Interview with Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, Part One

In late August Michael Albert interviewed Interior and Justice Minister of Venezuela, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a close confidant and long time ally of President Maduro now, and of President Chavez earlier, on many matters critical to current events and prospects in Venezuela. Part One appears below. Part Two can be found here. Translation and aid regarding all aspects provided by Gregory Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis.

Michael Albert: According to an often quoted 2008 Latinobarometro poll, Venezuelans reported that crime and corruption is a very serious problem in Venezuela, more so than citizens of almost any other country in Latin america reported. However, according to the same poll, Venezuelans experienced crime and corruption at more or less the average rate compared to the rest of Latin America. As a result, the gap between the perception and the incidence of crime and corruption was far higher in Venezuela than in any other country in the region. To what do you attribute the gap and what would you say is the true scale of the problem? 

Miguel Rodriguez Torres: Addressing the gap between the perception and incidence of crime, I believe that Venezuela is suffering through a problem of the mediatization of politics. The intervention of the communication media functions not to inform, but to create public opinion, which converts them into a sort of political party. It thereby de-natures the informative function of the mass media. In the year 1998, when President Chávez won the elections in Venezuela, enjoyed, at first, a sort of honeymoon with regard to the mass media. If you review the written press in this period, for example, of the first months of 1999, they praised president Chávez a lot because they thought he was a right-wing politician. They believed that his military background would no doubt lead to a right-wing government. The Venezuelan right and the rich thought he would favor their interests. But, to the extent that the president began to demonstrate that his government would not protect the powers that be, particularly the mass media, that’s when an enormous rupture began to take place, which came to head with the enabling law of 2001. That’s when Chávez began to hit the interests of the country’s oligarchy, who had dominated the political system for many years. For example, the hydrocarbons law, the fishing law, the land law, all of these were a direct hit to the heart of the country’s most powerful. In the course of this rupture the mass media converted themselves into something more than mass media, into centers of conspiracy and into political parties.  And in this context they initiated a very tough media war, which increased the crime statistics, so that everything that happened, they would magnify. They even went so far as to commit crimes that they would then blame the government for and people on the right believed that these stories were true. It is this that caused the perception of crime to be higher than the reality of crime.

Why does insecurity continue to be a problem? In the first place, I believe that what we are seeing is a coming together of accumulated social exclusion. In the last 40 or 30 years, a generation that today is 20, 25, 30 years old, who for a while passed through a period of serious social exclusion and a lot of poverty. In addition to this, we cannot forget that we are neighbors of Colombia. There is an effect that is easily observable from the moment that self-defense forces [the right-wing paramilitary forces] of Colombia are demobilized, in which 15-20,000 people are demobilized, people who are used to warfare, assassinations, kidnappings, drug trafficking. All of these people are demobilized and many of them were left without work. That is, Colombia demobilized them, but it does not have a structure in place to put these people to work. So many of them moved to Venezuela. The statistics speak for themselves in this regard. You can see that from the moment the paramilitary are demobilized, how the influx of Colombians increases into Venezuela, and how crime starts to increase. It not only increases, but crime is also transformed. New modalities of crime begin to take place. For example, here you always had robberies and kidnappings. These types of crime always took place here. However, assassins [sicarios] were unknown here in Venezuela. Now we see cases where they kill someone with 20 shots. Also, the form in which kidnappings are carried out now are modalities that are copied and brought from Colombia to Venezuela. So why don’t we control the influx? Well, the border between Colombia and Venezuela immense and very permeable, with jungle, rivers, canyons – it is very easy to get into Venezuela from Colombia. If we add to this the accumulated poverty, which president Chávez fought with great effort, and managed to lower the poverty rate, all of these kids, who before the revolution did not go to school, who did not have access to the universities – it was very difficult here to get into the university, it was a very exclusionary educational system – all of this put together with the transfer of crime from Colombia to Venezuela, brought about the situation that we are currently going through. A third important element is that there was no well-structured policy to direct the country towards a state of peace; this did not exist, a policy of citizen security. Also, the police forces of Venezuela were very corrupt.

For example, in addition to being minister, I am also director of the national intelligence service. This service has been completely transformed. Previously it was called DISIP [National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services], now it is called SEBIN [National Bolivarian Intelligence Service]. But the DISIP was a kind of political police that had a tremendous scope of action and could act outside of the law and no one said anything.  This DISIP had a long history of disappearances, torture, dismembering the bodies of leftist leaders – it was an incredibly brutal police force. Fro example, Luis Posada Carriles rose to be director of intelligence of the DISIP and from this directorship he managed to commit a wide variety of human rights violations in Venezuela. This was a police force in which the training of the officer did not count, but rather their commitment to the government of the time. I even met commissars, the maximum level in the hierarchy, who were illiterate, but they were specialists in killing people. This has been completely transformed now. Now this intelligence service is a technical service, using a lot of technology, with a lot of capability, completely professionalized. There was another security force that used to exist, which was the metropolitan police [of Caracas], which had multiple accusations against it for human rights violations, excessive use of force, and many other things. We had to completely dissolve this force. And so we created the National Bolivarian Police under a new schema.

With regard to citizen security we created a new “great mission”, thanks to President Chávez. What did he do? Knowing the problems of the public administration, he knew that many times it is quite difficult to tackle reality, which is why he created a new type of institution, the “mission.” The first mission that he launched was Mission Robinson. This mission, against illiteracy, was not within any ministry. So he began creating new missions in order to address each problem. Once the structure of the ministries had been changed, the missions were transferred into the corresponding ministries.

For the problem of insecurity, the mission “For All Life” [“A toda vida”] was created. This mission has six principal dimensions.

MA: If we return to the beginning, when we brought up the difference between the perception and the reality of crime and corruption, and a large part of the explanation was of course the media, and while this wasn’t on the agenda of questions initially, it raises a really important one, which is why did you put up with it? Why has the media policy allowed the behavior they exhibited for so long? 

MRT: I believe, even though it might appear to be a weakness, I think it was one of the great strengths of President Chávez, to have always respected the constitution and the laws. The revolutionary government passed through several distinct phases, some of which were marked by great weaknesses and others by strength, and so the government’s decisions have been shaped by the conjuncture, the circumstances of governability. Decisions have been made at different times to create new mass media, for example – not government media, but media with balanced views. In another opportunity the license of a TV station was not renewed, of RCTV, one of the most radical opposition channels, which allowed for the creation of another type of TV channel. The other TV radical opposition channel, Globovision, is currently going through a change because it has been bought by new owners, who are respectful of the law. So the policies have always been within the framework of the law. Nonetheless, they accuse of all kinds of things, of violating human rights, of freedom of speech.

MA: Do you worry that their effectiveness is having a very substantial cost for you, so that even though it is impressive, and it is very positive that you respect the law, that you respect the prior norms, still, the damage that they are doing is so great.

MRT: Before I respond to that, I need to emphasize the nature and origins of the revolution. One of the differences to other revolutions in the world is that it did not come to be through war and armed uprising. Also, it did not use violence as a catalyst, no did we exacerbate class struggle. The fact that the revolution came about via elections meant that we had to respect elections and laws, even while we gradually transformed these from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy. Regarding the topic of perceptions, we believe that now, compared to our initial situation, we are in a much better situation now. We have been taking polls in the past three or four months and we can tell that the perception of crime as a problem has dropped. We have also met with all of the owners of the private mass media, and we have addressed the topic of insecurity as an issue for all Venezuelans, regardless of their political affiliation. In this same sense we have also involve the Catholic Church, the Protestants, the Muslims, Jews, in order to deal with the problem of insecurity as a problem of all Venezuelans. I think that this, all of the measures we have been taking, in the area of prevention, we are improving the perception of insecurity. All of these measures that we are taking, in the area of prevention and in punishment. If we see that the next strategic actions that we will be taking, in one year, we will have a very high perception of security.

We are also developing a new model of policing, of contact with the people, of community policing. We are also in the process of installing video surveillance in sixteen cities of the country that can be used for many things. And we are also acquiring advanced technology for crime investigations. What is important is that people join in this effort in the struggle against crime.

MA: How would you respond if someone tells you, well, in the United States, they use surveillance, they talk about police interaction with the community, use new technologies, but what they don’t have is a national police force – well, except for the FBI, but it’s not like what you are creating here. How would you respond to someone who says that the steps that you describe could also become part of a more repressive apparatus, laying the groundwork for more police surveillance, more police control – presumably all things that you do not want – but a critic could say, it looks like that. Why should people believe that what you are talking about is different? 

MRT: This is why it is important to know the whole program [a toda vida], because what I have mentioned falls in the area of prevention, and not repression. It is important not to confuse the two. I am not familiar with the system in the United States because they haven’t let me enter the country. I am prohibited from entering. They have denied me the visa twice and I never wanted to apply again. The issue, though, goes beyond the technological aspects, which is just a particular tool. But the mission goes beyond that, to include the struggle against poverty, the expansion of sports, expansion of cultural activities, that all children have access to a safe school, that the nutritional system functions, because crime is a social problem. In other words, the issue of technology is simply another instrument that is part of a larger security policy. The national police that we are developing is a police that has the characteristic of a community police, which is close to the people. I don’t know if it’s like that in the U.S., where the police goes from home to home and gets to know everyone and develops an empathy with them. Security is a holistic concept, not just one of repression. Also, this is how we present it. I, as interior minister, go into the communities and talk to community assemblies, where people say to me, look, even if we put a cop in every street corner, this won’t work towards a solution of the problem. The problem is that the people need to develop a consciousness about security and that the organized communities take over some responsibility for security.

MA: I want to ask you a question about something that was very disturbing to us. It’s not so much crime in the sense of violent crime, but rather corruption. The story we heard is that in the Land Institute people receive a document when they get land, and this document is supposed to be free. But we were told that often, people who provide the document often ask for a bribe from the people who are supposed to receive the document. Of course, this does not happen always, but we are told that there are 30,000 of those letters that have not been given out. What is troubling about this is what you have said about consciousness. It is hard to understand how someone whose job is to literally to help people, would be taking advantage of their position in such a way. That is, what their mindset is and how it could exist among employees after so many years of political activism and what could be done about it. 

MRT: The topic of corruption, which actually is something I was still going to address, is one of the most complex and degrading topics that we currently confront. In fact, the call of president Maduro against corruption was quite dramatic. This problem of corruption neither started with the revolution, nor did it increase during the revolution. Rather, it began when the republic began. I believe, that we should see corruption as part of en effort to dominate sectors of the public administration. I am 49 years old, and for as long as I can remember, corruption has always been a major issue. There was a saying in Venezuela, “Don’t give to me, but place me where there is.” Whenever someone wanted to get their ID card or a passport or driver’s license, one would ask “How much do you have to pay for this?” In all public institutions there were parallel institutions. The public institutions did not work. There always was someone who you would hire, to take care of the procedures. This created a culture. If we add to this the culture of capitalism, consumerism… three things that we were taught in Venezuela, that everything should quick, easy, and without effort. This is something that people have imbedded in their heads. These are values of over 100 years and it is very difficult to overcome this in just 14 years. Now, what have we done? We have used, for example, technology in order to reduce corruption. Previously, in order to acquire an ID card, you had to stand in line from 3am, for the entire day, and at the end you would still not get the card. Or someone would come and say, “Give me X and I’ll get it for you.” This problem we managed to resolve with much hard effort and today Venezuelans are able to acquire their citizen ID card very quickly, with the help of new technology, and without and intermediaries. Any Venezuelan who now tells me, “I paid so and so much for the ID card,” I tell them that they are stupid. Because it is very easy to acquire the ID card now. It is very easy to get it now. Also, for the passports today, you don’t need to go to the office, but enter the website, apply for it, and get an appointment, and then go to the office to pick it up. And this is how we have been taking action in all of the institutions, so that the activities of the citizenry are cleared of corruption. We have also done work in raising consciousness about this topic in a variety of ways, with communities, with people, with mass media. And even thought the right wing denies it, we have also repressed corruption with the use of force.

In the Fourth Republic [before Chávez] a politician was never touched for being involved in corruption. The only case that was taken to court, and became famous, had to do with RECADI (Differentiated Currency Exchange Regime), which brought us to the extreme situation of zero dollars in foreign currency reserves. Some experts who have studied this say that this was the greatest fraud in the history of the world, and for this there was only one person who was convicted, and he happened to be Chinese. He became famous for being the “RICADI Chinaman.”

If you review the record of the last 14 years, here we have prisoners [for corruption] who are former governors, National Assembly deputies, ministers, generals – previously generals were untouchable – and generals who appeared to be revolutionaries, in prison for corruption, more than ten of them. This includes General Baduel, who was a great friend of Chávez, a founder of the movement. He caught wind of the corruption investigation and then he began to take positions in opposition to the government. Because, here a trend was started, which said that all those who are accused of corruption are opposition politicians. And General Baduel is someone who used to be defense minister.

The system of providing the ID cards, the SAIME, there are no less than 37 in prison, from regional directors on down. A special unit has been created to fight corruption, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN).

MA: I understand the repression and arrests as a means, and I understand that fighting poverty is a means, and I understand the idea of trying to prevent it with technological innovations and the like. But I am also wondering about the mindset. I get that it arises from a long history, but still, how do you create socialism if the mindset of a large part of the population is still to look for ways to cheat and extort from other people? When we asked some other people this, I asked them, “Does Julio Chávez cheat or steal? Is he corrupt?” Of course, the answer was no. And I asked the same thing about the Supreme Court Judge Fernando Vegas and of course the answer was also no. And so I asked “Why?” And the answer was that these people went through a long revolutionary process. So these people’s values, ethics, norms, were formed in a long process and they were committed and were no corruptible. The thing that is troubling me, is how after the election of Chávez, when you are now in that non-violent context, how do you instill that kind of devotion and that kind of incorruptibility. The process of struggling against capitalism somehow created people who were incorruptible, but the broader population did not go through that process and still has those old values and inclinations. Have you thought about how to change that mindset and values? And why hasn’t that happened? 

MRT: I don’t have such a fatalistic vision of the situation. I do think that there have been some important changes. But this is a problem for which we need patience. It’s not something that we are going to resolve quickly. Not a contemplative patience, but an active patience. We need to confront this from a variety of angles. For example, from the angle of education, to get it out of people’s heads that every thing ought to be easy, fast, and without effort. This is something that we are working on a lot in community workshops, with all of the communal councils. At the same time, though, we continue to battle the private mass media. It’s not because they are against the government, but that they are deeply imbedded in capitalism, supporting particular values. All that they teach in the media, and the children that see this, such as, “You want to lose weight? Take a little pill.” It’s quick, easy, and without effort. But we know that things are not that easy. You need to go on a diet, you need to do exercise, etc. “Do you want to learn English? Quickly? In this academy you can learn it in three weeks.” That’s a lie. But that’s how they learn that life is supposed to be like this. This is a struggle for a new social ethic, which cannot be constructed in one year or even in five, but it requires a constant effort, the formation of new leaders, a cadre school, strengthening the revolutionary universities. This last is one of the great achievements of President Chávez, to have managed to open the universities to everyone. This is not just a matter of political formation, but also one of ethics. It is a long struggle, but the element of repression also enters. It is a big challenge. I like challenges.

MA: What I think is really incredible is what Venezuela is trying to do is rather unique. There is no comparison between what Venezuela is doing and what Cuba did, for example, much less other revolutions. One thing that’s frustrating in some sense, is that it seems to me that Venezuela is a school for the world in the difficulties and tasks that are needed to build a better society without violence, without civil war. It often seems, though, that Venezuela doesn’t see it as a priority to communicate with other leftists around the world to communicate what Venezuela is trying to do. The understanding that leftists have around the world is really poor. And I don’t think you can only blame them for that. It seems that the Venezuela process hasn’t seen it as a priority to simultaneously explain what is going on. What do you think? 

MRT: I am in complete agreement. It’s one of the great weaknesses of our process. Always from the different positions I have had, I have always desperate tried to spread the word, to create alliances with the left, in order to have opinion generators all around the world. I still think that it’s a need for us. Also because Venezuela has achieved quite a bit in 14 years. For example, what we have done on the issue of illiteracy. This is something that representative democracy in Venezuela could not do in 50 years. Comandante Chávez, with the help of Cuba, achieved in two years.

MA: I have a question about that. I know a number of literacy teachers in the United States, and in the U.S. there is a lot of illiteracy. It’s defined as when you are unable to read sufficiently for carrying out daily life tasks. Their response to Venezuela’s announcement that Venezuela had achieved full literacy was that it was impossible, that it could not possibly have been done so quickly. I have two questions. One, in your experience, does it really mean that all Venezuela can pick up a newspaper and read it and understand it. And second, how do you think it could be communicated with the world, so that it would be convincing and not considered propaganda? 

MRT: I understand that you might not believe it. I realize that the methodology that is used in other countries is very slow. Here we did it very quickly because we used a mission that dedicated itself just to this task. One of the main pillars was the armed forces. They are deployed in the entire country. This allowed us to take up the issue in all corners of the country. One of the main pillars of this mission was to train the teachers within the armed forces, and with this deployment to implement the program. The method, “Yo si puedo” [Yes I can] is truly extraordinary. There are many stories of people, including up to 80 years of age, who not only learned to read and write, but they also continued their education up to sixth grade. I believe that Chávez’s leadership was one of the fundamental things for this. Because the work that he dedicated to this, the spiritual force, and the motivation that this provided, caused people to participate. I think living in illiteracy is like living in darkness. When you want to catch a bus, you have to pay attention to the bus’s color, and when you follow the news you are limited to the television.  For any task, you need to ask someone to write something for you. So, for anyone who had the opportunity to get out of this, they took it on gladly. We even have people who started in Mission Robinson 1 and who have no graduated from the University. This is exactly the path, to struggle against exclusion, struggle against poverty.

Returning to the topic of crime, there is an issue that I would like to propose to the president, which we are developing in a team, which is to return to a school of two shifts and that education in schools be much more holistic, so that each child that attends school would have food, education, health, culture, and sports. Perhaps because I come from the military academy, but the academy had classes in the morning, sports in the afternoon, and then more classes and cultural activities. We had constant activities. If a child enters school in the morning, they have classes until 1pm, and in the afternoon do some sports or cultural or other activities, returning to their home around 5pm or 6pm in the evening, they would have very little time for dangerous leisure. But what happens nowadays? The great majority of kids pass the afternoons on their own. Parents are working and the kids return around 1pm and they pass their time either in front of the TV or go out on the streets and get involved in delinquency. The kids are being exposed to disturbing factors.

MA: Continuing the crime issue, but a different part of it, the Venezuelan prison system, like so many others all over the world, doesn’t actually serve as a deterrent to crime and is often actually a school for crime. This is very true of the United States. The prisons are full of drugs, often governed by gangs, you have to defend yourself with violent techniques. Is there a plan in Venezuela for changing the prisons as dramatically as has been done in other areas of society? 

MRT: First of all, you have to understand that there never has been a penitentiary system in Venezuela. The prisons were depositories of human beings, where people who are being processed and those who were already sentenced were in the same prison. Also, in the same prison you would have murderers with someone who hit someone with their car. This was the situation until recently. As I mentioned earlier, the mission “A Toda Vida” has six dimensions or lines of action and number four says, “modernization of the penal system.” This is currently being applied. Within this there are various strategic lines in order to achieve this objective and I think we have advanced quite a bit with this. There are something like 36 prisons in Venezuela, 14 of which are under the direct control of the state and the rest we are currently working on. The judicial system, which is also a part of this mission, has many problems with regard to the delay of trials, which is also something we are working on resolving. It would be very interesting for you to interview Minister Iris Varela, who is in charge of the prison system. We have given the problem such a high level of importance that a new ministry was created to take of this issue. Right now we are constructing, I believe, over 14 new prisons, so that we can place prisoners according to the crime and according to the punishment that they committed.

MA: I still want to ask you one more prison question. What would you think of a program where those who were sentenced to prison could choose to go either to a typical but reformed prison of the old sort or could choose to go to a different prison, of a new sort, where they would live in something like personal rooms, could take courses in order to reenter society and where to a large extent would self-manage their own environment, still isolated from the outside community, completely drug-free and violations would mean being returned to a more typical prison. 

MRT: This kind of thing is actually currently being done. The judicial reform would allow punishments that don’t involve going to typical prisons. Also, the de-concentration of the prison system, such as what you can see in the socialist city of Caribia. For example, for those who commit minor crimes people are punished with community service, along with training workshops and behavioral follow-up, which would avoid what has been happening, which is that for any crime, no matter how small, they would be taken to a prison. In the existing prisons we are beginning to activate productive units and training centers. For example, work for adolescents is being focused on a lot because these are kids that could return to society. So in those special prisons there are psychologists and psychiatrists, working on helping them return into the larger society.

Beyond that, an extraordinary experience has been the process of disarmament, which we also haven’t told that well. We are seeing boys who are involved in crime, who approach the police authorities and turn in their weapons, saying, here I am, I would like to work. Just a little while ago I had an experience in the state of Vargas, where a policeman and seven boys turned over their weapons. We examined the weapons, so a to make sure none of them had been used in a crime, in murders or in drug-trafficking, When we completed the revision, we took the weapons. And they [the boys] and now participating in tourism courses. We donated a boat, with motors, and they organized a cooperative, where they use the boat to transport tourists from one beach to another. These are seven boys where we believe is a proper follow-up they will be involved in productive work and their weapons have been taken out of circulation. We have already destroyed over 16,000 weapons, which we are turning into rebar for home construction projects. This is another experience that shows how we are advancing on many fronts.

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