By kind invitation of David Amess MP, The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host a discussion with Ambassador Diego Arria, Venezuelan Opposition Politician and Former Venezuelan Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Ambassador Arria combined his intimate knowledge of the workings of Venezuelan politics and personal experience of repression at the hands of the incumbent regime with his considerable experience of international diplomacy into a powerful perspective on the current political situation, the future of the opposition movement and the strategic implications of Chavez’s rule.
Thank you so much for inviting me here today – it is quite a privilege for me to visit this magnificent house, which is a monument to freedom and dignity. I never thought that I would one day have to come to this great country to talk to you about the plight of my own country. I have been here several times before, but always promoting Venezuela as a land of opportunity. So, to be here today in this situation is not easy for someone who has devoted his whole life to promoting his own country. To speak freely about Venezuela has become a very dangerous affair. I have had two friends sent to prison for this. Both are respectable members of the community.
Firstly I’d like to give you a general overview of my country, hoping to generate some questions, and then I will give you some appetisers based on facts. I promise to be very factual.
You know Mr Chavez is basically a leader of a militarised, ‘unipersonal’ regime, who is actively engaged in a process of dismantling not only our democracy, but our institutions – our justice system and the freedom of the media. Mr Chavez encourages class warfare. He threatens Venezuela’s stability, but does not try and find solutions. He continues to abuse Venezuela’s constitution. The middle class is especially under assault. He does not want to see a return to balance.
I would like to ask you a few questions myself: will Venezuelan society peacefully accept such a persecution of values? Will they accept ruin and a loss of their freedoms peacefully? I think we can envisage a Communist society with an ‘enlightened leader’ who very dangerously assaults other countries all over the world and would like to stay in power for life. In today’s world, such a harsh 21st century, to think that that is possible is a terrible idea. I must therefore question the international community’s principles and motivations for responding to the threat that Chavez is to the people of Venezuela and the world.
Venezuela is in the process of becoming a failed state, with the social, economic and political consequences that that may have if the current regime continues to advance unabashedly. Unfortunately, this may be closer than many people imagine.
Imagine an Afghanistan with oil and drugs – that’s not very far away from a picture of Venezuela. I am convinced that the next 100 days is going to be the most dangerous we’ve had in the last decade.
Narco-terrorism by way of Columbia is threatening to tear our country apart. This is not a Columbian problem: it is a Venezuelan one. The UN officer for drugs called Venezuela the most important point of drug trafficking in Latin America last year. 60% of the drugs consumed in Europe come through Venezuela. 80% of that drug traffic is carried by FARC people, which explains the cooperation that the government has had all these years with the FARC terrorist group.
The government’s approach to the suppression of power is absolutely anachronistic. All the powers are concentrated with Chavez. Mr. Chavez has an Olympic record for violations against human rights, an Olympic record before the International Criminal Court. No one in our history of Venezuela has ever been denounced in such a way before. It is a major insult to the country we had before, as we previously prided ourselves on participating in and respecting the most important global institutions.
Venezuela is going to have its bicentennial celebration of independence next year. Since its birth, the country has had a growing illegal immigrant problem. The people in control of the military and intelligence apparatus are totally corrupt. We have huge problems with the issuing of passports. I’ve just come from New York and had some trouble because I did not have a biometric passport. When I asked the reason for this, I was told that there are so many people coming to the UK with forged Venezuelan passports. This indicates how dangerous the situation is. Many Cubans come to Venezuela, where they don’t need a visa to enter, get passports forged there and then fly from Venezuela to Europe, as they don’t need a visa to enter Europe from Venezuela (but they do from Cuba). Many enter the European community this way. Venezuela is like a modern day Bermuda Triangle where people disappear. We also have many people coming in from Iran every week and many other places – none of this is monitored. The international community needs to pay attention to the number of extremists that are potentially provided with passports in Venezuela with the help of the Chavez government.
What is Venezuela’s foreign policy? It is unique – it is to have foreign relations with any country that’s ‘against imperialism’ – not even North Korea have that kind of policy! Really, the basis of the foreign policy of Venezuela is to support corruption. We subsidise other countries’ economies to gain their support even though Venezuela suffers from inflation and poverty. The foreign policy is driven by a search for accommodation and sympathy for the Chavez regime.
For the first time in its history, Venezuela broke relations with Israel recently. We always had a very delicate relationship with the Middle East, vis-á-vis Israel and Palestine. We are an oil producing country so we have to protect our oil interests; but this has never meant that we have had to betray or surrender our interests of peace. Now, the regime has submitted to previously unheard of policies, which are very shameful for me.
A recent report has shown secret cooperation between Venezuela and the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, for the development of nuclear research for what Ahmadinejad calls peaceful purposes. They are clearly trying to bypass international regulations and sanctions – why would countries with plenty of oil want to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes?
Top government officials, including the head of military intelligence, have been indicted by the US Treasury Department for covering smuggling and supplying arms, covering drug laundering and helping the FARC narco-terrorists to transport drugs throughout Venezuela. These same people have been responsible for overseeing our latest elections. It would be impossible to conceive this taking place in any other country in the world; it is outrageous.
Chavez follows Kim Jong-il’s mantra that the military must come first. This is why we have $20 million of used armaments from the Russians and also from Spain, which explains why they are so accommodating to Chavez’s activities. The wider cost this has for the Venezuelan economy and people is enormous and we have to question why we even need so many arms.
$30billion left Venezuela in 2008 in an illicit fashion. In a country where there is control of exchange by the regime, you have to ask yourself, who took this money out – the only people that could have done so is the government. Let me give you some facts. Fact: $30million, 2008. Fact: the government controls the economy exclusively. Fact: Chavez came to power with a campaign against corruption. Fact: He hates people with money. Fact: his family, friends and top allies have a lot of money. Transparency International have labelled Venezuela one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.
Venezuela’s security service is the most threatening and dangerous organisation in the whole country. They have led a state policy of ransacking, pillaging, expropriating properties throughout Venezuela. The head of homeland security’s wife is just as corrupt and is also in the President’s cabinet. So you see the corruption is at the highest levels. More than three hundred families have had their properties taken over in an abusive way.
If we want a stable society, we cannot keep tolerating and just accepting the abuse of the Chavez regime. If we do, Venezuela will definitely become a failed state. I would like to think that peaceful transition is possible, but I think Chavez will make that impossible. I think the only way that Venezuela can be reunified is with the removal of Chavez.
In the last election, it was proven that we have new mathematicians in Venezuela. Two plus two doesn’t equal four in Venezuela any more. We got 53% of the vote, but only 40% of the MPs. This is theft and it is a direct violation of our constitution, which enshrines the principle of proportional representation.
What has happened? Knowing that our country had negative growth in 2009 – no electricity, no water for many – why would they vote for Chavez? Chavez has redesigned the electoral boundaries, ensuring that less populated areas have as many representatives as Caracas. If it was not for this redistribution of power we would have been democratically elected, as we won the popular vote.
Most of Chavez’s support in Venezuela is bought. With the amount of money that Chavez has he could do wonders for society. In fact, one of his greatest crimes is that he uses the money Venezuela earns and is given in aid to simply hand out to poor Venezuelans. He refuses to empower them, but ensures that they become reliant on handouts from the state and to his regime so that they will keep him in power. His popularity is a smokescreen: really he wants to keep them on a tight leash, wearing a red t-shirt and will not let them go.
Recently the government started a program where they prepare children in elementary school to defend the revolution, to indoctrinate them. Taking them from five years old, Chavez uses the tactics of Mussolini and Hitler.
It is time for the international community to flag Venezuela with red lights. Just because we have elections, it does not mean that everything will be delivered as a result. Unfortunately, much to the contrary is happening. Chavez’s power is accelerating and that is why I believe he is so dangerous.
Chavez will do everything to make it impossible for the opposition to get into power – regardless of what the majority thinks.
Do you think that the 60,000 Cubans coming into Venezuela will say in 2012, ‘the party’s over, let’s go back to Cuba’? I don’t think so. Do you think that the FARC people will say, ‘let’s now move back to Colombia.’ I don’t think so. What about the Russians and the mafia? Do you think they are going to leave when they have an extraordinary haven in Venezuela? We are fighting international forces that have found a haven in our country from which they can perpetuate some of the worst atrocities against humanity.
I believe that the president would remove all the members of the extreme court – that would be a way to kidnap the future of Venezuela. As it is the rule of law is highly circumspect. I know men and women in jail who have not had fair trials; who’ve been forced by the government to change their testimonies; defenders of human rights and democracy are sent to jail without fair trial. It has led to self-censorship in Venezuela: people are afraid to speak for fear of arrest or persecution. It is like Bentham’s Panopticon, which is designed so that the prisoners are led to believe that they are always being watched, even though this is impossible. The whole society is under this affliction.
Last week was a great week. First we had Mario Vargas Llosa who was awarded the Nobel Literary Prize. This is great not just because he is a great writer, but he is also a great defender of human rights, dignity and freedom in the world. Then came the second piece of great news: Liu Xiaobo, the great Chinese dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is promoting human rights in China in a way that sets a great example of peaceful resistance to the rest of the world. Mr Chavez, however, said it was terrible to give the award to Mr Liu – why? Because he owes $20billion to the Chinese. Chavez does not just surrender Venezuela’s sovereignty, like to the Cubans, but he surrenders our dignity and our sense of decency in a way that I find repulsive.
The European community has a lot of power to highlight human rights abuses around the world. Zapata in Cuba was made famous by the involvement of the European community, making his case known to the world. There are many in Venezuela who have given their lives for the defence of rights and human dignity. The majority of these have gone unnoticed in Venezuela and globally. Yet, people are thrown in jail here for speaking out against the government, against communism and in favour of democracy. This is why I want to speak out in this house of democracy on behalf of these people who are suffering for simply speaking out and opposing Chavez’s government. The sadly ironic thing is that the one who should be put in jail and prosecuted is Chavez himself for the actual crimes he has committed.
When I was an ambassador to the UN I witnessed the establishment of the ICC and have witnessed the trial of many war criminals such as Milosevic and Karadzic. I have told Chavez that he is not above the law and, in fact, that it is my life ambition to see him tried in the Hague. I really believe that the way out of this situation must be led by Venezuelans; but at the same time it will help greatly if we unmask the real situation to the international community and get the necessary support from them too.
I am worried about what is going to happen in the next 100 days, before January 2011; I am genuinely worried about the collapse of my country and this is something the international community should take note of.