South-South Dialogues: Tundu Lissu and David Smolansky

In the first edition of its South-South Dialogues series, the CSIS Africa Program hosted two opposition figures: Tundu Lissu of Tanzania and David Smolansky of Venezuela. The leaders, both of whom are living in exile, engaged in an intimate discussion on the state of democracy and disorder in their respective countries. They revealed the moments they knew they had to flee, and details of continued human rights abuses perpetrated by those in power. Ahead of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, they pose two critical questions: where are their Western friends, and why aren’t they stepping up to the plate?

The below conversation has been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Getting Acquainted

David Smolansky: I don’t have a typical Venezuelan last name. I am a son and grandson of immigrants; my grandmother and grandfather fled the Soviet Union for Cuba, and then for Venezuela. I've been involved in politics and public service since I was a student of journalism. In 2007, I co-founded a student movement that protested the media shutdown in Venezuela and other threats against freedom of expression.

After my studies, I co-founded a political party, Voluntad Popular (“People's Will”), before being elected mayor of Hatillo, a city in Caracas. I was 28, the youngest local administrator in the country. In 2017, just after my election, the regime illegally ordered my arrest, removed me from office, and ruled me out of any public role. I fled Venezuela through the jungle and entered Brazil.

I’ve been living in exile since 2017. I am now the special envoy of the secretary in the Organization of American States to address the Venezuelan migration and refugee crisis. There are 5.6 million Venezuelans that have fled the country. I've been working to promote policies to protect and integrate Venezuela, migrants and refugees, and to also address the root causes of why Venezuelans are being forced to flee.

Tundu Lissu: I too have been involved in politics and political struggles for democracy since my youth. It began when I was still at university in the early 1990s. At that time, Tanzania was a one-party state. We became a multi-party state in 1992, and in 1995 we held our first multiparty elections.

In that election, I contested a parliamentary seat at the age of 27. I was more or less around the same age as you when you became mayor. I did not win, but I've been in opposition politics ever since. In 2010, I was elected member of parliament of a constituency in central Tanzania. I was reelected again in 2015. Throughout this period, I served as the opposition chief whip in parliament; the number-two person in the opposition camp.

After the 2015 election, we entered a period of rapid deterioration in our democracy. The administration of then-president Magufuli unleashed a wave of terror against the political opposition. And just so that you know you are not alone in being terrorized: between July 2016 and September 2017, I was arrested and charged in court for free speech offenses eight times.

When they could not convict me, they decided to kill me. On September 7, 2017, I was a attending parliamentary session, and we had just broken for lunch. I went to my residence in a heavily guarded government housing compound in the capital of Dodoma. Gunmen followed me into my residence and shot me 16 times.

I was rushed out of the country and taken for emergency medical treatment in Kenya, where I stayed for four months. In January 2018, I was transferred to Belgium, where I have been living ever since, except for four months between July and November of last year, when I returned to Tanzania to contest in the presidential election. The elections were heavily rigged, and immediately after the elections, the powers came after me again. Had it not been for the intervention of German diplomats, I would probably have been arrested.

DS: Were the people who tried to kill you in 2017 sent by the regime?

TL: Yes. Two hours before I was shot, the then-president made a speech on live television and said that anyone who opposed his economic policies did not deserve to survive. Two hours later, I lay bleeding outside my residence.

DS: It's a miracle that you're alive.

TL: It is. You see me in a nice suit. But if I strip, you will run away. You will not want to look at me. I've gone through hell.

Comparing Notes on Democracy

DS: Similar attacks on politicians have occurred in Venezuela. In 2017, the violent groups supported by the Maduro regime assaulted members of Congress, which since 2015 has been run by a majority of elected opposition officials.

On July 5, 2017, hundreds of people—many of them armed—assaulted Congress with the whole protection of the National Guard, which is loyal to the regime. They attacked several lawmakers and almost killed two of them.

It sounds familiar, what we've been through. In my case, the protests that I have participated in have been met with bullets, tear gas, and tanks. Also in 2017, I co-led protests for four consecutive months. The regime, in response, killed more than 160 Venezuelans, many of them young students who I had to literally bury.

TL: How was it possible for the Venezuelan opposition to win a majority in Congress in 2015? In my country, our Electoral Commission is totally controlled by the president, who has always been the chairperson of the ruling party, which has been in power since independence in 1961.

DS: Well, that's a very good question, Tundu, because the Electoral Council in Venezuela is completely controlled by the regime, just as in Tanzania. But in 2015, the public massively participated in parliamentary elections; if I'm not wrong, more than 80 percent of Venezuelans voted, which is a record in the history of Venezuela. Maduro recognized the results that gave the vast majority of the parliament to the opposition, but he didn't allow congress to approve any subsequent laws. Numerous bills were rejected by the supreme court, which is also controlled by the regime.

The robbery of an election does not only occur on the day of the elections. It occurs after as well, when a regime abandons its responsibilities to its people. And I had to live with that when I was the mayor.

This is what the Venezuelan government does: they recognize elections, but then they persecute local officials. Thirteen mayors, including myself, were removed from office after the majority voted for us in 2015. And 7 of those 13 were illegally detained; I was not one of them because I had already fled the country.

TL: What you said is very striking when I compare it with what happened in Tanzania during the 2015 general elections. We did not win a majority like you did in Venezuela, but 2015 was our best year by far since the restoration of a multi-party system in 1992. Because in that election, we were able to win over one-third of all the parliamentary seats. And what the government then did immediately after the election was to go after us parliamentarians. We were attacked in a way that we had never been attacked before.

We were prevented from being able to operate as opposition members through revenue suffocation and sheer violence. Following the election, the central government assumed all revenue in our city councils, including from sources such as property taxes or parking fees. The municipal councils were rendered literally impossible to run because they did not have money.

And this went hand in hand with the use of violence against parliamentarians. My attack was part of a massive assault on democracy that happened because we did so well in those elections. Something else happened as well, immediately after the election: all political activity by opposition parties, meaning by my party was prohibited, completely illegal.

DS: People like to compare the dictatorship in Venezuela with other dictatorships in Latin America because, well, Latin America has suffered from so many dictatorships for decades. But I think Venezuela’s dictatorship is more similar to some dictatorships in Africa, such as in Tanzania.

Missing the International Community's Action

TL: I follow Venezuelan politics fairly closely, and I understand there has been a lot of international attention on Venezuela. The Maduro regime has been subjected to international sanctions by not just the United States, but the European Union and others. What has the role of the international community been in the struggle for democracy in Venezuela?

DS: The vast majority of the international community did not recognize the rigged elections of 2018. During this election, there was a power vacuum, and Juan Guaidó—head of congress—became the interim president of Venezuela. He was recognized by 60 countries, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, South Korea, Morocco, and others.

The international community should apply more pressure on Maduro. I support more sanctions on everyone involved in crimes against humanity, human rights, money laundering, and corruption. Maduro’s regime has an estimated millions, if not billions, of dollars in bank accounts around the world. Those assets should be frozen and put in the service of those who are suffering inside and out of Venezuela. The international community must recognize the threat that Maduro’s regime poses to the region.

There are actors—Russia, China, Iran—that are in Venezuela already. China is providing technology for social control. Russia is providing security forces and mercenaries for the oil refineries as well as capacity building for the armed forces. Iranians are building the capacity of the Intelligence Service and the police.

TL: The international community—with the exception of like-minded African regimes and the usual suspects of China and Russia—recognizes that Tanzania’s democracy has been under assault since at least 2015. There is a broad consensus that the elections last year were not elections at all; they were just a military takeover of the electoral process. Just like in Venezuela, Tanzania’s friends in the international community have not defended democracy as strongly as they should. In the last days of the Trump administration, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo imposed sanctions on government officials who were alleged to be complicit in the fraudulent elections.

But other than that, we have not seen any action on the part of the U.S. government or European Union. And these have always been critical partners in our country's development since independence in 1961. They have been making public statements calling for democracy and for free elections, but they have failed to take action to make sure that they walk the talk. I entirely agree with you that a threat to democracy in one country is a threat to democracy and stability in all countries that border the country in question.

If the country does not measure up to the internationally accepted standards of democracy and good governance and human rights, it should not be given any place to hide in the community of nations.

DS: What is, for example, the position of the African Union (AU) on the situation in Tanzania? And do you have external actors, such as Russia, China, and Iran, supporting the Tanzanian regime?

TL: The AU has a very long history of looking away and not holding African dictators to account. And that tradition of closing eyes and ears to dictators has continued to date. In Tanzania’s 2020 election, for instance, the government only allowed official observation from the AU.

And I met the observers personally both before and after the election. They told me very disturbing stories that they had witnessed in the polling areas they visited. But as I speak, over six months after the election, the AU observer mission has not made public its report of the election observation mission in Tanzania. Six months later, we do not even have even an interim report. Depending on the AU to hold dictatorial regimes to account is to be dangerously naive. I think the AU has been very, very disappointing in that respect.

With regard to the second part of your question: the ruling party in Tanzania has links with the Chinese Communist Party dating back to the 1960s. Today, China is a major economic player in Tanzania’s economic and political landscape. If our Western friends were to take a principled position on democracy in Tanzania, it will make a huge difference, and this is why.

Tanzania has received more development support, funding, and programming from the West than from China and Russia. This means that whatever has happened to Tanzania these past five years, this repression—this murder and mayhem—has been made possible by the assistance and the generosity of our Western friends. And this is the terrible truth that must be proclaimed for our friends to hear. They have subsidized these tyrants in Tanzania over the past five years.

DS: And former secretary of state imposed sanctions against members of the Tanzanian government. Have they been maintained by the Biden administration?

TL: Yes, but let me say something about those sanctions. The officials involved were not named, so we cannot tell who is affected by the sanctions. I was told it is an attempt to warn the government of Tanzania that each one of them is liable to those sanctions. The new administration has to do better. It should target individuals who are very well known, who have been carrying out these human rights abuses, this attack on democracy—they should be named and shamed.

Uniting for Democracy

DS: Tundu, I'm with you. Hopefully, this is the first of many conversations, because freedom fighters like you, myself, and many, many others that have been victims of dictatorships and tyrannies all over the world . . . we need to be united, we need to get more articulate, we need to be engaged on democratic values, on the defense on human rights, and stop the suffering of our people.

At the end of the day, the most pressing thing is that our people in Tanzania and Venezuela are suffering. They don't have access to food; they don't have access to medicine; they don't have freedom.

TL: It is critical to build solidarity between those who are fighting for democracy. If Venezuela is not free, Tanzania cannot be free, and vice versa.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont

Marielle Harris