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President Maduro Is Unaware Of Venezuelans' Desperation, Briscoe Says


President Trump's administration is trying to answer a question. What is the combination of pressure and incentive that could cause Venezuela's government to fall? The machinery of government remains in the hands of President Nicolas Maduro. So the question really is what would cause his supporters to fall away? Ivan Briscoe has been meeting some of them. He studies Venezuela for the International Crisis Group and is a regular visitor to Caracas.

The people you've been able to talk with around Nicolas Maduro, do they tend to be true believers in a socialist revolution?

IVAN BRISCOE: I think the socialist revolution has been tempered by 20 years of experience.

INSKEEP: Twenty years of steady Venezuelan decline under a socialist and populist government. Ivan Briscoe says many people around Maduro are no longer true believers. But over Skype, he told us they remain with the president and the president is out of touch.

BRISCOE: You do feel that he simply is not aware of how hungry and desperate his fellow compatriots are. There is a very good Spanish journalist, called Jordi Evole, who's accompanied Maduro in his car driving around Caracas, and he sees everything as normal - people going to the markets, people are going about their daily work and what have you. But he doesn't seem to understand that beneath the surface reality, there is a material deprivation affecting 90, 95 percent of Venezuelans, which is tremendous.

I mean, below that top upper crust of high-level officials and the civilian regime or in the military, there are a whole number of public sector officials who really don't have a wage which amounts to more than $6 a month. And although they receive rationed food, and the education for their children is free, they can't actually buy any food. And that is the experience of most state officials.

INSKEEP: So when you go to talk to one of these public servants who, because of inflation, is making $6 a month, do you - I don't know - bring them a sandwich?

BRISCOE: Obviously. If you go to a cafe and have a sandwich and a Coke, and it costs nearly the entirety of a monthly wage of a high-ranking technocratic state official then you will pay for them. But then you wonder, who are the other people in the cafe who are also eating then? How can they manage it? Well, they are part of a very small, dollarized economy. They have investments abroad, and therefore they are able to do this.

INSKEEP: The public servants and government officials you've been able to reach who seem supportive of the government but are broke, how do they see their interests now?

BRISCOE: Well, I think many of them are in a wait-and-see mode. Now, here I'm not talking about the very highest levels. The very highest levels of the government, obviously, are engaged in an epic political battle to defend themselves against what they see as a combination of U.S., Latin American and Venezuelan forces intent on toppling them. They will do what they need to defend themselves. But at the level below that, the people who are not fully part of the political battle, they naturally feel that they their interests would be better defended by the current government. But they're also critical of what the current government has achieved economically because they feel the effects and yet remain uncertain as to what their fates would be, should Juan Guaido or the opposition take power.

Because obviously, they also have the fear that there will be a clear-out of the state, a total revolution of the sort which famously occurred, obviously, in Iraq after 2003. And they worry, as well, that they will also be utterly marginalized and with no possibilities of gainful employment in the future.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you brought up that analogy to Iraq in 2003. And we'll remind people that after the U.S. invasion, the U.S. threw out Baath Party members, senior government officials, said they couldn't be in government anymore, and also disbanded the entire army. Now, that leads to the next question. As best you can determine, given that they won't talk with you, how does the military in Venezuela see its interests right now?

BRISCOE: You have to rely on the evidence. Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on the 23rd of January immediately recognized by the United States, a multitude of Latin American countries and European countries. And the central message of Guaido and the United States - Mike Pence, John Bolton at the time - was, the military, it's up to you now, it's time for you to consider your situation and change sides. And what happened? Well, the very senior high command has not moved, which is obviously of concern to the opposition because it was basically fundamental to their plan that there would be a weakening of the military foundations of the government and a new president would be in place.

INSKEEP: Has anything happened that might make Nicolas Maduro think that giving up power would be better than keeping it?

BRISCOE: Well, at the moment, no. At the moment, he has seen what has happened over the last month or so. The military, the bulk of the military hasn't moved. The attempted entry of humanitarian aid on the 23rd of February was a violent and unpleasant spectacle to watch but was not successful. And Juan Guaido is now back in the country, but things seem to be more or less under his control. So at the moment, you would say, what motivation would he have to leave power? But I don't think it's as simple as that. The U.S. sanctions on the purchase of oil from the Venezuelan state-run firm PDVSA is a huge hit on the Venezuelan state's access to hard currency.

And without that hard currency, it can't import food and medicines. And those imports of food are the basis of those rations handed out to millions of households in Venezuela, which keeps the tides of hunger at bay and stops them migrating. So what I think we're looking at now, in the next month or so, is whatever the government tries to do - selling oil elsewhere, selling gold, moving assets around - it's going to face a huge economic crunch on top of an already awful economic situation.

INSKEEP: Ivan Briscoe is program director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group. He's in Bogota, Colombia. Thanks so much.

BRISCOE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.