- an interview with Mr. Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, former Governor of
Caracas, Minister of Information and Tourism (1977-1978), a diplomat and former President of the United Nations Security Council (1992-1993).
Sebastian Aulich: Are we seeing a more democratic Venezuela after last weekend’s local elections?
Diego Arria: No, definitely not. Before the elections, Chavez threatened the opposition that any place, any district, that we win would not be given a penny from the government. He also said that he would send his tanks to those districts. But eventually we won with almost 50% of the votes in the country, in the biggest areas and states of Venezuela, where the four fifths of the gross national product is concentrated. But it did not make Venezuela more democratic, because Chavez became more dangerous after the political blow he suffered. In the last two days, he had again threatened the opposition. He promised to watch the opposition very closely and called us ‘fascists’. He threatened to close the last free and democratic TV channel “Globovision” on this upcoming Monday. So we have a pretty rough situation ahead of us.
SA: Do you believe the opposition may win the next year’s parliamentary elections?
DA: Two things have happened already. First, we have proven that if we, the opposition, work more united we can gain. If we structure our efforts properly, we can prevent stealing the elections from us. They tried to do it in the past, they couldn’t, even though there were frauds committed in many states. As of present, we are in a good position to win the National Assembly elections next year because the population that voted for us now knows that we can win. Furthermore, the economic situation is deteriorating. All the social indicators are worsening because of the incompetence of Chavez’s government, while the oil prices are declining. In that context, Chavez’s latest threats reveal his despair. He knows that he will be facing a real challenge in the months to come.
SA: Nevertheless, Chavez is a celebrity. In other words, are there any political leaders in Venezuela, charismatic enough, to challenge and defeat him?
DA: Absolutely. Actually, he prevented some of them to compete in the last elections. For example, the candidate for the Mayor of Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez, who is a very charismatic young leader. All these people are mature, including the new Governor of Miranda State, Henrique Capriles, or the new Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and others. So we have plenty of good leaders, the only problem for the opposition would be that we need to unite in order to keep winning. I hope that all the victorious new governors and mayors, who emerged from the opposition, will understand that the victory belongs more to the people, who elected them as an alternative to Chavez. In this elections, the candidates from Chavez’s PSUV party were only his proxies. He turned the elections into a sort of national plebiscite. Therefore it became a painful personal defeat for him, when his three closest allies lost the vote in MirandaState, ZuliaState and the City of Caracas.
SA: Chavez’s domestic and international image has been primarily based on his vocal opposition to George Bush, but now his biggest “opponent” is retiring. Does it mean that Chavez will be gone soon as well?
DA: Chaves is anti-American. He is an enemy of the United States, but he has been able to hide his real feelings about that behind the unpopularity of George Bush. Bush’s lack of popularity enabled him to use it as his cover. In fact, Chavez needs the United States as an enemy, because without it he would be fighting his own shadow. It would an equivalent of Fidel Castro without the embargo on Cuba. Both of them, one needs an embargo to fight it, the other the United States as an enemy to politically survive.
SA: Chavez has been recently romancing with Russia’s Medvedev and there are some reports indicating that Venezuela may start a civilian nuclear program. Why an energy-rich Venezuela would need such kind of a program?
DA: Russia, China and other countries have signed agreements with Venezuela, which are completely illegal because they have not been authorized by anybody. As a result, they are merely personal commitments of Hugo Chavez. The day Chavez is not there anymore, all of those agreements will collapse. The Russians are pursuing their own agenda. They have found a man, who is willing to do anything for them, like Chavez, and create problems for the United States. However, those actions are not perceived as a real threat to the United States. It is rather an inconvenience for the region. All Latin American countries should be concerned that Chavez is increasing his armaments and is creating a sort of paramilitary forces that will be under his own personal control. It may cause many problems in the region. Now, he is considering the nuclear energy program with the Russians. Venezuelan economy is collapsing because of the corruption and inefficiency of Chavez’s government. His popularity in some countries around the world had much to do with the high oil prices. As a result, his popularity is declining as the oil prices are declining. His image has suffered not only internationally but also domestically.
SA: Do you think it is wise for Venezuela to be so anti-American and so pro-Russian under present global circumstances?
DA: I would actually call it a crime, because the United States is our biggest business client. It is a place where we can sell our oil for the best market price. Therefore Chavez’s anti-Americanism should be described in criminal terms because it jeopardizes the national interest of Venezuela. We will rectify this as soon as we recover power through democratic means and liberty.
SA: How should Barack Obama approach Hugo Chavez and formulate his policy toward Venezuela, and more broadly toward Latin America?
DA: President Obama said during the election campaign that we need to do everything to bridge whatever divides our countries. He can do that easily with Latin America. I believe that when he goes around the region, he will be applauded as a rock star. The exception would come only from the Venezuelan government. As I said before, Chavez needs to have an enemy. He has already started calling Obama a black man. It is well known that Chavez is a racist, what he has proven domestically and internationally. As a matter of fact, he had attempted to create apartheid in our country. I have no doubts that at the first confrontation with President Obama, Chavez will start calling him names as he did in respect to George Bush. Chavez needs to fight somebody and he chose to fight the United States, regardless whether the President is George Bush or Barack Obama. Nevertheless, he will find it a lot harder to fight against President Obama because international public opinion is very much for Obama and against Hugo Chavez.
SA: How about a policy toward Cuba? Is opening possible under Raul Castro?
DA: I think that the opening will slowly take place. Something could always happen within Cuba that nobody knows what could accelerate the speed of democratic changes, when the older brother is no longer in the picture. So far it seems to be an extremely carefully controlled society, so it is difficult to find out what is happening on the ground. But I have no doubt that eventually they have to open up. Once Venezuela is not sending to Cuba $2-3 billions in subsidies a year, they will find it very hard not to talk about some political arrangement with the rest of the world and they will have to release political prisoners they now have in Cuba.
SA: In May we witnessed the signing of the Constitutional Treaty of the Union of South American Nations, which is modeled on the European Union. Do you believe Latin America can integrate in the same way Europe did?
DA: No, but not because we are more nationalistic than the European states. The glee of the political developments in the regions is our economies. The lack of maturity of political leaders and domestic constituencies makes me feel very unoptimistic about the idea. It looks like we were closer to that idea twenty years ago. We have to wait until leaders like Chavez are not anymore in command to be able to push further the Latin American integration at least as our economies are concerned. However, I don’t see many prospects for a political integration.
SA: You were deeply involved in international diplomacy during the time of the genocide in Bosnia and were one of the original sponsors of the ICTY. How do you feel about ICTY’s indictment of Florence Hartmann, who disclosed behind-the-scene mechanisms determining the operation of the Tribunal?
DA: I can hardly believe that someone who writes as a journalist, who was not longer associated with the Tribunal, who exercised freedom of speech and wrote about what is of great interest to the world, could be indicted and put on trial for that. I find it an amazing and reprehensible spectacle. I have publicly expressed my full support for her. I think that the world deserves to know what really happened in the Balkans, and why so much information was prevented to emerge from the Tribunal. It also relates to the case of Bosnia in the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The information and evidence that Mrs. Hartmann described in her book caused embarrassment for many diplomats and political leaders and they eventually found a way to punish her for that.
SA: So you believe that her indictment could be politically motivated?
DA: Absolutely. The case of Bosnia is not over yet and many things will emerge in the future. Even more politicians and diplomats will be embarrassed. As a matter of fact, I am a part of a group, which is making the effort for many important information to emerge in this subject. Diplomacy surrounding the Srebrenica genocide was the biggest cover-up in the history of the United Nations and was a dark moment for many countries directly involved in the former Yugoslavia.