Civil unrest has rocked Venezuela for months, though we don’t read or hear much about it in the news.

To find out what the heck is going on there, FPI Content Fellow Jennie Spector sat down with FPI fellow Fabiana Perera.

Fabiana is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. Her research focuses on unemployment and education in resource dependent countries and has been supported by the American Political Science Association, the GWU Center for International Business Education and Research and Humanity in Action.
Fabiana is also active in the Hispanic community and board of the alumni association of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities for six years and volunteers with the Central American Resource Center.
Fabiana holds an MA in Latin American studies from Georgetown University where she was a fellow in languages and area studies. She was born in New Jersey and raised in Caracas, Venezuela.

Let’s say someone had never heard of Venezuela. How would you describe the country’s background? 

There are three things people should know.

1. Venezuela is an oil producing country, and a member of OPEC – the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. It’s important to understand the centrality of oil to Venezuela’s identity. It contributes more than 80% of government revenues. Not only is it an economic engine, it had also been a source of security and stability. In Venezuela, there was always this sense because the country had oil, nothing too bad could happen, because the US needs oil close to it. So the importance of oil is a big one.

2. Venezuela is the country of Simon Bolivar, which is important for two separate reasons – one is a historical point of view. Through Simon Bolivar, Venezuela is connected to Colombia, Ecuador, to Bolivia of course, and in a sense to Peru, though Peru contests that a little bit. In terms of modern times, Chavismo, the government that’s been in power since 1989, has utilized the image of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar is a founding father of the country, picture a George Washington type figure. Chavismo invented this idea of “Bolivarian,” turning the name into an adjective, used to describe “leftist” – anti-American, pro-redistribution – even if that’s not how the ideology worked out in real life.

3. There’s a huge cultural element. Venezuela is very proud of its achievements across the arts and sports. Any number of major league players are Venezuelan. They haven’t had, unlike other countries in the region, a nobel laureate, but they do have Gustavo Dudamel, who was the conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If you meet a Venezuelan, the first thing they’ll mention is someone famous from Venezuela.

What’s the current state of the country?

The country has been protesting on the streets for 55 days, beginning on April 3rd. There’s a long list of things that brought Venezuela to this point. In spite of being a very rich country in terms of having oil, Venezuela is a very unequal country.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, close to 80% of people lived in poverty, in a country that could easily afford to fix that. This inequality is largely seen as what brought Hugo Chavez, with the ideas of Bolivarianism and redistribution and the left, to power. And when the price of oil was really high, the government’s ability to successfully redistribute wealth also increased. Eventually however, this strategy began to fail. There was an erosion of checks and balances, and a decline in democracy, which later combined with falling oil prices, making the kind of spending that the government was engaged in unsustainable. Finally, Chavez died in 2013, and was replaced by Maduro.

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These things combined–the death of Chavez, the inability to redistribute, and the erosion of checks and balances–made people really angry. They’re demanding change, they’ve been demanding change for awhile.

The opposition used to be divided; the side that had been winning were the people that thought that the way out of this regime and back to democracy was through democratic means, a referendum. This option does exist in the Venezuelan constitution, similar to what the Chileans were able to do to get rid of Pinochet. Maduro resisted the referendum through every pseudo-institutional means he could think of, which eventually unified the opposition. Referendum was not an option anymore–the way out is the street, as they say. So for the first time since Chavez won, the opposition has been united against this, and shares a plan of action. They say they will be on the street every day until at least three things happen: A new presidential election is called, all the political prisoners are freed, and a humanitarian corridor is opened. These protests have been going on for 55 days, and in that time, 55 people have been killed by the regime, one for each day.

Are the protests centralized in one urban location?

They’re not, and that makes them different than the wave of protests Venezuela experienced in 2014. Those received national attention, were lead by college students, but were concentrated in urban areas.

What’s your area of research, and how does it inform your understanding of what’s happening in Venezuela?

One of the things I study is redistributive spending. We know that in oil rich countries, part of the reason that autocrats are able to stay in power is because they spend the money. Unlike government money in the US, they don’t get the money from taxing people, they get it from oil. So no one is hurt through the process, which is not actually “redistributive” in the Bernie Sanders way, though we use the same word. It’s really a distributive process, because no one is hurting.

So we know that these governments stay in power from distributing the oil money, but we don’t know much about what they choose to spend the money on, the specific programs, and why. I specifically study spending in university education as one of the ways that these governments maintain their power. One of the problems they have to face in unemployment, and spend money in education as a way to both target unemployment and stay in power. I spent time in Venezuela last year as part of that research, interviewing a range of people, in areas of the economies, politics, education –  and I was there in 2014 interviewing the student protestors as well. My research also draws some comparisons to Ecuador, which historically is very similar to Venezuela and has engaged in some similar patterns.

How does a government putting money into universities help governments maintain power?

Well, the Venezuelan government opened several new universities, creating a parallel system of education. Students of those universities are required to attend pro-government marches and demonstrations. Ultimately, these students are fed into the government’s bureaucracy.

A lot of the reporting I’ve seen on Venezuela has focused on hospitals, where they have no water, no medicine. Has there been a similar push from the government into these hospitals that they can no longer sustain?

There wasn’t, which is interesting. Why wouldn’t they use this oil money to build and refurbish hospitals? Why was it channeled so disproportionately toward higher education? I argue that it has to do with unemployment, but hardly any investment went into the health sector. This is also true for for other oil rich countries – they underdevelop the health sector. The universities did train more doctors, but there’s a lack of medical supplies and medicine, in addition to chronic power and water shortages. That’s why the doctors and nurses are also marching in the streets, and why one of the opposition’s demands is the opening of a humanitarian aid corridor. The government refuses to open this corridor because they deny that there’s a health crisis. That’s their overall strategy – deny and repress, deny and repress. Plus, in their anti-Yankee conspiracy theory ideas, the government suggests that the human corridor, and this quote is almost verbatim from the president, is a way for “the Pentagon to come in and invade the country.”

What do you think the “best case scenario” could look like for resolving this current crisis?

The best case scenario is a bit of a moving target. Maybe a week into the protests, it was hoped that the government would agree to regular presidential elections as soon as they could be organized. However, the government has now called for a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution, changing the entire basis for how representatives are elected. We don’t know anymore that the elections would be clean, because they’re changing the rules of the game as we speak. The ideal case scenario now would be the government stepping down, appointing a transitional government, which would call for elections immediately.

But still you run into problems. Suppose the President steps down, power goes to the Vice President–who is a Syrian Venezuelan that the US has sanctioned because he has ties to drug trafficking. Then there’s the risk of upsetting Chavista supporters, who are still strong. The current President doesn’t have support, but the dead President does, so they would need to feel represented somehow too. It just twists and turns all over the place.

What’s your optimism level right now?

I’m optimistic. From an ivory tower perspective, these things, the attempts of non-violent protesters to overthrow authoritarian regimes, tend to be successful.

How does what’s happening in Venezuela impact other countries in the region?

In the rest of the region, there was hope that there would be a swing to the center-right, away from this new left that swept the region in the early 2000’s. The move away started in Brazil, then Argentina, Peru…in Ecuador, they very very narrowly elected a Chavismo guy. It’s really Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, along with Venezuela, that are still holding on to this new leftist thing which was sustained by high oil prices that are no longer there.

The rhetoric on so many people’s mind right now is populism, and a swing to the right, but it seems like in Venezuela, it’s almost the opposite. How would you connect what’s going on Venezuela with countries outside of the region?

From a super-broad perspective, it’s important to remember that populism is a dearth of ideology. It doesn’t really stand for anything. It’s not like communism, it’s not like free market economics. Populism just means us against them. The people against the elite. And it can be played for the right or the left. And the danger of this idea, that you don’t need ideas to get to power, has spread all over the world. Beginning in Latin America from this Left mentality, but now going over to Europe with an “us vs. them” mentality, which has manifested as anti-immigrant rhetoric.

What do you love most about the Latin American foreign policy field? Where would you like to see changes?

I love Latin American foreign policy because it always changes. The things that happen in Latin America don’t happen anywhere else. If you’ve watched Narcos, in the very first episode, the guy talks about magical realism. These stories we’re talking about are borderline unbelievable. Like a Syrian, who’s also a drug trafficker, who’s also the Vice President of Venezuela? It just keeps going. If you pay just a little attention, Latin America reaches out and grabs you. You can binge watch Latin America.

The challenge is that Latin America is ignored. We’re not paying enough attention — we being the US — and I think that’s part of what’s brought about a lot of what we’re seeing now. Many people don’t remember that when George W. Bush was elected, he announced that it would be the “Decade of the Americas.” He was going to focus on Latin American relations, which makes sense, because he’s from Texas. And then 9/11 happened, and we haven’t had five minutes for Latin America since then.

Our attention, is rightly so, placed in the middle east, and then Obama looked at China, and we forgot Latin America, which has led to bad consequences in the region. We can look at Chavismo and drug trafficking, but also economic consequences, like the increasing relations between China and Latin America. China is stepping in to take up some of the empty space left by the US. There have also been bad consequences for the US domestically – the flow of undocumented immigrants can definitely be tied to US policy, or the lack thereof in Latin America. These countries are right there, sharing the biggest border between a developed country and developing countries in the world, and we’re not paying attention.

How did you become interested in this field?

I grew up in Caracas, so that raised some questions for me. But I think it was actually moving to DC, seeing how we see or don’t see Latin America from here that I felt like, here’s something that I really love and that I can throw myself into and really contribute something. Just growing up in Latin America wouldn’t have been enough, I had to see it from here.

What advice do you have for fellow and upcoming interrupters?

Try to appreciate every minute that you’re doing anything related to what you love.

Any book/film recommendations for people hoping to learn more?

There’s a nonfiction book called Dragon in the Tropics, about the Chavismo phenomenon, by Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. It’s a Brookings book, get the second edition.

The second book is called The General and His Labyrinth, it’s a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book. It’s a fictional imagining of Simon Bolivar’s last days, looking back on Bolivar’s life, what he regrets, what he wishes he had done differently. It gives you a bit of understanding of Bolivar as a human person, and it’s interesting to contrast that with this demi-God status that Chavismo has given him.

Also – watch the “Sister Cities” episode of Parks and Recreation. I show parts of it when I teach Latin American politics. Representatives from Pawnee’s sister city in Venezuela come to visit, right at the height of oil prices, and it really shows what Chavismo was what it was trying to do. Fred Armisen plays the main representative, and he’s half Venezuelan!

Throw us one or two non-FP related fun-facts that you feel people should know about Venezuela or another country or the region as a whole.

I’m super proud of this: Venezuela has the tallest waterfalls in the world, Angel Falls. You go down a river in a canoe to get to the waterfall, which were two of the happiest hours of my life. I couldn’t believe the beauty of this world.