Journalist by profession, Ernesto Villegas Poljak is the Minister for Popular Power for Communication and Information in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela from October 2012.

Salim Lamrani: Honorable Minister, what is the state of mind of the People of Venezuela after the death of President Hugo Chávez?

Ernesto Villegas: We are all very sad and we are trying to absorb a reality that is difficult to accept. A long, grieving process is pervading Venezuela. Our compatriots, including some of the President’s adversaries, have not stopped believing that he is no longer physically with us. All of us are somehow hoping that one day he will return; longing for Chavez’s public address, for the next program of Aló, Presidente. We are so used to his presence throughout the last 14 years he exercised political power – not to mention his presence in national life since 1992, that we find it difficult to resign ourselves to his departure.

He is one of the most outstanding people in Venezuela’s history. He has left an indelible imprint on the political life of our country. For this reason, despite his physical passing away, President Hugo Chávez will always be present in the future and will accompany us in building the better and fairer society that we want. Chavez is everywhere since he showed us the route to follow for our nation to become completely independent. The liberating and sovereign project that Hugo Chavez launched is a process in the making that we will roll out in all corners of Venezuela. Chavez’s work is tangible, not only materially, in government administration, but also in the subjective field of optimism. Chavez sowed a seed of hope in the people that is germinating.

Salim Lamrani: The immense demonstrations of popular grief and sorrow profoundly marked the entire world. How do you explain this national fervour for a president?

Ernesto Villegas: It is because we have lost a member of the family and not just any member. We have lost our father, our political and historical father, the father of this Revolution, the father of our struggles, but equally, our father in a symbolic sense. Chavez was a member of the Venezuelan family, and without doubt, the most important one, opening our eyes to the national community. Because of this, we discussed, we wept and we laughed. Thanks to him, optimism returned to the people. Adults could be taught to read and write, to be educated and to finally occupy the status of an active citizen in our society. For the first time in their lives, many Venezuelan households had access to reading, to books, to culture. Thanks to Chávez, we re-found our national Venezuelan identity, with our Venezuela authenticity, with our Liberator, Simon Bolivar and with our Bolivarian history. We returned to discover the concept of Fatherland and we can understand better the challenges of our time. In a nutshell, Chavez allowed us to find our common dream.

Salim Lamrani: So the Venezuelan people lost the person who spoke up for the poor.

Ernesto Villegas: This is why our pain was so intense. We learnt that he died on 5 March 2013. The following day, people poured into the streets to pay homage to the President, to accompany him from the Military Hospital to the Military Academy and to express their sadness.

After Chavez passed away, a new 27 February, a new Caracazo took place. Just like that in 1989 when the people rebelled against poverty and the austerity policies. However this time there was a difference: the people had a specific objective: to accompany Commander Chavez to the Military Academy. If on 27 February 1989 it was a social Caracazo, 6 March 2013 was a political “27 February”.

Salim Lamrani: The demonstrations were mind-blowing.

Ernesto Villegas: The people paid homage to him. Entire families waited hours and days to see President Chavez. Once the funeral ceremony was over, the people returned to his home. In the streets were hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans and they constitute an extraordinary political, social and physical force. It was a human volcano - a human tide of unchecked power. In another context, the force of this crowd would have devastated everything in its path. But in this specific case, the procession was peaceful and this was thanks to Hugo Chávez leaving instructions for the people.

Salim Lamrani: You refer to his last televised speech on 8 December 2012

Ernesto Villegas: Correct. He explained what the next step was if he did not survive his illness, this ambush that fate allotted to him. If he had not given this message to the people, who knows what would have happened in Venezuela. The power of this human mass is capable of destroying anything. The people could have attacked private media that, for the last 14 years, has not stopped denigrating and vilifying President Hugo Chávez, making a direct attack against him and the national will. Despite this, it did not come to anything because the people received Chavez’s peace-inducing message promoting order and unity. Chavez took the necessary measures to avoid this. That force is still there, latent, with Hugo Chávez as a spiritual leader, more alive than ever despite his physical passing away, for his ideas will never die.

Salim Lamrani: Chávez always preferred direct communication with the people.

Ernesto Villegas: Chávez had so much enthusiasm that he expanded on his ideas when his communication advisers recommended that he did not reveal so much. In 1999 we were talking about this and we thought that he was taking excessive risks given how powerful the conservative forces opposed to the Bolivarian process were. In contrast, he thought that he had to lay out, in its entirety, the project emancipating the people. At that time, it was not possible to know that this terrible illness would hit him. Retrospectively, we take into account what he correctly guessed and had to reveal to the whole nation.

He left us thousands of hours of direct communication with the Venezuelans and an indelible emotional tie with the people that forms part of his legacy to Venezuela today.

Salim Lamrani: On 4 February 1992, following the armed rebellion against the President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a star, Hugo Chávez, a soldier by training, emerged on the national political scene. The global context was marked by the destruction of progressive ideas and the hegemony of the Washington Consensus.

Ernesto Villegas: After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Left all over the world ran away from their path. Thanks to Chávez, many militant leftists returned to the socialist path. Chávez also synthesized our religious roots, openly declaring himself to be Christian. Thus integration followed, as did the fervour of the believers. This united not only the orthodox militants of Lenin – Marxism but also the soldiers that, in other times and under another leadership, would have rejected an alliance with the groups whom they were fighting against. Chavez was the element that bound them together. He succeeded in uniting the disparate political, religious and ideological forces. For this reason, a gigantic conglomerate of distinct people, of all different perspectives, identified with Chávez.

Salim Lamrani: But its basis is above all popular.

Ernesto Villegas: Clearly, the majority support to Chavez comes from the popular sectors that historically were marginalized, isolated and ignored. These categories, although they form the majority, were treated badly, not valued, discriminated against, and excluded from society. In Chavez, they found a reference, a representative; someone who would defend their aspirations, a hope that made them visible.

Chávez established a special connection with the people. He himself is a child of the people and rose up in 1992, three years after the popular rebellion in 1989. There was a dialogue between the people and the army. Chavez was the interlocutor of the army and ended up merging it with the people. Thus he converted himself into the leader of both the army and the people, the progressive Bolivarian soldiers and the people.

Salim Lamrani: What was his legacy to the Venezuelan people and to the world?

Ernesto Villegas: Chávez placed the human being at the centre of our Bolivarian project, particularly the most disadvantaged groups. He restored his people with a sense of pride and national dignity. He united in one body the people and the armed forces.

Chavez completely changed international relations and wove solid ties with many countries in the world. 33 leaders and 57 deputies participated in the President’s funeral ceremony. Chávez spun not only commercial ties with these nations but also united peoples. He also established very personal relationships with the leaders of these countries. Chavez established a new model for international relations. In Venezuela we are accustomed to a diplomatic technocracy that assumes that the Treasury is in charge of relations with the rest of the world, when it was only an extension of presidential power. In contrast, Chávez developed very personal relationships with Heads of States. This allowed him to have excellent relationships with leaders on both the right and left. Chavez ensured that ideological differences did not serve to hinder relations as is the case with Colombia or Chile that have chosen different political orientations to us. Chávez also had good relations with European governments that did not share his vision for the world.

Salim Lamrani: Venezuela is at the height of the electoral campaign because a new presidential ballot is scheduled for 14 April 2013 where the current President of the Republic, Nicolás Maduro, and the main candidate for the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles will face each other.

Ernesto Villegas: This new electoral process, not anticipated, occurs after the death of President Chávez in accordance with our Constitution. Various emotions come together: pain, sadness and tears by that sudden departure of our President and the enthusiasm, energy and happiness of the entire electoral campaign.

Venezuela is in the middle of debating ideas, comparing models and plans for society in a context marked by tragic circumstances. It is mixture of emotions quite rare, governed by this unforeseen reality.

Chávez was a man that breathed and exuded happiness. He reflected his people. Happiness is a trait particular to Venezuelans. It encouraged taking part in any Bolivarian demonstration whatsoever to support the candidacy of Nicolas Maduro to understand this phenomenon. The people are convinced that through the election of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez will always be among us, even though he is physically absent. He will always live in the hope of the Venezuelan people and in his struggles for a better world.

Salim Lamrani: Are all the forces united around Nicolas Maduro?

Ernesto Villegas: We have no doubt about Hugo Chávez’s successor since we are scrupulously respecting his will. The Bolivarian Revolution will follow its course and the direction that President Chávez outlined. Without Chavez’s message on 8 December 2012, perhaps the 6th March 2013 would have been a social and political “27 February”. We can only pay tribute and homage to his ability to anticipate events and his vision for the future. Some tried to dissuade him from articulating his message during his last speech, when he asked the Bolivarian people to elect Nicolas Maduro as his successor should he pass away.

Salim Lamrani: How did Chavez respond?

Ernesto Villegas: He categorically refused to change his decision. “I owe my people the truth” he said. He went to Cuba and returned only to make that televised address and to warn the people that his cancer had resurfaced and he had to wage a new battle. He deferred surgery, putting at risk his personal health, and he made a statement before the people. All we can do is thank him for this. He knew that once again he had to guide our compatriots.

Salim Lamrani: How do you see this electoral process?

Ernesto Villegas: it is a new election that Chavez is going to win through Nicolas Maduro - that is the basic strategy. That Cid, will deliver victory. He is the Commander, not only in a metaphysical sense. Indeed, before his sad ending on 5 March 2013, Chávez had already plotted out the path.

He could have travelled to Cuba for his operation without saying anything. Noone asked it of him. But he wanted to do it and to announce the news to the people. Thus, he sketched the electoral path for the Revolution, asking the people to follow Nicolas Maduro and to elect him as the new president. Chavez’s desire is translated into the vote of the people who recently manifested unrestrainedly, their grief and sadness in the streets. On 14 April, the Venezuelans will vote with happiness, enthusiasm and hope for Nicolas Maduro. I have no doubt about this. Once again, the Revolution will deliver a resounding triumph.

Salim Lamrani: What do you think of the opposition that Henrique Capriles is leading?

Ernesto Villegas: The opposition is a federation of ambitions and heterogeneous interests. The only thing that binds them is their hatred for Chávez and for the Bolivarian people. They cannot understand that we are living in a different time and that we will not return to former times. The opposition comes from from old political parties, economic elites and the oligarchy. It refuses to concede political power that it considers as its exclusive property.

The racial and racist factor is also a mark of the opposition. The opposition is loathe to admit that a poor Negro is at the centre of power. Their hatred towards Chávez draws together all the moral miseries of the human condition: racism and class hatred, hatred of the people.

Salim Lamrani: The government accuses the opposition of being under Washington’s influence. What is the basis for this?

Ernesto Villegas: The opposition submits to Washington and follows its orders. This is easy to show. In an interview with the Spanish paper El País, Mrs Roberta Jacobson of the State Department challenged the Venezuelan electoral system, when all the international institutions welcomed its transparency. Absolutely all except the US State Department. Immediately, private, anti-Chavistas medias and the opposition began to challenge our electoral system, which they had always legitimated since they participated in the December 2012 regional elections and accepted the ballot results. This same system permitted them to win elections in some States, although by a slender margin, as happened in the State of Miranda that Capriles (the opposition candidate) currently governs. The ballot is respected in all parts, even when the opposition formed the majority.

Salim Lamrani: The opposition accuses the National Electoral Council of partiality

Ernesto Villegas: This same National Electoral Council that the opposition vilifies so much, that Capriles accuses of every evil, is the same one that declared victory to the opposition candidate, Capriles, in the State of Miranda.

In actual fact, the opposition follows Mrs Jacobson’s guidelines scrupulously and this explains the current campaigns to discredit the National Electoral Council. The opposition even considered withdrawing their candidate to discredit the electoral process. There were some rumours that this was so. Capriles received instructions to this end. We hope that he maintains his candidacy and that he respects democratic rules.

Salim Lamrani: Did Capriles consider the option of withdrawing his candidacy?

Ernesto Villegas: According to the information available to us, he has studied this option in minute detail. Capriles knows that he is going to lose the elections on 14 April 2013. Of course, politicians have projects for the short term, medium term and long term and Capriles will surely want to be the Leader of the Opposition in Venezuelan political life. However, he is conscious that he has no chance of achieving victory in the next ballot. His supporters are also convinced of this.

Salim Lamrani: In your opinion will Maduro win the election on 14 April 2013?

Ernesto Villegas: Without a doubt. We may even obtain 10 million votes in homage to our late Commander. Chavez’s calling has often been minimized, discredited and caricatured, and reality proved the point to those sectors whose minds were not made up. They attributed this to a mechanism for patronage, to buying consciences or to exercising coercion over the State’s bureaucratic apparatus. The demonstrations on 6th March, on account of their spontaneity and sheer scale, demonstrated that this was not certain.

Salim Lamrani: Venezuela’s private media and the Western media have shown themselves to be violently hostile to Chávez.

Ernesto Villegas: Many have discovered the fraud in the rhetoric of the opposition’s private media. Many finally understood that Chávez was a leader wanted by the immense majority of the people because he was people’s best friend. The people welcomed his action and his legacy. History will produce justice for Chavez and will consider him one of the great leaders of our time and of Latin America.

I do not believe that any political leader was treated as badly and as vilified as Chavez. We will see where they will get to in their eagerness to delegimitize Venezuelan democracy and Nicolas Maduro’s triumph. They think they are able to exploit Chávez’s physical absence. They are convinced that Maduro’s Bolivarian government will not be able to handle the current situation. They are going to abandon this desire because the Revolution is benefitting from an extraordinary popular support, strong military support, solidarity within the government, solid institutions and a program – a Plan for the Fatherland– that traces the key features for the next mandate and condenses the proposals of Commander Chavez. I do not doubt not even a single application of our force, despite the threats, since Chávez left a legacy of extraordinary value.

Salim Lamrani: Why did the Venezuelan opposition always refuse to accept Hugo Chávez’s legitimacy?

Ernesto Villegas: The opposition feels a deep hatred for genuine democracy despite its liturgios speeches on this. It is attached to procedure but it is limited to it. It is a ritualistic democracy. Instead of facing the popular suffrage, it prefers to focus on an article of the Constitution and to try to subordinate the majority will of the people to its particular interpretation which, most importantly, is incorrect. The Supreme Court acknowledged this after Chavez was elected in October 2012 and delayed in taking office due to problems with his health. The same thing happened when President Nicolás Maduro took office.

The opposition thinks that everything has to change after the physical passing away of Commander Chávez, forgetting constitutional continuity and the fundamental principles of democracy that require respect for the sovereignty of the people. The opposition that already conducted itself undemocratically since Hugo Chavez came to power, claims to lecture on democracy and challenges the legitimacy of the current power. This is the same opposition that organized the coup in 2002 and that drove a coup thirsty assembly whose “President” [Pedro Carmona Estanga] took an oath not on the Constitution but on a blank piece of paper, because he rejected our new Carta Magna, and to break up all political powers. This opposition that repressed the people after the 11 April 2002 coup claims to give lessons on the concept of democracy.

Salim Lamrani: At the international level, Chavez undertook an important role, particularly in Latin America.

Ernesto Villegas: Chávez was a great political leader. Now Venezuela performs an important role at the international level and forms part of our Commander’s legacy that we are trying to develop and deepen. We do not have any doubt that with the leadership of Nicolás Maduro and the rest of the team driving the Bolivarian Revolution, we will follow the same path and we will strengthen this inheritance.

Salim Lamrani: The Bolivarian Revolution has woven very specific ties with the Cuban Revolution and relations between Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro surpassed the political bond between two Heads of State. How do you explain this alliance between Venezuela and Cuba?

Ernesto Villegas: it must be recalled that first and foremost Hugo Chávez is a revolutionary. Cuba is an important model for all revolutionaries on our continent, independently of the nuances and particularities of each nation. Cuba is, in every meaning of the word, symbolic.

In December 1994, Hugo Chávez visits Cuba for the first time. When Chavez arrives in Havana, Fidel Castro is there to welcome him at the foot of the plane. Chavez will be elected President of Venezuela in December 1998.

It is undeniable that his famous visit to Havana in 1994 and the magnanimous reception that Fidel Castro offered him, at the airport, made a deep impression on him. Chavez described a revolution full of love and warmth in Cuba.

Once in power in 1999, Chávez made Cuba his principal ally by signing strategic agreements in 2000. These agreements established a framework for progress on the whole Latin American continent. The personal relationship between Chavez and Fidel goes far beyond the political sphere. It is friendship.

Salim Lamrani: Chávez had no hesitation in qualifying Fidel Castro as his spiritual father.

Ernesto Villegas: Effectively and this relationship has been very complementary, and it has allowed us to take the best from the Cuban Revolution, a Revolution that arose in the middle of the 20th century and to blend it into the first revolution of the 21st century. The ties between Chávez and Fidel also symbolizes the tie between a fully fledged revolution and a revolution coming into being which is in short, a virtuous combination.

It was a father/son relationship where the father is not his son’s advisor, but also learns from him and sees him building a plan for society in different circumstances, confronted by a unique adversity, such having our Miami [the bastion of Cuban opposition] within our own country. Both countries have been mutually enriched since both Revolutions have their particularities and specificities.

Salim Lamrani: The personal relationship between Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro also allowed both peoples to grow closer.

Ernesto Villegas: From a humane perspective, relations between our two people are extraordinary. We can appreciate the solidarity of Cuban doctors and professionals that are found in Venezuela. Many Cuban patients were in Cuba to have operations. We have exchanges in every possible fields, be it health, education, defence, culture, diplomacy etc.

Salim Lamrani: Can we talk of a merger of two peoples?

Ernesto Villegas: From an emotional perspective, certainly. Now it is true that each country has its own traits, its own history. Our institutions are different as are the conditions for developing our Bolivarian project. Noone copies the model from the other, simply because it is impossible to copy a model in a different country. Despite this, I repeat, the meeting between our two people has been extraordinary. Cuban human capital is impressive and Cuban doctors were genuinely supportive. This is admirable. The experience of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro, and the entire Cuban leadership, allowed the Bolivarian Revolution to flourish. We can only feel admiration for the Cuban people, who allowed the Bolivarian Revolution to flourish. This special relationship permitted us to strengthen the ties between our two people that share so many common aspirations, the same music, the same culinary interests and sports. Despite our different historical fates, our people appear to have much in common and Chávez and Fidel allowed us to re-engage.

Salim Lamrani: Venezuela has given much support to Cuba that faces serious economic difficulties. Fidel Castro qualified Hugo Chávez as the best friend that the Cuban people have.

Ernesto Villegas: Chávez was always generous to [different] peoples. He had to stand up to all the pressures from sectors that wanted to commercialize the relationship with Cuba. But Chavez is foremost Bolivarian and therefore a Latin American. The opposition that now claims to be Bolívarian, forgets that our Liberator never asked anything [in return for] his contribution to freeing the people. These “Bolivarians” of convenience have forgotten that Bolívar received weapons from Petion [1] without paying a cent.

Salim Lamrani: The opposition accuses the government specifically of gifting oil to Cuba

Ernesto Villegas: The opposition desires that we terminate the favourable trade conditions that we are offering to our Cuban and Latin American brothers. We are not giving away our oil to anyone. We are selling our oil at market prices with generous payment terms. This is something that is normal and natural in international relations, especially between sister nations. Chávez was an extraordinary man who shattered this commercial model and substituted it with a model for solidarity.

Salim Lamrani: Will this relationship be maintained following the death of Chávez?

Ernesto Villegas: Not only will this relationship be maintained but it will become even stronger. Our ties with our Cuban brothers has never been so strong and will become even stronger in the future.

The racist and xenophobic Right that curses the Cubans, will still hope. Imagine the small-minded conduct of the Opposition which places the Cuban issue on the electoral agenda, without taking into account that it is a manoeuvre condemned to failure and whose reach is limited to the anti-communist sectors of society, which are in the minority. The Opposition has many media channels but very little influence on the people.

Salim Lamrani: One last question Honourable Minister: is Venezuela ready to normalize relations with the United States?

Ernesto Villegas: Venezuela expressed its willingness to improve relations with the US. Despite this, Washington made declarations and actions that made this normalization impossible. There were the unfortunate declarations by Mrs Roberta Jacobson and hostile actions by the US military attachés in Caracas that contacted Venezuelan soldiers to invite them to talk about the situation of the country to influence them, which constitutes a serious interference in the internal affairs of our nation.

The Venezuelan government considered that it had to break off communication channels with the United States after these hostile actions. It seems that the hawks in the State Department are imposing their foreign policy agenda on the doves, although I believe that interference and intervention are inherent to Washington’s policies.

Venezuela will have normal and peaceful relations will all countries that respect our sovereignty just as we respect the sovereignty of other nations. It is a sina que non. The principles are not being negotiated and as Augusto Cesar Sandino will say, “ sovereignty is not negotiated and is defended with weapons.”.

Anoosha Boralessa

[1Alexandre Petion (1770-1818), militar y político haitiano nombrado primer presidente de la República de Haití en 1807.