TAMPA — An academic panel discussion Tuesday brought home the deadly divisions in Venezuela as three University of South Florida faculty members traded heated arguments with people in the audience, including one who stormed out in anger.
Many of the more than 100 people attending the public session at USF’s Patel Center for Sustainability support the anti-socialist opposition party that has called for the resignation of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the face of partisan strife that has claimed more than 40 lives.
All three panelists, on the other hand, made the unpopular claim that the South American nation is better off now than before its socialist reforms.
“The percentage of poverty has radically decreased since 2000,” said Harry Vanden, a professor of political science and international studies who has worked and lived in Venezuela. “The percentage of people who have access to the basic necessities has greatly increased.”
Raquel Ache Leonard, a Venezuelan who now lives in Lutz, shot back to loud applause, “What world do you live in?”
Vanden said he lives in a world where he can trust objective institutions such as the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter to fight poverty around the world. Reports from the center and from other researchers, he said, contend that Venezuela was once a nation with an extreme division between haves and have-nots where today, all can count themselves as haves.
The panel discussion was the second in a series. A session in March focused on Russia’s military intervention in the Ukraine. Moderator Mohsen Milani said the purpose is to educate the public on all sides of international political debates.
Many of the Venezuelans living in Tampa who have chosen to speak out about Maduro support the opposition. They have taken to the streets by the hundreds in protests here and have collected aid to send home.
They think Maduro and the late President Hugo Chavez before him are responsible for grave human rights violations, violent crime, high inflation, a crumbling economy and the stifling of free speech.
Panelist Martin Bossman, a USF professor of geography, called this position a fallacy promulgated by the U.S. government to destabilize the Venezuelan government and bring in a more sympathetic regime.
Bossman said the opposition today is drawn largely from an upper class that for years controlled the nation’s riches and left little for others. The lower class, he said, since Venezuela nationalized its rich oil industry, has access to medical care, pensions and regular meals.
“This is real freedom,” he said. “Poverty grinds you down. Poverty is evil.”
The panel acknowledged failures in the Maduro administration, noting long lines to get basic necessities and a forceful response to the protests.
But panelist Rachel May, director of USF’s Institute for the Study of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs, reminded the audience that a president cannot be impeached in Venezuela before serving at least two years. Maduro was elected in April 2013.
“There is no magical way for the opposition to take power without a coup or civil war,” May said.
Audience members, raising their hands and standing in place to speak, replied that Maduro stole the election through crooked means.
May said there is no proof of that and pointed to international monitors who called the vote one of the most supervised and scrutinized in the country’s history.
She also rejected the notion that the majority wants Maduro out, saying half the country backs his administration and the other half is split between those who are willing to work with Maduro and the opposition.
Vanden questioned whether the opposition really wants a resolution.
“I think there is a strong argument that can be made,” he said, “that they want to bring chaos, hoping that chaos will then displace the current government.”
One audience member questioned the validity of the panel, considering none is from Venezuela. Only Vanden has spent much time there.
“How can you say there is more freedom right now in Venezuela?” the woman cried out before leaving the hall. “I am from Venezuela, and I left the country because there is no future there. I think to really understand this you have to be Venezuelan.”
“We live in a global community,” he said. “I think the presumption that only Venezuelans should speak on matters about Venezuela will not get us anywhere. ... We would all be walking around mute, like ships sailing past each other.”