Once South America’s richest country, Venezuela has been torn by mounting civil unrest and economic collapse. People are so hungry that scenes of civilians rummaging through rubbish on the streets of Caracas have become commonplace.
Infant and maternal mortality rates are soaring as a result of hyperinflation, shortages of food, basic goods and medicine. The country with the world’s largest oil reserves continues to plunge into an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis.
The heir to Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution – President Nicolas Maduro – blames low oil prices and a so-called economic war waged by domestic and foreign enemies.
Last year, Maduro successfully blocked a recall referendum, but in April, when he attempted to take over the opposition-controlled legislature – the only institution not controlled by his party – he unleashed a seemingly unstoppable wave of protests and international condemnation.
Scores have been killed in almost daily demonstrations and hundreds arrested. Many are now being brought before military rather than civilian courts.
Maduro has also responded to relentless calls for early elections by unilaterally calling for a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution. He claims this will guarantee peace and counter protesters he labels as terrorists.
However, it appears that Maduro is further enraging opponents who see the move as a power grab to consolidate a directorial regime.
Among those opponents is opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the governer of Miranda state, who nearly defeated Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections. Last month, the state-controlled courts proceeded to ban Capriles from running for office for the next 15 years.
In spite of this, Capriles still believes that after 17 years of failed attempts to end Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, victory is finally near. He insists that Venezuela’s dismal economy and President Maduro’s dwindling popularity have created the perfect storm.
Henrique Capriles talks to Al Jazeera.
If we were violent, we would have taken down the government a long time ago. We're not violent, we don't want to take down the government, we want to vote, and change the government through an electoral process.
Al Jazeera: Why is President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he is going to rewrite the constitution such a game changer? What would happen if he were actually able to do this?
Henrique Capriles: It is fraud; it is not a constitutional process. Maduro did not want a referendum, did not want elections for governors, did not want elections for mayors, and right now does not want presidential elections, does not want free democratic elections – therefore he invented this idea of writing a new constitution.
Half of the people that are going to write the constitution are chosen by him, directly or indirectly. They are chosen from the groups that he has established, what they call the “Fatherland Congress”. This is a selective election, with worker’s representatives that he chooses, young people’s representatives that he chooses. He reserves half of the members of that assembly for himself and his party and the other half is put to a vote. So this would be an electoral process where the vote would not be universal, secret and direct. He is sectoring the vote, which is completely unacceptable and is a constitutional fraud.
Al Jazeera: People are at the breaking point from this economic crisis, but as extraordinary as it may seem, there are those who really believe President Maduro when he says that this economic crisis is the fault of an economic elite and bourgeoisie that control the economy, waging an economic war to destabilise him and the country. What do you say to convince those people that that is not the case?
Capriles: The part of the Venezuelan people who hold that position represent 20 percent of the population. If there are elections, obviously 80 percent beat that 20 percent. I’m going to be generous with Maduro, I’ll say it’s 30 percent, or let’s say 35 percent. But whoever has 65 percent wins the elections, just like the last elections in Venezuela which we won. Don’t forget that these were the electoral results at a time when the situation was less severe than it is today. It was 60-something to 30-something.
Now, to the point. Because I’m a person who believes in a country for everyone, I don’t believe in sectarianism, I don’t believe in differentiating people’s rights because of their partisan or ideological position. Now, Maduro’s political supporters, whom I completely respect: how can we include them in the government? Because there are people who really believe the government’s lies. And the only way to convince them that they are not true is if we are in office.
But today I insist that Maduro invents this process of writing a new constitution because he does not want to hold elections. He does not want votes to be counted in Venezuela. We spent the entire year last year asking for elections, fighting for a referendum, fighting for the gubernatorial elections. I should have already left the governor’s office because the period established by the constitution has already expired.
Al Jazeera: The government has repeatedly accused the opposition of being violent, of being destructive, being fascist, being terrorist. When are you going to control some of these people that are tossing the Molotov cocktails that people see on television every day and that give the impression certainly that the opposition is violent?
Capriles: The government is behind all the murders, either the National Security Forces with its repression, or the paramilitary groups that the government disguises, but are actually paramilitary, a regular army. The attorney general herself has said that most of the protests are non-violent, they’re pacific.
And I’ll tell you something else. If we were violent, if the Venezuelan opposition was violent, if those of us who believe in change were violent, we would have taken down the government a long time ago. Because we are millions, those who want this country to change. We’re not violent, we don’t want to take down the government, we want to vote, and change the government through an electoral process.
Our country is not all about Maduro. My vision goes beyond Maduro. It’s about the conditions of governability we are going to build in the country in order to stabilise Venezuela and rid it of this crisis. And in order to do that we need legitimacy. And in order to have that it’s very important that change in Venezuela is achieved through free and democratic elections.
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