Conducted By Salaar Shaikh and Azad Amanat
The Politic: What motivated you to go into politics?
My father was a politician in a small town in which I was born. It is about 8 hours driving from Caracas. All the time while I was growing up I was watching my father. People would knock on our door often asking for help and he would spend a lot of time trying to help the people. Even though I was just a child, I had participated in many political rallies, particularly in the municipalities of that area, following my father around. So I felt that it was my responsibility to go into politics after watching my father’s efforts. The other reason I got involved is because of the political situation in Venezuela. Around the two and a half years I was here in the States [studying at the Kennedy School on a Fulbright Scholarship], Chavez took power back in Venezuela. I left Venezuela in 1998 and returned in 2001 and felt that things had changed. The new regime had made the country different and there was a constant threat to democratic values that the regime was involved in – changing the constitution so that they could stay in power forever. I felt the responsibility as someone who was well-educated to get involved in a process to change things. I feel that I wanted to be a part of the change, to push the change that was needed in the country. So I questioned myself. I realized that I had to go into politics, and follow my father’s path. If change needs to be instituted in a political system, then good people must go into politics – and I felt this was needed in my country. The main goal for me was to bring the change and the transformation in our country whatever way I can. The aims in my mind were to reduce poverty and increase availability of education to everyone.
The Politic: I think its great that you mentioned the importance of education and we wanted to touch upon that as well. How do you think receiving top education in the US from places such as Georgetown and the Kennedy School of Government helped you when you returned to Venezuela?
I want to share another experience of mine related to this. When I was a child, my father while he was a politician also had a small farm behind our home. He always told me: “Carlos, the main thing I want for your future is for you to get a good education”. And I never understood at the time why this was so important – I was just confused. But later, I went to high school in my small town and was not able to go onto college because we did not have any college or university in that small municipality. So I had to move to the capital, Caracas, where I studied and became a lawyer at a public university. Only after that did I have the opportunity to come to the States when I won the Fulbright Scholarship. Education has been the only tool which has allowed me to open so many opportunities in my life. Everything I got in life has been because of education – and this is something I understood very late in life. Especially I realized if I need to be a politician, I have to educate and prepare myself very well. Many politicians in Venezuela have come into the job without the necessary preparation or training. I decided for myself that I wanted to be as ready as possible and to keep working hard, to learn how to run offices. While at the Kennedy School I learnt a lot about the best political practices and how I could implement them in my country. Kennedy especially gave me a great sense of what was going on the world, and allowed me to see my country as part of a globalized world rather than a country that was just isolated and concerned with nothing but its internal affairs. Increasing my English proficiency has also been a huge help – it has allowed me access to magazines, more journals and publications to increase my knowledge.
The Politic: Do you want to speak a little bit about your work with Voluntad Popular? What were the main factors that got you involved with this organization?
When I joined politics, I did not want to go to the traditional political parties in Venezuela because they are part of the problem. When Chavez gained power, the parties did not have the people’s interest at heart and only had their own interests in mind. So I said to myself, if you are joining politics, you have to be part of a political party which is not one of the traditional ones. Many Venezuelans feel the same way – they avoid the traditional parties when they see the injustice there. Voluntad Popular is a fairly new party, which we set up in 2009. We wanted to revise the entire practice of politics in the country. When we started, we decided to travel around the country and get in touch with the people, and learn about the ground realities. A key feature of a great political party is not only its great leaders, but also to get information from the ground about what really the problems are that people are facing.
The Politic: So it started out as a kind of grassroots movement?
Exactly – the leaders wanted to build a grassroots movement. So while travelling around the country, in the first two years, we wanted to get in touch with people. We wanted to know who else could get involved and what they could bring to the party too, so much so that I felt like a scout! We used this tour to gain a network amongst the people. We showed people, even those not part of our party, that we want to defend their rights and to educate them so that they could defend themselves and not get taken advantage of. At the same time, it was also an opportunity for us to get our political message across. Along with these networks, we look to get involved in social activities. The main essence of political activity is social work. It is not enough just to get a message across but also to do real work for the betterment of the society.
The Politic: Were there activists from our parties who joined you?
Not very many – but many people concerned about social issues in Venezuela joined forces with us. So that was a big gain and helped us become more well-known. We wanted to give out our political message, a message of progress, principles and social rights. Our main message is that ‘all rights are for everyone’ – a simple message, but one that means a lot. This was our emphasis. So, we looked to create this social network.
The Politic: What was the structure of your party? Were all officials in the hierarchy elected?
Exactly. All levels of those with authority were elected in fully open and free elections. No party in Venezuela has ever done that, and it was a new change in society. I was elected as a National Member in this process and received the second highest votes in the election. Thus, I gained the authority because I am elected. This was something historic and we are very proud that we carried it out, as the aim was always to create this party with democratic principles.
The Politic: Once you were elected, one of your main challenges was the election between Chavez and Capriles for the office of President. Describe a normal day in your life during the 2012 presidential campaign.
The election was scheduled for October 7 and I was a Coordinator for the major metropolitan areas – which was a very important position. So we, as the opposition, had brought all the major parties that were against Chavez together. Working in this election was not easy, even in the metropolitan areas. In the rural areas, the government is responsible for a lot of the weaponry that circulates amongst the public. This was a big challenge – gaining access to the rural areas became difficult. So we had to run a face-to-face campaign, going from door to door rather than holding big rallies. We tried to convince people about how the current government was not working for them and this was the main challenge of a grassroots movement, to get people to support our candidate. Convincing people with our information was my main activity in these days. We also set up a call centre for people to gain information and find out about what was going on, and also so that in the urban centers we could invite people to our rallies. We held a number of big rallies and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Caracas. I was also involved in coordinating the number of people in each sector of the capital who were coming to the march. So this kept me very busy – every morning I was waking up early, going to different areas. I was mostly eating my meals on the road as well. While running the face-to-face campaign we were keeping up the grassroots movement, giving people promotional material and inviting them to the campaign. Different leaders were involved in a number of activities at the same time though so we had to keep charge of all that as well.
The Politic: How was it working in such a situation? What dangers have you faced?
Arms in common in Venezuela. Mugging happens often too. We often encountered people with weapons who tried to intimidate us and inhibit our campaign activities. Some of us were put in jail because of our activities. The media manipulated the facts, saying that we were running a violent campaign which was far from true. Once we were going into a very difficult area of Caracas with the presidential candidate, and 200 members of the police force under the government’s control put barriers in front of us and did not let us go on. We want to denounce this internationally as we were not allowed to properly run our campaign. And then, the government acknowledged that they were wrong as well. We coordinated with the minister of internal affairs and make sure something like this did not happen again. But we saw that they were often doing similar things in the future. And still it is very difficult to run campaigns, particularly in the metropolitan areas.
The Politic: In the previous election, the results were extremely close and the opposition just lost. For the next elections in Venezuela, what is your target? Do you think the opposition can win?
The last election like you said was in April, and we lost by one percentage point. The government didn’t allow a recounting process, and that was the only way for us to prove that we had won the election. So that gives you a sense of how our society is changing – after Chavez, things are changing. I would say that this government does not really have a leader. Maduro is not a charismatic person – he does not have leadership. He is there because of Chavez. He cannot create a strong government, or a strong political movement, because he does not have leadership skills – even within his own party. On the other hand, society is changing – people say that okay, I don’t see a good situation now, and that the opposition is a realistic alternative because they work on a united platform and have one leader. After the last 13 years, they need change. And in their view they have the opportunity to get new people into power. One of the main challenges is keeping this platform together, until we can connect with the people all around the country. We also need to concentrate on the defence of the political and social rights of Venezuelans on a daily basis. I’m expecting a change by the next election – I am very confident of that. The last election showed you that change is coming – it takes time, people are digesting the new reality, but they will realize it soon. In my view we are facing three crises in Venezuela. First, the political crisis – the lack of transparency in the media and the lack of legitimacy of Maduro. We do not really have democracy, sadly; there is limited freedom of speech and violation of individual and human rights, and this is what makes the political crisis. The next one is the economic crisis, which is in my view the worst of the three because we have the highest inflation in the continent and one of the highest of the world. 70% of what we consume is imported. When people go to the supermarket and try to find something, they cannot find it; and if they find it, they cannot buy it. And this will cause many problems for Venezuelans in the future. And finally, the social crisis majorly because of the shortage of electricity and basic goods. Our national murder rate is 52 people out of every 100,000 inhabitants. That gives you a sense of how bad it is – normally, 8 is acceptable. In Caracas the rate goes even higher, something like 100 out of every 100,000. That is astronomically high – higher than Afghanistan and Iraq. So economics, inflation, the murder rate – these are the biggest problems of the Venezuelans. And I would say Chavez is responsible for this. People have seen this and as a result our society is changing. People are looking for the change to come.
The Politic: Another thing we saw after Chavez’s death, a lot of leftists mourned his loss as he was considered someone who stood strongly against 21st century imperialism. What was your initial reaction to this?
To see someone die is obviously very tough. I am a Catholic and I mourned the death, and it was hard for his family. Especially because he had cancer, and cancer is a terrible disease. But at the same time we have to look and see what happened right after Chavez’s death. He used, in my view, oil resources to buy loyalties. He used it as a tool to get international support and that is why it was hard to ever support him. There were some people who saw Chavez as a new-generation leader, as the new left-wing leader in the region. But he was not really a leftist – he was a military man. Normally leftists do not endorse military involvement. But he still got a lot of support during his presidency because of his oil deals.
The Politic: You talked about how internationally the regime is viewed as being authoritarian as opposed to democratic. What institutions do you feel need to be strengthened?
The judicial branch, definitely. This is the unit that can fix the other branches. Another institution is the media – the media allows you to express ideas, and get people aware about what is happening in the country. The media is the other element very crucial to having a democratic state. Currently, media is totally state-controlled. All around the country the private media is also intimidated. We need a strong private media as well as an honest public media. There is also a national broadcast that the private media is to transmit simultaneously. To give you a sense of this – imagine you are watching the Super Bowl, and suddenly Obama appears in the White House, and he speaks for 4, 5, 8 hours. How would you feel about that? And Chavez did that – many times. And at that time, you cannot do anything or get information from any other source. Changing the channel does not help because you will just see the same broadcast again! Chavez would sing, make jokes, do whatever he want. At this time private media was closed – no one could broadcast anything else at this time. I remember I was sitting in a TV studio once, waiting to start my interview, and Chavez suddenly appeared in a national broadcast and I was not able to even start! We need a media that can provide people with a different point of view. This is very important for democracy.
The Politic: With regards to foreign policy, you mentioned the use of oil as a bargain tool. Where do you see Venezuelan foreign policy moving forward and how would the opposition possibly taking over power do to affect relations with other countries?
I think as a government it is important to have good relations with all countries in the world. We want to promote democratic values internationally. We do not want to interfere in other countries. Good relations and mutual respect with all countries is what we want. We want oil to be a normal commodity in the international arena, and not use it as leverage. We want our trade deals to have all the countries involved gaining something good out of them. The way we see it, Chavez has been taking from the country and not been giving people anything back. Without interfering in other countries, we also want to be able to deal with our own internal affairs – we do not want Cuba, Brazil, the US or anyone interfering with Venezuela’s own matters. That is very important.
The Politic: What are your thoughts on Chavez’s relationship with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad? Do you think that Venezuela will remain a staunch ally of Iran?
Not just with Iran and with Ahmedinejad. Chavez had a good relationship with Cuba, one of the longest dictatorships in the world and certainly in our continent. And also with Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Chavez had good relationships with leaders of other non-democratic states. We need to put democratic values at the same priority as economic interest. We do not and cannot afford to put human rights below economic interests either, and we want to promote these values internationally as well. In terms of relations with other countries, economic interests always seem to come first. In Venezuela, we want democratic values to be high on the agenda. So again, we want to deal with other countries based on mutual respect. And we hope to see change in countries where the democratic values are not given priority.
The Politic: Coming back to Yale – as a Yale World Fellow, what convinced you to apply to the program?
Many things. I think the last 6 years being involved in politics got me so absorbed that I was unable to pay attention to what else was going on in the world. I wanted to come here so I could understand what was happening around the world better. I also want to see what I can learn here and see how I can apply it to Venezuela, particularly in social innovations, international relations and the role of oil in the international community. I also want to see how I can improve my negotiation skills – this is important for any politician. I also want to try and build an international network with the professors, students and the other World Fellows. It also helps to tell people what is going on in my country, and to prepare for the next big steps that need to be taken. If you look at the picture from abroad, you get a greater perspective which you can’t get while you are absorbed in your daily work.
The Politic: What aspects of your Yale experience so far has been the most enriching or exciting for you?
I think meeting the other World Fellows was very exciting for me. They have different backgrounds, and you can learn so much from them. They are doing great work in so many different countries and are extremely talented people and I want to take that knowledge back to my country. We also have great opportunities to hear from speakers with very largely varying perspectives and backgrounds, and that always helps. Sometimes when you are a politician, you only wanted to be connected to other people in politics but it really helps to be connected to people in a number of other professions as well.
The Politic: Do you have any advice for Yale undergraduates?
If you want a change, you need to be a part of that change. Change yourself first. Also, do not take democracy for granted. You must build democracy, and that happens when you keep on having educated people join political parties. Political parties become institutions because of the people in them. If you have good people involved in these, you will have a good democracy, and a great country.