Relentlessly Chávez continued, hour after hour on Sunday afternoon, May 14, in the drab auditorium of Camden Town Hall in London, the Spanish words tumbling out like some verbal tsunami or chaotic linguistic volcano. Socialism; Fidel; the Bolivarian Revolution; Evo Morales; democracy; more money spent on Venezuelan schools; don’t dare invade Iran or you’ll get the price of oil rising to $100 a barrel; human rights; Richard Gott; globalization; hope; capitalism; Jesus Christ; George Boosh; the ultimate selfishness of one person trying to drive a car in a traffic jam when he could get to his destination more quickly on foot.
On the platform a score of MPs and activists maneuvered their chairs so as to be seen to be close to the newly arrived star. After two hours of non-stop oratory the President of Venezuela, constitutionally elected, friend of the poor, still popular with his voters and the most powerful politician in South America, took breath. He paused and reminded Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London and chairman of the meeting, that Ken had promised him all the time he wanted. Said Ken genially, “I was thinking you were only half way through”.
The ideas continued to pour out from Chávez once more. Hope; Ken Livingstone, mi amigo; Viva Haïti; more money spent on Venezuelan health care; you’re wasting money burning all this oil; Viva la Mujer; the reverendísimo Pat Robertson and his call for my assassination; cheap Venezuela fuel for England’s poor; Benedict XVI; Long live Mother’s Day – Mamma, I love you; George Bernard Shaw and the great Irish nation; Israel; Iraq, the Vietnam of the 21st century; US terrorism: the Europeans should exert a much more calming influence on the United States..
Some of us had been in our seats since three o’clock and now the hands of the clock nearing eight as Mayor Livingston thanked the speaker. The atmosphere, even after more than three hours of solid speechifying was still electric, Chávez’s words drowned by the cheering of the audience, many of them the sort of young people who would never be seen at a political rally in Central London listening to a British politician. Then he pressed the flesh of young and old who showed no desire to let him go, pausing to have his picture taken with Auntie Flo or a baby grandson.
In the body of the hall the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags were waved alongside banners and slogans on poles – “You’ll never walk along”, “Greetings from Poland”, “Welcome, Chávez, to London”. Then the Latin Americans resumed their chorusing. Delighted to have one of their very own politicians making such a hit in the British capital, they belted out: “Oooh, Aaah, Chavez no se va”, “Oooh, Aaah, Chavez no se va”, “Oooh, Aaah, Chavez no se va”, again and again and again. Chávez, we were being told, was not going to be moved.
We spilled out onto the pavement and Chávez and his escort roared off back to the Savoy Hotel.
London hadn’t seen such a demonstration of popular participation in politics for years and years. Certainly no British political leader of the very few who dare to stand at a public hustings, could hold a candle to him for conviction, breadth of vision or power of delivery. The impact of his words seemed to lose little if anything for having to be routed for many of his listeners through a very efficient system of simultaneous translation on the little wirelesses provided for all who didn’t understand Spanish. In these days when New Labor, Conservative and Liberal Democrat fight shy of a public meeting which might allow their champions to be shamed by an imprudent reply to a question from a voter, the meeting was a tonic and a delightful relief after all these years of silent, secret, rancorous, thin-lipped rivalry between Blair and Brown.
How enjoyable to escape from the careful political tacking carried on year in and year out by parties dancing around each other in a bloodless political dance devoid of passion and ideology. Whatever one’s political views, it was a shot in the arm to hear a political leader having no difficulty in condemning capitalism and condemning the United States government in terms which no European politician would ever dare to use in public. And in recommending “socialism of the twenty-first century” as part of green platform of care for the environment and of husbanding the earth’s resources for the benefit of future generations.
Chávez courted, charmed and won the Town Hall audience with a discourse of Third World hope. This discourse was delivered by a man who could count on an immense strength of character, a figure who personified the long-awaited challenge of Latin Americans to the neo-liberal financial “orthodoxies” of the World Bank and the US and European bankers. Venezuela’s leader knows that Latin American voters understand that free-market nostrums have brought nothing but stagnation to their societies and the consolidation of societies where fat cats rule and the poor rot. After a succession of “lost decades” Latin America is patently that part of the world where inequality is the worst and where until recently the United States felt it had a right to meddle in the politics of its Western Hemisphere neighbors. He realizes that policy which cuts across US political and economic designs is not just an optional extra to be adopted or laid aside at will. It is, he knows, the sine quo non for acceptance and popularity among voters who have lost patience with Washington, the White House and the US Congress and who dislike the activities of US military everywhere from Colombia and Paraguay in the Western Hemisphere to Baghdad, Fallujah, and Shannon in the Middle East and Europe.
On Monday Chávez turned his attention from the enthusiasts to the opinion-formers and businessmen. A squad of journalists including those from CNN and the US-based Associated Press news agency who were generally hostile saw him arrive an hour or so late for a pre-lunch press conference in Livingstone’s beautiful modern City Hall beside the Thames, overlooking the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. He answered some questions of the journalists’ questions and ignored others. After lunch of Welsh lamb and white wine on the top floor it was on to Churchill Room at the Houses of Parliament, then to the gilded seventeenth-century grandeur of the Banqueting House in Whitehall from whose central window Charles I stepped onto the scaffold on that cold January day in 1649.
After strong rumors along his staff that he finally wouldn’t bother with the massed businessmen and bankers waiting there, he finally arrived, again wildly late, and did little to rein in his love of Latin oratory. The promised lecture gave way to a blizzard of statistics about the economy, the finances and spending on welfare, health and education, followed by a details of the huge spending projects which Venezuela, basking in the hot sun of its new oil wealth, was planning: a pipeline for natural gas across South America from Venezuela to Argentina, soaring bridges across the mighty River Orinoco, four new underground railways, enormous petrochemical schemes and on and on. As the clock ticked towards ten o’clock some of the audience grew restive and tiptoed out. Nevertheless a big majority stayed to hear his appeal for Britain, which had done so much two hundred years ago to free Venezuela from Spanish rule, to return to invest in the country’s twenty-first century. He was adamant that he did want foreign investors as partners, of course, and not owners. As he left they stood to applaud the humbly-born son of modest schoolteachers of mixed race who raised him and his four siblings in a palm-thatched house on the savannah and who set him out on the military career. He rose to lieutenant-colonel of paratroopers and was elected to the presidency in 1998 while still in his forties. The hostility shown to him by US government and business was undetectable and he had various quiet meetings with big British companies keen to become partners in his ambitious South American plans.
Somehow we found time to talk tete-a-tete. He grew up with strong notions of Ireland. The stockily-built young man whose features are evidence of the Amerindian blood in his veins went to school in the town of Barinas at the Liceo O’Leary. This was named after the young Corkman Daniel Florence O’Leary who went to London to join the cavalry being recruited to aid the Venezuelans in their war of independence against Spain. Wounded in battle, O’Leary became the principal aide-de-camp to Simon Bolivar, the commander of the Venezuelan insurgents and national hero. O’Leary was promoted to brigadier-general before he was thirty. After Bolivar’s death in 1830, exiled and repudiated by those whom he had lead to victory over Spain, the Irishman and his Venezuelan wife settled in Colombia, finding time for two return visits to Cork and a call on Daniel O’Connell.
“I want to go to Ireland very soon, the sooner the better”, he said. “There are a lot of people in Ireland who share our ideas.”
Then his presidential plane took him off to North Africa where he could thank the Algerian and Libyan governments whose cash, he told me, had supported him in the dark days of 2002 when he briefly faced a group of US-backed plotters who seized and imprisoned him briefly. He left many behind in London who were well pleased with his visit, notably Ken Livingstone who has done himself on end of good with the big Latin American population of London and who has plans for a big Latin American festival in September. Meanwhile a few hundred business people in London boardrooms are dreaming of big new contracts.
And many British politicians must be wondering how a South American leader who dares to set aside sound-bites and addresses audiences for hours in a language which is not their own can arouse such enthusiasm. It can’t just be the oil. The man’s vision must have something to do with it.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy has has vast experience in reporting from Latin America for such newspapers as The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Observer. He was a friend of Salvador Allende and a prescient herald of Pinochet’s ultimate arrest. Among other books he has published Pinochet and the Politics of Torture. He can be reached at: [email protected]