Noam Chomsky on Venezuela

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Rory Carroll

The Guardian, July 4, 2011

Rory Carroll: A few questions about the [Afiuni] case. Do you believe Judge Afiuni could receive a fair trial in Venezuela?

Noam Chomsky: Well as far as I’m aware she’s not receiving any trial at all. I rather doubt, I’d be sceptical about whether she could receive a fair trial.

I mean it’s kind of striking that, as far as I understand, you probably know better, other judges have not come out in support of her. Which seems rather strange given the circumstances. If Amnesty International does I don’t see why judges in Venezuela shouldn’t. That suggests an atmosphere of either intimidation or unwillingness to consider the case seriously. I don’t know. My suspicion is she would not receive a fair trial. RC: And what would this case then tell us about the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela? Is there independence of judiciary here or does the executive control it?

NC: You would know better than I do. I can only cast suspicions. I haven’t investigated it closely. My suspicion is that the judiciary is not as independent as it should be. We may compare it to Colombia next door. Colombia’s human rights record is incomparably worse. The judges in the constitutional court have been investigating cases of corruption, crimes at the highest level, and they have been intimidated. They have received death threats, and they have to have bodyguards and so on. And apparently that’s continuing under [President José Manuel] Santos.

RC: But in the case of Judge Afiuni what do you make of the intervention of the president calling for her to be jailed for 30 years — what should one conclude from that?

NC: It’s obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial. And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened. Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That’s executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it’s hardly the only one. That doesn’t change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss.

RC: Some would say that in the case of Venezuela leftwing thinkers have been reluctant to criticise things that have been criticised by Amnesty International and so on because the government is seen as a champion of leftwing values and basically [has] had a free pass in term of leftwing critiques. What do you think?

NC: Well I don’t [think] there’s an organised leftwing that one can speak for. But my impression is that such reluctance as there is, is because Venezuela has come under vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally — in the media and even in policy. After all the United States sponsored a military coup which failed and since then has been engaged in extensive subversion. And the onslaught against Nicaragua — against Venezuela — in commentary is grotesque. So I think it’s natural that the leftwing commentators won’t want to join in it. That’s pretty standard. Take the Soviet dissidents: the more honest ones would not have wanted to join Pravda’s and Izvestia’s denunciations of alleged US crimes.

RC: Is this letter the first public criticism that you have made of human rights issues in Venezuela?

NC: I don’t recall but probably not. I am constantly involved in such protests all over the world ranging from Syria to Cuba to Iraq. So there may have been others in Venezuela that I don’t remember.

RC: Was there any response to your original letter? I understand that in December you sent a private letter to the authorities here over the Afiuni case. Was there any feedback from that?

NC: The [initiative] was jointly with the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard, which actually initiated it. So if there was any response they would know. There may have been an indirect response. Other than that I can’t tell. It is the case that after that letter and other internal discussions that Judge Afiuni was released to house arrest with better conditions and medical care. Whether there was a connection I don’t know.

RC: You have been described as an anarchist libertarian. From that perspective what’s your take on the enabling laws and the evolution of executive power in Venezuela?

NC: I am opposed to the accumulation of executive power anywhere. One would have to ask whether there is justification for them in terms of the security situation and the attacks on Venezuela. I personally don’t think so. But that would be the one consideration that I could think of that would ameliorate it.

RC: So that does mean you think the enabling powers are unjustified?

NC: In my view they are not justified. I can see room for debate about it but my judgment in that debate is that the arguments in favour are not persuasive.

RC: In your visit here in 2009 you said a better world was being created. Is that still the case?

NC: Actually what I said is that there are steps towards a better world in Venezuela and as far as I know that’s true. There have been some significant steps — the sharp poverty reduction, probably the greatest in the Americas, the [social programme] missions, and the self-governing communities look like promising initiatives. It’s hard to judge how successful they are but if they are successful they would be seeds of a better world.

Also the international initiatives I think are quite significant. Venezuela has played a significant role in very important developments in South America and Latin America. Particularly the steps towards unification and integration which are a prerequisite for independence. Venezuela played a leading role in initiating Unasur [Union of South American nations] and the Bank of the South, and most recently the formation of Celac [the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] which is to have its first meeting this July. Celac, if it works, will be the first functioning organisation in the western hemisphere that includes every country in the western hemisphere except the United States and Canada, and that would be quite an important step towards integration and independence. So yes I think these are positive initiatives which have to be balanced against other things. RC: With Hugo Chávez in Cuba the last several weeks a lot of people are saying this shows there is too much reliance on one man because everything appears to have almost stopped in his absence, at least in the political sphere. What’s your take? Is there too much reliance on one man and his charisma?

NC: Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo and it has to be guarded against. Whether it’s over too far in that direction in Venezuela I’m not sure but I think perhaps it is.

RC: What makes you say that? Is it a recent thing or a trend over the past few years?

NC: It’s a trend which has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don’t think is a healthy development.

RC: Specifically are you thinking of the judiciary or other factors?

NC: Decision-making powers generally seems, eh, the constraints imposed by the legislature are there but they seem limited.

RC: If you were to come back here what would be your advice to the president, or your reflections to him? NC: I didn’t give advice [during the previous visit]. I was there just a few hours and I was mostly listening to his account of how his role in Venezuelan policy has developed. But I don’t think he would come to me for advice.

RC: More generally about Latin America, looking around the region, given the election of recent governments, are you optimistic? Is this headed in a positive direction?

NC: I think what’s happened in Latin America in the past 10 years is probably the most exciting and positive development to take place in the world. For 500 years, since European explorers came, Latin American countries had been separated from one another. They had very limited relations. Integration is a prerequisite for independence. Furthermore internally there was a model that was followed pretty closely by each of the countries: a very small Europeanised, often white elite that concentrated enormous wealth in the midst of incredible poverty. And this is a region, especially South America, which are very rich in resources which you would expect under proper conditions to develop far better than east Asia for example but it hasn’t happened.

And in the past 10 years for the first time there have been significant steps towards overcoming these problems. First of all towards integration. And in some of the countries also towards dealing with these devastating internal social problems.

Now when I say there have never been attempts before that’s not quite true. There have been attempts but they’ve typically been crushed by force. Take say Lula’s Brazil, the most important country in the region.

Now the United States picks Lula’s Brazil as their fair-haired boy but his policies are not so very different from those of [President Joao] Goulart’s government of the early 60s. At that point the Kennedy administration was so horrified by these policies that they organised a military coup which took place right after Kennedy’s assassination. It instituted the first of the vicious national security states in Latin America which spread like a plague throughout the hemisphere. Well OK now they’ve got a degree of independence and freedom which enable them to proceed. That’s all very important. In fact it has a certain similarity to the Arab spring of the past few months. Maybe there are steps in the Middle East region to separating themselves from the control of the traditional imperial powers and moving towards a degree of independence and addressing their own internal problems. They’ve a long way to go but those are very important developments in the world and I think the ones in South America are the most important.

RC: Finally professor, the concerns about the concentration of executive power in Venezuela: to what extent might that be undermining democracy in Venezuela?

NC: Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary and for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two, it’s an assault on democracy.

RC: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what’s happening or at risk of happening?

NC: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it — both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that’s a legitimate debate — but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not.