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Venezuela Protests: The Bigger Picture; The Act of Killing; Imagine a World

Aired February 17, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Venezuela is simmering protests could come to a full boil just hours from now. There's a dramatic showdown shaping up between the embattled president, Nicolas Maduro, the former bus driver and handpicked heir of Hugo Chavez and the opposition leader in Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez.

Three people were killed in very violent clashes in Caracas last week. Maduro's government is blaming Lopez, ordering his arrest on charges of murder and terrorism. Lopez, for his part, asserts his innocence and dropped out of sight until last night when he tweeted a video call to action, saying he will lead peaceful -- a peaceful march on the Ministry of Justice tomorrow.


LEOPOLDO LOPEZ, VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION LEADER (through translator): I will be there showing my face. I have nothing to fear. I have committed no crime. If there's any illegal decision to jail me, then I will accept that decision and that infamous persecution by the state.


GORANI: In a moment, we are going to play you an exclusive recording of Leopoldo Lopez, sent from an unknown location in Venezuela in response to questions we sent him.

Now for 10 months, Maduro has presided over a surging crime wave and a growing economic crisis, widespread shortages of basic goods and an inflation rate topping 50 percent are crippling the oil-rich nation. In the face of surging unrest, Maduro took a page from the Chavez playbook, first deflecting blame with a barrage of conspiracy accusations then using those charges to justify a crackdown on independent media on the opposition as well as expelling three U.S. diplomats on Sunday.

As I mentioned earlier, we approached Leopoldo Lopez for an interview. He was not able to break cover to speak with us, but he did send us an exclusive audio response to our questions. Listen.


LOPEZ (through translator): I made the decision to present myself before the justice system of my country, a corrupt and manipulated system because I'm not a delinquent, I have not committed any crime and because I had the obligation to deal with this, to leave the country or to hide would be to plant doubt about what our motivation is, which is to rally millions of Venezuelans in order to effect change, social change, political change in the face of the reality that affects us all, a country in destruction, a country that is looking to democratically and functionality channel that change.

Without a doubt, today we are at a critical moment in our country, the highest inflation in Latin America, scarcity, lack of opportunity, 70 murders every day with impunity. That's the reality to which Venezuelan people are subjected every day, and that same reality that is the effect of an economic and social model and the wrong way in which the state operates. We have raised a flag of change to organize millions of Venezuelans that we want to effect change in a peaceful manner, not in a violent way.


GORANI: Well, you can hear the rest of Leopoldo Lopez's exclusive message on our website,

I want to bring in political scientist and historian Margarita Lopez Maya. She joins me now from Caracas.

Thank you very much for being with us. So the big question is, Margarita, if you could look into the camera as well, we're on the air now.

Is this a pivotal moment for Venezuela? Or could this just be a blip, a come-and-go situation as we've seen in the past? What do you think?


Well, I think it is a delicate, complex moment, yes. But this is not the first time that we have been into one of these. I mean, Venezuela has been having a very rocky history in the 21st century. And this is one episode more in the -- in our difficulties.

GORANI: Now the government, of course, is in charge and there are real legitimate grievances in the country against it. You were talking about 56 percent inflation surging crime. I mean, how much longer can the government essentially shield itself from this anger in the streets?

MAYA: Well, yes, I mean, the government is -- we were having a very bad economy. And there's a lot of maltese (ph) for this content in Venezuela. What the government doesn't think to understand is it has to open channels in order to drain this discontent and to talk to look for some kinds of solutions with part of the population that opposes it.

Venezuela is a very polarized society. It is divided based almost at the same measure between people that support the government and people that are against it and the government refuses to talk to the politicians that represent these people. It refuses to talk in the national assembly where it -- where they are -- the representatives of both forces and it refuses any kind of dialogue repeatedly.

GORANI: Leopoldo Lopez did not appear after having been at the forefront of some of these demonstrations and he sent us, in fact, as we broadcast on the program to our viewers, an audio response of some of our questions. He's in hiding essentially.

Is he right to be concerned that he's going to be arrested, essentially, thrown in jail because he's the head of the opposition?

Should he be concerned?

MAYA: Yes, I do think so. I think they have been treating him, that he will not go to jail. They have been accusing him of plotting against the government and trying to promote a coup d'etat as in 2002, the coup d'etat against Hugo Chavez.

But it's certain at this moment is that the student movement is the leader of the protest in the streets. And they are protesting against one of the main issues of Venezuelan society, which is the insecurity and we have one of the highest indexes of homicides in the planets. We have practically no justice in the tribunals. We have -- we have our jails are packed with people that do not -- that they -- that they live in very unhuman conditions. And the government is -- will -- has no will to open the spaces of the state in order to try to alleviate all these hardships that the people are suffering because of this situation. The students are in the streets and they not only with their demands, with most of civil society also have come to the streets behind the student movement to express their hardships, to express their demands, resolution to all these acute economic, social and political issues.

GORANI: There's a big unknown here, which is the fact that the president is not Hugo Chavez any more, you know, love him or hate him, Hugo Chavez unified his side, very charismatic, big personality.

Nicolas Maduro is another man. Is he going to have the same kind of ability to rally his troops in order to keep allegiance for his side, do you think?

MAYA: Well, yes. That is very true. I mean Hugo -- Nicolas Maduro is not Hugo Chavez, and that is one of the big problems that he has. But we are seeing in the streets is the protests of the society against all the problems that we are suffering. But we are not seeing are the conflict inside Chavismo. We are not seeing it among other things because the -- almost all the channels of TV and radio aren't controlled by the government. But of course, part of the game that is going on is a battle inside Chavismo for leadership. And Maduro is a very -- is a weak leader. He probably is right now the best solution that they have, but nevertheless he has no charisma. He doesn't know how to talk. He's -- his discourse is incoherent, it's contradictory.

And of course he is -- I think he is being pressured to radicalize as the development of the conflict is going on. And this is going to -- this is going to be very bad for Venezuelan society because it seems that he is not in control of the most radical groups in his -- in his alliance. And they are obliging him to radicalize and to not open spaces for political conversation and negotiation.

GORANI: The U.S. State Department has just reacted to the validations coming from the government in Caracas that it's helping to organize the opposition. It is saying the notion that we are helping to organize protesters in Venezuela is baseless and false.

How well does that play at home, the government's accusations that these are outside forces organizing the protests?

There's also an accusation that the president of Colombia is helping stoke the protests against Maduro and his government.

MAYA: Well, there is nothing new. The government always blames the imperialism and the rise in fascism, of international fascism, of all the problems that we have. But I think the Venezuelans have a lot of motives to go to the streets today. And they will keep on going to the streets if the government doesn't open the spaces for dialogue.

I have -- I'm very concerned about this. The answer of the government has been representation, has been accusations, has been violent discourse with a twist, talking about peace and love, but it's a very incoherent discourse. It shows that the government probably doesn't have its act together among the different groups that are trying to lead the Chavismo without Chavez. And on the other side, as the protests develop in the streets, I am also concerned that the most radical groups of social and political groups will take the lead because then we're going to -- we are going further to a dead end and more violence and representation.

GORANI: Margarita Lopez Maya, joining me from Caracas with your view on what's going on, these important events in your country, thanks very much for being with us on the program.

And a footnote, we did reach out to offer the Venezuelan government a place on the program and they chose not to appear.

And as Venezuela's capital, Caracas, continues to be one of the world's most dangerous and violent cities, we look back half a century to a time of even more extreme violence, this time in Indonesia, a new Oscar- nominated documentary brings the era of the death squads to light by going to the source, the murderers themselves. "The Act of Killing," when we come back.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program.

How do we know what is in the mind of a mass murderer? How do you make that jump from ordinary human being to leader of a death squad?

How about getting the perpetrators to reenact their own crimes?

Few people have thought of Indonesia have heard of the death squads operating there in '65 and '66. But human rights groups say these groups killed between 500,000 and 1 million accused Communists and random opponents.

Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer constructed a unique and strange narrative about this period in his new film, "The Act of Killing." Oppenheimer found several men in Northern Sumatra who, decades later, were so proud of what they had done of all these killings and the torture that they actually agreed to make a film about their acts, making a movie within a documentary and then reenacting their killings in the process.

Anwar Congo was rumored to have killed as many as 1,000 people during the purges. And here for the camera he boasts of how he killed, delighting in his ingenuity.


ANWAR CONGO, INDONESIAN DEATH SQUAD LEADER (from captions): At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood. There was so much blood here. So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system. Can I show you?

This is how to do it without too much blood.


GORANI: Surreal and terrifying all at once.

Joshua Oppenheimer is fresh off a BAFTA win last night for Best Documentary. I spoke with him earlier from London.


GORANI: Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of "The Act of Killing," first of all, congratulations on your BAFTA. And I know you're very much an Oscar contender as well.

This film has been -- has just made waves and headlines around the world. And one of the questions I had was what did you learn about what makes a human being do things like this to other human beings?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER, DOCUMENTARY FILM DIRECTOR: When you ask a killer initially just why did you kill these people, they will answer with ideology. They'll say, oh, we were opposed to them because they were Communists or because they were Marxists or because they -- they'll answer with an ideological excuse.

But it's seen on it -- further excavation that always the ideology was always an excuse they told themselves afterwards to justify their crimes.

GORANI: But what was so strange and bewildering and disturbing about this as well is that these men weren't hiding what they did. They weren't rewriting history after the fact to try to make it seem like, you know, it was no big deal and they were merciful. They are boasting about having been cruel and sadistic.


OPPENHEIMER: These men have never been forced to acknowledge what they'd done was wrong because they've remained in power and moreover they know that the rest of the world, the United States, the U.K., they know that those countries supported what they did at the time of the killing, rather than admit what they've done is wrong, and open themselves to the tormenting effects of guilt, I think they've clung to a victor's history that they've written celebrating what they've done as glorious.

GORANI: But what do we learn from the reenactment that maybe we wouldn't learn from just a recounting of what happened all those decades ago, do you think?

OPPENHEIMER: Attempting to look at them through the lens of sort of fiction storytelling, where you have good guys and bad guys, good guys and then cackling villains, the cartoonish villains, and we then would imagine, OK, they're boasting about what they've done because they're evil, because that's kind of the -- that's the kind of convention of storytelling.

But actually when you're a non-fiction filmmaker, you have to look at the real people you meet. And it makes sense that actually these people know what they've -- that, of course, these people are human beings and therefore being human, they know what they've done is wrong. They're desperately trying to deny it.

Now the other thing we discovered through this process, though, is that somehow their very humanity is involved in the mechanism of evil because once they've won and tell themselves a lie, justifying their actions and cling to that lie, maintaining that lie, maintaining that excuse, that victor's history, inevitably leads to further evil.

GORANI: How did you gain the trust of these men? You were there in their face with a camera. In one case, you were in a car with one of those death squad leaders.

What is it like being locked up in a car with a mass murderer?

OPPENHEIMER: Interestingly, the scene in the car, I'm being honest about what -- where I come -- where my own ethical stance is. I say to this man, what if you were brought to The Hague? You've committed war crimes.

And in fact that says something about how I came to this whole project. I began this journey in collaboration with a community of survivors of the genocide. The army, when they found out which -- the army, when they found out what we were doing, told the survivors they couldn't be filmed, forbidding the survivors from participating in the film.

The survivors them themselves said, Joshua, before you give up, before you go home and quit on this film, try and film the perpetrators and see if they will tell you how they killed our relatives.

GORANI: One of the things that makes this film so -- I suppose you could say surreal, bizarre -- is some of the reenactments, where you have one of the ex-death squad guys in drag and you have bizarre dances under waterfalls and you have them all wearing 1940s gangster suits, you know, playing the role of perpetrator and victim.

Now the main character, Anwar Congo, at one point, there is, it seems, a moral arc to all of this.


GORANI: At some point seems to express remorse.

Were any of them truly sorry for what they did?

OPPENHEIMER: Particularly Anwar, gradually comes to physically experience the full horror of what he's done. And --

GORANI: And he played a victim in the film.

OPPENHEIMER: He plays a victim and I think in some ways the reason he's participating in the film is because he's somehow trying to run away from the horror of what he's done by making the movie about it. It's as though if he can make, as he says at one point in the film, if I can make a beautiful family movie about what I've done, I can -- it's as though he's feeling he can put it right for himself.

And of course he can't.

GORANI: Is he sorry that he -- that he killed and tortured and, you know, forever altered the lives of millions of people through their families all these innocent people?

OPPENHEIMER: I don't think at the end of the film Anwar's redeemed at all. I don't think Anwar has come to a self-conscious place of remorse. Knowing Anwar, I don't think he has the capacity or the courage to day in and day out say to himself look what I did was wrong and to acknowledge the consequences of it.

But I think that -- I think that Anwar regrets what he's done and by the end of the film has a physical experience of the horror of what he's done. And when he leaves the film, the final scenes of the film, we see a man who's destroyed himself.

GORANI: Look at Syria, look at the Central African Republic. These things are happening on our watch today, not in 1965. How close are we all as humans to doing this?

OPPENHEIMER: And while I would hope, if I grew up in his family in 1950s Indonesia that, come 1965, come the genocide, I would make different decisions, I know that I'm extremely lucky never to have to find out.

And because these things of which we've said again and again never again, because they keep happening again, we have to deal with the reality directly, the unpleasant reality, the frightening reality that it is human beings who do these things to each other. And unless we look directly at that frightening fact, we have no chance of preventing these things from occurring in the future.

GORANI: Joshua Oppenheimer, thank you so much. Congratulations on all the awards your film has already received and good luck for the Oscars.

OPPENHEIMER: Thank you so much.


GORANI: Despite these grisly tales of mass murder that show humankind at its worst, there are also moving stories of survival. This amazing image was tweeted by U.N. staff on the Syrian border with Jordan. They came upon a 4-year-old boy named Marwan (ph), who was briefly separated from his family. Fortunately, it's a story with a happy ending. He wasn't too far from his family and he was reunited with his loved ones. But this is an all-too-common sight in that part of the desert, we're told.

A singular voice is speaking out for Syria's refugees from an intergalactic perspective. That is when we come back.




GORANI: And a final thought tonight, the second round of Syrian peace talks ended with a whimper this weekend in Geneva. And the bloody civil war that began several years ago goes on and on.

And yet as diplomats wring their hands ,imagine a world where one of the world's greatest scientists has raised his very unique voice against the horrors.


STEPHEN HAWKING, PHYSICIST AND AUTHOR: What's happening in Syria today is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?

GORANI (voice-over): That's the computerized voice of Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and author of "A Brief History of Time." Not only is he an expert on black holes and the Big Bang, but he also knows something about survival, having lived half a century with ALS, a disease with a normal life expectancy of no more than five years.

Working with the organization, Save the Children, Professor Hawking composed an op-ed piece for "The Washington Post," training his scientific eye on the victims and survivors of Syria.


HAWKING: I often wonder what we must look like to other beings watching from deep space. Will we be proud of what we are showing them, how as brothers we treat each other, how we allow our brothers to treat our children?


GORANI: Well, it isn't the first time a famous physicist ventures into the political arena to save lives. Back in 1939, a refugee from Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, an avowed pacifist, wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him to develop an atomic weapon before Adolf Hitler's killing machine could create one. It led to the Manhattan Project and ultimately the bombs that were dropped on Japan to end World War II.

in the last month of his life, Einstein would call his letter to Roosevelt "a mistake." And yet he still acknowledged the justification, the danger that Nazi Germany would build one first.

That's going to do it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter, @halagorani. Thanks for watching. Goodbye from the CNN Center.