The European Courier in cooperation with Foreign Policy Association presents:
Mr. Diego E. Arria
Mr. Muhamed Sacirbey
EXPIRATION DATE OF HUGO CHAVEZ - February 5, 2008
- a discussion between Mr. Diego E. Arria, an opposition leader in Venezuela, former Governor of Caracas, former Minister of Tourism, former Minister of Information, and former Permanent Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Nations, and Mr. Muhamed Sacirbey, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia-Herzegovina and former Permanent Ambassador of BiH to the United Nations.
Watch video here.
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Sebastian Aulich: Mr. Arria, you were Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Nations, you were also the Governor of Caracas, former Minister of Information and Tourism of Venezuela. Is there any project you are working on right now?
Diego E. Arria: I am very actively engaged in trying to see how Venezuela is trying to recover our freedom and democracy, which is about to be taken away by an autocrat that we have now.
SA: So you are in opposition to Hugo Chavez?
DA: I am for the recovery of freedom and democracy in Venezuela and we regret what Chavez is doing in Venezuela. From recent developments, as you can see, he is trying to align himself, our own country, with terrorist organizations like Colombian Carias, what has made tremendous damage to Venezuela and has weakened our security in the region.
SA: What do you think about Hugo Chavez’s latest actions toward Colombia, that he is accusing Colombia of direct involvement into Venezuela’s matters, that they want to assassinate him or even invade Venezuela with the help from the United States.
DA: It is a joke. Colombians are very serious people. The president of Colombia is a very mature statesman, the exact opposite of Hugo Chavez. FARC, the terrorist organization, has been attacking Venezuela for almost 30 years. So it was almost an act of treason for Chavez to align, to try to align himself with this terrorist organization. He is being repudiated by the European community, by the United States, by Canada. I think that Venezuelan people do not support that. The Venezuelan armed forces do no support the organization that kidnaps people, that humiliates them and violates human rights.
SA: You don’t believe that those Colombian organizations, like FARC, should be involved in political process and be regarded as political groups?
DA: There were political organizations before, which now are called Polo Democratic Pole, which gave up violence and returned to civilian world. Actually, they are second or the third largest political party in Colombia. With FARC, what started fifty years ago as
a political movement with time became narco-terrorist organization because they finance their operations to protect narco-business in Colombia and to kidnap people. So these are their crimes, kidnaping and drug trafficking. They are now the largest narco-trafficking organization in the region.
SA: So you believe that Hugo Chavez is violating international law by supporting those groups, at
DA: Absolutely. Evo Morales of Bolivia, sent him a cocaine paste and Chavez ate it in television, what promotes a narco-model of our country. Besides you cannot transport into our country coca leaves, even coca paste.
Muhamed Sacirbey: Mr. Arria, when we were serving at the United Nations together, there was a uniform, if maybe not totally united, Latin American and Caribbean position on legality. That seems to be eroded away. What happened? Is Hugo Chavez something new or a return to the dictatorships from decades ago?
DA: The increase in oil prices changed the whole thing. Chavez exists because oil prices are high. He became radical as soon as oil prices increased. He has squandered over 500 billion dollars in 8-9 years . We give to Cuba 3 billion dollars every year for free. We give billions of dollars to Argentina. He gave away over 35 billion dollars. Today when we have to think about getting our own people out of poverty, we are subsidizing the United States. Joe Kennedy, a relative of Robert Kennedy, is working with Venezuelan government trying to make up his own political career at expense of Venezuelan oil. You are right, Latin America used to be more united. Chavez became not only an element of friction of the region but also a very dangerous one because Venezuela is very rich. Now you have a man, who aligns himself with the two biggest narcotic organizations, which have their own armies. With the wealth Venezuela has, you can imagine how much damage one can do.
SA: Help me understand this, why would Hugo Chavez want to align himself with those narco-groups, what would be his goal behind it?
DA: He talks about himself as a new Bolivar. Our region was a Great Colombia, which is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He is trying to divide Colombia in two pieces. The democratic with recognized legitimate government of Colombia with president Uribe and the terrorist one. He has a great weight upon terrorists and he believes he will be able to control the political process in Colombia. Actually, he is already controlling the political process in Bolivia. Evo Morales has become one of his lieutenants and Chavez is paying him for schools, barracks, everything. He tried to get himself involved in Peruvian elections, and Ecuadorian elections, and the Mexican elections and the Nicaraguan elections. He is using Venezuela’s wealth to create havoc and to dis-balance the countries of the region, even the United States. He has fueled a lot of Hispanic and African-American disgruntled groups in the United States, which he calls “Bolivarian circles”. There are around 60 to 80 of them in the United States and actually they could be very dangerous for the security of the United States. I don’t think the United States is paying close attention to that issue. Like they are not paying enough attention that there are FARC forces in a walking distance from the Panama Canal. An attack on Panama Canal would be much worse than September 11, it would cause havoc in the world. They don’t seem to be paying such a close attention.
SA: Is he pursuing an imperialistic policy or is he trying to picture himself as a leader of the region?
DA: The latter one. Chavez cannot be repeated, cannot be duplicated, because no one in the region has resources that we have. Castro doesn’t have it. Actually, he is financing Castro. If it wasn’t because of Venezuelan oil there would be a catastrophe in Cuba. But with all that wealth in Venezuela, you cannot buy milk or sugar over there. How could it be? Because there is corruption, incompetency. He tries to picture himself as the enemy of the United States, but last week all the cooking oil, coffee, were brought from America, all were American products. The Venezuelan economy is tied up to the U.S. economy and at the same time he is vocal to be an enemy of the United States. He blames all the problems we have on CIA and on the United States.
MS: What is the solution to Chavez right now. Is it legality, is it policy?
DA: On December 2 last year we had a referendum, he wanted to re-elect himself forever. The majority said “no” and we defeated him. Let me try to explain the emotional situation he finds himself in. He had to convince himself first and convince the world that he was going to be there forever. Some countries are democratic and so forth said to themselves, we need to accommodate to the guy because he is going to stay there forever and Venezuela is a good market, a rich country, we need to play with this man. But since December 2 he is like a medicine on the shelf or a bottle of milk on the shelf, which has an expiration date. That has imbalanced him because he cannot place himself nationally and internationally, now, when he has an expiration date. This emotional imbalance he had created, has led him to the Colombian issue, to try to divert public opinion in Venezuela to external issues. He is even saying they want to kill him. The real story is however that he tried to kill a Venezuelan president, Carlos Andreas Perez, in 1992. I can tell you that he shot for like half an hour with machine guns trying to kill our president. He also tried to kill the president’s wife and president’s daughter. So he is an attempted murderer. Now, when he says that people want to kill him, he never shows any evidence of that. Yes, we will kill him but with the ballots because that’s the only way to finish him.
SA: Is he a dictator?
DA: No, he is an autocrat. He is a soldier and autocrat. He is, as the journalist from Miami called him, a Leninist narcissist. And it’s a very appropriate term for him. He is a man inflated by oil’s wealth. If oil wasn’t 100 dollars a barrel, he would be sleeping in some village in Bolivia or Cuba.
MS: But is there a risk that even though the time of Pinochet and Castro is finished in Latin America, that there is a chance that he can invent a strategy of Vladimir Putin or Quaddafi in perpetuating his power?
DA: He will try. Actually yesterday on television he said that he will call a referendum to revoke his own mandate. Well, by law, Constitution, you cannot do that. This is going, however, to be very tough for Venezuelan democracy. He tried not to recognize that we were the victors of December 2. The polls closed at 6 o’clock but we already knew we won at 4 o’clock. So even at midnight he didn’t want to accept it, but the military told him that if he doesn’t accept it there will be killings in the streets. So it was a signal to him from the military that he can do many things but not this one, that the military forces will serve only within their constitutional limits.
SA: But there is one thing about Chavez. Before he became the president nobody was paying attention to Venezuela and now everybody is talking about Venezuela. He attracted attention of a lot of high profile people, for example actors from Hollywood like Sean Penn. He has been also flirting with Naomi Campbell. So he is a kind of superstar and by doing that he elevates the importance of Venezuela.
DA: Well, you may also say that Al Capone raised the profile of Chicago and Milosevic the profile of former Yugoslavia. But for the wrong cause! These Hollywood actors for example, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, they went to Venezuela because he is paying them. Do you want to do a film? Oh, here you have 30 million dollars. But if you look at who are the people who go out there to Venezuela, they have their own political agenda, some of them are confused when he says that Venezuelan people were slaves of oligarches. But he himself is not very poor. His mother and father were teachers, he went to school, then to military school. He comes from the middle class, although he has darker complexion. The population in Venezuela is mixed, but all the presidents we had before were less dark. However it is nothing ethnically strange because we are all mixed.
MS: It seems that he has established some sort of celebrity status and it will take some celebrity status to defeat him. In other words, is there a possibility that Diego Arria would be a candidate for the president?
DA: No, not at all. I tried when I was younger. I was independent at the time, but I couldn’t do it. But you can’t become a great celebrity without students’ support because there is no revolution without students and young people. The young people were the factor that really changed Chavez political situation in last December, when they went out into the streets. So if he has the revolution, why are all those students against him? Why are the journalists against him? If you don’t have your own people with you, you have no future, and he doesn’t have it, that was clear. For Venezuela, its greatest weight for the future, is its oil because we have 3-4 million people who work for the government. He turned the government into a sort of charity house. We are actually subsidizing people, instead of creating jobs.
SA: You said also that Venezuela subsidizes the United States with oil supplies. What do you mean by that?
DA: We own CITGO, which is the largest distributor of gasoline in the United States owned by Venezuelan government. But, CITGO and Joe Kennedy have a program to bring lower prices of oil in Boston, in the Bronx, and Venezuela is giving him oil at lower cost to provide it to Americans. However people in America make 3 times more money than people in Venezuela. We subsidize oil in Boston, the Bronx, Baltimore, Houston and lately also in London.
SA: Hugo Chavez positions himself in opposition to the United States but at the same time he subsidizes U.S. economy?
DA: I remember a long time ago talking to the prime minister of Jamaica. He was telling me how one time Castro became leader of dark people of the Caribbean, because Castro was fighting in Angola and that made of him a very admired figure in African countries. Chavez is trying to play the same racial card, saying he is a leader of the blacks, the Indians and so on. In my country, we never had a racial problem because we are very mixed population. He is saying that he is defender of Indians but we have exactly 80 thousand Indians in our country of 30 million people, so the Indians do not have any political importance at all, but he is using them for political purpose and people imagine that we have millions of Indians, what is not true. He wants to become a racial leader and follow Castro. But he cannot follow Castro. Castro was a very talented and serious man. You may like him, you may dislike him. I don’t like him but I know exactly what he is, I have seen him and he is a leader. Chavez is not.
SA: United States is tolerating Chavez because he supplies cheap oil?
DA: Well, I met U.S. ambassador in Venezuela and he told me: you know Diego you are not impartial, we will judge Chavez by his deeds not by his words. I told him that words tend to become deeds and sometimes words are worse than deeds. Actually, in Chavez case, his words became deeds. We are suppling 14% of American consumption of oil, so he has friends in the U.S. government, in Texas and so on, and that helped him to create an image of a liberator of people. He is known all over the place. But if you squander billions of dollars every year around the world and say that you are the enemy of President Bush, then many people will applaud you. I don’t think there is any other country with such resources that can afford to do what he says. For example if the President of Brazil would say that Bush is a devil, the financial markets in Brazil would collapse. But Venezuela doesn’t care because we live out of oil. We don’t have foreign investments. We don’t have capital markets. As a result, Chavez can resist anything.
MS: Is there a multilateral solution to Hugo Chavez or is there American, State Department, based solution or the solution has to purely come from Venezuela itself?
DA: It has to come from Venezuela. Colombia for years has been fighting narco-terrorism and no one in Latin America has raised a finger to help them. It’s incredible, they are in the region but everybody says it’s only Colombian problem. We all hide ourselves behind the concept of sovereignty of Colombia. But when the United States went to help Colombia, Chavez said imperialists are coming. They are not imperialists. Nobody was helping Colombians, the only ones who were providing some help were the Americans.
SA: But isn’t that he emerges as a leader of Latin America because Latin America tries to identify itself in opposition to the United States, to the Western civilization, as a different civilization or sub-civilization?
DA: There is this Latin Barometer, the most prestigious polling group in Latin America, which comes from Chile. They show that the lowest reputation in Latin America have President Bush and President Chavez. They are the least popular people in Latin America. Take Brazil for example, why Luis Lula, Brazilian government, doesn’t talk much about Venezuela? Because they make 3,5 billion dollars every year in construction work in my country without public bidding. So we are like a honey pot. Everybody is doing business in Venezuela and they say, let’s the Venezuelans handle they own problems. And there will be a solution that comes from us. It has to come from inside Venezuela and it will come. We closed last year with inflation of 22%. Every week in Venezuela we have 120 people killed in homicide. Over last 8 years over 8 thousand Venezuelan were killed. In around 50-60% of population there was somebody in the family who was, one way or another, attacked. I have three brothers, all of them have been attacked. My farm have been attacked. There is insecurity, inflation, plus the Venezuelan armed forces have been put into situation by the Venezuelan president, who says that they are in solidarity with FARC, the terrorist organization. FARC is on European list of terrorists and now narco-terrorists. It means that if you are in alliance with that organization, you become their accomplice. And it may have international consequences and I am sure that eventually it will have international penal consequences, if they don’t disassociate themselves with this organization.
MS: As once you served as the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations, obviously you were familiar with foreign office and other bureaucratic offices of Venezuela. To what extent have these offices been damaged or infiltrated by Chavez’s loyalists and of course to some extent by other accomplices from the outside? Is it a long term problem or can it be resolves as soon as Chavez is gone?
DA: It is a major problem. For 50 years we had our own democracy of all the parties. We had ambassadors from all the parties. Today it has almost disappeared. Now ambassadors are generals or admirals. The foreign minister was a bus driver before he became the president of the National Congress. There are a lot of fanatics inside. Venezuela was recognized as a country that helped to resolve conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and we even played some role in conflict in former Yugoslavia and Bosnia. We were recognized as good faith facilitators, but we are not today. It has been a destruction of foreign services establishment of Venezuela. Out of the 16 ministers in the government 11 are from the military. And in all 18 ministries all deputy ministers are from the military. Out of 22 governors 11 are from the military. So we have a military establishment as Pinochet, but still Pinochet didn’t put so much military in the establishment. As a result we have the most militarized government in history of Venezuela and in the history of Latin America. But you don’t hear about it that much.
SA: Let’s talk about some economic issues. United States, Venezuela, Colombia, all those countries were built from scratch. Settlers, immigrant came over here and started new countries. Why is it that now the United States is so prosperous and Latin American countries are not?
DA: I am about to present a book on precisely that topic. Once people came to this country, they were the same stock, almost the same religion. They came to the region and they were mostly Europeans. They came with this principle let’s give to God, what is God’s, and let’s give to a man, what is man’s. We did not have that. When the Europeans came to Venezuela afterwards, we mixed it up. You know, the more you learn about the American system, the more you have to admire it. The first time there was a president in the world, it was in the United States, it was George Washington. That institution did not exist anywhere in the world before. Actually, George Washington is the first man in the history of the world, who declines to be re-elected, leaves the office and is not executed, guillotined or murdered. People don’t pay much attention to that, but that’s really the greatest contribution to the American system of democracy, because it did not exist before. The only constitution we knew before was the British, then American, French. A lot of people say it is a climate, but I believe that it is because of oil in case of Venezuela. All Venezuelans have been taught that the state will do everything for you. That will provide free health insurance, education, retirement, because that’s due to you.
SA: So is it the mentality of the people that creates a basis for more socialist agenda and policies?
DA: Well, it is like I said that 80-90% of everything in Venezuela is provided by a state. If you take a look at Colombia or Chile, it is different. Why? Because they have to work harder. In Colombia for example, three hundred thousand Colombians have to wake up every day in the morning to pick up coffee and they get 6-7 billion dollars in coffee revenue. In Venezuela thirty thousands Venezuelans wake up in the morning and pump up the oil for 80 billions dollars. Venezuela is a community living of God’s generosity, but that creates a very week society.
SA: I read your article from 2003 about a country’s sovereignty in which you said that the subsidies, governmental subsidies in countries like the United States or Western European countries violate the concept of sovereignty of Latin American countries. What do you mean by that?
DA: The subsidies that are provided create a great degree of unfair competition, especially the agricultural subsidies in European community, which are even higher than those in the U.S.
SA: Let me change a topic for a second. What do you think will happen in Cuba after Castro dies?
DA: I don’t think anybody knows but one may take a guess. Cuba will never be like it was before. Some say that the young people have only known the communist government, so they are sort of used to that. But I have a different view. I think that young people are also those who want the things to change faster because they know what is happening even though there is limited information in Cuba. For example, they cannot have internet at homes etc. Cuba has a lot of talented people and the population of Cuba is extremely well educated. Even, if you remember, the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, they were very competent people and they have such kind of people all over the place. I don’t think that Cuban system will last longer without Castro.
SA: Will Cuba go towards democracy?
DA: I don’t think they will be able to stop it. It will take some time but they will not be able to stop it. However it will also depend on countries like Venezuela. Right now the only way for Cubans to sustain themselves is to get 3 billion dollars free from Venezuela for fuel and oil, which they acquire not only for themselves but they also sell it in the open market. So 3 billion dollars from Venezuela in subsidies is a significant part of their economy.
MS: Democracy may be swimming upstream in many areas including Latin America, up streaming against popularism or even neo-fascism that we see is being rejuvenated in many different forms in Latin America, obviously in the Balkans, and certainly some African nations.
DA: I am optimistic. Take Chile for example. In Mexico they may be a potential problem. Nicaragua is a very small country and its neighbors will not accept what president Ortega is doing. The Anglo-Caribbeans are very stable, democratic countries, they are even more European. The problem for Latin America today is Venezuela. Actually, the problem is Chavez. Morales will not be able to do what he would like to do in Bolivia. Rafael Correa in Ecuador will also be limited. Besides, the Indian population in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador is much more fierce than in Venezuela and they will not take it, they have proved it in the past that they will not take it. Brazil is an established democracy and one of the biggest economies in the world. Argentina is up and down but they are on a democratic road. So I am very optimistic. The issue, the only factor of imbalance in Latin America is the Venezuelan oil.
SA: We have this picture of Chavez, who goes to Iran, to Belorussia, where he signs cooperation agreements with Ahmadinejad, with Lukashenko, and still the United States plays it calm with Chavez. What should the United States do? Should they get more involved? Should they develop a special kind of policy toward Chavez?
DA: No. He signs agreements with everybody but nobody takes him seriously. He embarked himself in a world’s tour thinking that Putin or Ahmadinejad will become supporters of Chavez. But they are only selling him planes or whatever he wants. I think that the United States so far has followed the right policy. They are just not responding to him. For a narcissist the worst thing to do to him is not to reply to him, not to take him seriously. For example he is so mad at the President of Colombia because Uribe does not respond to him. He insulted Uribe so many times but Uribe only said “I have great respect for people of Venezuela” and that was the end of the story. For a narcissist that is very hard to take.
SA: One more question about America’s involvement in Latin American issues. In 1970 President Allende in Chile took over and there was a coup organized by CIA, which was unsuccessful. In 1973 there was another coup, which brought Augusto Pinochet to power. There are speculations that the United States played some role in that. On the other hand you have Cuba where Castro prevailed and there was a communist rule. Would you support the United States in playing more assertive role in Latin American countries to overthrow the dictators?
DA: You know, it’s not a speculation, the United States, the CIA was involved. There are many books about it. CIA was involved in the coup of Allende. Moreover, a year after Allende killed himself I went over there to negotiate the release of his several ministers. Actually I brought several of them, Orlando Leteriera was brought out of prison and Pinochet gave them to me, then he gave me 5 more ministers which I brought to Venezuela. But those times have changed, the times that CIA was getting itself involved in coups. I don’t think they will do that again. I don’t even think they have people to do it. It was a pity that Allende was thrown out because he was going to fall by his own. He was so incompetent as a president that he would have fallen at the ballots and it would have been over. He generated a glorious finale by killing himself. But I don’t want a coup against Chavez. I don’t want a coup in my country. That would be terrible, a domestic or international coup. No. Chavez has to fall by himself as a result of his incompetence. People need to reject him and that’s really a way to finish somebody. In my view, what Americans should do is to provide market opportunities to our products. That’s what they are trying to do now in Colombia. The American Congress have decided to open up markets and they did that also with Mexico and Chile. To treat them more like Europeans, that would be a good idea.