Miguel Rodriguez Torres (born 1964) was a minister and leading official of successive Venezuelan governments led by Hugo Chavez. A lifetime military officer, he participated in the anti-oligarch military rebellion of 1992 in Venezuela. He was with Chavez when Chavez won his first presidential election in 1998.
First, can you please tell us a little about your past to situate your place in the Bolivarian Revolution.
My beginning in the revolution was at the military Academy, when I was a cadet and Chávez was a commander and he had a big influence on me. I joined the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement [MBR-200]. My first political experience began when I was lieutenant and was part of the parachute division, the same one that Chávez was a part of. It started with the February fourth rebellion [of 1992] that Chávez started and I became more involved in after February 4, when we were all imprisoned. I was designated as military intelligence officer for the MBR-200. This is where I began my political formation, a quarter century ago. I liked the political activity in prison and I began working with many political organizations in the community near the prison. Chavez put me in charge of organizing the Bolivarian committees in the prison. We had Bolivarian committees throughout Caracas and the area surrounding it. Bolivarian committees later on transformed themselves into Bolivarian circles and I became coordinator of the Bolivarian circles, working with Diosdado Cabello, who was then Chief of Staff of the president.
From leaving prison in 1994 and then until 1998, was a very difficult time for me, when I returned to the military. A small group of us refused to retire. Those who retired were immediately freed and when they asked me to retire I said, what did I do, what was my crime? They invented a position at the Colombian border that previously did not exist. We were only 20 soldiers in that area. I spent about 200 days staying awake as much as possible. During the elections of 1998 I was still stationed near the border. Military intelligence police arrested me five separate times suspecting me of conspiracy. I was not really conspiring but I was organizing the remnants of the MBR-200 that was left in the military because I had heard that if Chávez were elected to be president the military would not recognize him. Indeed, when Chávez was elected General Rojas asked other generals not recognize the new president. The day after Chávez was elected, I was asked to return to Caracas. As soon as I arrived I became a member of the presidential honor guard.
The usual understanding for many people is that support for Chávez in the military was simply a function of him being a military man. What you are suggesting, though, is that his popularity was also due to his actively organizing within the military, correct?
There’s elements of both things. But fundamentally Chavez was a natural born leader. I can give you an example from the military Academy. All of us who knew each other at the military Academy whenever you talked about who was the best cadet in the military Academy, the answer was Chávez. He was the one who always stood out among all the commanders and all the ranks within the military academy.
The military Academy is where the best of the military was gathered and it was a reflection of the military as a whole as well. In addition to his natural leadership, he also stood out as an excellent professor or teacher. He had tremendous military knowledge. When he was a professor at the military Academy he talked as much as he did afterwards, when he became president. Once, at the military Academy, the cadets were about to go to dinner at 6 PM, Chávez began telling a story about all of the officials that were depicted on the walls of the military and after three hours, at 9 PM, he was still talking, until somebody reminded him that we have to have dinner.
I think one of the main virtues of Chavez was that he was humble and simple and he remained that way throughout his entire life. Throughout the entire time that I knew him, from the very beginning until the very end, he was the same in this regard.
Upon being elected, Chavez asked the president at the time to turn over the intelligence service, which was the first institution he asked to have turned over, and immediately assigned me to that agency in order to transform the institution. This is where my career in intelligence work began and lasted until 2014. I always had a very direct relationship with President Chavez. I always communicated directly with him, not passing through any ministers in order to communicate with him. There were several efforts to expel me from the party because I always maintained a relatively critical attitude towards things that weren’t going well. However, because of my close relationship to Chavez, those efforts were never successful. To understand how the government treats the issue of criticism, recently Freddie Bernal [the former mayor of Caracas] criticized some aspects of Chavez’s policies, but if Freddy Bernal says it, it’s not a problem, but if I say it then I’m considered to be a traitor.
After the president got quite sick, he named a political high command to take political decisions and he included me in this high command. We had daily meetings in this political high command where we discussed and made decisions while Chávez was sick. I was named secretary of the command. This high command not only took decisions that had to do with the state, but also with the party. Elias Jaua, Nicolas Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, Jorge Arreaza, Rafael Ramirez, and myself participated. When Chávez decided to come back to Venezuela [after his treatment in Cuba] there were only five of us who accompanied him and could see him. This is in addition to his family members. The last meeting that he had, aside from family members, was with these five people. He was very aware of the economic crisis that was already developing at that time. We discussed the economic crisis about a week before he died. After Chávez died, we had the presidential elections that Nicolas Maduro won and Maduro asked me to become Minister of the Interior and justice. I also continued as head of the intelligence service.
Why was Maduro Chavez’s choice to succeed him?
Anything I would have to say about this would be speculation because I don’t know. I presume it was because he was very disciplined and he was the Foreign Minister and had relations with many heads of state around the world and perhaps because he was somebody who was a little less radical than some others.
I’m surprised that in the group of 5, one of the key topics was not who would succeed Chavez.
That was never discussed. We did not even discuss the possibility of his death. It was a very difficult topic. Even the issue of where to bury Chavez was discussed in the last moment.
At the time of Chávez’s first election, can you tell us what was the goal, what was the goal of the Bolivarian revolution?
It was very clear to us that the first thing we wanted to do was to call a constitutional assembly, to create a new constitution and to establish new institutions to put an end to poverty. Other goals were to put an end to corruption. The first decree that Chávez signed was to hold a referendum for a constitutional assembly. Most of the other goals were outlined in the document that we had already presented in 1992 and they did not change very much. We already started meeting to discuss these things in 1986.
Never did we talk about Marxism or socialism nor left or right. We presented ourselves as the Bolivarian movement. The project of socialism we took on much later but at the time it was never mentioned. The thinking we supported was summarized by the three historical leaders of Venezuela Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez, his teacher, and Ezekiel Zamora, who was a peasant leader. This is where our thinking comes from. Of course Bolivar’s thought can be interpreted many different ways. For example, we said we were anti-imperialist and this is something that was not strange to our military. After all, our military emerged out of the fight for independence.\
You mentioned earlier that you had criticisms that might not have been appreciated I’m wondering what those criticisms were.
For example the expropriation in the countryside I often criticized. Not because of the expropriations themselves, but because of what came after. I think from a sociological point of view we perhaps accelerated things a bit too much because very highly productive farms were sometimes expropriated that produced thousands of gallons of milk or thousands of kilos of meat and six months after the expropriation the production sharply declined. I think the policy in general was correct, to redistribute land, but the way it was executed was not done well. Unfortunately, this type of mistake was made over and over again. We did not stop to think about why things were not working out and how to improve them. We kept falling into the same situation.
For example, once Elias Jaua accused me of being a right-wing agent because I said that Chávez was not receiving accurate information about some of the land reform. They even moved cattle from one ranch to another to say it was working very well when that was a complete lie.
For example, in another incident they inaugurated a milk production facility and I told the minister that this facility did not make any sense because in this region there’s no tradition of producing milk because of the type of land and geography. What you could produce was meat, but it was not so good for milk. Nonetheless, just out of ignorance they placed the milk production plant in this area. These kinds of criticisms I would often make while I was a minister. But my criticisms would never make it beyond the cabinet level to the president.
How do you explain why that was? Why wouldn’t the other ministers appreciate the criticisms as an attempt to get better results and relate positively to them instead of ignoring the concerns or calling them right-wing and barreling ahead?
This is something I never understood either. For example, Agro Patria, which used to be Agroisleña was expropriated because they claimed that Agroisleña exploited the small producers, which oftentimes was true, but in terms of the distribution to the producers they were actually quite efficient. So what the state could have done is regulate them and defend the producers, but they went ahead and expropriated it. Now, if you look for agricultural imports, they are extremely difficult to find. Seeds arriving late, fertilizers can’t be found, all of the things that you need in order to produce in the countryside are very difficult to find. Meanwhile, Agroisleña has moved to Cuba and is helping the Cubans to produce. Now farmers are going through a lot of difficulties cultivating the land here.
Why do you think a nationalized firm would fail to deliver where the private firm was successful?
I don’t think that the state can be in charge of everything. It is now running restaurants, service stations, small businesses, large businesses, a large number of enterprises and we never had time to develop the management skills and the people with those skills in order to run all of these businesses. So they end up failing for financial and management reasons. This is also where corruption begins to enter in. For example in Agroisleña you could find even a screw for a particular tractor because there was a person dedicated to making sure that those parts were there. But it’s very difficult to make sure that the state has this kind of efficiency. We could’ve tried to make a mixed enterprise between the state and the private enterprise, which is something that is provided for in the Constitution, and to work together with the small producers to find out exactly what they need. There are many things we could’ve done without going through the process of nationalizing the company.
You had a massive literacy campaign – why not have a massive campaign as well about ideology about the aims of the revolution and about skills? That I don’t think ever happened. Wouldn’t have made a difference if it had happened?
Perhaps we were too fast. Of course, President Chavez focused on ideological formation. Universities were created in all parts of the country. This is of course something that takes a lot of time, it’s not something that can be done in a very short amount of time. When we look at Cuba for example, Cuba is taking a step backwards with regard to the management of its economy, but we cannot manage our economy as if we were an island. We live in a political environment that is pressuring us and we need to adjust to that. We always need to maintain our strategic vision to create the revolution that we want.
In the first few years of president Maduro’s presidency you were minister of the interior, but then you lost that post. What was the reason for that?
I would be speculating to say, because they never give me a reason. There is a lot of media speculation and I thought about it a lot as well. Some said there was a sector of chavismo that was conspiring against me saying that I was conspiring against the president. Others said that I was attacking the collectives. Many things were discussed. Present Maduro never gave me a reason.
Currently the government emphasizes that the reason for the problems that are happening right now are the result of what they’re calling an economic war against Venezuela. External factors such as the price of oil, US policy and imperialism and so on. All of this no doubt exists. However, I’m interested in knowing whether you think there are policies that the government has implemented that have contributed to the current situation?
To think the problems we’re currently suffering are only the result of an economic war is a lie. Our economy has serious distortions in the area of macroeconomics, budgeting, and exchange-rate. The main problem that we have has to do with the exchange-rate and this is something that the government can control. Not the opposition. There are different economic sectors in the country and different actors, who are saying that the exchange-rate needs to be corrected. This is a decision of the government.
On the basis of our errors there are business people who are developing hostile activities with regard to the economy for political reasons, that is true. They pursue practices that they know will politically have a negative impact on the government. There are sectors of the opposition and of the business class that since 1998 have been trying to undermine the government. But we have created conditions now so that they can succeed.
For example, to maintain prices that were valid 10 years ago is an error of ours and not of the enemy. There are things that the government has done and I was part of the government and need to take responsibility for that, but, for example, how can a business make calculations and develop a budget using widely different prices, depending on where it purchases things. It’s very difficult. It is very difficult for an economy to advance under such conditions.
And I will tell you something that I haven’t said in any other interview until now. I’ve discussed this with several different economists but I’m certain that this is true. The policy of reducing our oil production in order to keep prices up does not make any sense. I’ll explain why. Look up the OPEC member countries of the past 10 years all of them have significantly increased their overproduction. Except for Venezuela. Scientists from all around the world have found alternative energy sources. I am certain that in 50 years we will find new energy sources that will replace oil. We have oil reserves that would last 300 years at current production levels. So I ask myself, what are we doing if we save the oil for the next 300 years? The oil will be wasted. We need to develop new policies that would increase our production and look for what to do in the future, investing in science so that we can produce oil-based products and petrochemicals downstream, products for the future.
Another factor that we need to take into account is the issue with the discourse. Discourse does not produce anything material, but it does produce confidence. We have meetings with business people, conversations, and the following day an expropriation happens and the business people are chastised and called traitors who cannot be trusted. We need to recognize that the private sector is essentially cowardly. Recently the government is trying to reactivate certain sectors of the economy and has met with business people, but I have always said that the spoken word is like a spear that has already been cast and cannot be stopped. So the business-class would prefer to wait for a change in government instead of helping the economy grow.
Let me propose an idea for you that you could react to. Regarding the exchange rates: if prices were allowed to rise and the exchange-rate to become stable, floating, that would reduce the incentive for corruption, but it would also increase prices of goods making them so expensive that the poor couldn’t buy them. What if at the same time as you correct the exchange-rate, you also allow the price of gasoline for transport to go up and use all of that revenue to provide direct income to the poor so that they would then be able to afford the new price of the goods. This would reduce the incentive for speculation and for black-market behavior and would increase demand. It would redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Why is there so much resistance to that kind of a policy proposal? It’s not perfect, but why resist that kind of solution? What would be your reaction?
Approved, no problem! Many things have remained stuck for many years, but especially in the area of subsidies there is a pattern of increasing subsidies, which is partly a function of correcting the problem of inflation, but this is greater the problem of the black market. People buy flower that is subsidized for example at 20 bolivars and sell it again at 2,000 bolivars. This is an enormous profit, the most profitable business you could be involved in. More so than oil. So I think we have to leave this prior approach. The way the state provided food to the poor worked earlier, but it has reached its limit. I think we now need to subsidize the poorest people directly so that they can buy the things they want at the unsubsidized prices the market sets. The Colombians legalize Venezuelan smuggling of gasoline. Over there gasoline can be sold for 600 times the price it can be bought for here. So as long as you continue to give away gasoline here, you’re creating an extremely lucrative business smuggling gasoline into Columbia, also with very minimal levels of punishment.
Even more so if your kids are hungry, you will have a very strong incentive to seek that type income. Also, the mentalities that result from participation in this kind of activity are undoubtedly very harmful to any revolutionary prospect. But I find it very hard to blame somebody whose kids are hungry for taking advantage of this.
With regard to the economy, I think the government is continuing to pursue the issue of economic war and sees the problem or as an issue of distribution. However, I don’t think that this is where the problem lies. Venezuela has channels of distribution, private and by the state, that are extremely well developed. For example, the Mercal stores [state-run stores with subsidized products] went from three in the beginning to over 3,000 now. So it’s not a problem of distribution. It’s a problem of production. This is related to the macro-economic and financial issues. One of the things that disturbed people in the government was when I said that we cannot be talking about economic sovereignty when we are not producing the things we consume. 70% of the things we consume continue to come from outside the country. However, we have the capability of producing everything that we consume. That is, at least those things that are essential for consumption, such as coffee, sugar, corn flour. The way for us to overcome poverty is to work to produce.
Earlier, when I asked you about people’s reactions to your criticisms, you said you didn’t really know the answer as to why they regarded your criticisms the way they did. I want to push this question further, not only to understand the Bolivarian process but also from the point of view of understanding any revolutionary process since it may be of great importance. Why do you think that the Maduro government won’t hear a proposal like the one to which you responded “approved, no problem” to raise the prices of gasoline and to redistribute income towards the poor? Why isn’t there a reaction that that’s “interesting idea, let’s pursue it”? Why is there resistance to an idea like that?
They did raise the price of gasoline slightly, but it still continues to be almost free and the prices of some products have been adjusted, but all of these policy changes come when the productive apparatus has already suffered many many hits. We have very little hard-currency income in order to reactivate this productive apparatus. We continue to have an exchange-rate problem and it’s taking a long time to correct. And there’s a lack of confidence. For 10 years we had an immense amount of oil revenues and today, if we need to be self-critical, we should’ve used a large part of this income for industrializing the country and to develop the countryside for agricultural production. A lot of the income was used for social programs for the poor, which is no doubt important. But the other form of distributing wealth to the poor would’ve been to generate a quality education and thriving workplaces. I think in this area we were very out of balance.
But your reaction to the idea was “approved, no problem!” But this wasn’t the reaction of the government. My question is why?
I think part of the problem is that there is a memory of what happened on February 27, 1989, when it was assumed that one of the main reasons for the protests and the riots was the increase in the price of oil and gasoline. Presidents have always been very fearful when it comes to taking a decision in that regard. And also there is the fear of being called a neoliberal. This criticism comes from the far left. I don’t think this is a problem of ideology, it’s a problem of economics. Of common sense. No one, no businessperson, nor the state, wants to do business where it loses money. Also, there is a very basic way of viewing criticisms, which I think has something to do with political formation. I personally like it when people criticize me because on the basis of criticism I make corrections. I say to myself, well, if they are saying that, I should look at them and see if we need to make mid-course corrections. It’s possible to tell when a criticism is badly intentioned and meant to disqualify. But you have to know how to interpret the criticisms and I think this is one of the things we failed to do. For example, after we lost the national assembly elections in December the people spoke and I think we did not interpret it correctly. People in the government did not understand this cry that came from the people onDecember 6 [2015 – the National Assembly elections].
Why? You’re saying that common sense should lead to a different perception. And yet something is overriding common sense. So what I’m asking and I think it’s important because I don’t think it’s just this case, I think it’s a generalized phenomenon, what is it that is overriding common sense? What is it that is interfering with being sensible?
This is a very difficult question to answer since one would have to look into the heads of the others. One of the things that could be happening is that people think that the course corrections might be in opposition to the legacy of Chávez. Many times this keeps them tied to certain courses that have been taken in the past. Chávez, though, was a master of course corrections. When Chávez made a mistake he corrected himself. When he lost the referendum of 2007 Chavez then presented his speech on the strike at the helm. He proposed a course correction. He knew how to read the message that the people had given. This was one of his great capabilities. I don’t think that this is present at the moment. I also think the effort to turn Chavez into a God is a mistake. No revolution can be successful on the basis of a single man. One of the things that the revolution should do is to socialize power. To create Chavez as a God, “the eternal Chavez,” is a mistake. Chavez was an extraordinary leader with a great devotion for the poor, all of that is true. But he was also a human being. The best thing we can do for his legacy is to deepen it and to recognize mistakes. This is something that the new leadership of Chavismo has to do.
In the near future, if policies do not change much, what do you think will be the result? Will Maduro be able to win the recall vote? What will happen in your view?
To say what will happen in the short-term is very difficult. There’s a great amount of uncertainty. There’s a conflict between the legislature and the executive. What will happen is difficult to say. I have always advocated for dialogue. I believe that politics needs dialogue. If you close the doors on dialogue you open them for violence. Not to have taken on dialogue as an instrument that could overcome the current crisis was a mistake. The opposition since 1998 has been conspiring, always, from day one: the oil strike, the Colombian paramilitaries, the street blockades. The opposition has done everything to attempt to regain power and the government has also committed mistakes, which has created a sector of society that does not support the government. Under these conditions neither side trusts the other and it’s very difficult for each side to regain trust in the other. Are we going to continue forever this way? We need to find a way to unblock this game. The one who needs to take the first step in this regard is the government. New leadership needs to be developed in order to take on this necessary transformation.
Seems to me that dialogue could happen at two different levels. At one level it makes sense to me but not on the other. I understand the need – and it seems paramount to me – to talk to the base of the opposition, the workers or the citizens that lean towards the opposition. They need to be talked to. From a distance it seems that to me that that hasn’t happened and that seems like a mistake. The other level has to do with the leadership of the opposition. It seems to me that they want everything. They want to go back to the past and to dominate outcomes totally. Other than as bargaining, I don’t understand a dialogue with them. To make an analogy: the left in the United States should be spending a lot of time communicating with the people who support Drumpf. But it makes no sense whatsoever trying to communicate with Donald Drumpf himself or other leaders like him, as if they’re going to understand and change their views.
Today’s Venezuela has a Chavismo that is very radical who see the opposition as an enemy that cannot be talked to. To have a cup of coffee with one of them, that would betray of the revolution. That’s how a sector of Chavismo sees it. Then there is a sector of the opposition on the right that is also very radical and cannot talk to anyone who’s on the Chavista side and thinks that to do so would be a betrayal of their side. And there is a leadership that feeds into this dynamic with its discourse. But in the center there’s a large block of Venezuelans, a very large one, that does not really have an opportunity to enter into dialogue with anyone. To think that you can only be a patriot if you’re Chavista is a mistake. People can be of the revolution, or of the center, or of the opposition and still love their country. We need to learn to respect them and capture them with a discourse that attracts him. And we have to understand that they love their country just as much as we do. The dialogue will be more difficult between the leadership of the two sides but it is also necessary. That dialog at the top is necessary because what happens in the larger society is to some extent a reflection of what happens among the leadership. Also because nothing is resolved on the political level alone, there’s business people who will simply do nothing because they don’t feel any kind of security or confidence. As a result, dialogue at the top levels is necessary. It is necessary for the economy to get going and for the society to normalize itself, and for the population at all levels to feel it can talk with others. This does not mean that we put our program aside, but we have to think strategically. In military strategy that is called “backwards movement,” to create some space and to then reorganize your forces in order to counterattack.
If you were president what would you do in the short-term to deal with the current crisis? And when you’re successful, what major campaigns would you undertake to move forward?
There are two things that are commonsense and most citizens would say are necessary to do right now, in the short-term. Number one is to fix the economy and the second is to improve citizen security. Those are the two main issues for today’s Venezuelans in the streets. Those are the two things that need to be addressed.
And what is your solution to each one of these?
I can’t give a solution because I’m bad [laughs]. But there are people who have presented economic and citizen security plans in order to overcome the current situation. And these plans would provide the basis for a much longer-term plan. For a productive economy that goes beyond oil production, for an educational system, for citizen security. These plans could be outlined for a two-year period. Those would establish the basis for a much longer-term plan.
Do you think mistakes were made with regard to handling the media? For example, it could have been better to say that the media should not be a tool of a relatively small group of people who own the media but it should be a vehicle for the population and nationalize it and make it more grassroots? Should that have been done do you think?
In Venezuela the media have always been at the service of large private interests. They supported certain economic sectors and they become very involved in politics. I remember once that they decided that Rafael Caldera should be the president and they presented the decision on television. I believe that the media are a very powerful instrument for the education of the people. How do we get there? Through a social process of transformation that has to be constructed, but the media have to be at the service of the people and the people have to have access to the media. There are many media outlets now that are controlled by the communities, especially radio stations. We have made a lot of progress in that area, also in the newspapers, with community newspapers. I believe that we still need to do more, though, in the area of television, particularly local television so that is in the hands of the people of the local communities.
What does 21st-century socialism mean to you?
For me, 21st-century socialism would be a society in which the state would regulate only as far as is necessary the economic factors, understand the importance of the fight against poverty, and construct a different society of equals. 21st-century socialism is something that Chávez proposed that also included how to get to power. He took armed struggle off of the table in order to achieve power by constitutional means and emphasized transformation through education. 21st-century socialism points in this direction.
It is a very different socialism from what we knew in the Soviet Union and Cuba and other countries that always had to deal with economic failures. 21st-century socialism needs to adapt itself to today’s world, with today’s technology, within a globalized economy. This is the reality that we must take into account in order to transform Venezuela.
We would not have to close private media, but we can compete against them and produce high-quality television because that’s what people want.
* Venezuelan opposition unlikely to secure recall referendum before year’s end, interview with Steve Ellner, The Real News Network, Aug 14, 2016
‘The image of Venezuela as an oppressive failed state is really very far from what’s happening on the ground.’ – Steve Ellner
Steve Ellner (born 1946) has taught economic history and political science at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela since 1977.
* For ongoing news and analysis of Venezuela, read Venezuela Analysis, ‘produced by individuals who are dedicated to disseminating news and analysis about the current political situation in Venezuela.’