.  I mean, it also needs to be clear to the regime what their possible exit strategy could be.  Their costs – their exit costs are very high right now.  The regime members, leading members, giving up power is potentially for them lifetime imprisonment.  It’s losing, you know, their wealth and power and so on.  It’s very hard for them to conceive that.  And some creative work needs to be done on convincing them that – or, if not them, then other people within the regime who might be looking to replace them, that there is a way forward, that there is – that there is a win-win solution.  It’s not easy.

We also think that it’s important to keep trying to engage with China, because China here can be part of the solution.  Right now it seems to be still part of the problem in the sense that it’s propping up this government.  And it’s not getting a lot out of it right now, because China’s economic and financial interests are being damaged by this incompetent regime, which is destroying the oil industry.

So we think that there’s a possibility to engage with China – it’s not easy, of course – but that the Chinese could help to persuade the government in Caracas to budge, to actually go back to the table with a serious negotiation proposal, not, as they’ve done in the past, to buy time, to split the opposition, and things they do to waste everybody’s time.

MR. MARCZAK:  Interesting idea.  Yeah, the Chinese have a lot at stake here and have definitely felt the squeeze from all their loans to the Maduro regime.

You know, as well, I think, on your point, Phil, you know, I think what we’ve seen largely from the U.S. perspective, and we’ve seen this desire for working with other partner countries in collective action, which has, I think, been a helpful, important way to advance.

Phil, do you agree with – or Juan Andrés, do you agree with Phil?  Also what further action do you think the international community should be making to react to Sunday’s electoral event?  And specifically, I guess, are there other actions that the international community can take that will help democratic leaders, those in the opposition, insofar as working toward a restoration of democracy?  So what would be – what would be most helpful for the work you’re trying to do?

MR. MEJÍA:  I think I agree with Phil, with most of what he said.  I think it’s a difficult debate because the experience around the world is mixed.  I think, in general, it is important that those who violate human rights in Venezuela and those who have robbed our country and who are responsible for the economic tragedies, in a sense, should know that they won’t be able to enjoy their money and that they won’t be able to travel around the world freely.  I think, in general, that’s a good policy, that the justice that we cannot find in Venezuela against those who violate our constitution, our human rights, is not applied on the same terms abroad. 

Other than that, I think the economic situation itself, it’s unraveling.  We’ve seen what happened with – (inaudible) – in the last few days, and it’s likely that more of that will happen.  I’m a member of the finance committee in the assembly and we have been studying the situation with the international debt and it’s something that worries us a lot because we know that, you know, bond traders and the like are very worried and are thinking about taking action against the Venezuelan government.  So that is going to unravel, whether we like it or not, whether we think it’s positive or not.

And I do think it is important not to give the government more narratives on the crisis.  They always are ‒ they’re always looking for someone to blame.  And I think at this point, most Venezuelans know that it’s their responsibility.  I think we have to keep working for people to know that that’s really what’s going on.

MR. MARCZAK:  Thanks, Juan Andrés.

I’m going to ‒ we have a couple of questions coming in via chat.  Let me read the first one here from Diego Scharifker ‒ I’m assuming I’m pronouncing, Diego, your last name correctly.  The question is, Maduro in the last days has made calls proposing a new round of dialogue and a, quote/unquote, “unity government.”  Is that possible?  And would that be a possible next step?

Either Juan Andrés or Phil, please, go ahead.

MR. GUNSON:  I can jump in there if you like, Jason.

I think, as I was saying before, dialogue really ‒ the time for dialogue has kind of run out.  What we need is negotiation and we need negotiation, you know, a few serious negotiation and proper internationally mediated negotiation, I think.  In order to get there, the government has to give clear signs that it’s serious this time about talking.  I don’t think there will be any appetite either in the international community or on the part of the domestic opposition to join another round of pointless talks that get nowhere.  So something very different has to happen there.

As far as a unity government, I mean, you know, it’s a phrase that covers a lot of possible options.  Maduro probably thinks in terms of what Mugabe did in Zimbabwe where he coopted the opposition into a government that ultimately ended up pretty much destroying the opposition, or at least its short-term prospects.  And I don’t think anybody in the opposition here should want that.

There is some talk that, you know, that Henri Falcón might be willing to join such a government with Maduro after the elections, assuming that Maduro is declared the winner.  Henri Falcón has said that he won’t do that and I think it would be political suicide for him to do it.  If he ‒ if he aspires to be part of the solution, part of ‒ part of the opposition leadership from here on in, I think he would be very ill-advised to join any government with Maduro.

A proper unity government, of course, led by the opposition with elements of Chavismo that may be possible to rescue from this train wreck may be another matter.  And a unity government headed by Maduro is a nonstarter, I think.

MR. MARCZAK:  Juan Andrés, your thoughts on that, your thoughts specifically on the possibility of Maduro trying to kind of coopt and trying to basically create his own opposition and, in essence, one that would be beneficial for him, his ability to stay in power?

MR. MEJÍA:  Yes.  Well, I think that on Sunday he, Maduro, I’m pretty sure he’s going to propose a new round of dialogue or something like.  Zapatero, ex-president Zapatero, just arrived yesterday or today to Venezuela.  And it’s pretty likely that he’s going to be the spokesman of that idea.  But the opposition has had a bad experience – (laughs) – with these efforts in the past.  Until recently, you all know the effort made on Dominican Republic, which was not successful.  So I don’t believe there is a possibility in the short term to have a unity government.  I’m not sure what Falcon will do.  I believe that if he decides to be a part of a new government, he’s going to lose most of the support that he will gain on Sunday.  But I also think that a unity government, even including Falcon, won’t be able to move forward unless they respect the constitution.  And the constitution forces the government to respect the National Assembly.

So I agree that the only way to solve the situation is to have a real negotiation with real signs that the government is willing to compromise and it’s willing to lose power at a certain point.  The main issue until now with dialogues and negotiation is that the government has made it clear that they’re not willing to leave the office.

MR. MARCZAK:  Right.  Right, right, right.  Which goes back to the point earlier about there’s little – the threat of what happens to people in the government when they leave office is so grave that there is every reason to hold onto – hold onto power.

Another question here from Armando Soto (sp) around the energy sector.  And the question is:  What is the current state of the petroleum sector in Venezuela?  And will Sunday’s outcome disrupt this at all?  And a second part to that question is also:  Do you predict a response from foreign partners still operating in Venezuela, given the PDVSA relies heavily on these joint ventures? 

Phil, would you like to start with that?

MR. GUNSON:  I don’t know – I don’t know if Juan Andrés is an expert on the oil sector.  I am not, but I can give a quick answer at least to the first part of that, which is the election or the electoral event – whatever we want to call it – is not going to interrupt the precipitous decline in oil production, which is – which amounts to the collapse the company – the state company that represents virtually all the foreign currency that Venezuela earns.  There has been, what is it now, a 40 percent decline in oil production since Maduro came to power.  Venezuela may soon cease to be a net exporter of petroleum.  And as far as what the international partners will do, I think that depends whether they’re private or state partners. 

I mean, in the case of the – or semi-state, I suppose, in the case of the Russians and the Chinese.  They’ve been pressing very hard to take more control, because the problem is that, you know, they are – they are partners, they put up money.  But PDVSA is an absolutely incompetent manager.  So what they see is their investments losing value every day.  I’m sure they’ll react.  It’s just a question of exactly how they do it.

MR. MARCZAK:  Mmm hmm.  Do you want to add anything, Juan Andrés?

MR. MEJÍA:  Yes.  Well, I’m not an expert.  I’m not an expert on the oil sector.  So I don’t want to move, I mean, too much into the question.  But I agree that the situation is not going to be solved in the short term.  The industry’s declining.  That’s for sure.  The cash flow that we gain from our exports is also declining.  As you know, not all the – not all the oil that we export actually is paid.  Some of it especially with the deals we have with China, is part of the debt credit that we have had in the past.  And they’re not happy with how we’ve been handling that.  So I think in general it doesn’t seem like the situation is going to get any better.  And I think that can have an impact as well in the political situation inside the country.

If you see the actual situation in the states that are in the border – Tachira, Zulia, Barinas – I mean the people are makings lines of, I mean, hours just to get their tanks full.  And at some point that has reached closer to Caracas.  And if it does, I mean, it’s going to be very difficult for the government to manage the crisis.

MR. MARCZAK:  Mmm hmm.  We have time for one last question.  It’s 11:45 here in Washington, so let me just take this last question and then we’ll wrap up.  And I think it’s a very important question.  It comes from Robert Carlson (sp).  And the question is:  Do most Venezuelans blame the Maduro government for the current economic situation?

MR. GUNSON:  Yes, they do.  (Laughs.)  Yes.  Most Venezuelans – the vast majority of Venezuelans want Maduro to leave.  And that actually includes quite a lot of people who would still vote for Hugo Chavez, if he were alive.  So, yes, blame – according to opinion polls – blame is firmly set on Maduro and, by extension, the rest of the government.

MR. MARCZAK:  Juan Andrés?

MR. MEJÍA:  Correct.  I mean, there is still more work to do.  The campaign and the propaganda from the government is very strong, trying to blame the economic situation on the opposition, on the private sector, on the international community and the sanctions.  And they have made a little progress on that, saying, well, we cannot put our guard down.  We have to keep explaining and reminding people that nothing’s going to be solved unless these economic models change.  And we have seen over the last few days with the Banesco move and with the Kellogg move a couple days ago, that they are not – there doesn’t seem to be any changes on the political and economic agenda from the government.

MR. MARCZAK:  And we’ve also been doing polling at the Atlantic Council.  And our polls consistently – we did a telephone poll back in January, a door-to-door poll that we put up last month, and our polls consistently show that people blame either the government or Maduro himself for the economic situation.  So exactly in line with what both you, Phil, and you, Juan Andrés, are saying.  And as I mentioned at the outset of this call, the Atlantic Council will also be conducting a flash poll right after the election to get people’s immediate responses to the electoral event and how they see the situation both leading up to the electoral event on Sunday, the results, and what will happen moving forward.

With that, I just – I want to – on behalf of everybody who is on this call, thank you, Juan Andrés, for all of your leadership, your excellent work.  It’s very difficult in Venezuela every day.  And Phil as well, thank you for your incredibly sound analysis from Caracas.  And we’re also very lucky because we were on this call for 45 minutes, and we had very minimal internet problems, which is quite a miracle given that you’re both calling in from Caracas.  And I want to, again, thank you for joining us.  Thank everyone for being part of this call.  And we will be following up in the days ahead.

MR. MEJÍA:  Thank you.

MR. GUNSON:  Thank you very much.

MR. MARCZAK:  Thank you.

(END)

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