An Entertaining Evening With Hugo Chavez in New York

An impressionistic account of Chavez's speech to community leaders in New York City's Cooper Union Hall.

I have just returned from Cooper Union in New York, where I saw Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez give a long winded speech. Chavez was in New York to speak before the United Nations and to shore up Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the Security Council. Though I have seen Chavez give dozens of speeches on TV and just came out with my book entitled Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, And The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), I had never seen the president speak in person.

I received word of the event through the Venezuelan Information Office in Washington, D.C. The staff informed me to pick up my tickets in midtown Manhattan at the Venezuelan Consulate. The tickets, one for me and one for my cousin, displayed a beaming picture of Chavez amidst the colors of the Venezuelan flag: yellow, blue, and red.

At Cooper Union, the line went round the block. We waited to enter the building, which took more than an hour. Fortunately there was a pleasant breeze outside and people did not seem very phased by the delay.

At long last we cleared the security check on the first floor and proceeded to the main hall, which was full to capacity. Some people in the audience wore red, the official color of the Chavistas in Venezuela. Interestingly, I also noticed a group of Hassidic Jews dressed in formal attire.

The noted singer and activist Harry Belafonte introduced Chavez to the crowd. There was a standing ovation and Chavez found it difficult to get started. Periodically throughout the speech, members of the audience would call out, “Long Live Socialism For the Twenty First Century!”

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. I could not hear the president very well where I was seated, and the speech, true to form, was rambling.

But before he got started, Chavez introduced notable figures sitting in the audience. Key among them was Roger Toussaint, head of the transit workers union in New York. Chavez seemed genuinely interested to know more about labor in the city, and asked Toussaint how many workers were in the union.

Chavez also wanted to know how much oil was consumed every day by city buses.

Chavez then introduced the Venezuelan diplomatic staff which included Francisco Arias Cardenas, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations.

Like Chavez, Arias Cardenas was in the military and joined Chavez in their failed coup attempt in 1992. Later, Arias Cardenas broke ranks and ran against Chavez unsuccessfully in the presidential election of 2000. Though formerly a Chavez rival, interestingly enough he is now the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations.

In a rather bizarre twist, Chavez then turned to the Hassidic Jews in the audience and proclaimed that he had some Jewish friends and that Jews were treated well in Venezuela. “We are a friend of the Jewish people, but we are against Israeli aggression,” he remarked.

Chavez then turned to one of his subordinates, who had brought him a cup of espresso. Drinking the espresso, he started on his whirlwind monologue.

Among the other miscellaneous themes addressed by Chavez that I jotted down on my notepad:

– Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation

– Afro Venezuelans

– Noted political writer Noam Chomsky, whose latest book talks about how U.S. dominance could give rise to the extinction of the human race

– Noted 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 own global travels throughout Africa, Portugal, Spain, and South America

– Peter Cooper and the importance of Cooper Union as an educational institution (this fed into a wider discussion of educational advances in Venezuela and Simon Rodriguez, Simon Bolivar’s tutor)

– 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 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

– Christian socialism

– 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 listening to Chavez, I felt inspired but tired. As I left the hall the president was still energetically speaking to the crowd.

Nikolas Kozloff, who received his doctorate in Latin American history from Oxford University, is the author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press)