- - Monday, April 17, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Trump’s tougher talk and blunt diplomacy are having a positive effect in at least one country, according to the man who stands at the epicenter of the political and economic earthquake rocking Venezuela.

Washington’s hands-on approach under Mr. Trump to the crisis could help Venezuela overcome the “classic dictatorship” led by President Nicolas Maduro, Julio Borges, speaker of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview at a cafe in this restive capital city.

“In all of Trump’s conversations with leaders in Latin America, the topic of Venezuela comes up — and it’s raised by him,” Mr. Borges said. “This top-of-mind concern Trump has about Venezuela is very valuable for us.”

It is “very important to us that he be a factor helping to create maximum international pressure” on Mr. Maduro, who has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian bent since the 2013 death of his populist predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Borges, who has headed the largely disenfranchised National Assembly since January, on Saturday was huddling with top brass of his Justice First party at a Caracas cafe to talk strategy after a bloody week of anti-government protests had claimed the lives of up to seven citizens, including a 13-year-old boy. They were considering a direct appeal to the country’s military to help stop the bloodshed.

Amid the unrest, Venezuela’s economy continues to crater. Although the nation holds one of the world’s largest energy reserves, the economy has been hurt by the Maduro government’s mismanagement, weak world oil and commodity prices, and the reluctance of international companies to invest in the domestic economy.

Mr. Trump is among a growing number of world leaders who understand that Venezuela’s meltdown is having harrowing effects and sparking instability far beyond its borders, Mr. Borges said.

Venezuela no longer is a local problem [of] governability and authoritarianism but a contagious disease that has roots and tentacles in all of the region’s problems,” he said. “Never before in these years of struggle had there been this clear a diagnosis that Venezuela is a dictatorship and that all pressure is needed to bring about change.”

While Mr. Chavez and Mr. Maduro were intent on amassing power and challenging the U.S., they were also shrewd enough politicians to make many leaders believe that Venezuela was a functioning democracy and not the “corrupt” and “dark” dictatorship it really is, Mr. Borges said.

“What is the difference with what’s happening in recent times? It’s that the disguise no longer exists,” he said. “It was a dictatorship disguised as a democracy, and many people fell for it — inside the country and out. What’s interesting is that now, nobody’s fooled anymore.”

Venezuelans have long voted with their feet, and the result is a massive wave of emigration of mostly young and highly educated citizens. Annual inflation is approaching four digits, and shortages of basic consumer goods and drugs often require waiting in line for hours — if the items can be found at all.

“Right now, there are 500,000 Venezuelans in Colombia. We make up 3 percent of Panama’s population. The Dominican Republic is changing its laws to keep Venezuelans from entering,” Mr. Borges said. “The migration problem, added to those of organized crime, of the Venezuelan government’s political meddling [in foreign] countries [and] of terrorism and drug trafficking means that [Venezuela] is an international problem.”

Sanctioning a vice president

President Obama also took action against the deteriorating economy and state of civil liberties here, issuing an executive order in 2015 declaring the situation in Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” and freezing the U.S. assets of seven high-ranking government officials.

Though it was Mr. Trump who — barely four weeks into his presidency — extended those sanctions to Mr. Maduro’s second in command, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, Mr. Borges said Mr. Obama deserved some credit for that bold step, too.

“The toughest measure that has been taken — the one against the vice president — was not born in the Trump administration but was developed and investigated two years earlier in the Obama administration,” he said. It was Mr. Trump, however, who gave the order to pull the trigger.

In response to Mr. Trump’s branding of Mr. El Aissami as a narcotics trafficker, Mr. Maduro threatened that the U.S. “empire” would fall sooner or later. Mr. Borges, however, countered that Washington was merely defending American interests.

“People say, ‘Why does the United States have to sanction a Venezuelan official?’ For a very simple reason: Because corrupt Venezuelan officials love to have their accounts in dollars,” he said. “They use the U.S. financial system to commit crimes. So the United States has every right to punish [them].”

The sanctions also highlight how Mr. Maduro’s four-year effort to deepen Mr. Chavez’s socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” means, in the famous Orwellian formulation, that some are “more equal than others.”

“We have some revolutionaries who love Disney World. They love to go there, they all have houses in Orlando,” Mr. Borges said. “It’s a very hypocritical government that talks about imperialism and the like, but many of them have accounts in the United States, own properties in the United States — as a result of corruption and organized crime.”

U.S. bank records thus belie Mr. Maduro’s violently inflammatory speeches, in which he often blames Washington for instigating an economic war against his government.

“I think that’s no longer in vogue already,” Mr. Borges joked. “Every attempt to reignite the Cold War has failed, [even] in Cuba: Was Obama not there? Did they not give him a hero’s welcome? Are the Cubans not hungry for the gringos to come and invest? All this rhetoric in Venezuela is absolutely unreal. It’s an excuse for a corrupt regime.”

But beyond Havana — still the government’s closest friend — Mr. Maduro has lost key allies in the region, most notably perhaps in Argentina, where center-right Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri in late 2015 replaced populist Cristina Fernandez, who admired Mr. Chavez to the extent that his portrait graced her presidential palace.

Mr. Macri, on the other hand, led efforts this year to suspend Caracas from the Mercosur trade bloc and is due to visit Mr. Trump on April 27. Venezuela is expected to be among the top issues on the agenda.

Mr. Borges said that if Mr. Maduro continues to ignore calls for long-overdue regional elections and the release of political prisoners, then the presidents and their peers have the power to ratchet up pressure.

“[They could ban] commercial or political exchange with Venezuela, up to enforcing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which would mean the country’s complete isolation — a country under quarantine,” he said. “We are very aware that international pressure weakens the government. But ultimately, it’s us [Venezuelans] who have to do the work of democratically replacing this government.”

To that effect, he and other opposition leaders are calling for another round of protests in Caracas and state capitals this week — even in the face of danger. Protesters last week were met by riot police making wide use of tear gas — believed to be dangerously past its expiration date and in one case dropped from a helicopter into the crowd.

“The government has no respect for life, nor has it respect for people’s suffering and dignity. Not just [last] week, but every week, people die as a direct result of its policies,” Mr. Borges said. “Children die from hunger, the elderly die because they have no drugs and youngsters die at the hands of violence.”

Worse yet, Mr. Borges said, the death toll may be more method than collateral damage.

“Unfortunately, [last] week’s fatalities are not a one-time event,” he said. “It’s a peak in a day-to-day scenario of death, to which the government is not just indifferent but which it sometimes even promotes as a form of suppression of our people. Because of the demonstrations, more than 300 people are under arrest. They ‘disappear’ them like any classic dictatorship. It happens every day.”

Undeterred

Still, Mr. Borges, a 47-year-old lawyer and father of quadruplets, said he refuses to yield to fear — despite the reprisals against other opposition leaders, including former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez — imprisoned since 2014 — and current Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who was punished this month with a 15-year ban from political office.

“I have been beaten by people from the government some five times, [assaults] even celebrated by Maduro on television broadcasts,” Mr. Borges said. “The National Assembly [has] violent groups at its door every day. People who insult you, who throw stones at you. But it’s a minority that’s paid to be there, [and they use] the police and national guard, too, to beat lawmakers, even in the very National Assembly, with total impunity.”

The speaker saw a glimmer of hope in late March, though, when Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz — considered a loyal Maduro appointee — broke with the rubber-stamp Supreme Tribunal justices after they tried to grab the little power that the National Assembly still holds. A day after Ms. Ortega’s public rebuke, the court reversed its decision.

The prosecutor’s principled stance sent a powerful message to the military, which Mr. Maduro said is much less loyalist to Mr. Maduro than often perceived and could play a critical role in ending his grasp on power, Mr. Borges said.

“When a person like the attorney general uses her conscience and uses her values and the truth, that produces an enormous earthquake,” he said. “The system collapses in the way it collapsed. It gets messed up completely. And that produced a domino effect that, I am certain, has created contradictions [and] debates within the armed forces.”

Although all Venezuelan soldiers have a duty to help restore the country’s constitution, the return to democracy must come through the ballot box, Mr. Borges said.

“That is a much more powerful route than a military, interventionist or coup d’etat route,” he said. “To us, the ballot is the most powerful tool we have — and, at the same time, the most subversive.”

Latin American neighbors, such as Peru and Colombia, have shown that nations once considered “failed states” can turn things around. “Today, they are counties at full speed,” he said. “And Venezuela can achieve the same with clear signals and clear leadership.”

His message of hopefulness seems to resonate with many. At the cafe in the posh Caracas neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes on Saturday, a handful of guests who spotted the speaker walked up to him to shake his hand and wish him well.

If his party assumes government responsibilities at some point, Mr. Borges said, he would push to reintroduce term limits, weaken presidential powers, try to reduce Venezuela’s near total dependence on oil exports — and ultimately end almost two decades of hard-line socialism.

“I believe in an open economy, totally,” he said. “But I also believe in social justice. When we talk about justice, we talk about the coexistence of liberty and equality. That is justice. And I believe that is perfectly possible.”

Given the disqualification of Mr. Capriles, Justice First’s original candidate in the primaries of the opposition MUD coalition, meanwhile, Mr. Borges might be well-positioned to make his own run for the presidency next year. But the speaker insists that if the ban is not reversed, then the national vote could not be considered legitimate in the first place.

“To hold presidential elections in which the government presents us with the menu of candidates — that’s not an election,” he said.

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