Where Is Venezuela Headed?

It’s been a little over a year since I interviewed Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan dictator, in Caracas — an interview that ended, after some tough questioning, with the confiscation of the video footage and my team’s film equipment.

To this day, Maduro hasn’t returned a thing to us. So I thought it might be worthwhile to take a close look at what has changed, and what hasn’t, in Venezuela in the 12 months since our brief conversation.

On Feb. 25, 2019, I sat down at the Miraflores presidential palace to talk to Maduro. I fully expected our conversation to be contentious, but I was ready. After all, it’s not every day you get the chance to interview a dictator widely accused of electoral fraud: More than 50 countries, including the United States, do not recognize the results of the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won reelection, and instead support the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the nation’s interim president.

I decided to challenge Maduro with my very first question: “You are not the legitimate president. So how should I address you? They [the opposition] think you are a dictator.”

Then I asked him about Venezuela’s hundreds of political prisoners, and the failures of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution of the late 1990s. The country is now crumbling under the weight of extreme hyperinflation and external debt. Approximately 5 million Venezuelans have left the country, fleeing corruption, hunger, violence and a collapsing health care system.

Then I showed Maduro a video clip recorded on my cellphone in which three Venezuelans can be seen rummaging for food in a garbage truck. There is no doubt that similar scenes can be witnessed in many countries around the world. But in Venezuela such acts of desperation contradict the official narrative of a “Chavista” government, supposedly dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable.

The video was the last straw; Maduro couldn’t take it anymore. After just 17 minutes, the president called the whole thing off. His communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said the interview “wasn’t authorized” and ordered his agents to seize our equipment, including our video cameras and memory cards.

Never before in my career had I been robbed that way of an interview; never before had I been held and searched for two hours, as I was with the six other journalists in my Univision crew. No one had ever forcibly taken my phone and bag; never before had I been deported from a country simply because I had asked uncomfortable questions.

Luckily, the interview wasn’t entirely lost. Last June, unnamed sources provided us with a copy of some footage that officials in the Maduro administration had recorded at the same time we were recording.

So what has happened in Venezuela since the interview? Although the country’s crisis has worsened, Maduro has managed to hold on to power. The military — the strongest pillar of his regime — still stands beside him. As for the ruling class, and the regime’s financial allies, they’ve come to depend so much on Maduro’s survival that they fear losing everything if there’s a change in leadership.

Neither the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries nor the protests in Venezuela’s major cities have succeeded in bringing down the regime. Despite the growing humanitarian tragedy, Maduro remains in power aided by his government’s brutal suppression of his opponents: According to a United Nations report, the administration has criminalized its political opposition and detained and tortured dissidents. In 2019, when people took to the streets in mass protests, 5,286 people died as a result of their “resistance to authority.”

Unfortunately, the opposition has failed to rise above the stalemate. Guaidó recently told me that it had “underestimated” the regime. As a result, it has suffered two major defeats: the unsuccessful effort in February 2019 to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela in the face of government opposition; and the failed call on April 30 for a military uprising (when some of the alleged conspirators reportedly backed out at the last minute). “We underestimated at some point their capacity for evil, their readiness to destroy our country, to persecute,” Guaidó said of the regime.

The situation could still take a turn for the worse if hasty decisions are made. A U.S.-led military invasion would be a terrible mistake. The history of U.S. interventions in Latin America is not one of successes. America’s efforts in the region, such as those in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, failed to strengthen democracy, instead bolstering long-standing dictatorships and leading to many deaths.

What, then, lies ahead for Venezuela? The United States plans to move ahead with a “maximum pressure” policy to oust Maduro. During a press call last month with reporters — coordinated by the White House the same day Guaidó met with President Donald Trump in Washington — senior administration officials warned that Venezuela had become a narco-state. However, they believed the stress on Maduro caused by “maximum pressure” would ultimately create an opportunity for a democratic transition.

That, anyway, is America’s plan for promoting democracy in Venezuela. It includes additional economic sanctions on the regime — the seizure of its accounts and assets — as well as travel bans on government representatives and allies. But this requires patience, and so far Maduro has shown an unexpected resilience.

Regardless of what the U.S. does or doesn’t do, it is ultimately only the Venezuelans who can decide the future of their country. And they are determined to push for change: When Guaidó recently traveled to Madrid, thousands of Venezuelans welcomed him with chants of “Freedom!” Nothing can stop an idea with such power behind it, and Venezuela is not alone in its fight for democracy.

In the end, all dictators fall. Without exception. But they don’t fall on their own; somebody has to be there to push.

By Jorge Ramos Ávalos

Image by: Beatrice Murch with license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”