The pictures coming out of Venezuela these days are no longer shocking. They have become horrifyingly ordinary. Once again, gaunt children cry out while receiving medical care; once again adults and children burrow in dumpsters in a constant search for leftover food. Once again there are the long lines of the sick, the poor, who can barely stand up and are waiting for a meager, watery portion of food – aid from a charitable organization.
For almost five months there has been no clear answer to the question of who rules the country. Perhaps there is no answer. Since opposition leader Juan Guaido called on the masses to take to the streets, demanding that President Nicolas Maduro resign, a kind of anarchy has prevailed there.
Announcing that Maduro's 2018 reelection was fraudulent and citing constitutional justification, Guaido declared himself the legitimate leader of the country in January – and was even recognized as such by dozens of Western countries, first and foremost the United States. However, Maduro continues to hold onto his seat and to be in control of government institutions. In effect Venezuela has two presidents now, one who sits in the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, and another who walks about in the streets and claims to be the ruler.
Meanwhile, the ongoing humanitarian crisis that has afflicted Venezuela and sparked mass protests – acute hunger and prevention of deliveries of international humanitarian aid – has only become exacerbated. And this is not the only problem. Huge demonstrations and clashes between anti-regime protesters and security forces have already become routine, as have reports of large numbers of detainees, including children, and citizens being killed and wounded by security and pro-Maduro forces.
This was not the scenario that Guaido, 35, president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, envisioned. Until January he was entirely unknown outside his country. With a tailwind from large sectors of the public and international support that has included sanctions by countries including the United States against Caracas – he should already have been the sole leader of his country. But something has gone wrong.
"It's clear that we've failed to achieve our goal of dismantling this country of crime," says Maria Corina Machado, a leading opposition figure, in an interview with Haaretz. But Machado, a former member of parliament, does not believe that it's time to raise a white flag, or that there is no chance of a regime change. And yet this story is far more complex than one might think, she says.
"If this were an ordinary dictatorship, if there were corrupt military people in the government supported by Cuba – then this regime would have fallen long ago," she explains. "But a country of crime has developed here, with deep ties to drug-smuggling networks, to the Colombian guerrillas and to Islamic terror. There are organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas who operate in Venezuela and receive funding from it."
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In effect, says Machado, Venezuela is home to an international crime syndicate with an interest in expanding and in wielding an influence outside the country, too: "The regime in Venezuela is very dangerous not only to the countries in the region, but to the entire Western hemisphere and the rest of the democratic world."
Venezuela is home to an international crime syndicate with an interest in expanding and wielding an influence outside the country, says Machado, who warns that, “the regime in Venezuela is very dangerous not only to the countries in the region, but to the entire Western hemisphere and the rest of the democratic world.”
She adds: “If this were an ordinary dictatorship, if there were corrupt military people in the government supported by Cuba – then this regime would have fallen long ago. But a country of crime has developed here, with deep ties to drug-smuggling networks, to the Colombian guerrillas and to Islamic terror. There are organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas who operate in Venezuela and receive funding from it.”
Machado notes that Israel – one of the countries that have backed Guaido as his country’s legitimate leader, a move spearheaded by U.S. President Donald Trump – is particularly positioned to grasp the gravity of this predicament and even to exert influence to help Venezuela, which she says is virtually alone on the battlefield.
Indeed, perhaps more than anything else, the country must obtain support and assistance from abroad. While many countries have recognized Guaido, instead of Maduro, as Venezuela's legitimate leader, the country is basically alone on the battlefield. For her part, Machado believes that even Israel – one of the countries that have backed Guaido, a move spearheaded by U.S. President Donald Trump – has considerable ability to exert influence over current events.
“Israel understands the real nature of the regime that has developed in Venezuela, the consequences for the world and for its security of leaving the regime in place, due to its ties to Islamist terror organizations that are using Venezuelan territory in order to operate,” Machado explains.
“Israel must make the world understand that there are genuine risks for Europe and the Middle East from the regime here. We know we can trust Israel, for sure. We believe that the voice of Israel has earned much respect from other countries, in the area and in Europe. At a time when a number of countries and governments are perhaps confused about our situation, Israel can contribute so much. We trust you – the nation, the government and of course your parliament.”
At present Israel and Venezuela have no official diplomatic relations. They were severed in 2009, during the term of former President Hugo Chavez, after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. But Machado believes that this situation will change under a future opposition-led government.
“I expect that Venezuela will establish deep and mutual ties with Israel, reopen our embassies in your country and host your prime minister in Venezuela,” she says.
Asked about her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on anti-Semitism, Machado says, “I hope the two-state solution will solve the disagreement between you and guarantee security to all citizens in the area,” and adds that while the humanitarian crisis and violence in her country have spurred millions of citizens to seek refuge elsewhere, it is mainly anti-Semitism that has driven the Jews out.
“There is a deep anti-Semitism campaign whose source is Chavez,” she explains, referring to the 2009 attack in which Caracas’ Tiferet Israel synagogue was desecrated and damaged, among other things, by graffiti reading “Jews out.”
"Lists of names of synagogue members were stolen in order to chase down members of the Jewish community. I have many friends who were chased out, attacked and threatened," Machado says.
“Anti-Semitism was the main reason that’s caused members of the Jewish community to leave, because of the attack on the synagogue, on Jewish-owned businesses and the regime’s expropriation of factories owned by Jews. We’ve had a complete religious exodus. The religion that was the most hurt and suffered from a negative image was the Jewish religion,” Machado says.
Survival is key
Machado, 51, leader of the Vente Venezuela party, was elected to the National Assembly in 2010. Two years later she tried to run for the presidency, but lost in the joint primaries held by all the opposition parties. In 2014 she personally experienced the strong arm of the regime. After speaking about the fraught situation in her country at a convention of the Organization of American States, she was ousted from the legislature. And that wasn't the end of her problems: In recent years a series of charges have been leveled against her, including accusations of treason. The reason: her involvement in anti-government protests.
"I support public demonstrations, I have accompanied people who demonstrate," says Machado, who is convinced that she is a victim of political persecution. "The regime brutally kills people, it no longer cares about public opinion – whether local or international. They simply kill people. Not only for political reasons, but for reasons of survival."
"Survival" seems to have become the key word in Venezuela, not only with respect to the present government. Early this month the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration reported that over 4 million people have fled the country since 2015 – about 1 million of them since November. They simply could no longer tolerate life in a reality of ongoing political, economic and existential crisis.
This reality has many faces: public corruption, monstrous hyperinflation (815,000 percent, according to the opposition), crime and violence, a fuel shortage and massive electricity blackouts every day, sometimes for as long as 12 hours. In satellite photos Venezuela sometimes looks like a large black hole on the map of South America.
Moreover, according to Machado, the situation in which people must first of all find a way to survive has even made protest impossible, because "you have to invest all your time and energy just to get water, food and medicine for family members."
She tells stories of women, including pregnant women, who have been physically attacked by regime supporters while protesting against the food shortage. Fear is pervasive; food and other staples are virtually unattainable. "I can't tell you how many people die in Venezuela daily, no one can," she tells Haaretz. "But the levels of malnutrition are approaching a humanitarian catastrophe. We must stop this."
These multiple crises play into the hands of the government, in more than one sense: If the reign of terror in Caracas continues to be effective and the situation deteriorates further – opponents will flee the country and the present regime will find it easier to rule. And that, notes Machado, may lead to realization of her greatest fear: "That the international community will stop applying pressure and will say 'There's nothing we can do. We've tried everything. Venezuela is lost forever.'"
Machado's criticism is not limited to Maduro and his supporters. While she doesn't say so directly, one can understand from her that Guaido, leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, is also deserving of critique. "I support Guaido and he's the legitimate president," she says, "but that doesn't necessarily mean that I support everything he's doing."
Perhaps the best example relates to the talks that took place in Oslo last month between opposition representatives dispatched by Guaido and representatives of the Maduro government. The objective: to reach an agreement that would facilitate regime change.
But the discussions were unproductive, Machado says; the waste of time was a foregone conclusion.
"We don't support what's happening in Oslo. This is the fifth time that we're ostensibly conducting a dialogue with the regime, but it doesn't keep its promises," she observes. "They're a mafia, they're criminals; they don't and won't keep their promises. It has to be made clear to the regime that the opposition is willing to provide it with guarantees in order for it to leave – but that it must leave."
In addition to the failures in Norway, Guaido has been criticized on other issues. His youth and relative lack of political experience work to his detriment. One "proof" of that, for example, was his call in late April for a coup in Venezuela – before ascertaining that the army was indeed with him.
Machado: "We were the first to support Guaido in his decision to oppose the regime. It was a correct and courageous decision. However, I believe that in recent months not all the options have been explored, some were pushed aside."
The option of garnering support from the military is one that has not been properly investigated, she says. "I believe that 60 to 80 percent of the army doesn't support Maduro, but their ranks have been infiltrated by spies, Russian agents, for example. Military personnel are persecuted, hundreds have been detained and their families have been persecuted. There's a need for more action. Members of the military have to realize that Guaido is the legitimate leader."
The fact that Machado mentions Russia is no coincidence: She believes that it, along with China and Turkey, has an interest in perpetuating a Maduro-led government, due to the many business transactions in which they are involved, and despite the sanctions imposed against Caracas.
She is less clear about possible foreign intervention on Venezuelan soil and asserts that the idea that the opposition is demanding an American invasion is a lie. At the same time, however, she adds, "We're saying that we need strength, judicial and police assistance, and of course military forces that will protect humanitarian aid missions, in order to bring food into Venezuela."
'Death' of socialism
Machado has fought for years for democracy and liberty in Venezuela. She has suffered many threats on her life, was physically attacked and today is guarded by security forces. Despite the high personal price she has paid, she says that she is motivated anew every day to fight for her people and the future of her country.
"This is cause of my life," she explains. "I can't imagine myself living anywhere else, only in Venezuela. And I can't imagine life under a dictatorship. I love liberty, and I'll devote my life to restoring liberty to Venezuela."
The life of her immediate family has also been affected by recent events: Her children have gone to live abroad.
"I haven't had an opportunity to see my children or live with them. And I couldn't attend their university graduation," says Machado. "They went to live and study in the United States because their lives were threatened. I decided that in order to fulfill my task as a political leader and a fighter for liberty, I had to put them in a safe place. It was a great sacrifice for them. I feel guilty for what I did to them. My only hope is that one day my children, and all of Venezuela's children, will understand that it was worth it."
Machado announced in February that she will run for president if Guaido declares a new election (and it really takes place). She says that if elected, the first thing she'll do as the first female president in the history of her country will be to announced a "death": of socialism, Venezuela's trademark policy during the era of Hugo Chavez and Maduro.
"We'll create strong institutions that will ensure that every citizen has a right to fulfill his or her dreams and that the future is in his/her hands," she asserts. "We'll give the Venezuelans real opportunities – a free market, respect for private property, genuine innovations and education."
But there will be another important move, she promises: The present leaders will be tried for what they did. They will not receive immunity or absolution.
"I think Maduro and his allies will face the justice that they denied us," says Machado. "That's the only way that we can progress toward reconciliation and forgiveness. We have to do justice and enforce the law. I'm not seeking revenge, but when it comes to immunity from punishment – after so many years, it's high time for it."