Panelists discuss the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela as the country continues to face high rates of poverty, unemployment, and even starvation. A La Calle (“To the Street”) is a firsthand account of the extraordinary efforts of ordinary Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy from the Nicolás Maduro administration. Working with a network of clandestine camera crews, the filmmakers spent three years recording exclusive interviews with key opposition figures as well as a host of everyday citizens to document the efforts of Venezuela’s opposition movement.
BIGGS: Hi, thank you so much. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations discussion of the documentary, A La Calle. I'm Marcia Biggs, I'm a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. We have an incredible panel. We have Leopoldo Lopez, member of the Venezuelan interim government, the national coordinator and founder of Voluntad Popular. We have Rebecca Bill Chavez, the nonresident senior fellow for the Inter-American Dialogue, and we have the codirector and producer, codirectors and producers, codirectors slash producers, of this amazing film, A La Calle, Nelson Gonzalez Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo.
So, on a personal note, having spent several weeks reporting in Venezuela at the beginning of this year and continuing to report throughout COVID, it's an honor for me to be moderating this panel and the screening of this really, really beautiful film and timely film. We've got a lot to get to, though, in half an hour, or actually in one hour, but I only have half an hour. So Leopoldo Lopez, let's start with you. The film, you're a major character in this film and it really marks your journey throughout the last, really since 2014. In 2014, you turned yourself in under what are widely believed to be trumped-up charges. You spent almost seven years in prison under house arrest, until about a month ago, when you escaped the country to Spain, where you're now in exile and joining us. There's an incredible scene in the film of you climbing up onto a statue to address thousands back in 2014. Right before you turn yourself in, where you shout, "I will never leave Venezuela, I will never leave Venezuela." Tell me about having to make that decision.
LOPEZ: Well, you're a great journalist, you know how to get straight to very key points. And that for me, it's a very significant decision. I've made several significant decisions, like turning myself in voluntarily, because I was not arrested. And I had, seven years ago, three options: to remain undercover, to go into exile, or to present myself to an unjust justice and certainly go for years of prison. I knew that that was the consequence of turning myself in voluntarily seven years ago. And I knew at the time that that could contribute, as in fact it did, to raise awareness, in Venezuela and outside Venezuela, about what was happening.
In 2013, we had a discussion, a political discussion, what is happening in Venezuela? How, where do we stand with this simple question? Is this a democracy, or is this a dictatorship? And that was a simple question to debate and we concluded that it was a dictatorship. So we decided to do something about it. And we said, we need to go to la calle, a la calle con la gente, with the people. We need to raise awareness, channel the frustration, and promote through street protest the possibility of political change in Venezuela. And the situation led me to jail. And seven years after that, after having spent four years in a military prison, then in house arrest, then in asylum in the Spanish embassy, I concluded that at this point, I could contribute to the fight for freedom in Venezuela, which unfortunately we have not reached freedom in Venezuela, from exile. And it was a difficult decision. But I am sure that we will go back. And I can tell you that I spent my entire day with my heart and my mind in Venezuela. I know I'm physically here but I continue to be focused in doing whatever it takes to mobilize, to organize, and to keep the awareness active in Venezuela and now outside Venezuela, where we have six million people that were forced, as I was, to leave our country. Because nobody leaves their country voluntarily. So we were forced, six million Venezuelans, to leave our country. And that's a reality, the circumstance in which we have to fight now.
BIGGS: What can you tell us about how you escaped? It seems impossible to do without at least the tacit approval of someone inside the regime.
LOPEZ: No, there wasn't. You know, something that prisoners do all the time, and you can ask anybody that has been in jail, is to think about how you could escape, especially if you're a political prisoner. So this is something that one dedicates time to. When I was in prison I thought about that, of course. And then being at the embassy, I knew that at some point, this decision was going to happen. So I spent a lot of time thinking about how to put this together. And a month before I finally escaped, I decided to start the planning. So the first thing was to leave the embassy, because the embassy was surrounded by the police of the dictatorship, more than twenty, twenty-five members of the police. And it was also surrounded by cameras, and by Spanish police. So I had to plan where were the blind spots, and what was the timing in which the political police was making their shifts, and that they were with less attention. So I spent a month overseeing everything that was happening. So that was the first step. And then after leaving the embassy, I organized with a very small group of people a process of leaving the country. We selected a day that was a day of flexibility, because of COVID. That was the first day in like two months’ time, or a month and a half, that was total flexibility. So we knew that that was going to be a day with a lot of traffic in comparison to prior days. So we decided to put ourselves in, a cover, with a--well, I don't know how to say this, disfrazados (Laughs.)—
NAVARRETE: Like, dress alike?
LOPEZ: —yeah, well, covered.
CAICEDO: Like disguised, yeah.
LOPEZ: So that's how we were able to go through almost twenty alcabalas, twenty police military points. At the end, the last one, it was difficult, I can tell you that we had a very, very, very rough time at the very end, just right where the border was. Someday, I'm gonna call Maxx and Nelson and tell them we're gonna do the second part of the documentary (Laughs.) and give them details of everything that happened. But it was something that we planned, a very small group of people as I said before. I have pictures and I have some video of how we did it. So it was on our own, we took a lot of risks. But fortunately, we made it through.
BIGGS: So what happens next, especially vis-à-vis Juan Guaidó? You were a mentor of his, and he took the mantle when you were silenced, you talk about that in the film. What happens to him now that you're free to speak?
LOPEZ: Well, we are a team. And he's leading this process. He is the president in charge with a very concrete mandate to bring free and fair elections to Venezuela. And I think we always need to remember that. What we need in Venezuela is free and fair elections, in order for the Venezuelan people to decide our future. And Venezuela requires a great level of popular legitimacy for the recovery of our country. And that can only happen through free and fair elections that are verifiable and supported by the international community. So that's a mandate that Juan Guaidó has, that we have, that the National Assembly has, and I'm part of that team. Of course, I work very closely with him. I respect everything that he has been doing. It has not been easy. There were very high expectations in 2019. And I know, and this is something that I spoke with Guaidó on January 1 of last year. He was sworn in as president in charge January the fifth, so by January 1 I was already speaking with the police that was doing the surveillance of my house. So I asked him to give me a possibility of bringing some customs for the first day of January celebration, where we eat lentils. It's a tradition that we have. So he was able to come in with a hat on, they didn't know who he was. So we had a conversation. And it was very important because it was the only present conversation that we had before and since then, everything happened last year. So I told him, listen, the first days are going to be easy. You're going to have great popularity. I didn't know it was going to be as important and as massive as it was, but then we're going to go down. And that's just the way it goes. And that's, we need to be prepared for that. Because that's when we need to lead. We are going to be in a good circumstance, and that's going to be the easy part, the phone is gonna ring, people are going to be supporting, things are going to look very good, everybody's going to be your friend. And then, there's going to come a time when the cycle changes, and we're going to be in a difficult situation. And I am absolutely, absolutely convinced that that's when you meet the real requirement of leadership. When things are going in a difficult way, when you need to lead, when you need to open roads, when you need to light the candle where there is darkness. And that's the situation that we've been having. We've been on top. And now we need to build a new cycle.
And I think this movie, and I think this documentary, which was absolutely thought about and everything that they went through, now we're going to hear everything that they did in order to have all this footage. But I think it taps into a sentiment of going to the streets to protest. And I absolutely support that. And I'm all for the process, for peaceful protest, for nonviolence, for doing what Martin Luther King said in the letters of Birmingham when he says, nonviolence is about showing the wounds and making what's ugly about a society open to the rest of society so something can happen. And that's what nonviolence is. And that's what we did in 2014. And that's what happened in 2017. And that's what all happened again, in 2019, when Guaidó came out. So I think that we need to build another cycle. I know that there's a lot of pessimism. But we've been there before, we've been there in very pessimistic years. And I know the situation is even worse than it was before but we have a clear purpose, which is to mobilize people, consciousness, countries, parliaments, government, everything that we need to move in order to free our country. Because Venezuela today, as it's very well depicted in the documentary, is going through a very difficult situation, hunger, the exile of six million people, and the situation that has been brought tragedy to millions of people because of a dictator. So we need to do whatever it takes, we need to go as far as we need to go in order to mobilize, again, the Venezuelan society. So I think this is a very timely documentary that is coming out, because it will remind us about different things, about how important the streets are, about the force that we have. We cannot overestimate ourselves, but we cannot underestimate the capacity of the society to mobilize and to show face to the dictatorship. And it also shows that we need to be prepared, organized, and that the cycle can happen again, and that we need to push for it. We need to build it. And I know it's difficult. But that's the circumstance that we need to face now.
BIGGS: I have so many more questions for you. But I do want to move on to another question that is really more directed to Rebecca. The Trump administration took a hard line against Maduro, the Maduro regime. And there were many that I was speaking to in Venezuela when I was there ten months ago, and then throughout the election this year, who believed that they were hoping for a Trump victory, and they believed that at his hands, there could be a more forceful intervention. So, where does the Biden administration want to take U.S.-Venezuela relations and this fight? Is there a desire to help in this fight? You need to unmute yourself.
CHAVEZ: Sorry about that. Just I first want to say what an honor it is to be here with Leopoldo Lopez, who's courage and sacrifice, like you said Marcia, has served as an inspiration to so many. And also with Maxx and Nelson because this film, I think it sheds light and it really importantly draws attention to and raises awareness about the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and the erosion of democracy in Venezuela, which doesn't get near enough attention in the media here. And I've also, I've told them before that their storytelling is so powerful, that even though I knew the tragic outcome at various junctures in the film, these moments of hope, my heart broke all over again during the film.
So that's an excellent question and, in a sense I'm not surprised at the reactions you heard in Venezuela about Trump in particular. Because you know, he did talk, there was a lot of tough talk coming out of Trump. And you know, there was the saber rattling. But really, from my perspective, that was really all about electoral politics in Florida. Because everything he did, none of it's brought about successful change. And in fact, I think you can say that the suffering of the Venezuelan people increased. For Biden and Harris, Venezuela will be a priority. And both the president-elect Biden and vice president-elect Harris have been really clear that Maduro is at the center of the man-made disaster in Venezuela. They call Maduro what he is, a dictator responsible for the suffering of the Venezuelan people. I think what they'll do, though, is they will, I think that they reject Trump's unilateral go-it-alone policy, and they're also going to cease the saber rattling, because that's pushed away the very partners needed to support democratic progress.
Vice President Biden, president-elect Biden, is going to work with our regional and with our international partners to facilitate a political transition. And that's groups like the Lima Group, the OAS, the International Contact Group. Biden and Harris are also going to work with our partners to provide humanitarian assistance, which is more critical than ever with the COVID-19 crisis. And as the film points out, this is a country that faces an 85 percent shortage of basic medicines. And Marcia, that's something you do so well, when you talk in your reporting on Venezuela about the hunger and the state of the health care system. And they're also going to work with, Biden and Harris are also going to work with partners to protect the over four million Venezuelan refugees, like Randall Blanco who was showcased in the film, because this exodus, which is on track to surpass Syria, has overwhelmed regional governments that are struggling to address this huge influx of desperate refugees. And the final thing I'll say about the new administration is that during the primaries, both Biden and Harris were clear in their commitment that they are going to grant temporary protected status to the Venezuelans that are living in the United States, something Trump has refused to do despite his claims to really care about the Venezuelan people.
BIGGS: But you have to get that through the Senate.
CHAVEZ: Yes, yes. Well, first of all, hopefully January 5 we'll see a good outcome. But I think that there's, through executive action and other ways, this is going to be, this is a priority. And although the world, there are many other priorities when we look at the globe, Venezuela is going to be, is up there on the list.
BIGGS: So I want to, you mentioned the humanitarian crisis, and I want to kind of pivot back to the film. The film is so beautiful, Maxx and Nelson. It weaves together really these poignant stories of everyday people with incredible footage of what was happening in the streets and what was happening with you, Leopoldo. One thing that was just so strong throughout the entire film is hunger. Hunger, hunger, hunger. So I want to talk a little bit about how you made this film, and what it was that that drew you to this film. What were you hoping to achieve? Maxx, I'll start with you.
CAICEDO: Hey, thank you. I definitely, really appreciate the opportunity to be on a panel with Rebecca and Leo. You know, I've been talking a long time about this issue. Nelson and I are always talking about this but to have an audience like this is really a great opportunity. And I think the first thing, to answer your question, that we wanted to do with our film was to focus the conversation around the things that were actually happening and that were important. I think oftentimes when you look at what's going on in Venezuela, you have conversations, lots of conversations about the Venezuelan crisis, but they often get put in terms of socialism versus capitalism, the left versus the right. American foreign policy and intervention versus, you know, Latin American autonomy and self-determination. And all these conversations are fine, and they're academic, and they're great, but they really steer away from the actual conversation I think that Nelson and I think is the most important which is A, the stifling of a democratic country and their ability to vote their own leaders and determine their own way in an open free way, but also the humanitarian crisis, which is overwhelming not just Venezuelans but all the countries nearby. So I think for Nelson and I, when we saw the opportunity, or when we were approached to create this film, we said to ourselves, okay, what are the key issues in Venezuela that we want to highlight? What's the conversation we want to have that we think other people should be having? And then focused in on those things. Hunger, medical issues, humanitarian crisis, democracy, all these things were sort of the big topics that we wanted to focus on, which is why are you see those things take prominence in our film.
BIGGS: But I also thought it was so interesting, the way you made the parallels with other nations and other leaders, you really kind of stepped back and really looked at, you know, how it plays out all over the world. Nelson, maybe you can talk a little bit about that. The sort of playbook for dismantling democracy that you get into.
NAVARRETE: Wow, yeah, first of all, thanks for having us here. Glad to see you again, Leo, in other circumstances. I think our film started structuring itself as we started capturing the stories. I think Maxx mentioned most of the pillars that were important to us. And then we centered around something very important, which was the economy. I think the economy was something really difficult to explain, even for us it was difficult to understand because the devaluation of the bolivar was happening overnight. Now, the problem is not even the same as in the film, you know. Before you couldn't find cash. Now, as you know, dollars are running the streets. So we tried to capture as much as we could within the means that we had at the moment. So, understanding the economic, understanding the humanitarian crisis, understanding maybe the crimes against humanity that were happening in the country, we tried to position characters that could tell the stories in a relatable way. And because we knew that many people weren't going to be able to feel the pressure that we're going through, because not everybody has to leave their country in a hurry. Not everybody could go to political prison for protesting, you know. Here in the United States, we have the ability to express what we want, or what we need, you know, to change. In Venezuela, we actually don't, you know. And through our characters we found a very relatable bridge.
And then, so we wanted to paint this picture that everybody can go through this problem, like Randall with his daughter, and suffered to not be able to feed his daughter. So you know, we work as a bridge to tell the stories of these characters and paint the overall picture for people to see it in like in an hour and a half, you know, and be able to digest it. And eventually understand that the situation is actually global, you know, that these problems can happen to any of us, you know. Right now, we could be in a democracy but as you take the freedom of vote, as you take the freedom of speech, and as you take all these important parts of a society to function in a democratic way, then overnight, you can be found in 2014. And then, you know, the students go to the street, and Leopoldo’s in the street and everybody's demanding change, but it's too late, you know. So when it's too late it's a, it's kind of like a feeling that you have to have as a citizen, and be able to like see it before it comes, you know. And as Venezuelans I feel like we've gone through that experience, and we're able to tell that story.
BIGGS: And you had quite a difficult time getting footage out, I understand.
NAVARRETE: Yeah, it was very difficult. Venezuela, Venezuela's internet, just to put it into perspective, to get a gigabyte of information takes almost like three days, you know, so it was impossible to send information by internet. And then the airport is also very restricted, you know, as far as like moving equipment. So we had to move hard drives in and out of the country. As family and friends were traveling, and we tried to do it with people that had nothing to do with the documentary so it was very easy to just make it like a simple meet-up, you know, like a family thing. So yeah, it was very, very difficult. It's actually one of the hardest things because we would see the footage four months, five months later and then, you know, we had to recreate the story in a hurry. So it was very challenging.
CAICEDO: I just wanted to jump in there to add to the point previous about the sort of larger story that we're telling, or the global implications in that moment that we tried to discuss. I think one thing that Nelson and Leopoldo and anyone who's from Venezuela will say is that, you know, you're living in a democracy, you're living in a strong democracy. And when things start to go a little awry, or things start to like, you know, indicators that things are just not quite as free and open, your immediate inclination is not to say we're in a dictatorship, because there's a lot of things that make you not want to stay that. One, you don't want that to be the case, and so you're going to say everything to yourself to say, no, this is not the case. But also a lot of people, and I think Venezuela fell into this position, that they'd say, no, this can't happen us, we've had a democracy for so long, it's been so strong. It's not us. You know what I mean? It takes a lot of confidence, courage, and it's risky to stick your neck out there and say, no, this is a dictatorship, and to start saying those types of things, because that is a very bold statement. And that's not always received very well, internationally at all. So I think for us, it's to say, to show that moment, our attempt to make it more global was also to say to a lot of countries, even in America who might take for granted the strength of their own democratic institutions, that no, this thing can happen. And it's going to be subtle, and you may not recognize it because these things happen in a very piecemeal process over the course of years. So I think that was like another aspect of why we felt that it was important to make that statement a little bit larger.
CHAVEZ: Marcia, I just want to add one quick thing to this that we talked about in the past. And that is that the Venezuela case is it really, it's a classic case that shows that democracy isn't just about elections, although we know elections in Venezuela are no longer free and fair. But it's about institutions and the rule of law, and by bringing in this comparative perspective, and kind of putting it in terms of the global democratic recession, and, you know, showing how Maduro has, has taken steps out of the same authoritarian playbook that's been used by people like Putin, Duterte, Assad, Hernández and I think like that, that I really appreciate that the film did that. It served as such an important reminder of the importance of institutions. Like what happens when you get, you eliminate the independence of the courts? Well, it paves the way for a president like Chávez at the time to rewrite the constitution, so he gets indefinite reelection. You know, seizing the control of the media is another step. You know, and ultimately, as the story with the National Assembly, you know, after the opposition for the first time since 1999, you know, got actually two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, what did Maduro do? He created the Constituent Assembly to really overshadow the last democratic institution that was standing at the time, you know, allowing him to rule by decree.
BIGGS: Well, speaking of I just want one more question before I'll open it up. But Leopoldo, speaking of the National Assembly, the elections are next week, and really been operating with dueling parliaments since January of this year. And the opposition has said that it will boycott these elections. So will you just continue to have dueling parliaments or what is the plan?
LOPEZ: Oh, unfortunately, this is not the first time, it's actually the third time in three years that we're going to have a fraudulent election. The first one was in, well not the first one but the latest one, was in 2017 for the election of that National Constituent Assembly, which was simply a shadow assembly, completely fraudulent, to try to displace the legitimacy of the National Assembly that was elected in 2015 with fourteen million votes, and got two-thirds of the seats were of the Democratic sector. Then in 2018, Maduro presents himself again in a fraudulent election and that was not recognized by more than sixty countries in the world. And that led to the recognition in January of Juan Guaidó as the interim president, precisely because the Maduro elections the year before were fraudulent. So now we have this attempt of Maduro to again substitute the legitimacy of the National Assembly by doing a fraudulent process, which is not going to be recognized by the United States, or by Europe, or by the region. So it's going to have the same consequence as the other processes.
But what we need at this moment is to continue to fight and we need to continue to have this support the united support from Venezuelans and from our international coalition to the National Constituent Assembly and to Juan Guaidó as the legitimate representatives of the Democratic sector in Venezuela. Because one of the risks that we are facing is that the opposition movement or the Democratic movement, those who are willing to fight, to organize, to promote, and to create this new cycle that I am sure we need of mobilization in the streets, and by other means, it could be dismantled. So it's very important to have that recognition of the leadership that is undergoing tremendous pressures.
I have friends, who many of them have been imprisoned as I was. They have been tortured, physically tortured, as is displayed in the film, and doing politics in Venezuela, being voiceful and upfront against a dictatorship, has consequences. He can take you to jail, or he can take your life. My friend, Pipo Rada, who is also depicted in the film, he was with me the day presented myself to the unjust system, he was kidnapped in the year 2018. Then he was tortured. He received two gunshots in his head, and then his body was taken outside the place where he was murdered. And he was, they threw gasoline on his body, they put a wet mantle on his face so we could recognize who he was, his identity, and they burned him. And they did all that as a message, because he was being a very strong leader in Petare. Nelson knows Petare, that is a popular sector in Caracas. And this is just one example. I can name many others, and many other people are not being even named, and don't even have the possibility of having their cases being presented. And all that situation has led to the UN to declare Venezuela, and Maduro particularly, as responsible for committing crimes against humanity and violations, severe violations, of human rights. So that's what Maduro is. And we need all the support, not to legitimize Maduro and to isolate Maduro and to promote free and fair elections. And we are facing a very difficult international moment, a world moment that has the attention of countries inward.
But this is, as I think Maxx said, this is not about left or right. This is not about conservatives, or liberals. This is not about the Democrats or Republicans. This is about freedom. And Venezuela might be one of the very few cases in the world where we are at the essence of a fight for freedom, and we need the support of the free world, we need the committed support of the free world not to let Venezuelans die out in our fight to achieve free and fair elections and freedom. And, yes, it's been difficult. And once you see the film, I think it was Rebecca that said it, that knowing that what the outcome is going to be of many of what we are looking at, and that the outcome was not good in the sense that we did not reach freedom at the time, we need to continue. And I think if this film contributes to keep the light lit, and the hope and the understanding that we need to mobilize, we need to organize, we need to believe, we need to believe, we need to believe that we will reach freedom. So I really want to thank Maxx and Nelson, they were very patient. And I can tell you that they're very insistent, that they are very committed to what they were doing. And as they said, they really didn't know what the outcome was going to be. Because they were getting so much footage, and the situation was changing so much. I mean, you could have written an end of the documentary in 2018, or a very different ending in 2019. And now there is a different ending in 2019. But at the end what we want, and I'm sure in the future this documentary will be complemented, at least in lettering saying at year 2021 or very short, the Venezuelans finally reach freedom, and they are going to a free and fair election to elect whomever is going to lead them in the future.
BIGGS: Thank you so much. At this time, I'd like to invite the members who've joined us to join our conversation with questions. So Laura, I'm going to pass it to you. And since everyone's going to just jump off this meeting before I get to say goodbye to you, I'd like to thank you all for joining us. Laura?
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We'll take the first question from William Luers.
Q: Thank you for calling on me. Leopoldo, Bill and Wendy Luers. You have brought such honor to your nation, to your family whom we've known for three generations, and to all of us who care about what you're bringing about and bringing attention to freedom around the world, even in the United States, where we were worried for a while. I guess I'd have to say that your courage, both spiritual, mental, and physical, is comparable to what I knew in Mandela and Václev Havel whom I knew, and you reminded me of them. I loved the film, it brought your story, and as you point out a midterm story of Venezuela and Leopoldo Lopez, there'll be a second story, and it'll be a better story. I want to ask you one question. The film did not mention the role of Cuba. And would it be counterintuitive to think one solution to this problem would be a coalition of nations who would make it worth Cuba's while to play a constructive role in helping bring a transition from the Maduro government? I know it's been tried a couple of times. And it would be very difficult politically for President Biden, I know. But it seems to me it's one conceivable alternative, as contrarian as it seems.
LOPEZ: Should I answer that? Yes. Well, certainly. Well, thank you very much, Ambassador Luers to you, to Wendy, it's great to hear you. As you say, Cuba, has been responsible for many of the things that have happened in Venezuela, they have been dementors of Chávez and now Maduro. And I do believe that they can be very constructive. I do believe that knowing that with the Biden administration there is a possibility of rethinking about what was the Obama approach to Cuba. What I would ask the Biden administration on this issue is if that is going to happen, as I understand it has been said throughout the campaign, that that should happen, conditioning the contribution of Cuba to the democratization of Venezuela. And as you say, this might be very hard. But I think it's absolutely necessary to understand that Maduro is way, way beyond the danger of Cuba. Maduro is a criminal, Maduro has been identified as somebody who's responsible for crimes against humanity, and for violations of human rights by the UN, by the alta comisionada Michelle Bachelet who was a Chilean president representing the socialist government. And she has made a very precise presentation of how human rights violations are happening Venezuela. Also the ICC, the International Criminal Court, has concluded that there are enough elements to identify the criminal responsibility of Maduro.
So what I'm saying with this is that there needs to be a clear difference between whatever is going to be the Cuba policy of the Biden administration, and what needs to be the policy towards Venezuela, that it needs to have very clear that regime change is necessary. And that regime change needs to happen in order to open the possibility of free and fair elections. And that the human tragedy that is happening in Venezuela, that is affecting the entire region, it's affecting all countries of the South American continent, it's only going to heal if there is political change. I am very worried that some people might promote the idea that this is not the time for pushing for regime change, but it's a time of doing policy around the humanitarian issues. And I want to be very clear about this. I believe that we can do a lot in terms of helping the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. But the best way and the most direct and timely way to really address a humanitarian tragedy in Venezuela is to bring about political change. Because the source of the problem in Venezuela as it's very well portrayed in the documentary is political. It's not a war. It's not a, it's not a climate tragedy. It's political. So the only way to bring about wellbeing for the Venezuelan people is to bring about political change. So and I say, I know, I was very long in my answer, but I believe that there is no way in which the policy in Venezuela or no, no way, we would not like to see a change in the policy that does not address regime change in Venezuela.
BIGGS: Thank you. Next question.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Paul Angelo.
Q: Yes, hi, thank you to everyone on the panel for participating today. And my name is Paul Angelo, I'm a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and I'm the author of the Council's recent special report on Venezuela called, The Day After in Venezuela: Delivering Security and Dispensing Justice. And I would just like to thank Rebecca Bill Chavez for serving as the chair of my advisory committee for that effort. In any case, I would like to sort of pivot the conversation a bit to the question of humanitarian access to Venezuela. Right now, the international community is relying on some level of international organizations, like the Pan American Health Organization, existing civil society, and the private sector, whatever is left to the private sector in Venezuela, to distribute humanitarian assistance on the ground. So I guess my question would be for the producers of the film, if they have any sort of indication of what Venezuela's civil society and private sector look like today and at the end of 2020, and perhaps for Leopoldo, what incentives could the United States and its allies offer to Maduro in order to expand the humanitarian foothold in the country, perhaps allowing the entry of the World Food Programme into Venezuela? Thank you.
CAICEDO: I'm trying to answer the question as to what the, what it looks like right down on the ground right now. There's two answers to that. There's the one, which is that's a very hard thing to tell as to what it looks like, at least from a perspective of someone who's not as deeply tied to what's going down the ground, and probably doesn't have the proximity to it, like Leopoldo or certain other individuals. But I will tell you that based off of sort of our relationship with Federica Dávila, who was part of the Green Cross, who's in the documentary, and the experience that she has had with several other NGOs and their networks, it's very unofficial. And a lot of what the distribution looks like is A, trying to find ways to get supplies and things to areas that need help under the radar, so to speak. Because even though the government has allowed a certain amount of official help to come in, they're oftentimes using their control over those resources as a method to continue their power. And so that, ultimately, is not serving the ultimate goal of a lot of international help, which is to get the help to everyone who needs it, and not just to be a tool in Maduro's sort of war chest of control. And I think that, you know, recently there was an article about how they're taking supplies from an NGO that was working toward getting food and things to her children, and using their domination over that to basically, again, control the food supply, and then continue to control the populace as a result. So I think it's a very unofficial, very difficult process on the ground right now, that's trying to use all the unofficial ways to get help in because the official ways unfortunately run the risk of just being coopted by the regime.
BIGGS: Did you want to add anything, Leopoldo?
LOPEZ: Very briefly. Well, you asked first about the situation of civil society and humanitarian organizations in Venezuela. And I can tell you the situation every day is harder. The regime is going after NGOs, they have imprisoned leaders of NGOs, different NGOs over the last month. And they have seized their equipment. And they have made it very clear that they will criminalize any activity on the humanitarian area that is not coordinated or subordinated to the dictatorship. However, having said this, there still is civil society doing a lot of things. The church and many NGOs are doing what they can, adapting themselves to the new circumstances. But there is absolutely no match between the capacity of NGOs and the level of this crisis, there's absolutely no match. I mean, there is a lot of great things being done. But it's never enough, not even close to the type of tragedy that needs to be addressed in Venezuela.
And as for your question of the humanitarian issue, what ways and what policies should guide the humanitarian approach to Venezuela, I should start by saying what I believe should not be done. I believe that there should not be any flexibilization for Maduro to have capacities of controlling the resources of Venezuela, because experience has shown over and over that he will not use those resources for the benefit of the Venezuelan people. There's only one industry, one industry, and it's very well portrayed in this movie, very well portrayed, that it's keeping the dictatorship in their position, and that the regime is willing to invest everything that they have in this industry. And that is the industry of repression. That industry works in Venezuela, the industry of espionage, of repression, of going against those who are critical to the regime works very well with international support, with technology, with financial resources. And that's what we are facing. And giving Maduro resources will be giving and channeling resources to that industry of repression and of espionage against the democratic society in Venezuela.
CHAVEZ: Can I just add one point to this? And that's--I think that, Paul, your question is excellent because the provision of essential supplies into Venezuela, it should be, it should be a priority to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. But one of the things that we've learned, not just in Venezuela but in other situations, is that it's really important that we don't politicize the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian aid is most effective when it adheres to principles of neutrality, of impartiality and independence.
LOPEZ: Yes, I can tell you that I believe that, having said what should not be done, I believe that what needs to be done in terms of addressing the humanitarian needs is to work with international agencies. And we have done much of that. We've worked with OPS, we've worked with UNICEF and other UN organizations. We would like to see a much important presence of the world food organization, The World Programme, in Venezuela. They have a lot of capacity and unfortunately they've been blocked in Venezuela, but we believe that they could have a stronger presence. And those are the ways we believe should be the channel for the U.S., Europe, and the region to channel the humanitarian support to Venezuela through international organizations. And I know that there are sometimes criticism because of their bureaucracy, their costs, and maybe their waste, but it's much better to work with these international organizations than to give resources to Maduro which we know will not go to the people and will go against the people.
BIGGS: Next question.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Alex Farman-Farmian.
Q: Good afternoon. Thank you, Maxx. Thank you, Nelson, for the great movie. Thank you, Leopoldo, for going to la calle and fighting for all of us and Rebecca and Marcia for hosting today. I have a question regarding—Alex Farman-Farmian from Edgewood Management—I have a question, in the past the opposition has always boycotted elections. That has had limited impact. Could a surprise mass turnout at a vote one day show that a lot of people, the overwhelming majority of people want a change? It would be very tough to hide maybe those election results. Could that be something, an option? Clearly you've discussed it, but so what would be the thinking about not continuing boycotting but at one point saying, everybody a la calle, everyone go vote, and seeing if you can actually legitimize a victory for the opposition?
LOPEZ: We've done that. We've done that several times. We actually did it overwhelmingly in 2015. And we won two-thirds of the National Assembly. However, the regime has made it impossible to go to an election and to present results that are different than the will of Maduro. Maduro today and his electoral system is at the level of Saddam Hussein's electoral system, or at the level of Fidel Castro's electoral system, so if he wants to have 75 percent, that's a decision that he makes and he communicates. And I understand what you are saying about, about triggering the participation of the people with elections. And that's exactly what we want. That's exactly what we fight for. That's what we are saying should be the one objective that unites the democratic sectors in Venezuela and our international coalition, one single simple objective: having free and fair elections in Venezuela. And in order to do that, we need to mobilize the Venezuelan people and the international community. But over the last elections, that are not elections, are fraudulent processes that Maduro has put together, it's impossible to participate.
Let me give you an example. If we wanted to participate, we don't have a party, because all parties were expropriated. Maduro decided that we are no longer the legitimate authorities of the Democratic parties. So he gave the authorities and the symbols and the colors, and the propaganda that is being shown on TV, with imposters, with people who are not legitimate leaders of the parties, but they're using all symbols and we cannot participate. More than thirty-five deputies that were elected, that are leaders, important leaders of different regions in Venezuela, are now under criminal investigation, and many of them are in exile. They cannot participate. And the electoral system that we had, and we were able to oversee and audit, that led us to the victory of 2015, the machines were burned in March of this year. One hundred thousand machines simply went on fire. No explanations, no investigations, nothing was ever said about that. Why? Because they needed to substitute those machines that we knew more or less worked with machines that were a black box. And today the electoral system in Venezuela is a black box. And on top of that, you have the social control that Maxx was talking about, the use of food, and now the use of the pandemic, in order to have a very profound social control system that really makes it difficult for the people to freely elect.
CAICEDO: If I could just add one point to what Leopoldo was saying. Which was, when we were down there, well not when we were down there but when we were capturing, there were several elections, the Constituent Assembly election but also the referendum leading up to that, were all these opportunities to show the popular will was put out there. And in addition to all the things that Leopoldo was talking about, it's really important to understand that given the level of the crisis of what's going on in Venezuela, people's entire lives, days completely—and we saw this in the case of Randall—revolve around getting food and being able to get food, right. And even if you look at in America, where the fact that we vote on a workday causes several issues for participation on our end. Imagine where you live in an economy, where not only is it maybe during a workday or not during the workday, but it's in a situation where basic survival is at question, you know, you're obviously going to have much bigger issues with participation. And then you'll find yourself, in a particular case that I can speak to based on our recording was, you show up to your place where you're supposed to vote, whatever the address may be, and then you get there and you find that actually, your district is reassigned across town to another voting place. And all the people that were supposed to vote in this one area, and you, thought you had to vote here is actually an hour away, because public transportation is a mess in Caracas. So when you look at those types of barriers, it's in addition to everything that Leopoldo says, that type of, although that sounds like a very promising thing, and obviously there's a lot of people who would vote for a candidate again, that wouldn't be of the [inaudible]. You know, there's just too many limitations.
BIGGS: I think we have time for one more quick question.
STAFF: We'll take the last question from Patrick Dennis Duddy.
Q: Thank you very much Leopoldo, it's very good to see you again. Your journey has been just extraordinary and the courage and the dedication you've shown has really been something exceptional. I have one question for you and one for Maxx and Nelson. For you, if you could choose, what is the single first step you would like to see from a new U.S. administration? A step to put, if you will, a process into play again and to break the current stalemate? And for Maxx and Nelson, what are your plans to make this extraordinary film of yours more widely available? Thank you both. It's very good.
LOPEZ: Well, I thank you very much. Thank you, Patrick. I think the most immediate step that needs to happen is to continue to recognize the legitimate leadership of the National Assembly, of Juan Guaidó, in order to maintain unity in Venezuela and the unity of our international coalition. Guaidó today is the representative that has been recognized by almost sixty countries in the world, because of the National Assembly, of course. And that is something that we cannot put at jeopardy. We need to maintain our internal coalition and our international coalition towards a common and very concrete goal, as I've said several times today, which is free and fair elections. And then after that it's discussing tactics, it's discussing what to do with sanctions, how to create pressure, what are the incentives that need to be created, and having clarity of who and the type of system that we are facing that is a criminal system. But unity, maintaining unity is essential. And in order to do that, there needs to happen the clear recognition of the National Assembly after this turbulence of the fake elections that Maduro is putting together that are happening next week, and that the recognition will need to happen starting January of next year.
BIGGS: Thank you so much. It's five o'clock, so I'm going to have to end the meeting. Thank you so much for joining today's virtual meeting. And thank you so much to Rebecca Bill Chavez, Leopoldo Lopez, Nelson Gonzalez Navarrete, and Maxx Caicedo, thank you so much. It's been an honor.
LOPEZ: Muchísimas gracias a todo. Thank you very much.
CAICEDO: Thank you.