Augusto Montiel, the ambassador of Venezuela to Bangladesh, currently assigned to New Delhi, was in Bangladesh last month to present his credentials to the president. Montiel, also the envoy to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, hosted a reception in Dhaka on 5 July to celebrate Venezuela’s Independence Day. During his stay in Dhaka, he spoke to Prothom Alo at length about Venezuela’s present political and economic crisis, the legacy of president Hugo Chavez, the role of president Maduro, tensions with the US and its allies, and more.
“Venezuela is a beautiful tropical country in the Caribbean. We have a big northern coast facing the Caribbean Sea. Caracas is called the ever-spring city.”
The pride in ambassador Augusto Montiel’s voice is palpable as he speaks of his country Venezuela. But he is well aware that Venezuela is not in the news for its natural beauty at the moment. He elaborates on the country’s prevailing political and economic crisis.
He comes straight to the point. “Oil was discovered in Venezuela over a hundred years ago. It has the largest reserves of oil and that is why it is so much the topic of current events nowadays. It is a target. All that is happening in Venezuela right now, the so-called economic crisis, the so-called humanitarian crisis, is simply the product of aggressions against the country.
“Venezuela is a founding member of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries). From the forties to the sixties, Venezuela was the largest oil producing country in the world. But all the profit went to Washington and other places, not to Venezuela. The arrangements that had been made were not fair. Most of the multinational oil companies did not pay royalties and the tax was absolutely at minimum. The negotiations at the time were in the hands of those who controlled the country politically. And they were a part of Washington’s allies. And wherever Britain, France and the US have gone in the world, they have taken more than they have given. But nowadays we have been able to calculate far better deals.”
Ambassador Augusto Montiel deliberates on the political system of Venezuela, highlighting the role of the country’s late president Hugo Chavez. “The political system in Venezuela is a very strong vibrant democracy. We have a new constitution in Venezuela which was written by the people, debated openly in universities, in academies, in factories. Finally, after almost 10 months, a draft of the constitution was produced and presented to the population to approve or not to approve. And 92 per cent of the population approved the referendum.
“When Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1998, he called for a constituent national assembly to write a new constitution which could take Venezuela forward. He taught the people to look towards a better, more equitable, more socially acceptable world of equity and prosperity with everyone in society feeling that his or her rights respected. Hugo Chavez gave the republic a revival, a rebirth.”
Development continues despite all odds. “In Latin America, Venezuela is either No. 1 or No. 2 when it comes to the UN social indicators, even after eight years of intense aggression in the form of so-called sanctions,” says Ambassador Montiel. “The US and other western countries say this is a dictatorship, a country that must be invaded. They want regime change. Recently Washington approved millions of dollars in Congress to create ‘transition to democracy’ in Venezuela and Cuba. Trump says they want the presidency of Maduro out. “
Elaborating on Chavez’s contribution to Venezuela’s socio-economic and political development, the ambassador said, “In 1998 when president Chavez came to power, all the elections -- mayoral, presidential, all the many elections, were open to all. Before that, only 45 per cent of the population voted. The very poor didn’t vote. They didn’t have ID cards. They weren’t educated enough to go and register themselves in the election registry. After Chavez came in 1998, everybody started going to school, everybody started getting health services, everybody started going to university, everybody finally learnt to read and write.
“Venezuela became the second country with 100 per cent literacy in Latin America. In 2005, UNESCO, handed Venezuela the certification for having become a 100 per cent literate country. Maduro at the time was member of parliament, then he became president of parliament and later he became the foreign minister for seven years. So a lot of work which Chavez did, he did jointly with Maduro. Maduro gained in experience.
“On another note, Venezuela was one of the very few countries globally able to meet all the Millennium Development Goals in time. In fact, it was the only country to be able to complete these goals in a matter of eight years and six months. Yet this is not highlighted anywhere because of the western-controlled media agencies around the world.’
To counter the international media agencies which only gave Venezuela and other Latin American countries a negative image, TeleSur was launched. “TeleSur was a regional media concept floated by Hugo Chavez. “
The negative portrayal of Venezuela is still in full force, regrets the Venezuelan diplomat. “US president Donald Trump and the president of Colombia are still attacking Venezuela every day - the president of Venezuela, the institutions of Venezuela, the people of Venezuela who voted for Maduro.”
“What kind of democracy is this, internationally speaking, when countries are allowed to do this?” he asks. “The UN principles say every country has a right to self-determination. No one has the right to intervene in the internal matters of any country. You cannot, from Washington, say what you want in Venezuela. But they do. They have invaded nine countries in Latin America. They have brought pain and misery to millions of families in Latin America throughout the 20th century with the dictatorships that they have produced. There was Pinochet in Chile. This happened in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Grenada.”
What is their problem with Venezuela? “The problem is that the people in Venezuela are not eating the big lie that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator,” says Ambassador Montiel. When Maduro became president three months after Chavez died, the enemies said he was not of the stature of Chavez and was stupid. But now, in the face of adversity, he has proved himself to be a statesman. They don’t call him stupid anymore. He was a technician and was a bus driver for the metro system in Caracas. Then he went on to become one of the most reputed foreign ministers in Latin America.
“They create a narrative that there is nothing good in Venezuela. Last year in 2017 they used gangs from neighbouring countries to create violence along with right-wing gangs and parties that the US finances illegally. There was a helicopter attack against the Supreme Court. The attacker escaped and now is in the United States. All of the people in Latin America who carry out terrorist attacks against their governments end up in Miami or somewhere in the US and are protected.”
Augusto Montiel says a democratic space exists in Venezuela for people to differ from the government. “People have the right to protest. There are people who do not like Chavez and who do not like Nicolas Maduro and they have the right to express their opinion. In Venezuela, 95 per cent of the means of publication is private. If you turn on TV or internet in Venezuela, you will see every day the political opposition criticising the president on radio, on TV, in the newspapers. In Venezuela there is full-blown freedom of expression, freedom of opinion. Not even in the United States do you get that freedom of expression.
“The big victory of president Maduro last year was that the people realised the cruelty, the criminal procedures, and the obviously anti-constitutional actions that were being financed from abroad. Government supporters in Venezuela are mainly poor people, people in the past who, before president Chavez, had never studied. Now they have gone to university. Now they receive free healthcare and 98 per cent of the people receive drinking water.”
Returning to the topic of Venezuela’s resources, the ambassador highlighted that the country had the largest oil reserves. Geographical location was also a factor. “Venezuela is on top of South America, in the Caribbean, and only three or four days away from the southern part of the United States. Saudi Arabia is 40 days away by ship. Oil cargo by ship from Saudi Arabia to the US takes too long. So they need a country nearby with the source of ‘their’ oil. But if they were true capitalists, then they would agree to fair trade. They would say, you have oil, let’s trade and we won’t unleash anarchy against you to control your mineral resources.
“The other aspect is political. Hugo Chavez, and Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, set up for the first time in 200 years, the Organisation of the American States (OAS). It was created after the Second World War. Before the Second World War, the United States had already been controlling the whole of the continent. But now it was the majority of the Latin American countries, the OAS, who were voting against the tricks and lies of the United States.”
“There are also speculations regarding the death of Hugo Chavez. “Everything happened in 2010. President Lula got cancer. President Kirchner got cancer. Chavez got cancer. Dilma Rousseff was ousted. The democratically elected governments of Honduras, Paraguay and Brazil were ousted by right wing extremists, financed by the United States. The same parties in 2002 applauded the coup d'état in Venezuela.”
The ambassador goes on to explain how pesident Nicolas Maduro last year endeavoured to sort of the crisis that had been created. “He used the clause in the constitution which says that a constituent national assembly can be called by either the president with cabinet approval, or by a percentage of the voters or two thirds of the parliament. Using this constitutional power last year to end this artificially motivated and artificially created situation of violence and anarchy in Venezuela, he called on 1 May last year the constituent national assembly. The election for the constituent national assembly members took place on 13 July last year. There are 30 million inhabitants in Venezuela and 9 million went out to vote even at the risk of losing their lives. It was incredible. They adversaries from outside were demoralised when they saw so many people went out to vote. They created violence so that the news the next day wouldn’t show people going out to vote . A group of around 15 policemen on motorbikes were coming back to the headquarters where there were many journalists and cameramen. Then suddenly there was an explosion. So the following day the big news was violence in Venezuela, not about the election turnout.
“That was a big moral lesson and pesident Maduro was the big winner. All the surveys said that 95 per cent of the people strongly rejected all the violence that had been on the street. The opposition parties went bankrupt, especially the violent ones which openly called for Washington to intervene. They are now openly calling Washington to come and invade Venezuela. “
Ambassador Augusto Montiel expresses ire against neighbouring Colombia. “Of the 30 million people in Venezuela, 5 million are Colombians. They have been displaced from Colombia. In Colombia they kill peasants, they kill workers, they kill human right activists, they kill social activists and all the people come to Venezuela. The president of Colombia, the largest drug producer of the world, blames Venezuela. The Venezuelan president, according to Obama, Bush and Trump, is a drug dealer. But they don’t say anything about Colombia.”
Continuing his castigation of Colombia, Montiel says, “Former president Uribe of Colombia is No. 82 on the CIA list. They blackmail him, they blackmail all of these people -- we are going to accuse you of corruption and put you in jail. So they do whatever they are told. This present president of Colombia was a minister of Uribe. They never supported the peace treaty in which Norway and Chile, Venezuela and Cuba were involved. The beginning of the peace process in Colombia actually was started by Hugo Chavez. He convinced the region that we have to persuade the president of Colombia to look at peace as a part of the process. The president of Colombia started using that for his politics and they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, which means nothing nowadays. It is politically motivated.”
Turning to the US, the ambassador continues, “Trump has done us a big favour in a way. In the past, nobody believed us. They said that the US is not sabotaging our economy. But Trump has no shame. People in Venezuela now understand that all of these operations have been the result of CIA and US agencies.
“The US is prosecuting every company and every bank that handles Venezuelan money. They are not paying for the oil. Isn’t that stealing? But they say anything is justified against this dictator. The people of Venezuela went to vote in the 2018 presidential elections held according to the constitution, not according to the whim of the government of the US. The US never accepted president Chavez although every time he won, he won 70 per cent or 75 per cent and with the highest turnout in the country. The Colombian president was elected with only 22 per cent of the votes and he calls Maduro an illegitimate president. They can do that because the international news agencies tell the whole world that story.”
Ambassador Montiel speaks about the currency crunch in Venezuela. “There is an artificial disappearance of coins and currency. In Venezuela now retired people get their pensions through electronic cards. For the last two or three years, everybody has electronic cards. Venezuela has the highest number of people in the world using electronic modes of payment. This is a way to bypass the sabotage. But they keep sabotaging, with inflation, with currency. This has been possible to bypass because a large percentage of the population owns smartphones and are educated.”
The Venezuelan government is alert about possible intervention from the US at any time and Montiel says, “Now that Trump is using the term military intervention in Venezuela, president Maduro has called upon all civil and military personnel to be prepared for anything. US vice president Pence, previous secretary of state Tillerson and now Pompeo, made three visits to Latin America already this year. These tours were made to arm twist Latin America and get support to sabotage Venezuela, to block it commercially, to squeeze it. They can’t believe that, after all the damage they have done to Venezuela, people are still supporting president Maduro. The people will defend the sovereignty and constitution and not allow these people to come and take our oil, our gold, our coltan. Venezuela has the second largest reserves of coltan in the world, after Congo. Coltan is the most strategic metal nowadays used in all telecommunication systems, in mobiles, etc.
“The president of Brazil is a dictator placed at the helm by the United States. When in Brazil, Mike Pence wanted to go to the border with Venezuela and create this theatre of a humanitarian camp being set up in Brazil with thousands of Venezuelans trying to escape from Venezuela. The mayor of that city in Brazil near the border with Venezuela told Pence, you are not coming here. Your government has to respect the sovereignty of nations. So Pence didn’t go there and they had to change this theatre.
“Pence visited Ecuador and when he left, the judiciary there presented an arrest warrant against their ex-president who was close to Chavez. He is living in Belgium and hasn’t been allowed to return. They are trying to do the same as they did with Lula. The president of Ecuador, after Pence’s visit, came out with a protest against Bolivia and Venezuela because the presidents of these two countries said the judicial steps against the Latin American leaders has to stop because this is being staged by the government of the United States. So can see the connection here - Washington giving instructions to carry out whatever they say.”
How do the days ahead look for Venezuela? “Bad days are ahead. The people have families and are suffering. Trump speaks about military intervention, but the people of Venezuela have become all the more determined. They will not give up their freedom.”