Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an english-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York. Since returning to the U.S. he has been working as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Now joining us again to discuss the coming elections in Venezuela is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory is the founder of Venezuelanalysis.com. He’s the author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. He’s adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College in New York and longtime resident of Venezuela. And his wife is the consul-general of Venezuela in New York. Thanks for joining us, Gregory.
GREGORY WILPERT, AUTHOR: Hi. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So when we look at the sort of Chávez model as compared to the Lula model—which is generally the debate that seems to take place in Latin America—one of the big differences has been the willingness of Chávez, especially recently, to nationalize certain sectors of the natural resource industries. He’s nationalized gold mines, some other sectors of the economy. How is that fitting or sitting in the election campaign? Are people in favor of that? And what so far seems to be the success or failures of that kind of policy?
WILPERT: Well, in terms of how people are seeing it, generally I think it’s been viewed relatively favorably because in some cases it’s actually led to lower prices. For example, the telephone company has lower telephone rates. The electricity company has lowered electricity rates. So in that sense people have generally favored it. And, of course, the full nationalization of the oil industry (that is, it was already nationalized, but they nationalized other aspects of it) has led to greater oil revenues. So in that case, in those cases, the public has generally favored it. As a matter of fact, it’s favored so much that even the opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has said that if he were elected president, he would have to review every nationalization and to see whether or not to reverse them. That is, he’s not said that they will automatically reverse all of the nationalizations or anything like that.
But there are many problems still with the state-run enterprises, especially with some of the old ones, which run into problems. They’re larger macro economic problems that—for example, the steel industry and the aluminum processing industry, which have really declined in their production—to a large extent also because they’re having a hard time exporting, and partly because of management problems. And so that’s been a bit of a problem for the government that it’s been struggling to deal with.
JAY: We talked about that a little bit in our previous interview, the weakness of the culture of administration in government and a lot of—in these state enterprises. What’s your thinking on the sort of underpinning reasons for this? I mean, it would somehow—and to some extent it kind of beefs or strengthens the argument of the government should get out of this stuff if it can’t manage it.
WILPERT: Well, just because it’s in private hands doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be better managed, necessarily. So that’s not, I don’t think, the real litmus test or the real solution for these issues. The real problem is trying to get rid of kind of the cronyism that often exists within the management culture in these kinds of industries.
So that’s—and then also there’s the constant effort, for example, for the—some of the industries are being turned over to workers, but many of the workers themselves aren’t very clear on how to manage, in the sense that there’s a lot of internal struggles of whether—to what extent they should take care of societal interests versus their own interest as workers and so on. And so there’s—it ends up being a lot of conflicts within the industry. And so the key, I think, is, really, trying to install, perhaps, a more kind of—well, for lack of a better term, a more professional management culture. But that’s far easier said than done, of course.
JAY: Right. And one of the big issues other than crime that has always been the accusation, at least, is the idea that there’s corruption in government, in the army, as well as throughout the private sector as well. And there’s been a lot of talk about campaigns being waged to root out corruption. How successful have they been? And what’s happening on that front?
WILPERT: Well, I mean, on the one hand, corruption’s certainly perceived to be a major problem in Venezuela. But there’s an interesting—some interesting studies have been conducted over the past couple of years comparing Venezuela to other countries in Latin America. And we should make those comparisons (even though the perception of corruption—and, actually, the same goes for crime—is a lot higher than in most of other Latin American countries) to actual incidents of corruption. That is, if you ask people if they personally have experienced or know of experiences of corruption, the people don’t answer more frequently that they’ve been—had experience with these problems than they do in other countries. So in other words, the actual incidence seems to be comparable, but the perception is much higher.
So, having said that, the government, of course, is trying to address it in various ways, usually through—by installing people who are professional managers or better managers. But, you know, there’s as many successes as there are failures, so it’s a constant struggle. And like I said, there’s—doesn’t seem to be a clear concept as to how to address this problem coherently.
JAY: And how successful has it been in terms of collecting taxes? ‘Cause that was going to be one of the big issues is that there was going to be real tax collection and cracking down on elites that didn’t pay taxes. How successful has that been?
WILPERT: Well, that actually is one of the institutions that has been better managed, the tax collection agency, and that’s one of the shining examples, actually. It’s been very efficient and very methodical in cracking down. As a matter of fact, hardly a day passes in Venezuela where you don’t see some stores that have been closed for tax evasion. And so this is one of the main success stories for an institution that has been thoroughly reformed and made into a very efficient institution.
WILPERT: It is to some extent, but it’s really a minor issue. That is, usually when foreign policy comes up, it’s mostly in terms of the oil that Venezuela sends to Cuba or to other countries in Latin America at very low financing rates. And people question that, and that’s one issue that the government might be vulnerable on. But in terms of the actual kind of strategic alliances that Venezuela has with governments such as Iran or Syria or others, that—even though as many people might feel uncomfortable with it, one has to keep in mind that Venezuela has a significant Arabic population. And so there’s—I don’t think it’s—plays that much of a role, those kinds of alliances, especially since Venezuela’s historically always been allied through OPEC to the Middle East.
JAY: And just to touch on that a bit, it may not be much of a big issue in terms of the elections, but it’s an issue that is very, what you can say, confusing to a lot of people that consider themselves progressive about his relationship with regimes like the Iranians and the Syrians, not in terms of his support for their opposition to any kind of foreign interference or intervention, but in terms of his lack of support for any kind of struggles for democracy within those countries.
WILPERT: Well, Chávez clearly favors the anti-imperialist position over any kind of anti-capitalist struggle on the international stage. I mean, this is an old debate within the left, and it’s, I think—personally, I think it’s unfortunate. But, I mean, he sees the anti-imperialist element as being more important. And therefore it’s not that he’s opposed to the democracy movements in these countries, but he has to some extent expressed some questions about to what extent they’re all completely homegrown. And like I said, he basically emphasizes his relationship with those leaders and has tended to ignore the actual movements on the ground.
JAY: Like, in Iran, for example, we’ve interviewed representatives of the Iranian trade union movement who are, I would—in my opinion, are every bit as anti-imperialist as Chávez is. But they’re also fighting a theocracy and a dictatorship and for rights in Iran, and they feel very, in their words, betrayed by Chávez’s such close friendship with Ahmadinejad and kind of supporting this idea that all the opposition movement in Iran is essentially foreign-sponsored and all of that.
WILPERT: Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that they would feel betrayed. And Chávez himself, I think, has a very blinkered vision as to what’s going on in these countries. That is, he hears the negative press reports about these countries and generally feels that, well, since he’s received so much negative press, he’s very skeptical about the negative press the leaders of these countries are receiving, and therefore generally actually doesn’t believe a lot of what the press reports are about what’s happening within those countries.
JAY: So much foreign interference in Venezuela and so much of the, quote-unquote, “democracy movement” in Venezuela has so many foreign-sponsored—I mean, U.S.-sponsored ties and U.S. money, I guess he assumes that’s the same thing that’s going on in the other countries. And to a large extent it is. It’s just the question is: is it the same weight as it might be in a place like Venezuela?
WILPERT: Yeah, exactly. And it’s very difficult, I think, for somebody such as Chávez to really have a clear idea as [to] what’s going on, especially since his advisers on foreign policy tend to be people who—how should I say?—the people who generally don’t question his own views on these issues.
JAY: So your prognosis for the elections: as long as things sort of stay the way they are, Chávez campaigns; given the polling, it looks like Chávez will have another term. And then I guess the real issue will be: can they execute, you know, more ably than they have in the past?
WILPERT: Yes. That’s, of course, the issue that the opposition is campaigning on. They’re basically saying right now, essentially, that they’re going to implement Chávez’s program, only better. So that shows to some extent Chávez’s own success in his program, because it’s obviously very popular. And they’re just—their main emphasis has really been to bring more efficiency and more crime-fighting capability.
JAY: Well, Chávez has always shown he knows how to execute during an election campaign. Thanks very much for joining us, Gregory.
WILPERT: My pleasure. Thanks.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.