Neither coup d’état nor guarimbas nor abstention have worked as a formula against the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. The only opposition victories have been when it has taken the democratic route. This is the conviction of the anti-chavismo leader Claudio Fermín, one of the few who dare to publicly disagree with the insurrectionary line that today controls antichavismo.
Fermín, former mayor of Caracas, ex-presidential candidate, ex-constituent (1999) and ex-campaign chief of the 2018 presidential candidate Henri Falcón, spoke with “La IguanaTV” about the most recent political events, but put in the perspective of 20 years of adverse positions to the Bolivarian Revolution.
Here is a version of the dialogue he had with the journalist Clodovaldo Hernández:
– How is the country’s politics and, above all, the opposition, after the events of April 30?
-In Venezuela, unfortunately it is recurrent that political, economic, and administrative episodes occur that are not analyzed. We cross from one bridge to another, one news report obscures another. That’s why I am happy to begin this conversation by reviewing what happened that day. It was a strange fact because there was a rebellion of some officers, I do not know at last how many there were, there was an uprising because publicly demonstrating against the military command, against authority, is that, an uprising, an attempt to depose the authorities. Any method not established in the Constitution that is used to depose the constituted authority is, from the formal legal point of view, a coup d’état. It is not only about the Executive Power, in this case Nicolás Maduro, but also the Legislative Power. For example, declaring the National Assembly in contempt, with a decision brought by “the bows” [of the Supreme Court], it is a coup d’etat. And this attempt to depose Maduro via a non-electoral route (which is the only one provided for in the Constitution) is, in my opinion, a coup d’état. However, how curious, I read through the networks and in press articles a kind of conceptual debate of clarification about whether this was a coup d’état, if it was a mega-guarimba, a rebellion, an uprising. There is a certain delight in the forms when the substance of the matter is that they sought to depose a government. That is why the first thing that must be evaluated is whether this worked or not. The truth is that it did not work because Nicolás Maduro is still at the head of the Executive Power. It did not work in the same way that the 2014 guarimbas did not work, the movement called “La Salida”; how abstention did not work in 2018; nor the thesis of abandonment of office; how none of the actions pushed by immediacy have worked, [none] that tries to give a prompt response to discontent and tries to capitalize it. Those are improvised proposals but they gain popularity. So my first message to those who celebrated this issue is that if one is really committed to change, the first thing to do is not play with change. Change is a serious thing. We should not play with the people’s expectations, who are very confused, very upset. To those who have been behind the abstention, behind the guarimbas, behind a fantasy declaration of abandonment of office and behind this rebellion of May 30, I invite you to make a serious evaluation. I disagree with all those forms, I’m not accusing anyone at this moment, but asking them to ask if it worked or not. On the other hand, I also invite Nicolás Maduro and the PSUV command, the high government, to also evaluate what happened. Those guys who were there, the sergeants, the soldiers, the officers, did they do that for idleness, because they did not have anything else to do or because they were free, they had a day off? They can be labeled as traitors. That’s propaganda and political way of saying it, but when an officer risks losing his career, what’s behind it? Could it be that there is also discontent, hunger, desire for change? I know that this advice is not going to be taken by either one or the other, but the rational thing would be to evaluate the efficiency of those acts. It has always struck me that the terrain where the opposition is stronger, that is the land of consultation to discontent, is precisely what the heart of this opposition does not want to tread. They promote abstention, they renounce the vote when it is in the vote where the strength of the citizenship is and, instead, they opt for force, which is where the government’s shield is. It is an absurd choice of the most inconvenient terrain. In the case of Maduro, he should ask himself why the most virulent sector, that of the most aggressive language of the opposition, managed to get along with a sector of the Army or the Armed Forces. Do not you realize that discontent is not an oppositional propaganda, but that the thing is really wrong? I invite everyone to put their feet on the ground to see if we manage to straighten the course of a country so battered.
-For many years it seems that the democratic block of the opposition remains on the lookout, does not pronounce, when the radical block, the pyromaniac wing, takes control. When you see Edgar Zambrano or Henry Ramos Allup in Altamira, you can not help but think that they are like cazagüires, [opportunists], waiting to see if they gets a chance to score a goal. How do you see it?
-It’s good that you ask that question because sometimes you have the idea that only one perceives things that way. I join you in that perception. In the (political) movement that we have formed at the national level, called Solutions for Venezuela, we believe in voting. We collected the signatures to validate us as a political party. We know the difficulties around the vote, but we believe in it. We do not believe in the disqualification of the opponent or in violence or in improvisation. We are a boringly democratic people, and I say this because in times of despair, democracy does not have that epic narrative, that color, that heroism of the good against the bad, of exterminating the opposite. These are discourses that yield much benefit. We have been concurring with the Movement to Socialism, Let’s Change, Facing Venezuela. We were very coincident with Avanzada Progresista, although now we have some differences. We have been concurring with Copei. We are part of that Venezuela that is opposition but does not want violence. In Solutions for Venezuela, we perceive a little what you call “the cazagüire”. Let’s take the case of Guaidó, who is possibly the most popular politician in the country. A month ago he was, today I say “possibly”, but I think he still is, but that popularity has to do with the immediate offer, without pretending to take away anything from his individual attributes. The speech “let’s get out of this tomorrow” produces a lot of applause. If someone comes in the door of La Iguana.TV’s studio, and says that we are going to change the government in the next elections, in five years, surely another will come later and say that that is a long time, we have to change it in a referendum, in two years. But a smarter one comes and says “in two years? Apparently, you aren’t going hungry, you do not have any needs … let’s change it tomorrow!” Well, the one that says tomorrow is the one that gets the applause because the game of capitalizing on discontent plays better, but he is the one that is lying because there is no procedure to get out of this tomorrow. Then, I perceive this: a dose of opportunism, in the good sense, people who do not want to be left out of the play, leaders who want to be “taken into account” by the new government, in quotes. I also perceive a lot of fear of what they will say. Social coercion has a lot of weight. Many people did not vote on May 20 last year because they were exposed to being called collaborators in their own families. That pressure exerted by the environment, our friends, our family, on us is much stronger than any law, than any police force. I lived the experience of people whose door I was going to knock on to invite them to vote on May 20 … I found a man who told me, with great affection but very sternly, “Claudio, respect that I am an honest man, I will not vote”. That is, they gave a moralistic tinge to the matter, so that everyone who went to vote was a delinquent, a sellout, immoral. So yes, there has been opportunism, fear of what they will say, social coercion and I think there have also been people who are not democrats, even if they are opposition. People who believe that the vote, the violence, or the coup d’état are mere tools, that it does not matter what the way is because the end justifies the means. For a democrat, the goal is coexistence, it is cooperation, it is integration, it is to settle our affairs in a peaceful way. Now, if a person is ashamed to live with others, to be tolerant, if he feels weak because he believes in respect for others, what he has to do is to review his condition as a democrat. In these 20 years I have observed authoritarian behavior in which the Constitution and the laws have been replaced by administrative discretion: the incumbent president, the incumbent minister, the president of PDVSA or the superintendent of Seniat elaborate their own rules, under the premise that this is for the benefit of the country. It is an authoritarian exercise of which there is a lot of evidence, from which Chavismo dissidents can speak. But I have also observed other mechanisms of authoritarianism in the opposition, such as dirty campaigns, disqualification, of those who do not agree with the leadership’s opinion. In my case it has been a very particular thing because I have been doing opposition work for 20 years, according to how I understand what should be done. I have opposed economic policies, in the same way as the institutionality of the country has been broken down, to what is called the class struggle “a lo Venezolano”, which consists in persecuting the unions, the parties, the media, the guilds, dissident personalities. That’s why I’m opposition. But I also had to oppose the heart of the opposition because I was in open disagreement with the Plaza Altamira, with the oil strike, with the Carmonazo, with the abstention, with the declaration of abandonment of office, with this of April 30. I will not say that it is a privileged perspective, nor will I be martyred for having it, simply that it has allowed me to see extraordinary values. I know extraordinary people in the PSUV, in AD, in Primero Justicia, in the Communist Party, in the PPT, in the MAS, in Solutions for Venezuela. At the same time I have been able to observe shortcomings, make criticisms, protest about things with which we disagree. That is important for all Venezuelans who want change, who are not only those of us in the opposition. Surveys reveal that 80 or 85% of the country wants change. That is not, to put it in a graphic way, a flock of opposition parties. It’s Venezuela. Even the PSUV is organizing a few days to propose a rectification process to Maduro. That is an elegant way to claim changes. No matter how much lipstick they put on it, no matter how much they dress these rectification proposals in politically correct language, in the end it is a claim for change that comes from the very foundations of Chavismo. Chavismo itself has now invented this category of “madurism”, not to stop being chavistas, which is its follow-up to the original leadership challenge, to the Chávez rupture proposal, they speak of the “madurista government”. That reveals that the country wants change. The country needs a minimum of common sense. Those leading Chavistas have, with humility, to accept that there has been a sea of mistakes and rectify. And that ocean of opposition people who have been demanding changes can not disqualify anybody who has joined now. The important thing is to reach agreement. It is absurd to protest the meeting. I celebrate it because I believe that through understanding and dialogue we can find a path of well-being for the country. If you find an interlocutor that concurs with you, why drape yourself in mourning? It seems that some people light candles to the saints so that they never have to hear them and thus be right in their accusations of intolerance. This brings us to a reflection on the extreme polarization that has hijacked the debate, has anesthetized it, has put political activists in positions of automatic solidarity. Here there are Chavistas who disagree with what the PSUV command says at this or that moment, but they say that by discipline they have to repeat it. And there are opposition people who disagree with things they do at the Unity Table, now dressed as Frente Amplio, but they say it is better not to disagree. I have met people who say to me: “Fermin, what you say is true … but do not say it!”. And how can I not say it if it’s true? It is a jungle, a tower of Babel which the political debate in Venezuela has become. There are people who are ashamed to approach other Venezuelans and shake hands. We have to finish with that.
-What weight do US rulings have on the behavior of the opposition leadership? I ask because that would explain why the moderate opposition ends up adding to the actions of the radical opposition.
-I begin by analyzing the moderate opposition. In this country of Boves, of Catire Páez, of Betancourt against Gómez, of Chávez and the coup d’état of 1992, in a country of handsome men, talking about moderates may not be praise, not be a compliment. People play Manicheism a lot: all or nothing. That’s why polarization has been so successful. I am committed to change, I fight for change, modestly, placing a grain of sand. I would like to see a government of unity, of understanding. I would like to see the country reconciled. Some people will say “how moderate Claudio is”, but it turns out that is the radical change because if tomorrow, those of the new government, those who were persecuted, become persecutors, there will have been no change. I’ve heard people from the MUD, now Frente Amplio, say “no to dialogue” … Well, that is what we have been protesting Maduro, who does not talk at all with the country of flesh and blood, but only with his followers, and if someone has a different opinion, he calls them oligarch, vendepatria, “escualido”, he describes them in a degrading way. For me the real change is the understanding, the reconciliation, that tomorrow we do not have political prisoners or that no media outlet is closed for interviewing Pedro Pérez or María Solórzano. On the other hand, making a digression, politics has become coarse. There are people who take delight in publicly profanity, or who believe they strike a great publicity blow by uttering insolence, mistreating others, and their side applauds them, say “you ate him!”, and that is considered radical. I think that is just vulgarity. I do not have a third-party vocation, we are only telling the truth in the face of so much aggression, persecution and repression, the opposite of that is coexistence and respect, not revenge. So, those who are proposing revenge are not radical but, in the end, the continuity of the same action, in another suit, in another face. Regarding the issue of external influence, it would be naive to criticize Cubans because they have for 17 years been taking, without paying, – without paying! – 80 thousand barrels of oil every day. Well, as the saying goes, every day a fool goes out into the street and whoever finds him, owns him. They are defending their interests, we are not defending ours. That the Russians are interested in Venezuelan oil … what’s so strange about that? So are the gringos, the Italians, the French, the Belarusians, the Colombians,the Chinese. All the countries of the world, and the gringos in the front of the line, are interested in our riches. That is not strange at all. What is strange is that we do not have a united country to defend them and to set the terms of exchange with those who are interested in our wealth. That’s what international relations are about. It is not that we are going to get a candid people who will come from benefactors to help us. Countries have interests and we should defend ours. What is not lawful, what I protest is that we put our country at auction to look for political allies. That is what is happening today with the United States of America, with Russia and has happened with Cuba and with China. I call not to be surprised in the face of foreign voracity. No. Be surprised by our defenselessness, in the face of the fact that here Venezuelans prefer to be allies of the US or Russia or Cuba or China or Colombia rather than understand each other because one is an anti-chavista and the other is pro-government. It’s stupid. I am not ashamed to come to terms myself with any Venezuelan. But polarization and dogmatism has led us to that. Here there are Chavistas who believe that Venezuela would do better if the opposition did not exist. And there are anti-chavistas who believe that the country would do better if Chavismo did not exist. Well, both are outside of reality because we all exist. Will we not be able to seek a minimum agreement or is it more dignified to be a subordinate of a foreign power that gives us custody? That is the denaturalization of the meaning of the nation. Now, going back to the origin of your question, This government of Donald Trump is very close with Russia. While here we believe that they are in conflict, in the USA they investigate Trump for his connections with Russia. Trump speaks more with Putin than with Guaidó, and Putin speaks more with Trump than with Arreaza. Let them both know that so they get off of that cloud. Yes, there are obvious interests, and what Venezuelans have to do is to take back the compass. Let’s try to promote a process of approximation, of understanding. Why do you seek understanding? Because there is disagreement. If we have a hundred things that separate us, let’s look for six or seven priorities so that we can cast the country forward: how we are going to defend the Essequibo; how are we going to recover PDVSA; how are we going to recover coexistence and end repression; how are we going to recover national autonomy. That is not impossible but it has to be done with other leadership, with people who prioritize those issues.
-Sometimes the opposition leadership issues confused, conflicting, apparently contradictory messages. In your case, I mean that at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, you appeared as a presidential candidate. Suddenly you withdrew the candidacy and that reinforced the message that there was no confidence in the presidential election process, which was a position of the opposition’s leadership. However, you ended up being the head of the Henri Falcón campaign. Why did not you remain a pre-candidate and why did you later accept being the chief of Falcon’s campaign?
-Various states and community movements of neighborhoods and hamlets, which are now called Solutions for Venezuela, began to propose my candidacy. We proposed a basic election, which was not an imposition. In the end, the candidacy did not prosper because there were no primaries.There was talk of consensus, which is a euphemism for a new sprout, and then something unusual happened: there were relations between AD and Popular Will, which even declared itself a social democrat. That made Henry Ramos Allup, who was a supporter of base elections, move to the idea of consensus, perhaps thinking that VP could support him. Others raised their candidacies, such as Andrés Velásquez and even Juan Pablo Guanipa, who was a candidate after winning the elections in Zulia and not taking office. Capriles himself, that already had a national leadership. In the end, the consensus began to assemble itself among those who had deputies in the National Assembly or had a party card. Now, my pre-candidacy is withdrawn because when the presidential elections were announced, both Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, in unison, proposed that elections for the National Assembly be held in conjunction with the presidential election. They even presented the proposal to the National Electoral Council, and Dr. Lucena received it. It was an abrupt way to extinguish an AN that had been declared in contempt and that still had more than half of its current term. Faced with that, I raised my voice and said that if there was any possibility of being a candidate, I was retiring because my presidential candidacy was not going to be in the service of a covert operation to eliminate the AN. Curiously, I do not say it was for that reason, after ten or fifteen days, the government withdrew the proposal for the joint election, which in fact was not done, but it would have been very unserious of me to say that I am now back. After that came an offer, which surprised me, by Falcon. He was gracious with me, he was very generous because at that time I did not have a party or card and I do not have links to financing or media sectors. He told me that my presence could help to summon people to the polls, in some neighborhoods, in some towns, and I responded because I feel that the only way out is the vote, the only way is the democratic one and I can never understand how at a time when not only the opposition, but the country wanted change, I wanted to go out and vote for a democratic change, the political commanders stopped at the corners to ask people not to vote. These are the results: you did not vote and Maduro did not leave. You went out to block streets, to do guarimbas, and Maduro did not leave. You went out to celebrate the uprising of officers on April 30, but Maduro did not leave. Abstention did not work, violence did not work, rebellion did not work either. The only democratic terrain, and the only one in which we can be efficient is that of popular consultation. Meanwhile, the most difficult terrain, that of force, is the one that an opposition commando chooses. It’s the world upside down.
-As head of the campaign command of Henri Falcón, can you say responsibly that in those elections there was fraud?
-We protested the assisted vote. We know that it was born as a great vindication because it was absurd that a person impeded in sight or hands, because of that limitation, lost their political rights. Then they prostituted it, it contaminated itself with that vividness that is the cousin’s sister of corruption, because people who were whole, 35 or 40 years old, who did not have even flu, had to accept that an executioner assisted them to see if they were voting for the government. We also protested before the Supreme Court, although they did not even admit the appeal, the red points, or tricolor points because they are methods of coercion, of blackmail. You do not receive such a social program if you do not show your ID card, if you do not control it, if you do not record what you voted for. It is an immorality, a perversion. With the assisted vote and the red dot the secret of the vote is lost, which is the guarantor that the citizen will express himself fully. So, I can say without doubt that there were irregularities, of course, but Falcon, who was the second, did not lose by 50 thousand votes, nor as (Gonzalo) Barrios with (Rafael) Caldera, by 28 thousand votes, did not lose for 200 or 300 thousand. Lost by millions of votes. We have to keep fighting for the best electoral guarantees, but I do not agree with a very awkward approach, which accomplishes the anti-chavismo of what is proposed, which is to say that until I am given all the electoral guarantees, we do not vote. It is a great contradiction because the electoral guarantees are claimed to protect the vote. But with that attitude, the claimants of these electoral guarantees are not able to protect even their own vote, because they leave it at home or in the doorway. You have to vote and keep demanding it. Here is a historical example: the extraordinary generation that fought for direct votes and for women, the young and the illiterate, once General Gómez died, claimed that now, in starched language, it’s called electoral guarantees. In the ten years of posgomecismo, Eleaza López Contreras and Isaías Medina Angarita, there were municipal elections, and these leaders ran. They did not say “I will only run when they give us the vote for the woman and the illiterate.” They understood that the struggle was continuous. In Solutions for Venezuela, we have not stopped fighting for better electoral guarantees, but we do not agree with that erroneous approach of not voting, a kind of electoral strike that harms the opposition, which has been one of the secret tools of continuity. Abstention has not allowed what the people wanted to be expressed, which was change. Now, can we ask the government to protest the abstention? It’s abstention that works to their benefit. So, there were irregularities, we have to fight them, but I do not think they were the cause of Maduro’s triumph. The cause was abstention. I think that Maduro should have some abstention symbol on his night table and he should applaud him every night because thanks to abstention he continues as president. And, by the way, Guaidó, Ramos, Borges, to name three very important leaders, are deputies to the AN and they are so because we went to vote, with the same Electoral Council. I am not saying that this council must be perpetual, it must be changed because it is biased, because there are leaders who have expired terms, because we believe that it no longer inspires the confidence it must inspire to promote the participation of citizens … but they must be sincere. They were elected with those same authorities, with the difference that when they were candidates they called everyone to vote. But since the 2018 candidate was a campesino from Nirgua, they called for abstention. I wonder what would have happened if the candidate had been Capriles again or if it had been Lorenzo Mendoza, who was very good in the polls. Would they have called for abstention or are there other class or internal policy components that I am not aware of because I have never been to any meeting of either the MUD or the Coordinator? I have the impression that there was a certain meanness, something like “if it’s not me, it’s not anyone”. Let’s do an exercise of imagination, putting a voting center in the studio of LaIguana.TV with 300 registered citizens. Let’s suppose that the government sent to vote here, illegally, ten minors, ten foreigners and ten others who voted for the deceased. In total, 30 fraudulent votes, “chimbos”. In addition, 50 people came who did vote for the government legally and voluntarily. In total there would be 80 votes. I have two options as an opposition: abstain and let myself be beaten for the 80 votes of the Chavismo, including the 30 irregular ones, or go out to campaign to get at least 100 votes and win in this voting center. But for that I have to do politics, preach, mobilize, look for allies. If I absent myself in a tantrum because there is some fraud in La Pastora and another in Betijoque, we lose this precinct of 300 voters by 80 votes to zero. The massive vote beats the fraud here and in any country in the world. Against the irregularities we must continue fighting, but the massive vote beats the unfair advantage. Did not Chávez win the year 98? Did not we win the National Assembly in 2015? Was there not opportunism in 1998?Was there not opportunism in the 2015 parliamentary elections? I ask these questions as examples that can open understanding of the two extreme poles. I am not saying that the electoral processes are neat or that the Chavistas are barefoot Carmelites, but when there is a massive vote, when the people are summoned and there is participation, nobody stops them. That is why abstention is not only capitulation, it is surrendering, it makes the muscle of the people flabby, but it also ignores these historical experiences. The only tool is the vote. There is no other.
Translated by: EF/JRE