Friends and Enemies: A Conversation with Isaias Rodriguez

Cira Pascual Marquina
Isaias Rodriguez is a lawyer and politician who was Chavez’s vice president from 1999 through the end of 2000. He next went on to become Venezuela’s Attorney General until 2007. More recently, Rodriguez has been a deputy in the National Constitutive Assembly [ANC] and Venezuela’s ambassador to Italy. Within Chavismo, he is valued for his integrity and his insightful essays. In this VA interview, he talks about the driving force behind Chavismo and reflects about the current state of affairs in the besieged country.

You were Chavez’s first vice president in the 5th Republic, a period that began after the conclusion of the 1999 constitutive assembly. How do you understand the essence of the Bolivarian and Chavista project that was taking shape at that time?

Since the early days of the Bolivarian and Chavista project, the core goal has been to promote social and economic policies that benefit the excluded sectors of society. The socialist project (declared in 2005) wasn’t on the table at that time. However, everything was pointing toward a change in society through education, healthcare, language, the empowerment of workers, campesinos, barrio dwellers, and women – all within the context of a powerful democracy, based on popular consultation. Political and social rights improved significantly in those early years.

The new constitution played a key role in this regard. Importantly, it operated in the symbolic register, resignifying the concept of Patria [homeland], and it recognized both the people’s and the country’s most felt needs. In fact, we witnessed a spiritual and institutional transformation, which became evident in the “payment” of the accumulated “social debt” to the Venezuelan pueblo.

Along with this came a series of aggressions from the local oligarchy and from imperialism. Those actors, accompanied by the Catholic Church, became the perpetrators of the 2002 coup and the subsequent paralyzation of the oil industry. However, their actions didn’t snuff out people’s hopes. Instead, they strengthened the people’s commitment in the Bolivarian and Chavista project, which became stronger and had the support of the majority of the population.

You participated in the two most recent constituent processes, the 1999 one and the process that began in 2017 and is still active. How do these two processes differ? Did they achieve their goals?

This is a controversial issue, and sometimes I think that it cost me my return to Italy [in late 2017 Rodriguez was removed from his ANC post and appointed Venezuela’s ambassador to Italy].

The two constituent processes appeared in different historical moments and represent different projects. The 2017 process is the response to a situation of intense violence, whereas the 1999 constituent project was part of President Chavez’s strategic line of action. With the second process, the country achieved peace with the votes of the people, but it didn’t lead to a debate within the ANC. The current ANC has a vertical structure.

The objective of the 2017 ANC was not to draw up a new constitution but to break the spiral of violence, thus moving the county toward peace. The proposal was also to generate the basic outline of an economic project that could confront external and internal aggressions and guarantee access to food and public services.

In other words, the current ANC was employed tactically to confront (and overcome) a war-like situation on the streets. Additionally, it aimed to confront the overt intentions of the [opposition-controlled] National Assembly, which (supported and encouraged by the US) wanted to finish off Chavismo.

The way in which the ANC was convened, didn’t allow for the participation of democratic opposition groups, although it did allow certain sectors of Chavismo to enter the constituent process with true autonomy.

As was recently announced by President Nicolas Maduro and comrade Diosdado Cabello, the ANC won’t produce a new constitution. The truth is that, even if there was a draft for a new constitution, it would be necessary to submit it to a referendum: the 1999 constitution was approved by the pue..blo [through a referendum]. So any future constitution would have to be submitted to the popular will.

A recent article of yours stated that, as a result of the blockade and the penetration of corruption, democracy is being emptied of content in Venezuela and “authoritarian codes” are emerging. By contrast, some analysts have defended Chavismo’s “strong” leadership and have suggested that closing ranks is necessary in the face of the imperialist attacks. The key question is: can we sacrifice participatory democracy, one of Chavismo’s mainstays, and still maintain the project?

Participative and protagonist democracy go on existing despite the paternalism and the vertical leadership that the war situation imposes on the country. Downstream, there is a political, social, and economic project that has been deferred, but maintains its integrity within the popular bases of Chavismo.

This form of democracy does more than survive: the exercise of participative and protagonist logics could become a powerful mechanism to control prices and rectify the low wages. True democracy is part of the cultural heritage that Chavez bequeathed to us.

In the Chavista project, democracy is not an empty slogan. The war to overthrow the government has cast its long shadow over democracy here, but it is not possible to sacrifice it even if some may want to cast it aside.

Furthermore, I do not believe that to be the objective of the current government. These are times for the state to make decisions. There is no time to consult and it isn’t convenient to make public issues that must be dealt with confidentially. For this reason, there isn’t a process of sacrificing participative democracy. As I said before, it would not even be possible, since Venezuelan pueblo maintains a high level of political consciousness.

We have a ruthless external enemy, and we have to work with democracy in the most prudent of ways, given the circumstances.

We are living in the midst of great contradictions within Chavismo. Ample sectors of the popular movement criticize some of the government’s policies. They face institutional spokespeople who attempt to stop them and go so far as to call critical positions “treasonous.” What is your opinion about all this?

There is nothing worse than fearing fear. One of the characteristics of polarized societies is that they generate fear with regard to the middle positions. Those who don’t side with one of the two sides are perceived as enemies based on that old saying: “if you are not with me, you are against me.”

The two sides that polarize the country don’t realize that they are being left alone with their “friends.” These friends are fewer by the day, and they aren’t as loyal as they imagine.

There are respectable critical positions that appear. To give you an example, the abstention in the two most recent presidential elections [2013 and 2018] and in the 2015 parliamentary elections express a critical position from the bases. The stalemate could be broken by listening more and by correctly locating the true friends and the true enemies of Chavismo. One of the ways to do this would be to reinterpret the whole issue of loyalty.

Additionally, carrying out sincere processes of critique and self-critique is important. This must be done without the aim of inflicting individual or collective harm and it must instead seek to correct paths, rectify policy mistakes, and address party errors. This, by the way, should be done by all the parties that are part of the Great Patriotic Pole, including those that are forming an alternative alliance in the upcoming parliamentary elections [on December 6]. All parties that, in one way or another, are conscious of the ongoing war against the patriotic project should engage in a process of critical self-reflection.

Your last official post was as Ambassador of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Italy. What can you tell us about revolutionary internationalism in the current world scenario?

Venezuela participated in revolutionary internationalism through [the solidarious use of] its oil and gas. Venezuela’s principled attitude with regard to Palestine, Africa, and Latin America led to important triumphs in the OAS [Organization of American States] and in the United Nations.

Cuba is, of course, another great flagship of internationalism, from [the liberation] of Angola to the extraordinary solidarity shown by its doctors and health workers in epidemic battlefronts around the world. Russia, with a geostrategic perspective, has also acted in a solidarious way with Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. Further, China… has developed a long-term vision that includes solidarity as one element.

Internationalism has its tactics and strategy. Sometimes it may not be as pristine as some might imagine, but it is always, undoubtedly, light years ahead of what is imposed by US imperialism.

For us, revolutionary internationalism must be practiced as an example, it’s about being solidarious with the struggle beyond a country’s frontiers. Internationalism is about confronting colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, and all other forms of oppression wherever they may be.