CARACAS – With his hands on the wheel, Nicolas Maduro, who took office as the President of Venezuela after last month's death of Hugo Chavez, makes a sharp left turn and stops the Ford van he's driving.
We find ourselves in front of the gate of a house in Barinas, in Venezuela's countryside, some 500 kilometers from Caracas.
"Can you wait for me in the car for two minutes? I'm going to visit someone and I'll be right back," he asked us, interrupting a conversation of nearly 20 minutes. The gate opens, Maduro parks in the small garage next to the living room. A woman comes out of the door, in tears. They hug each other. She sobs even harder.
She is Elena Chavez, the mother of Hugo Chavez. Her other son, Adan Chavez, the governor of Barinas state, comes closer. The three disappear for 30 minutes.
Maduro returns, sitting in the driver's seat again. "It is still very painful for her, especially when she sees us. She is overwhelmed by the memories of her son, it's very difficult for her," he says about Elena.
"But continue with your questions," he says.
After six days waiting in Venezuela, Maduro finally gave us an exclusive interview. He spoke in the car, on the road between the rally he had attended earlier that morning with some 30,000 people in a gymnasium in the city where Chavez grew up, and the airport, from which he would leave for another activity.
Maduro often drives his own car during the campaign. Named by Chavez as his successor, he is running for president against Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate. Polls show Maduro has the lead in the elections scheduled for Sunday.
The event in Barinas had been especially highly charged. Part of Chavez’s family was next to Maduro on the platform.
"If all of us are Chavez’s children, what is Adan to us? A protecting uncle!" said Maduro, arm in arm with Chavez's brother. "Chavez lives! The struggle continues!" roared the crowd.
"We are facing the physical disappearance of our eternal commander. We will defend this revolution, Chavez's legacy. I need your support, and that of Chavez's beautiful and glorious family." The crowd answered: "The people united will never be defeated!"
"Do you want capitalism?" asked Maduro. "No!" replied the crowd. "You will decide if you want Nicolas Maduro, a son of Chavez, or a bourgeois that will give the country away!" he said, referring to Capriles. "Go back to your mansion in New York, you fancy bourgeois. I will defeat you with the help of these glorious people."
At the end, Maduro raises his hand: "I swear…" he shouted into the microphone. The crowd follows his lead. Maduro repeats "I swear…" He continues: "to fulfill the orders of our commander Chavez…" The crowd bursts out in a single cry.
Maduro is a former bus driver, union leader, and congressman. He was president of the Venezuela National Assembly in 2006, when Chavez appointed him as the country's foreign minister. He was caught off guard. He called his advisors, opened a world map and said: "I know the map of Caracas perfectly. Now I have to know this one."
FOLHA DE SAO PAULO – What will chavism without Chavez be like?
NICOLAS MADURO – President Chavez founded a revolutionary mass movement in Venezuela. He gave it an ideology and a constitution. Our revolutionary process has a constitution. He gave us doctrines and principles. He left us a political testament, a national agenda, with short, middle and long-term goals.
But 44% of Venezuelans, who voted for the opposing party in the 2012 presidential elections, don't agree with this project. What will happen in the short and middle term if you lose the elections?
We’ve accepted all elections that we lost. Venezuela has opposing governors and mayors. It has 40% opposition. If they win, which I doubt will occur in the 21st century, well, then they will take office. And they would have to decide what to do with country. Venezuela has conscious citizens and the solid bases of an independent country on its way to socialism.
You often speak of unity. But there are several chavist groups. Do you think a division can occur, as it did with peronism in Argentina?
The national revolutionary movement is united around the image, spirituality and ideology of Chavez. Around his national project. It is united around the collective management that he built. And around Chavez's appointment of myself as the conductor of the revolution in this phase. We are united.
Will there be turnover in chavist leadership without Chavez's distinctive leadership?
Not even a prophet, a wizard, a fortuneteller knows what fate has in store for us. What I can tell you is that we are solid, united in this historical moment. And the world must know that this collective management has undergone several trials by fire. We are ready for victory on April 14 and to govern our country very well.
In Venezuela, cable TV channels campaign for the opposing candidate, Henrique Capriles. And public channels campaign for you. The public channels belong to everybody. Shouldn't they remain neutral?
Public channels, in a revolution such as that we are undergoing in Venezuela, have to educate the people, prepare them for this revolution. It has to defend the truth in the face of the media dictatorship that carried out the coup d'état [in 2002, the cable TV channels supported the failed attempt to oust Chavez].
It was the first coup d'état by TV channels. We must seek a deeper understanding of what is occurring in Venezuela. Public TV channels have been the necessary counterweight and represent the pillar that stabilizes society. If they had disappeared six years ago, there would have been a civil war. Cable TV channels would have led us to an all-out war.
Globovision, a private opposition TV channel, is to be sold to a businessman who is friends with the government. It is possible that nearly all the media will be pro-government.
We learned through the press that Globovision was being sold. In any case, it is a negotiation between businessmen who are friends. It's their problem, really. We have to see how it will end. Who knows, maybe the most important message conveyed by the sale of Globovision is that they know they are lost.
They say they did all they could to elect Chavez's opponent, and that led them to a difficult situation.
Globovision simply tried to bring the government down and failed. And their political and communication failure led them to an economic failure. They say they're broke. They are simply distant from society. They know that we will govern this country for many years, the revolution continues. And I believe they are already tired. They got tired and gave up.
Capriles says he has no access to radio stations because those that cover the opposition are suppressed. Don't you think it is important for different voices to be heard?
Well, they have 80% of the media. If you go anywhere in Barinas and buy the newspaper, you will see that they are private and against the government. Regional TV channels, radio stations, between 80% and 90% of them are against the government. The opposition has all the media, and we have just one: the people's consciousness, which defeats the opposition every day.
The more poison they throw, the more the people respond. You can go anywhere in Caracas. You will always find conscious people. How did that happen? With the leadership of president Chavez, who was a teacher, he went out in the streets, spoke and educated the people.
Is there a cult of Chavez in Venezuela?
There wasn’t when he was alive and now love is all there is. A cult of love, of the people's gratitude to a leader who is already called the Christ the Redeemer of the Poor in America. A man who transcended our borders.
The so-called "civic-military union" is one of the pillars of chavism. In a continent like South America, with a history of military coup d'états, wouldn't it be better to keep the armed forces away from the political process?
We have armed forces that recovered the values of the liberator Simon Bolivar, which have an anti-imperialist and anti-colonist doctrine. This doctrine is Latin American, it is ours. You know that the U.S. works as a thirsty vampire, seeking petroleum wealth and natural resources in the world through war and invasions. And our armed forces now have a doctrine of total defense of the country, one of the biggest petroleum reserves in the world. They defend a dream, our land.
They have a nationalist, revolutionary doctrine, they received socialism as humanity's cause to create new morals. We used to educate officials with manuals of the School of the Americas [financed by the U.S.], which educated the armed forces of Latin American for a hundred years. Our officials were taught in English, with nearly no translation. It's a shame it no longer exists.
The fact that the armed forces no longer interfere in internal politics is considered a major achievement in Brazil. In principle, wouldn't it better if they also stayed in the barracks in Venezuela, leaving the political dispute to the civilians?
No, that is a mistake. The armed forces cannot stay in the barracks. They have to be on the streets, in the factories, in the neighborhoods, with the people, to defend the homeland. They cannot be an elite apart. No. They have to be part of the people themselves.
With major political participation?
Well, it depends on your understanding of the word politics. Our armed forces have no tendency in terms of party politics. You will never see an official telling his subordinates to vote for a political party, nor campaigning for a party.
Really, president? When Defense Minister Diego Molero says the armed forces will do anything to meet Chavez’s orders, that is interpreted as a request for votes for you.
Well, what people have to know, and I hope it is known in Brazil, is that our Admiral-in-Chief Molero gave an interview one day after the death of our president. And the opposing candidate had greatly offended the president's family. He doubted his death. He questioned the possibility of me assuming the presidency [Maduro was then vice president]. Our officials were outraged. And Molero then said "we respect our new commander-in-chief Nicolas Maduro, president of the republic." It was a constitutional and moral gesture. Not election-oriented.
The administration of former Brazilian president Lula reduced poverty but never spoke of changing the capitalist structures of Brazilian society, as Hugo Chavez preached in Venezuela. What do you think when people compare "lulism" to "chavism"?
Every country has its pace. I witnessed at least 14 meetings between president Lula and president Chavez. And I can tell you they were like brothers. They understood each other very well. And both of them knew that what Lula was doing, as the great leader of Brazil, and Chavez was doing here were parts of a single process, namely the liberation of Latin America.
Isn't there a good left, with Lula, and a bad one?
People tried to say that for a long time. In 2007, there was a brutal campaign against president Chavez. And, in order for them not to fight, Lula proposed he said: [imitating Lula] "'Chavess', let's do the following. "Let's meet every three months to end this gossip." And that's what they did. From then on, they had more than 14 meetings. Yes, what I can tell you now is this: Lula is also a father to us. Because Lula is the founder of a new branch of leftism which appeared later in the 1980s. We sought inspiration in Lula's ethics, his energy, and his labor leadership.
But Lula, as I said, doesn't speak of changing capitalism.
Each of them dealt with the historic circumstances of his country. Lula pushed Brazil on to a major progressive wave, one of prosperity and development.
Capriles says his model is that of Lula.
It is bad for conservatives…it is bad when conservatives who have never worked in their lives are placed "beard to beard" with Lula. Lula lived in the ovens of the struggle, of history.
The government advanced during the Chavez administration. But the private sector still represents 58% of the economy. If you win, will you nationalize more companies, more sectors? How far does the so-called "21st century socialism" go?
The 21st century socialism is diverse. It has unique characteristics and roots in each country's real dynamics. Each country has its own reality. And we cannot think there is more or less socialism because ours, that of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua or Cuba isn't similar to the experiences of the former Soviet Union or Romania.
Is there room for a strong private sector?
History is yet to be written. There is room for investments that can develop a productive and inclusive model. Unfortunately, in the past 100 years in Venezuela, the profit-seeking petroleum model did not allow strong capital to emerge. Basically, capital joined petroleum income without generating productive capacity and technological development. This capital doesn't have a nationalist view.
A bourgeois sector strongly linked to the government?
The entire model is under construction. We are now calling out and seeking instruments to finance and build nationalistic private sectors that will allow us to diversify the economy.
Of course. Entirely. With financing, incentives. Of all sizes, small, medium, big, linked to technology, industry, commerce. Linked to foreign capital, from Brazil, Argentina, Russia, China. U.S. capital.
So Cuba is the inspiration for chavism, but not the model.
Every country has its singularities. Cuba's role was to live a story in the 1960s, 1970s, deeply marked by the Cold War. Well, Cuba was against our former political, social and economical models.
If Venezuela continues with a strong private sector, how will it achieve socialism?
Socialism has several aspects. Its main aspect is that of the spiritual, moral, ideological, transformation of human beings. And when human beings in that society, throughout their process of education, new cultural, political and participation practices and with the new economic, productive process working in a different way, then there are conditions for a socialist society to overcome individualism, the individual desire for wealth.
And, along with that, are the transformations towards a new economical model that will overcome, in the specific case of Venezuela, profit-seeking, speculating capitalism. This socialism will build the bases for a productive, diversified economy that will create wealth to be distributed through health care, education, food, social security, so that the people can have dignified life standards, so that it can overcome poverty once and for all.
The economy is considered one of Chavez's bad heritages. Inflation is high, the level of shortage is some 20%. And dependency on petroleum is very high. Will the government make adjustments?
On Feb. 22 we talked for five hours with president Chavez about the economy. He said: "Look, Nicolas, we are facing an economic war." Because, with the president's disease, the national and international forces moved to undersupply the country with products, to speculate with prices and the dollar. They believed an economic disaster would occur, leading to social explosion and political destabilization. We are fighting it. We will wrestle with the parallel dollar, and we will win.
What about inflation?
It is a problem of the speculative operation of capital. Inflation in the 14 years before Chavez was 34%. In the past 14 years, it declined to 22%. We intend to make it decline 50% in the next ten years. I hope we can reach a one-digit number.
Will there be expense cuts?
The most important is for the cuts to become social investment to protect the people and economic investment to generate wealth for the country. And that is good functioning that leads to changes in the economic structure and cures the country from speculation as pricing system and from the economy's changes.
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