In April, opponents of Venezuela’s Socialist President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets demanding immediate elections, blaming him for acute shortages and the world’s highest inflation.
More than 120 people died and thousands arrested during months of protests – to no avail.
The Assembly has taken over, amid fierce international criticism. Washington has imposed financial sanctions and despite the threat of more, the body is forging ahead, led by this woman, the revolutionary former Foreign Minister.
As president of the new Constituent Assembly, Delcy Rodriguez is arguably the most powerful person in Venezuela today. The Assembly has the power to override and even replace the president.
At what could be Venezuela’s most critical hour, she talks to Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman.
Below an adapted transcript of the episode, that has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Consolidated dictatorship or transparent democracy?
Al Jazeera: Your government’s decision to create a legislative superbody that you preside over is being described by many all over the world as a consolidation of a dictatorship. Yet you say that it’s being done to bring about peace and dialogue in Venezuela. How is that possible?
Delcy Rodriguez: Well, you’re referring to a dictatorship, correct? Since Commander Chavez came to power in 1998, Venezuela has been going through a process of consolidation of a participatory democracy. And this participatory democracy has been reinforced with the National Constituent Assembly elections.
There is nothing more democratic than consulting the people, nothing more democratic than listening to the people, nothing more democratic than the people deciding over their development, their destiny
Since the Constituent Assembly was established on July 30th, and we have to point it out, it wasn’t created by pointing fingers, but through the universal, direct and secret vote of more than eight million Venezuelans.
Al Jazeera: But it’s an election that has been highly questioned. In fact, even the people who made the voting machines say that there was manipulation. And your president said that there would be a complete audit. That audit hasn’t happened.
Rodriguez: No, but you’re referring to a statement made by a private company that is hired to carry out an external service, it doesn’t even have access to the vote count in Venezuela. And even if we took this statement as a fact, there were still more than seven million Venezuelans who voted – an extraordinary election in the middle of an internal crisis.
The day of the elections, we said, “On the 31st of July there will be a beautiful sunrise” because it was an election held in the midst of outbreaks of violence. More than two million Venezuelans were unable to vote because their right to exercise their vote was obstructed.
Al Jazeera: But there were many people who not only did not participate in that election because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t want to. In fact, they considered this a fraudulent election that is bypassing all the other institutions, especially the opposition controlled National Assembly, the Congress, which has been basically stripped of all of its functions.
Rodriguez: But it’s a bit paradoxical that those who said that there was fraud in Venezuela are now participating in the governor’s elections with the same electoral authorities, the same voting machines, with the same Venezuelan electoral system that is one of the best in the world; one of the most armoured, most transparent, and safest.
On July 30th, the Constituent Assembly decreed the municipal elections in October, only two months will have passed.
Al Jazeera: A year and a half late.
Rodriguez: Yes, but in two months, they are going to be elected. More than 190 candidates are participating as part of the Venezuelan opposition, those who say that the Venezuelan electoral system is fraudulent. They are going to participate with that same electoral system.
Al Jazeera: And how many would-be candidates have been barred from taking place, including one of the main leaders of the opposition Enrique Capriles, who’s been barred from taking part in politics now for fifteen years?
Rodriguez: Yes, but Enrique Capriles has an administrative disqualification. He has the right to defend himself in the process of this disqualification, because of his apparent participation in acts of corruption. The problem is that in Venezuela, where the democratic institutions function, where the different branches of power function, where the different political public powers make decisions are not agreeable to the Venezuelan opposition, they try to attack the Venezuelan system.
Al Jazeera: But what about all the opposition people who were unarmed who were killed many times by the National Guard at point-blank range? What about all those people, and all the hundreds of thousands of opponents who marched peacefully?
Rodriguez: There were exceptional peaceful protests, but you also know that the capital is a security zone. No country in the world allows protesters to attack government buildings or to march to the capital to overturn a government. That’s not permitted in any country in the world; it’s established by norms.
In the case of people who lost their lives, and this is very important, that question that you just asked; I preside over the Commission for Truth in Venezuela, and we are looking into the cases of all the victims.
And we have said that any government agent who has violated their regulations and has caused someone’s death in Venezuela will be processed and submitted to justice. There cannot be any distinctions.
Al Jazeera: There is very little, if any, independence of the state institutions in Venezuela, and when the Congress was occupied by socialists, by the ruling Socialist Party, there wasn’t a problem. As soon as it went over to the opposition, that’s when we saw a problem.
I have denied and continue denying that Venezuela has a humanitarian crisis.
Rodriguez: No, the problem is not that the opposition won, an election that the president acknowledged instantly.
On their first day, they said, “We are going to take down the government of President Maduro, he won’t last six months”. Is that the job of the parliament? In Venezuela, we don’t have impeachment like in other countries, and still, they carried out an impeachment process saying, “The president has to go”. They were the ones who acted against the Constitution. But that’s not widely known because there’s a media siege.
Al Jazeera: Yes, but they have argued time and again that the electoral council, which is loyal to the government, put a thousand and one stumbling blocks in their path to impede that recall referendum.
Rodriguez: But how can you say that? It’s what’s defined by law. They talk back and forth about the electoral council. They talk about a dictatorship in Venezuela, but in Venezuela, there are mayors and governors that belong to the opposition, in a federal system.
For example, the governor of the State of Lara, Henry Falcon, who wants to the president, is part of the opposition. And who elected him? That same electoral council. They have not recognized a single election won by the Bolivarian Revolution since 1999, not a single one. But that same electoral council has given them mayors, governors, the National Assembly.
Al Jazeera: Which now has no power.
Rodriguez: Yes, but that’s because of their doing, not ours. Because if they respected the decisions made by the supreme court, they would function properly, instead of disregarding and bypassing the Constitution.
Humanitarian crises and foreign ‘economic asphyxiation’
Al Jazeera: Let’s talk more about the dire economic situation in this country. You said the other day that there is no hunger in Venezuela.
But yet, I’ve seen people, and I’m sure so have you, in your neighbourhood, picking through the rubbish. Some of the statistics, according to official data: more than 60 percent of Venezuelans are suffering from anaemia, infant mortality is at 30 percent, maternal mortality is 60 percent, cases of malaria are up 76 percent, a dire shortage of medicines, I could go on and on. Is that the fault of the United States?
Rodriguez: That’s an important question. I have denied and continue denying that Venezuela has a humanitarian crisis. Because under international law by definition, it can facilitate and justify foreign interventions of international coalitions. In Venezuela, not only is there not a humanitarian crisis, but since 1999, Venezuela has had a model of social inclusion that has allowed us to combat poverty and hunger, recognised even in 2016, in 2015. In recent years, our social programmes have received wide recognition, for fighting hunger and poverty. Perhaps you say, the United States is not to blame. But we are at a stage where the masks are being removed after President Donald Trump signed an executive order applying financial sanctions against Venezuela.
There is a financial blockade against Venezuela, part of a non-conventional form of attacking the country.
Al Jazeera: You have said it over and over again, Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The country received more than 1.5 trillion dollars in sales of oil and yet, you are selling your bonds to Goldman Sachs for 800 million dollars in a fire sale because the country is insolvent – so where is the money? The sanctions haven’t even gone into effect yet.
Rodriguez: In social investment. We aren’t talking about our budget, we’re talking about the country’s income; 74 percent of the country’s income today, which is meagre because of the oil price war. You can’t tell me there’s been no price war since 2014. Why? To hurt Russia, Iran and Venezuela.
Why can’t we obtain credit? Because there is a financial blockade against Venezuela, part of a non-conventional form of attacking the country.
Al Jazeera: This is an immensely rich country. Where is the money? According to a former Finance Minister, 300 billion dollars have disappeared.
Rodriguez: Where is the money? I told you. It’s invested in a social model for which Venezuela was internationally recognised. That’s where the oil money was redistributed, that’s where the oil revenues that in the past were never distributed to the people went and that’s why we’re being attacked.
Well, we don’t need to wait for declassified documents about Venezuela because we know, and besides, the American government says it, as Secretary Munchin pointed out, stating that they are going to “asphyxiate” us. That’s precisely the word. I will show you the testimony of Julio Borges, saying that they had to asphyxiate the Venezuelan economy to overthrow the dictator.
Al Jazeera: This just happened. What about the last couple of years of eternal lines of people looking for food, medicine, diapers, etc.?
Rodriguez: You are speaking of the past. And I am talking about a very successful model, a model that was able to offer people more than 3,700 calories a day. I’m speaking of a model that gave access to health and education. Despite the economic aggression, Venezuela today has the fifth-largest university matriculation.
Al Jazeera: Does your government take any responsibility for this economic debacle?
Rodriguez: You’ve heard the leader of “the empire”. And the ex-leader of the empire, who said Venezuela was a threat to US national security and to its foreign policy. He planted the seeds of US intervention in Venezuela. Earlier, the head of the US Southern Command, General John Kelly, had said that if there was a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela – the hunger that you refer to – the United States would intervene militarily.
Two years later, the new leader of the empire has signed an executive order to apply financial sanctions, to formalise the financial blockade, to force Venezuela into defaulting on its debts. The Treasury Secretary says “let’s asphyxiate the economy”, and I say, if there’s someone eating out of the rubbish, it’s the result of an aggression, not the inaction of the government. If there’s one thing President Maduro has done, it’s to care for the poorest, the most excluded and vulnerable.
You know this is not the first time the “imperial powers” do this. Or is it a lie that these “imperial centres” intervened and destroyed Iraq? Why did they destroy Libya? Is that a lie? Is it an invention? Didn’t we see the hunger unleashed in Libya and Iraq, prosperous countries with large oil reserves? Do we want that for Venezuela? Because one person looks for food through the rubbish, you try to justify foreign intervention here?
Al Jazeera: Absolutely not, I am asking you about what responsibility your government may also have in the situation and I never hear you do that.
This is not the first time the 'imperial powers' do this ... Didn't we see the hunger unleashed in Libya and Iraq, prosperous countries with large oil reserves? Do we want that for Venezuela? Because one person looks for food through the rubbish, you try to justify foreign intervention here?
Rodriguez: I am telling you, as self-criticism, that we didn’t know to diversify the economy during the time of the oil boom. We tried. But ours is a model so ingrained in Venezuelan culture, that we never dealt with it and it fell into crisis. That made us vulnerable and I say this as self-criticism. The time has come to overcome that model as our head of state has said. That model is in crisis. Venezuela will not continue depending on the price of oil. We have no choice but to develop our great potential in other areas of the economy; in agriculture, mining, gas, tourism.
Power alternation possible ‘but only of the same national project’
Al Jazeera: Do you believe in the principle of alternation of power, that one party goes out and another one comes in, or that from now on, especially after the Constitution is reformed, only a Socialist government can be in power?
Rodriguez: I think there can be alternation, but only of the same national project. What’s the difference? In the United States, the parties alternate, but within the same liberal regime. During our fourth republic, there was alternation of parties, between COPEI and Accion Democratica, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.
The parties alternated, but not the anti-national program, that basically handed over our wealth, first to the United States and then Europe, that excluded the masses and submerged them in poverty.
I believe there can be alternation but within the same national project, that does not compromise Venezuela’s interests, its sovereignty, the principle of self-determination, the economic, financial, commercial and political sovereignty of Venezuela. So, of course, there can be alternation.
Al Jazeera: But only of the Socialist Revolutionary forces?
Rodriguez: I believe deeply in our Bolivarian model that reclaimed the historic flags of our liberators, that reaches into the roots of our idiosyncrasy and identity, a model that reclaims our national independence and that is based on social justice for all.
That’s why many are scandalised when they hear a woman say, “even if we die of hunger, we will defend Venezuela.”
Some are scandalised by these expressions, but they tell you that our dignity is very important to us, as is the visibility as a people that Chavez gave us. Before we were excluded and are now we are part of the social, political and cultural fabric of Venezuela.
Al Jazeera: So, as Fidel Castro used to say, “Everything within the revolution, nothing outside of the revolution.” Would you agree?
Rodriguez: Completely. I am an admirer of the legacy and doctrine of Commander Fidel Castro because even under more adverse conditions than the ones we are suffering, he never renounced his principles. Principles are non-negotiable. He never sold out the dignity of the Cuban people. So yes, I concur deeply.
Who can say, based on the principle of sovereign equality and judicial sovereignty of nations, that there are states that are superior to Cuba and Venezuela? No. That violates an international principle. So, those who are going around the world violating those principles, in a world with serious threats to peace and stability, will always find themselves facing historic revolutionary processes, like the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions.
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