A pregnant silence permeated the Great Hall of Cooper Union as the audience anxiously awaited the guest of honor. The auditorium was packed to capacity, filled with people from all walks of life. Looking across my shoulder I saw young and old, black, white, and Latino. I even spied a couple of bearded Hasidic Jews dressed in black robes. Some folks sported red shirts and berets. This strange mixture of people had come together for one purpose: to spend an entertaining night with one of the most brash, fiery, charismatic and colorful leaders in recent times.
On stage was noted singer Harry Belafonte, who briefly spoke to the crowd about racial and social injustice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Though he is an engaging and moving speaker, the crowd nevertheless had not come to hear the veteran political activist. At a certain point Belafonte deferred and, in a dramatic tone of voice, announced:
“I want to introduce to you now the ONE, THE ONLY…HUGO CHAVEZ, PRESIDENT OF THE BOLIVARIAN REPUBLIC OF VENEZUELA!”
The crowd leapt to its feet in thunderous applause as Chavez took the stage with his entourage. An imposing man, Chavez is stocky and has a broad face and jaw. For the next two hours he gave a completely unscripted speech, speaking extemporaneously.
A former paratrooper who came up through the army, Chavez had come fresh from the United Nations. There he had delivered his rhetorical broadside against President Bush. “He’s the devil,” Chavez remarked. “I can still smell the sulfur in the room,” he added, referring to Bush’s appearance before the General Assembly a day earlier. Chavez, who is seeking a Security Council seat for Venezuela, was warmly received. The Bush administration is trying to block Venezuela’s bid and is pushing Guatemala for the slot.
As a Senior Research Fellow for the Council On Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, D.C. based organization specializing in Latin American affairs, and author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin’s Press), I’d made some valuable contacts at the Venezuelan Information Office. The organization, which acts as the public relations wing of the Venezuela government, had invited me to the Cooper event.
Seeing Chavez speak can be a very contradictory experience. The Venezuelan leader can be inspiring and yet draining. At times sarcastic and combative, Chavez is also frequently clownish and comical. In a typical Chavez speech the Venezuelan leader tends to cover a bewildering array of topics, and the Cooper speech was no exception.
I had come to the event with the idea of taking notes, but I soon found it impossible to keep track of Chavez’s rapid-fire discussion. Periodically throughout the speech, members of the audience would nonetheless call out, “Long Live Socialism For the Twenty-First Century!”
After taking the stage, Chavez turned to one of his subordinates, who had brought him a cup of espresso. Drinking the espresso, he started on his whirlwind monologue. For twenty minutes or so he discussed his educational reforms, tying this to Cooper Union and the importance of Peter Cooper.
From there, Chavez addressed a bizarre variety of themes, including:
Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation;
Noted political writer Noam Chomsky, whose latest book talks about how U.S. dominance could give rise to the extinction of the human race;
American author Mark Twain, who espoused anti imperialist politics;
astronomy and the planet Mars, advances in NASA technology and his own ponderings of the universe and Big Bang theory;
Chavez’s global travels throughout Africa, Portugal, Spain, and South America;
structural reform of the United Nations;
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was killed by the American right wing;
Martin Luther King, who would have been a U.S. president if he had not been assassinated;
wasteful military spending world wide and the military slaughter of civilians during urban riots in Caracas in 1989;
The war in Iraq and the destruction of Mesopotamian architecture;
Venezuelan independence leader Francisco de Miranda and his travels to Russia and France;
New Yorkers who traveled with Miranda to liberate Venezuela in 1806 (Chavez presented a plaque in their memory, each time he read out their individual names the audience would shout, “Presente!”);
coca leaf in Bolivia and the cultural sacredness of this plant.
After two hours of listening to Chavez, I felt inspired but tired. As I left the hall, my head spinning, the president was still energetically speaking to the crowd. Exiting the building, I overheard two muscular looking men dressed in jackets and earphones, who looked like they might be federal agents.
“You should have been there last year when Chavez came to New York,” complained one, “He spoke for three hours.”
In the wake of his UN speech, the mainstream media of course jumped on Chavez’s provocative visit, concentrating on his inflammatory rhetoric. But in attacking Chavez, the media failed to ask the obvious question: why did Chavez choose to lambaste Bush in the first place?
Chavez, whose remarks were perhaps somewhat over the top, is anything but irrational. He attacks the Bush administration for logical reasons. As I document in my book in meticulous detail, Chavez was intent on bringing relief to Venezuela’s poor and sought to gain greater control over the state run oil company, PdVSA. For years, the company had been a state within a state with executives racking in salaries in the six figure range. The company wrecked OPEC solidarity by busting the oil cartel’s production quotas.
Chavez halted moves to privatize the company, hiked taxes on foreign oil companies and made sure Venezuela adhered to OPEC production quotas. A former Venezuelan Communist guerrilla, Ali Rodriguez, was elected head of OPEC, where he pushed for higher world oil prices.
That got the attention of the White House. Venezuela is the fourth largest exporter of crude to Venezuela and this fact, in the event of greater hostilities in the Middle East, could loom large. The Bush administration started to funnel money to Venezuela’s business federation and Pedro Carmona via the National Endowment for Democracy.
A powerful man, Carmona had worked in the petrochemical industry. In 2002 he supported recalcitrant oil executives at PdVSA by calling for a strike. When Chavez was overthrown in a military coup in April, Carmona reinstated anti-Chavez oil executives and allowed Venezuela to start busting OPEC production quotas again.
Though the coup failed and Chavez returned to office within one day, the damage to U.S.-Venezuelan relations had been done. At the very least, the U.S. government knew a coup was going to take place and did nothing to warn Chavez. It’s likely that Bush involvement was deeper: in the days leading up to the coup, Carmona met with Otto Reich of the State Department at the White House.
What were they doing there, sipping a cup of tea?
Chavez has said that he believed the military was going to kill him, and after the coup he threw off the gloves by taking on Bush’s FTAA, or Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Venezuela, which has had a long and bitter experience with free market reforms pushed by Washington, is seeking to create a rival regional trade initiative, known by the Spanish acronym ALBA.
Chavez also wants to create a large South American oil company and regional development bank free of the International Monetary Fund. He derides the U.S. war in Iraq, as well as Bush’s drug war in Colombia. He has cut ties to the U.S. military and exports oil to Cuba. In response, Chavez has been demonized by high U.S. officials like Donald Rumsfeld, who called the Venezuelan leader a modern day Adolf Hitler.
Following Chavez’s visit to New York, I got a flurry of calls requesting media interviews to discuss my book. Radio host Jim Bohannon, whose talk show is aired on AM stations across the country via Westwood One, insisted that Chavez was a dictator and had pursued a failed economic model. Later, one caller accused me of being on the pay of the Chavez government since the release of my book obviously coincided with the Venezuelan’s arrival in New York (the book had come out two months earlier).
On C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, it wasn’t long before right-wing callers started to denounce me. One woman, whose remarks echoed the crazed hysterics of the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami, claimed that Chavez had killed “hundreds of people.” Another caller called Chavez a Communist. Though certainly uninformed, that last caller on C-SPAN was little different from the likes of New York Times columnist Roger Lowenstein. In a September 17th column in the Business Section slamming my book for its politics, Lowenstein claimed that Chavez’s socialist ideas had been a failure. Free market “medicine,” he claimed, had worked better than anything else.
But Bohannon and Lowenstein are out of touch with Venezuela and the social reality on the ground. During a recent six-week trip to the country, I had the opportunity to visit some of Chavez’s hallmark programs. In Catia, a poor district of Caracas, I toured a so-called “Endogenous Center of Development,” where women had set up a flourishing textile cooperative. The women were proud of their new red T-shirts, which displayed a profile of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
Despite the fact that Chavez has been able to redistribute oil wealth and bring relief to millions of poor Venezuelans through advances in health care, education, and land reform, there are some glaring deficiencies. During my trip to Venezuela over the summer, residents in the provincial state of Vargas, about an hour away from Caracas, complained vehemently that the government had not found adequate housing for them. In 1999, Vargas was hit by landslides following torrential rains and many houses were washed away. Though the Chavez regime had already relocated many poor residents, some were still living along steep hillsides in dilapidated conditions.
In the area of health care, Chavez has achieved notable successes, principally through the so-called Barrio Adentro program which relies on Cuban doctors who provide health care to poor Venezuelans. On the other hand, according to Provea, a leading human rights group in Caracas, the overall health care system under Chavez has not improved. One Cuban doctor who I spoke with outside of Caracas remarked confidentially that the Cuban presence was a mere band-aid to the country’s health problems.
Though many of Chavez’s programs are socialistic, the country does not follow a strictly socialist model. It would be fairer to say that Venezuela has pursued a more nationalist course akin to FDR’s New Deal, a not-so-subtle difference lost on the likes of Lowenstein. Though U.S. oil companies may grumble about increased royalty taxes imposed by the Chavez government, the fact is that they have chosen to stay in the country. Even as Chavez brings relief through massive anti-poverty programs, he has sought out foreign investment and Venezuela continues to be voraciously consumerist. Throughout the country, U.S.-style shopping malls are popular, as are Hollywood blockbusters and American pop music.
With reelection to a six-year term virtually assured in the December presidential election, Chavez will have the opportunity to deepen the social process already underway. To the media, however, any sign of economic independence from the free market is suspect and has to be condemned. Many Americans were probably not aware of Chavez until last week, but they will no doubt hear a lot more from him, and about him, in the near future.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008).