IN an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Nicolas Maduro, elected last year after the death of Hugo Chavez, said what he described as a “revolt of the rich” would fail because the country’s “Bolivarian revolution” was more deeply rooted than when it had seen off an abortive US-backed coup against Chavez in 2002.
Venezuela, now estimated to have the world’s largest oil reserves, has faced continuous violent street protests — focused on inflation, shortages and crime — since the beginning of February, after opposition leaders launched a campaign to oust Maduro and his socialist government.
“They are trying to sell to the world the idea that the protests are some of sort of Arab Spring,” he said. “But in Venezuela, we have already had our spring: our revolution that opened the door to the 21st century.”
The conflict has claimed up to 39 lives and posed a significant challenge to Maduro’s government. The US denies involvement and says Venezuela is using the excuse of a coup threat to crack down on the opposition.
Maduro claimed Venezuela was facing a type of “unconventional war that the US has perfected over the last decades”, citing a string of US-backed coups or attempted coups from 1960s Brazil to Honduras in 2009.
Speaking in the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, the former bus driver and trade union leader said Venezuela’s opposition had “the aim of paralysing the main cities of the country, copying badly what happened in Kiev, where the main roads in the cities were blocked off, until they made governability impossible, which led to the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine.”
The Venezuelan opposition had, he said, a “similar plan”. “They try to increase economic problems through an economic war to cut the supplies of basic goods and boost an artificial inflation,” Maduro said, “to create social discontent and violence, which could lead them to justify international isolation and even foreign intervention.”
Pointing to the large increases in social provision and reduction in inequality over the past decade and a half, Maduro said: “When I was a union leader there wasn’’t a single programme to protect the education, health, housing and salaries of the workers. Today the working class is in power,” he said.
Venezuela’s protests have been fuelled by high inflation and shortages of subsidised basic goods, a significant proportion of which are smuggled into Colombia and sold for far higher prices. Recent easing of currency controls appear to have had a positive impact, and the economy continues to grow and poverty rates fall. But Venezuela’’s murder rate — a target of the protests — is among the highest in the world.
Responsibility for the deaths is strongly contested. Eight of the dead have been confirmed to be police or security forces; four opposition activists (and one government supporter) killed by police, for which several police officers have been arrested; seven were allegedly killed by pro-government activists and 13 by opposition supporters .
Asked how much responsibility the government should take for the killings, Maduro responded that 95pc of the deaths were the fault of “right-wing extremist groups” . He said he has set up a commission to investigate each case.
Last month the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, claimed Venezuela was waging a “terror campaign” against its own citizens. Asked for evidence of US intervention in the protests, the Venezuelan president replied: “Is 100 years of intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean not enough: against Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Brazil? Is the coup attempt against President Chavez by the Bush administration not enough? Why does the US have 2,000 military bases in the world? To dominate it. I have told President Obama: we are not your backyard anymore.”
Maduro’s allegations follow last week’s revelation that USAid covertly funded a social media website to foment political unrest and encourage “flash mobs” in Venezuela’s ally Cuba under the cover of “development assistance”. White House officials acknowledged that such programmes were not “unique to Cuba”.
Maduro has called a national peace conference and says he will agree to Vatican conciliation if the opposition condemns violence.
But he rejects criticism that he and the Chavista movement have been too polarising. “I don’t think polarisation in a democracy is something wrong. A democracy can only truly function if its society is politicised.”
Challenged over whether Venezuela’s 2009 referendum to abolish limits on the number of times presidents can stand for election meant he would like to continue indefinitely, Maduro countered that Venezuela had a right to recall elected officials, unlike in Europe. “In the UK, the prime minister can run as many times as he wants to, but not the royals. Who elected the Queen?
“The people will decide until when I can be here. Be certain that if it is not me it will be another revolutionary. What will be indefinite is the popular power of the people.”
— By arrangement with the Guardian