The following interview with President Nicolás Maduro, outlines his involvement in Venezuela’s revolutionary process.
It touches on his involvement in student politics, the significance of the 1989 Caracazo massacre, meeting Chávez in prison in 1993 and his involvement in the national leadership of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement.
After Chávez was first elected President in 1998, Maduro headed up the Chávista parliamentary group, later taking on the role of Foreign Minister and then Vice President.
Very little is known about Nicolas Maduro, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in Spain. [There’s] scarcely four lines, mainly contributed by the mass media which is hostile to the revolutionary process. El Viejo Topo wanted to get to know him, and the Venezuelan president accepted the interview without any hassles.
But the invitation from Maduro wasn’t limited to just an interview. Immersed in what has been baptised the Street Government, the president has been visiting, over the last one hundred days of his government, all the nooks and crannies of his country. Practically every day he has visited a different place, accompanied by some minister, taking note of the principle problems in the area, talking with people, approving projects. One could say that during this period the government of Venezuela has had a somewhat itinerant character – something surprising for us, as we’re used to a Spanish president who has so little contact with the people that he talks to the press through a plasma screen, hiding his physical presence from the mortal journalists.
Well then, the president invited a team from El Viejo Topo to accompany him during one of these work days, and in that way, as that day progressed, the interview would be held. It was a unique chance to observe up close the Venezuelan head of state.
So on 20 July El Viejo Topo went early to the Caracas airport where the presidential airplane was waiting. After a 25 minute flight we landed at the San Carlos airport, capital of plains state of Cojedes. A lot of people were at the airport and in the neighbouring streets waiting to see Maduro. Owing to the tinted windows of the cars that transported us, many of them must have thought that the president was in one of them, so we were greeting warmly by the population that was waiting for the procession.
Forty-five minutes later the small parade entered a military base. Two helicopters flew over the area. A military band got into position: the president was heading towards them.
We’ll keep the story short: After the military ceremony, the procession headed towards a small platform where many soldiers and their families, over two hundred, were already seated. We were going to attend a promotion ceremony for a handful of generals as well as the handing over of banners to various military regions. After that, the speech.
Nicolas Maduro says what he means to say. Bread is bread and wine is wine. No beating about the bush. Even though it wasn’t the main topic, Maduro talked about Spain; Spain devastated by corruption which has nested itself in a good part of the political class, and which has been (and still is?) an accomplice of the Venezuelan right-wing fascist coup plotters. He cites unemployment and highlights how intolerable it is that 55% of Spanish youth can’t find work. It’s not even necessary to say that Topo agrees with him.
Around the big tent where we are the Armed Forces have set up a small exhibition of weaponry. Tanks, cannons, a range of military stuff. The president entertains himself in each area; taking his time, he converses with the troops and officials. The morning stretches out.
So much time standing up, for the Topo, our strength flounders. But everyone else doesn’t seem to be tired. Suddenly, very quickly, Maduro and a group of soldiers enter a big campaign tent. Could this be the Military Street Government? It seems there are issues to resolve. After a few hours, soldiers appear with a bit of food. It starts to rain like crazy; stick of rain as they call it here. In the stall the president, the defence minister, the president of the National Assembly, and a group of the military continue their debates. Suddenly, Maduro talks to us. It’s getting late, and the interview is about to start. “How shall we do it?” he says. He thinks about it for a few seconds, and continues; “Come with me, let’s get in the car.”
Everything happens in a hurry. Almost running, we get to the vehicles. Someone points to the car we should get in to. We do it, one in front, two in the back. There’s no driver. He appears: it’s Nicolas Maduro. The actual president drives the car. For a few seconds we can’t help feeling a little bewildered. One of us jokes about the category of driver.
The surprises continue: Maduro doesn’t treat us like journalists or strangers, he treats us like companions.
The president asks us if we have the recorder ready. “Go ahead, ask,” he says, while he drives the car. It’s obvious it’s not going to be a conventional interview, one of those where the interviewer measures their questions and the person being interviewed avoids answering completely. From there the tone of our whole conversation is colloquial, polite, not at all haughty. And we decide to start.
Someone had told us that his [Maduro’s] social and political commitment started when he was very young, so we ask him about his first years. Without taking his eyes off the road, the president responds.
I was born and grew up in the Caracas of the 1960s and ’70s. I was raised in a barrio, in the area where the Central University of Venezuela is. In those years there was a big social and political upheaval, big struggles arose, focused above all in a powerful student, university, and high school movement. I remember, being still quite small, the raids on the Central University. Because I was born and grew up in front of the San Pedro church, in a middle class, working-class community. There, one lived practically in a state of siege. Sometimes we couldn’t leave the house all week, they kept us sheltered from the shootings that broke out in the storming on the university. I suppose that these memories, of a small boy, are from the time of Raul Leoni, who governed the country from 1964 to 69. Leoni raided the university with the Bolivar battalion, with the army. Later there was another raid which I recall well enough, in 1970, under the government of Rafael Caldera, the leader of Christian democracy. He entered the Central University and he closed it, because a process of university renewal was being damaged, a little along the protest lines of Cordoba and the French May…
[In 1918 Cordoba was the epicentre of a reformist movement know as the university reform, which later extended to the rest of the universities in Argentina, a large part of the Americas, and Spain]
…in Venezuela this renewal the university students were going for in 69, 70, was strangled in blood. I remember this raid very well because I was already eight years old, and there was a youth on the block, called Pedro, who we later called Pedro the strange, who was beaten up a lot by the police in front of us, they hit the youth in the head, and him, they left him mentally disturbed, somewhat crazy. We called him Pedro the strange because he behaved strangely, a little crazy. I remember this part of my infancy, which was always connected with repression, disturbances. My father was a left-wing man; he was an active member of the party Democratic Action (AD). He held a left-wing, critical position. Actually, later in 1967 he participated in the founding of the Electoral Movement of the People (MEP), with a leader who came from social democracy, called Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, a teacher. They stole the primary elections for the presidential candidacy in Democratic Action from the teacher Prieto and after that he had to find his own political force. I’m sure that the presidential elections were stolen from him. He didn’t have any sort of machinery to be able to back up the votes, and the Venezuelan electoral system was very fraudulent. The votes that were emitted and places in the voting boxes were worthless, what had worth was what was put in the final vote count [Acta in Spanish]. It’s what’s called Acta kills votes. They completely changed the results.
So we might say that those were the years that marked my childhood. When the 70s arrived I began to study in high school. In the first year [translator: ie 7thgrade], almost the first day of class, I started to participate in the Student United Front of the Urbaneja Achelpohl School. And from there I was a member of a revolutionary organisation called Ruptura, which was the legal part, the legal face of the Venezuelan Revolutionary Party, PRV, which was underground, and lead by Douglas Bravo.
[Douglas Bravo:Politician and guerrilla, he joined the Communist Party in 1946 at the age of 12. He was expelled in 1964. He founded the PRV in 1966. He participated in the uprisings of 4 February and 27 November 1992.]
So then I was twelve years old. I got active when I was a boy. At that time Venezuelan high schools were very political. I don’t know where else in the world there’s such a climate, but in Venezuela, in general, it has existed since the fifties. In high school we had 100 members of the political movement Ruptura, 100. In the whole south region we had 300 high school members that were 12, 13, 14 years old. That’s the start of my political activism, which later gradually evolved. I have said that there was a lot of repression at the time, a lot of persecution. There were a lot of killings of youth and a lot of struggle. And I was politically educated, not just in the student struggles, but also in the struggle in the barrios.
But youth aren’t just interested in politics…we ask you what other interests Nicolas Maduro had at the time, if he did anything apart from study and politics.
I was a sports person, I did a lot of sports, but I was most seriously into baseball. I ended up in various national baseball selections, in the delegation from the capital, and also in a national selection of youth baseball. As I was good at sports, and we also organised other cultural activities in the barrios, we formed youth groups who practised soccer, baseball- we encouraged them, we organised them and lead them. We also had a cine-club, working class theatre, working class music, salsa, rock, a little of everything.
I played in various salsa groups and we organised the Young Rock Movement of Caracas, there in the 80s. In Venezuela there was a very interesting rock movement at the time. I was a member of the group Enigma, around the place there are various videos that they have put on Youtube. We played hard rock… the soul of this group was a Venezuelan guitarist who I haven’t seen in many years, Carlos Carillo, who learnt to play guitar by ear, alone in his room, listening to Led Zeppelin. He played the guitar just like Jimmy Page, the guitarist of Led Zeppelin. He was really extraordinary, a great guitarist. So we did all this, but without leaving the revolutionary struggle; we put out revolutionary newspapers in the barrios.
Then the Caracazo came…
[Caracazo: On 27 February 1989 protests and disturbances flared up against the government of Carlos Andres Perez. The government ordered intense repression lead by the Armed Forces, the National Guard, and the Metropolitan Police. Unofficial sources calculate the deaths at 3,500]
At the time of the Caracazo I was a member of the Socialist League. We were coordinating with grassroots movements in Caracas and various parts of the country. The Caracazo surprised everyone. Venezuela had been accumulating small social explosions, in Merida, in the east… already since 1984 there had been many student revolts in various places in the country. And when Carlos Andres Perez won the 1988 elections, and just after that he announced that he would establish an agreement with the IMF to implement a neoliberal economic package, that is, privatise education, health, the main companies of the country, that he would deregulate working conditions and put the country into debt, a weird climate was felt. And on 27 February everyone really was surprised. It wasn’t just a Caracazo, it was a Venezuelazo, it was in the whole country [Translator: Caracazo refers to Caracas]. It was roughly a general insurrection. On Saturday 5 March there were still battles all over the place. The repression was with blood and fire. Maybe in Caracas, in what is really greater Caracas, is where it was most felt. People went out into the street to look, and it was like a yell of “enough already” to the threat of a neoliberal package, to a decade and a half of accumulating misery. Poverty reached 80%. Total misery was around 40%. It was a situation that the country couldn’t stand any more. The Caracazo created a situation of social rupture between the Venezuelan people and the dominant class, which was most clearly expressed later in the political rupture that the Bolivarian military insurrection on 4 February by Comandante Chavez signified. On 4 February the people said ‘yes it can be done’ and it was moment when a vision building and conquering political power began to be born among the vast majority of Venezuelans.
In Venezuela the whole political system was rotten. The left was tamed, the recognised leaders of the left, with a few exceptions, were tamed by the system, bought. Or tired of struggling. And Chavez represented an absolutely fresh leadership to Venezuela politics, and from the first day, revolutionary leadership. Revolutionary, nationalist, for independence, Bolivarian. He created a different way of doing politics which expressed the collective psychology of a country that was seeking deep transformation, a country that didn’t believe in anybody, not even in itself. A country that started believe because of the hope of Chavez.
But how did Nicolas Maduro end up connecting with Hugo Chavez? When?
In 1990 I started with the Metro of Caracas and Metrobus, the system of buses that works with the metro. I started there to work based on the strategy that we had in the Socialist League of building a class based, revolutionary union force in the main companies of the Venezuelan state; the primary industries of Guayana, the national electrical company, the Metro of Caracas, the petroleum company. A plan was put together to develop revolutionary unions in them and to work with the forces in the barrios and the farms. The strategic idea that we agreed on was that all this would go towards a general insurrection against the system.
In 1991, in August, I was driving my bus through Bellas Artes, route 4-21, a route used mostly by the Caracas middle class. It was midday and I had one last round to do when I saw a dude there, in the door of the bus. It was a friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time, Ezequiel. I had known him in my high school years, in the ’70s. “What are you doing here?” I asked him. “I need to talk to you urgently,” he responded. It had to be something important for him to look for me and find me in the bus. And effectively, I did the last round and then we went to lunch at an arepa shop near the bus stop, in Bellas Artes. I remember that we had chicken soup and some arepas.
“And what are you up to these days? Why did you want to find me?” I asked him. “Well, Nicolas, I have been in contact with a military group which is going to rise up against Carlos Andres.” He said it like that, straight off. I looked at him, “Are you sure?” I said. We had lost a lot of people to traps…“It’s going to be a trap, they’re going to screw you,” but he said no, and started to tell me about it. I don’t know if in Spain it’s like this, but in Venezuela everyone knows everything, and he knew that there were two leaders, one that was a priest, who controlled the west, who turned out to be Arias Cardenas, and the other, and this is how he told me, with these words, was a tropero, who led troops, and who was a follower of Bolivar, Ezequiel Zamora, and who sang Ali Primera songs. And I told him that this seemed like a trap. He told me they were asking us to mobilise our small union forces. “And when is this going to happen?” I asked him. “In two or three months,” he replied. This was August of ’91. “And what can we do?” I asked, and he gave me various ideas, places to attack. And this confirmed to me that it could be a trap. So I told him, “Well, comrade, this smells like a trap to me, look they are going to kill us… they have killed so many people.” “Ezequiel,” I said, “If these people exist and they take up arms, the Venezuelan people are going to go with them for a hundred years, people the people are disgusted, and if there really is a patriotic sector in the Armed Forces, and they raise up arms, be assured that the people will go with them”. We said goodbye and some days passed and I didn’t see him again. He was going to contact me, but he didn’t, we didn’t coincide anywhere. And in December there were rumours that there would be a military uprising on 16 or 17 December. Later we found out that there really were projects to rise up for 17 December. Later there was a rumour that this attempt dissipated. So I met again with Ezequiel and asked him what was happening. “It’s going ahead, its being put together.” He said. “Of course it’s going ahead, what I don’t know is when, because I haven’t been in touch,” he said. And I didn’t see him again until 4 February. I was working at night on my route 4-21, and when I got home very late, at around 2.30, the phone rang. It was my sister, who explained to me that there was a military uprising against the government. And I thought, “let’s see how they are, now the persecution starts,” because in Latin America the traditional thing is that the military coups are by the right-wing, and as the crisis that neoliberalism had created was so big here, anything could happen. So in the morning they told us that the head of the coup was going to speak, and suddenly on television was the image of a dark skinned man, skinny, spoon faced, red beret, and he spoke and said what he said…
[It started off with: Companeros, unfortunately, for now, the objectives that we had planed weren’t achieved in the capital city…]
And I leaped almost up to the ceiling and shouted: “the thing was real!” Oh my god, I was left with this thing in my body… excited, like those who go crazy. Immediately I went out into the street. Of course, it was necessary to take shelter, because every time that something happened in the country, they always came out to look for a group of unionists, whose list the political police had. That day I slept in a safe house.
I started to look for Ezequiel. I found him, and we sought out contact with the soldiers, who were already in prison. And from that day, I, as member of the Socialist League, connected myself with this Bolivarian military movement, with Chavez, and from the street I worked in solidarity with them. Later we prepared for the other uprising, and then we did directly participate in the street, on 27 November, there we did mobilise people in many barrios in Caracas. But in the end they defeated us militarily.
[On 27 November 1992 there was another attempt at a coup against the government of Carlos Andres Perez, just nine months after the 4 February one. Civilians and military participated, as well as the political parties Bandera Roja and Third Way.]
Chavez, on 4 February 1992 opened up a historical process, he split history into two and woke up a revolutionary force that has managed to change not just the economic, political and social model of Venezuela, which has quickly evolved towards a proposal of Our American socialism, but has also shaken up the story of Latin America and the Caribbean like nothing else in the last 200 years.
So, are we facing a second Latin American independence? We ask…
Comandante Chavez had reflected on this and would say that it’s just one independence. That the independence is continuous, there’s no first or second, but rather it’s just one process. It could be the second big moment in the independence, of a new independence for Latin America and the Caribbean that effectively, from the historical point of view, if one were strict, you’d have to say that it started with the Cuban revolution. With an expansive process in terms of ideas and the example, the real force to transform society and take political power for transforming projects in this Chavista stage.
In the second stage Chavez had a fundamental weight because he achieved, in a short time, from 4 February 1992 to 5 March 2013- 21 years, one month, and a day have passed – the creation of a revolutionary movement. He transformed Venezuelan society, modified the power relationships with imperialism on our continent, and founded various organisations within the Bolivarian concept of the strength rings [anillos de fureza]…
The strength rings…it would help to explain that for our Spanish readers, we’d suggest…
The liberator Simon Bolivar believed in various strength rings from the geopolitical point of view. The first strength ring, which he called Colombia, he founded a powerful nation of republics where now there is Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Panama was part of Colombia, which reached up to Central America. A second strength ring that the liberator visualised was the alliance between this Colomiba with the confederation of Peru, and the recently created Bolivia, which almost took up a fundamental part of South America and part of Central America. It had the Amazon, the Pacific, the Andes, the Caribean, an Atlantic coast… that was the second strength ring, the alliance of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. And the third strength ring, he thought about it and he activated it, but in the end it failed, thanks to Gringo sabotage. In the Amphictyonic Panama Congress he was thinking of proposing a great confederation of independent republics, previously Spanish colonies, confederated into just one. It was going to go from Mexico to Patagonia. It was a power bloc. It was the third strength ring.
Comandante Chavez, rescuing the doctrine and strategic thought of the Liberator, advanced in something similar. The first strength ring: the ALBA and Petrocaribe. The ALBA, which is a political, economic, social, integral alliance of a bloc that is advancing towards socialism. A second strength ring is Mercosur and Unasur. A third strength ring is the CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. All of this already in Bolivarian thought. Maybe the difference between ALBA and the Colombia project is the presence of countries and republics of the three sides of the continent- the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, and that they don’t have common borders. But we have the great strength of political and ideological identity on the way to socialism in the ALBA, and Petrocaribe is a powerful energy and economic alliance that has acted like the first strength ring for the constitution of a new Caribbean in the new Latin America that exists today.
The second ring is made up of Mercosur and Unasur. That is, South America, which is more and more geopolitically and geoeconomically defined.
The third strength ring, I said it already, is the CELAC.
Chavez, in 21 years, managed to liberate Venezuela and constitute an ensemble of liberating strength rings of the continent. And without a doubt, he managed to generate a new alternative model to capitalism, to neoliberalism, and rescue the flag of socialism for humanity. The figure of Chavez is transcendental for understanding the historical process of Latin America, even for understanding the thought of Bolivar.
As foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro played an important role in the creation of these rings… but we’ll continue talking about his relation with Hugo Chavez.
The first time that I physically saw Hugo Chavez was the 16 December 1993. I was in the Yare prison, visiting with a group of companions. To see him in person impressed me. We had a meeting for about an hour. “What are you hear for?” he asked us. We were Metro union leaders. I told him, “Well, we want to know what your strategy is.” You know, us people from Caracas use ‘tu’ (informal grammar) straight away. “We want to know what we can expect from you in the future”. And he didn’t stop speaking for 50 minutes. On his bed there was the book A Grain of Corn by Tomas Borge, the conversation with Fidel Castro. And it was full of little pieces of paper inserted in many pages. That made me happy, because Fidel Castro was an important moral example for Latin America and for the world, a phenomenon of world politics and history. Chavez didn’t stop talking this whole time, with a lot of coherence, about everything that had to be done. He was sure that he would get out of jail soon. He told us about everything that had to be done in the street, that it was necessary to advance in building a Bolivarian military movement in the ranks of the Armed Forces, build up the grassroots so that an insurrection would be possible. And also open up spaces in case a peaceful way was possible. He explained all this, and I left there jumping about just like in February 1992. I left very excited, very motivated. I didn’t have any doubt about his personality because of what I had learnt from his letters, but that day, 16 December 1993, I sealed a spiritual commitment with him. I’m going with this man wherever he goes, I told myself. And that’s how it was.
They transferred him to the military hospital because of a health problem, and on 26 March 1994 he was freed. It was Easter Saturday.
From that Saturday I was by his side, working on a thousand things. He called me at the end of 1994 so that I would form part of the national leadership of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement 200 (MBR200) that he had founded in 1982 and that now had been reorganised. I accompanied him there for about a year and a half, always involved in the union struggles.
At around that time in Venezuela the work law was reformed, and stole the right to what we call social benefits from us in 1997. And he headed up the struggles. They were years of a lot of repression, from 1994 to 1998, and as we might say between us, when you weren’t prisoner they were looking for you. We had the political police there in anything that we might do. They even came to a baptism.
Later, in 1995, Chavez proposed a slogan: For now, for none of them, constituent now. Because there were mayoral and governor elections, and he said that we shouldn’t exhaust ourselves in them. We were going to waste time, he would say, and divide our forces which we still hadn’t finished building up. He already perceived that the solution for the country was a constituent assembly. A popular, plenipotentiary, revolutionary constituent.
1996 was a very difficult year for us, there was a lot of repression, and he proposed at the end of this year that we start preparing for the elections of 1998. There were people who didn’t agree, but well, those companeros gave in, and in 1997, on 19 April, we called for a national assembly of the MBR200, with 500 delegates that came from around the country. It was in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state, and there we decided to launch comandante Chavez’s candidature and push for a new political movement that would help us be victorious, and further, there was a third decision; to build a broad political electoral alliance.
And that was what we did. We launched ourselves in 1997. The oligarchy believed that Chavez wouldn’t get more than 10%. So we founded the Fifth Republican Movement, MVR. He chose that name. A commission was formed to chose the name and he proposed that. The basic idea was to participate in the elections in order to call for a constituent that would drive a democratic and peaceful revolution in the country.
In January 1998 he had 6% in the polls. In February, 10%. The bourgeoisie said that Chavez wouldn’t get more than 10. But later it went up to 20, 30, 40. In July he had a bit more than forty. It was already an electoral phenomenon. All the bourgeois candidates were gradually shattered, and we won the elections with 56% of the votes.
In these elections I was elected legislator to the last Congress of the IV Republic, and they made me head of the parliamentary group, of the [pro Chavez] legislators. And I accompanied the comandante until we had to resign in order to convoke the constituent.
The referendum was held so that the people could say they agreed that an assembly be convoked to write a new constitution. And this referendum, through a second question, the people were consulted on the electoral methodology to elect the constituents. It was a completely different method to the one used until then for the congress. In the referendum almost 80% approved the making of the constituent. On 25 July 1999 the constituent assembly was elected. The new constitution was written and publicly debated and on 15 December 1999 the people voted for it. There was brutal campaign where the opposition accused the constituent of being abortionist, of prohibiting private property, eliminating freedom of expression, religious freedom. They said a thousand things, but the constitution was voted for by 71.78% of Venezuelans. And that’s how the revolutionary democratic process started. Later I was elected as legislator, I was a legislator for almost eight years. I presided over various working commissions, I was president of the national assembly, and in August 2006 the president called me and he named me as foreign minister.
The vehicle moves swiftly through the airport to a side door. Nicolas Maduro stops it next to a staircase for the presidential plane. We get out. Suddenly we realise the president has disappeared, he’s not with us anymore. We see him around 100 metres away, he’s gone up to some people who were waiting to greet him. How on earth has he got that far so quickly? He returns, gets in the plane. He enters the back part and we lose sight of him. Twenty-five minutes later we land in Maiquetia, the Caracas airport. A car is waiting for the president, who invites us to go with him. Again he drives it himself. We head for Caracas, our recorder in the armrest. With a leaflet in his hands, Maduro resumes the conversation where we had left it.
El comandante called me on 7 August at night. He wanted to make some changes to the cabinet and he had already asked me for the CVs of some of the legislators with the idea of choosing a minister from among them. We had a lot of contact in those days. It was during the last war that there was in Beirut, with aggression from Israel, that was finally defeated by Hezbollah. He called me that Monday, it would have been at around 8 at night and he started to talk to me about politics. Later he commented to me that the foreign minister Ali Rodriguez was sick and that he would take a few months to get better. I started to think about some name to propose for foreign minister in case he asked me. But he said that needed to resolve the problem and he had thought of me for foreign minister. He said to me, “I need a foreign minister, but it has to be a comrade, who’s going to be by my side as a comrade, who is more than a foreign minister”. Never in my life had it occurred to me that I could be a foreign minister. Never. Once, in 2001, he talked to me about taking on the minister of work, and as I was a union leader, that seemed easy to me. But the only thing I asked him was, “President, have you thought well about this?” And he told me that he had thought about it a lot. “Start tomorrow,” he said. And the next day I went to the assembly and I resigned from my positions as legislator and president of the assembly and I was as foreign minister for six years and four months. They were years of a lot of combat in the international arena, with the building of and consolidation of ALBA, the consolidation of Petrocaribe, the foundation on 17 April 2007, in Margarita, of UNASUR, the foundation on 2 and 3 December 2011 of the CELAC, and in general the strengthening of strategic alliances with Russia, China, Iran, Belarus, India, the whole map we have built up.
Difficult years, putting up with the hostility of the empire, no?
They were complicated years, because Venezuela is in the epicentre of a battle for a new world, a battle against imperialism for Latin America and the world. And in this battle I got to know even Hugo Chavez even better, as a human being, as a leader, as a very demanding person. He was very demanding. He was an example, but he was always clear about what he wanted and how to get it. He was a man of action, in that sense he was a lot like Bolivar– in the sense of privileging action. Action as the centre of life, of reflection, of formulating ideas, of philosophy, of everything. He was very studious, very intelligent. Further, he had a virtue that Fidel Castro also had, which is to convert complicated things into simple things, and transmit, communicate with his language with the majorities. Chavez managed to convoke the vast majority of the people to politics. He called on them for big tasks. For a new independence. And left behind a formed [politically educated] people, a people with grand values. We can’t say that the revolution is totally consolidated, but it has advanced along an important stretch in terms of the possibility of making it irreversible, a long stretch in terms of ideology, the formulation of our ideology. We have a revolutionary, Bolivarian, socialist ideology. We have doctrines. We have a national project for a homeland, a country, a great homeland, articulated with a vision of the world. It’s impossible to have a revolution, trying to transcend capitalism and build a socialist society thinking of just one country. That’s impossible. If one doesn’t think of humanity, socialism is impossible. It’s necessary to have a vision that encompasses the world, all of humanity. And in the region that you relate to, in this case Latin America and the Caribbean… In that sense Trotsky was right. Even though Lenin was too, because if Lenin hadn’t consolidated the Bolshevik revolution, nothing would have been able to advance. In this debate that there was 100 years ago, bringing it into the present, Hugo Chavez chose the idea of permanent revolution in practical terms. Revolution in all the different areas, every day, revolution in different dimensions, the Venezuelan dimension, the Latin American revolution, Latin American independence, alliances with anti-imperialist forces of the world. In those years I managed to understand a lot with him, from the human and political points of views, and to get to know, deeply, the ideas that made up Hugo Chavez’s project. Now I’m doing a lot of tasks, and it’s as if he had been preparing me for this battle; but I think he also prepared the people, he prepared us all. No one can feel themselves individually prepared for this battle that we are waging, but he prepared all of us for it.
We ask you, being at the head of the foreign ministry, what was the thorniest issue you had to face?
The possibility of a war with Colombia. In July 2010 Uribe was preparing for aggression. Various Latin American intelligence organisations provided us with first hand information that, checked against our own, gave us the coordinates of two possible attacks and their dates, in order to open up a war front with Venezuela in the days before Juan Manual Santos assumed the presidency. This was the most dangerous moment. We denounced it, UNASUR made a declaration, and I did a lightening tour of all the countries of South America in two days, and President Chavez was personally leading this difficult situation. We had all our armed forces, our entire radar and defence detection system activated.
We worked hard, politically and diplomatically, and we stopped Uribe from attacking Venezuela. We defeated him in the political and diplomatic area. And also in the military area because the military in Colombia refused to carry out the operation against Venezuela. This was perhaps the most complex moment of all the moments I had to live through as the foreign minister of Chavez.
But later the president started to show signs that he was sick and finally Nicolas Maduro became vice-president…
Yes, a very hard and difficult period began for el comandante when he started to suffer strong pains that affected a knee, a leg, which at some points stopped him from walking. We thought it was a muscular problem, other things were thought about, until he got the exam, when it was discovered that there was an abscessed tumour that was easily solved. Unfortunately later it was show that it was a very big cancerous tumour, very aggressive, and that grown in a very short time, and that affected him a lot from 2011 to 2012. In his last two years of life he was seriously affected by the operations, pain, treatment, and with all of that he was always at the front, running the revolution, always aware of the main problems of the people, of the building of socialism, of the important problems in the international arena. He didn’t neglect any front. Although it’s true that his rhythm of attending to and maintaining the dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution decreased. For example, in the electoral campaign, he himself told us that he felt like a boxer had gone into the ring with one hand tied. He fought with just one hand, and he won by a large margin. But either way he was very affected by the whole campaign, suffering pain. The medical exams that they conducted on him in this time, done with the most modern technology, said that there was an absence of cancerous cells. Not one. However, after the elections and after the big triumph of 7 October 2012, the pains increased. October and the start of November were months of a lot of pain and when he left Venezuela to undergo new treatment, it was discovered that the cancerous tumour had reproduced itself in the same place, and that’s when he investigated the dangerousness of the operation that they were going to perform on him. Face the evident risk of undergoing for the fourth time, an operation in the same place. An operation with a lot of risk, and he decided to prepare everything for just in case…
Hugo Chavez was aware of the seriousness of the situation?
His intuition never failed. With all the other operations he went in with a spirit of victory and sure of coming out fine. The day that he found out about this fourth operation, he talked with the doctors, and he knew intuitively that it was the last one. He called me on Sunday 2 December. I was going over the repairs of the Bolivar pantheon and he used a codeword that we had agreed on between the two of us. It was bad news. This was a blow… I didn’t know how big, one is always optimistic, but he told me, “Send me a commission”. And I sent it to him. To Havana. Diosdado Cabello, Cilia [Flores], Rafael Ramirez, and his son in law, Jorge Arriaza was already there. That was, if I remember correctly, the 3rd or 4th of December. They talked with him for two days. He told them that if he was gone, that I would prepare to convene elections, and he sorted out many things– personal, political, many details, and he ordered the commission to go back to Venezuela. They arrived early on 5 December, and that was when they told me the news about what was going to happen, the operation, and what he had decided. That for me was one of the biggest blows that I remember. Such a hard blow… to know that el comandante was in those circumstances… I think that in some way he sent me a message to prepare myself, so that I wouldn’t receive the blow suddenly, so that I could digest it. He was always careful with everything. I went there on 5 December. I arrived at around 8 at night and I was with him until 5 or 6 in the morning of the 6th, and he talked for a long time. Jorge Arreaza was a witness of this conversation, he noted it all. It was a very difficult conversation, agonising. He kept giving me instructions about many things. He went into the future, he explained it to me, and then he returned to where we were. I almost couldn’t speak, I was very affected, it was like a goodbye. And there he decided to return to Venezuela to explain this and many more things; in the end he didn’t explain them all, because we told him that it wasn’t necessary. We landed in Caracas airport at midnight of the 6 and 7 of December, I got in the car with him to his residency in Miraflores. We talked, he kept giving me instructions, as if nothing was happening. That if we didn’t inaugurate this…that it was necessary to do this thing… he was very motivated, but the pains were a terrible thing. On the 7th he rested, although with a lot of pain, and on the 8th we met, we studied the situation from the constitutional point of view, and he talked and said what he had to say.
[What he said was: If anything happens, if I’m prevented from continuing at the head of the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, not just in this situation should he conclude the period as the constitution mandates, but also in my firm, full, irrevocable, and absolute opinion, in the situation where it’s necessary to call presidential elections, you should elect Nicolas Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.]
Later he went to be operated, and in a particular moment of the operation he almost left us. The people lived through that with a lot of pain. And the right-wing? The right-wing didn’t stop provoking the people for even a moment. They wanted, if there were a fatal outcome, for the people to come out into the streets like crazy, that Venezuela would enter a spiral of violence. We worked on removing the hate that was being promoted by the right-wing. In those circumstances, and as I was carrying out two positions, as vice-president – he had named me vice-president before he left, in October –the proposal came up to name Elias Jaua foreign minister, which he [Chavez] approved of immediately, and from there Elias took on the foreign ministry and me the vice-presidency, in the middle of those painful circumstances, with such uncertainty, when the comandante would improve, and other more difficult moments that we had to face. And we had to prepare ourselves for what we never thought would happen. Until the last second on that day 5 March we hoped that he would overcome those circumstances.
We are already outside Caracas. At a pedestrian crossing a large group of people are crowding around, held back by traffic police, who have been warned that it’s about the president’s car. But he stops and tells the police to allow the people to cross. A little bewildered, the police let them cross. We resume.
The right-wing were preparing to start a process of economic destabilisation that would be finished off with social and political destabilisation. Imperialism and its Venezuelan allies were always anxious to end with the revolution, and they tried to end with Chavez through all the possible ways; coup, assassination, elections. But they couldn’t do it through any of those ways. But now they planned, knowing the seriousness of the comandante, to take advantage of the situation to organise chaos. And effectively they caused a lot of damage. We are still getting over some of the effects of the brutal economic sabotage, something that would be difficult for other countries to bear, with hoarding, speculation, an economic war against the country. A war that was unleashed in November and continued in December, January, February, March…When el comandante died and elections were called, the level of scarcity was terrible and a result of the economic sabotage. They sabotaged the electricity system, which is vulnerable in all countries. And they used a range of mechanisms of psychological war to provoke rage and hate in people. We confronted every one of these elements by saying the truth to the people, calling them to battle, to permanent mobilisation. The electoral victory that we obtained on 14 April happened in the middle of mourning for the tragedy. A paralysing mourning in the middle of an electric war in which I arrived in one state without electricity and I left it without the electricity having returned. We suffered a brutal economic war. We mobilised the people and we had a victory.
And later we implemented a methodology of popular government that we have called Street Government. The aim of the street government is to mobilise the people and be able to identify the fundamental problems and commit resources and to actions for their solution. With this methodology we have approved, in the first 100 days of government, over 2000 projects which came out of direct contact with the people as we travelled the country. We have invested in these street government working days over 16 billion dollars in projects for economic development, infrastructure, roads, housing, agro industry, education, health. It’s a revolution within the revolution. A profound change in the methods of leadership of the Bolivarian revolution, with the construction of collective leadership, because it was substituting such a powerful leadership, such an organiser like Chavez is almost impossible. It can only be done with a great collective military, civilian force. What I have done is this: activate a new collective political leadership of the revolution. We have activated a great collective civil-military leadership. The armed forces, you yourselves have been able to see it today, constitute a revolutionary force, a revitalising force of the socialist revolution. A force that is committed to anti-imperialist socialism, committed to the homeland. Consciously committed, with discipline. Maybe one the most comprehensive rules that comandante Chavez left us with for the continuity of the Bolivarian revolution.
We have managed to neutralise and defeat the right-wing plot. Now we are stabilising and consolidating the revolution into a new stage. Creating new mechanisms to deepen the construction of the socialist economic model, of the social model that guarantees free public education, free public health, the right to food, that guarantees the right to work, fair pay… A revolution that guarantees development and economic prosperity, social prosperity, and social equality, that’s the objective of Bolivarian socialism.
The car stops in front of the door of the president’s residence. We get out. We have been recording for almost two hours, but there are so many things unsaid. We enter. On a table, photos of Chavez, a little statue of the singer Ali Primera, an image of a saint. Maduro points at them.
This is Saint Benito, a black saint. And this is Ali. In one way, Ali built with his song, with the cultural movement that he lead, the ideas of the Bolivarian revolution. He was a working class leader, a great agitator. Ali filled a stadium when the left couldn’t mobilise anyone. And he drove people crazy, enthusiastic, when he talked and sang. He always sang the national anthem, and in the middle of the anthem he talked to the people.
Chavez didn’t meet Ali, but patriotic militants listened to him. It was daring that an active soldier listened to him, Ali was harassed by the system. But he was the first man on the left to arrive at the people through his songs. He had a personality similar to Chavez.
We sit down for one last question. It’s nine o’clock at night; it’s been a long day. We ask about Spain, about the European Union, about the possibility of an alliance that leaves neo-colonialism behind, about multipolarity.
The European Union was a great hope because it seemed that a bloc of countries capable of constituting an counterweight to the hegemonic power of the United States was arising. No one doubted that the United States constitutes an imperial, hegemonic project; it’s a country that has almost 1000 military bases distributed about the world. No one has doubts about the imperialist calling of elites who run the US. Unfortunately the elites who run the majority of governments in Europe have succumbed in terms of their foreign policies, to a strange dependence on the US. It’s strange because there’s no economic nor traditional policy-based explanation. The elites who govern Europe act against the interests of the people of Europe and the interests of humanity. What they have done recently, get down on their knees before the US government with the case of young Snowden, has no comparison. What they did to president Evo Morales, a Latin American head of state, desperate to comply with the US government in its craziness for capturing Snowden, marks a before and after.
There is a great struggle in terms of what you called multipolarity, a multipolar world, and this struggle implies a transition. Every transition is made up of advances and setbacks. Sometimes it can seem like we are going backwards towards a unipolar world, when the US subjugates countries as powerful as those in Europe. But the worst is that it subjugates them through the WB [World Bank] and the IMF, taking them towards an economic policy of self-destruction. There shouldn’t be any doubt, they are destroying Europe from the inside. They are destroying its economic base, its social model. They are getting close to a serious implosion, that could be uncontrollable. How long are they going to take to get to the point where there are large outbursts by the masses? I don’t know, nobody knows. But the situation is unbearable for the people. The economic packages that they are imposing on the vast majority of the European countries are unbearable. Latin America couldn’t take them, it exploded in a thousand pieces and this revolution arose.
The natural alliance for a world of peace would have to be established between Europe and Latin America. An alliance for respect of democracy, human rights, of cultural exchange, cooperation for economic development, to share the big advances in science for the collective good, to share this beautiful cultural and human diversity that Latin America has, with open doors to Europe. Latin America has shown itself to be a very friendly continent. Giant contingents of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians came here in the thousands over a hundred years ago. They came here in the ’40s, ’50s of last century practically without anything, and they prospered here. Latin America is the continent of hope, and Europe should be a continent of peace, of the future. If only.
Here there is a saying that goes there’s no bad that for good doesn’t come [when bad things happen take the best thing out of them]. It’s possible the bad of neoliberalism can make a good in the end, waking up the peoples of Europe, who lived in a state of well being, forgetting that the rest of the world existed, and they could see that in the South the opportunity to have there their brothers. Don’t see us with contempt or distrust. The revolutions that there are in Latin America have to be seen with interest, with sympathy. Because we have discovered perfectly valid formulas for building truly democratic, educated, free, and truly prosperous societies. One doesn’t understand why Europe abandons its right to economic development in order to hand itself over to the hands of financial capital. Can financial capital do more than the people and the social movements with a democratic tradition and struggles for equality of Europe? I don’t think so. Can the financial power of four European banks, of four theirs, do more than society? What does European society think about this? What do the intellectuals, the universities think about this? What do the European soldiers think about this? Are they going to allow their countries to be destroyed? What do the people think? Are they going to allow an operation of total dismantling of the social and economic structure to be culminated? And what will the future of Europe be? Misery? Emigration? They are questions that sound like catastrophes, but we are really facing them. When one sees Greece paralysed for three days, in a desperate gesture of all of society because they shut down the television on them, because they got rid of thousands of public employees, because they do whatever they feel like every day, reducing wages, pensions… is this the message, is this the future? After these economic packages, how to glimpse hope?
The peoples don’t resign themselves to being annihilated. Spain has a glorious history of struggle for democracy. A glorious history that even lead them to defeat Napoleon. The peoples don’t resign to be colonies, nor to being vassals, and least of financial capital. Because he who never goes badly is financial capital, it swallows the people, countries. But, well there’s no bad that for good doesn’t come. Maybe the practice of neoliberalism will end in a big awakening, in a big rebirth of the real Europe, the Europe of justice and freedom. Of revolutionary Europe. Because the idea of the revolutionaries to re-found humanity came from Europe. The republican idea came from the French revolution and was taken up by the liberators. They put it into the concoction of Latin American blend and converted it into a native revolution.
Europe needs to take up its flags again, those of real humanism, and find its path. I don’t have any doubt that Europe will find its path. This youth that is now unemployed in the streets, the professionals whose rights are being stolen, will start it, a working class, the left-wing intellectuals will take up its historical flags again, hoist the genuinely humanist and left-wing flags. I am totally sure that Europe will build its alternative. Each in their own way. Pushing towards the future. Because those who don’t dare to push hard into the future, doesn’t have a right to it.
We would have liked to have asked many more things; the relationship with Spain specifically, with Colombia, with the US. To talk about the efforts that are being carried out in the fight against corruption. The measures that are being taken for security, sending military patrols into the barrios. About how inflation is going to be fought, about so many things… but it’s already late, and we have to finish. Maybe in the future we’ll be granted the opportunity to formulate all these questions. If only.