This interview was conducted in the Miraflores Presidential palace on October 9, 2003. It is the first of two parts. Ralph Niemeyer is a German independent journalist and Lucila Gallino is an Argentinian independent journalist.
Mr. President, we see that in your country the most important thing is to solve the problems in Latin America, and the main objective is to fight poverty. We have seen the actions carried out in Mission Robinson and Mission Sucre. Your country has implemented a series of missions, many things have been changed in the country, how far can you go?
It can be said to the first world, above all the so-called “developed” world, that the problem of poverty is not only that of Latin America, it is a problem of the whole planet, it is also a problem of the developed world. There are more dangerous poverties than the material type, there is moral poverty, spiritual poverty, the poverty of principles, we could say that material poverty is the consequence of moral poverty.
Here in Venezuela we are in a tremendous struggle against integral poverty. Leaving aside spiritual poverty, material poverty.
Of course, as Christ said to the Satan: man does not live by bread alone, but without bread man cannot live. We are not following the way of developmentalism, we do not want to appear to follow the mode of European life, the “American way of life”, that is not our goal. Rather a country that looks in the direction where there is the greatest sum of happiness possible, integral happiness, not only from money and physical happiness, but also that points to the development of the human being. And we aspire to reach 2021 when all Venezuelans will celebrate 200 years of our independence from Spanish domination. Here there was no national project, and here a change has been made from night to day, from less to more, leaving moral and spiritual poverty behind.
When you mention other continents and other countries that are in crisis, would you compare this with the crisis of 1929? Would you call the globalization of today a new type of imperialism?
1929 was an economic crisis, the great depression, I believe that crisis did not reach the depths that we are living now. As Franz Kafka says: We have reached the crucial point, a mutation has occurred at the world level, the paradigms that have existed for 200 years are falling. For a long time, it was believed that the matter had become a constant.
If you had to make a change in the economic system, make a profound change, who would be your partners in this project? Would they be Lula, Kirchner? Would it be Castro?
I believe that there are many in the world. Not only Latin America. Lula with Kirchner. Beyond Presidents, there are sectors, small and medium companies that have a national and regional vision of the economic problem, that principally do not share the neoliberal thesis which for us is a mortal threat. We have many allies in the world: China, which is also in an interesting process. They are moving now toward a socialism of the market. They are coming from communism to socialism at an intermediate point. We, I believe, are going in an opposite direction. Nevertheless, we are going to coincide with fundamental lines of what Bolivar called the point of equilibrium between the extremes. And that is valid for the political, economic and social areas.
Our model is based on the search of equilibrium. Malaysia, for example, is a great ally and we understand one another perfectly. The countries that make up the OPEC. Algeria, Libya. They are great allies. Libya of Muammar el Qaddafi. With Nigeria, we have similar elements in our focus. The same thing with certain sectors in the U.S., Canada. But these allies shouldn´t be seen only from the political but also from the economic point of view.
Every day the position that we defend draws more supporters in the world. This is for example what happened in Cancun, in the summit of the WTO. Years ago, for example, we were alone in those meetings. Now it results that the position which Venezuela defends is being defended by Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, China, Libya, Egypt. Every day there are more of us who defend the thesis of the need to transform economic models. It is necessary to sustain economies that serve to achieve justice, equality and human development.
What do you think about the rapprochement between President Lula of Brazil and President Kirchner of Argentina in respect to the IMF? How do you see the perspective of these presidents?
One has to respect the manner in which each President studies and decides to treat the extremely serious problems that we have. Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina. I know in depth only my problem. What I believe without a doubt is that a President has arrived in Brazil with whom I have had a friendship for quite some time.
I have known Kirchner only from the time that he took office last April. But look how it has been decided to formulate the need for an Argentinian national project. The same thing I proposed here. Priority given to local integration. First our integration, the brothers of the South. Both Lula and Kirchner are conscious of this. We have to look at what is close at hand. The FTAA is another of the great risks that we face. We received that. FTAA is a great threat. The best thing is for us to join together to achieve equilibrium.
How far has the Agrarian Reform, which forms part of the convulsed package of the 49 laws that you launched in 2001, gone? These reforms, above all, the agrarian reform, could not advance in other countries. As in the case of Brazil, where it is a dead point. It does not advance. How far can you go without serious problems?
What we have called the Agrarian Revolution is aimed at going to the bottom. We have delivered 1,500,000 hectares to peasant families in cooperative models. That is only a first step. Where do we want to end up? To the day of fully meeting the Constitution.
Here we have to reach the day when in Venezuela there is no latifundio. For that reason it is necessary to continue to go deeper. There is still latifundio in all parts. We need a judicial branch that goes to the bottom of things, that enforces the Constitution. For example, many times it happens that the owner of the latifundio buys the court, and the court ends by deciding against Justice. That has happened to us a lot this year. But we follow the principle of Bolivar: “Patience and more patience to have a fatherland”. Because what we want is a true structural change in agricultural relations in the rural areas.
More than a year-and-a-half ago – in April 2002 – there was a military coup, and in December and January an economic coup. Can there be anything else?
It is always necessary to be attentive because it results that here in Venezuela that small privileged sector does not have respect for the country, it does not have any kind of Venezuelan pride, it has no sense of nationality, no respect for the Constitution and the laws. They are historically accustomed to impose their laws, to have presidents subordinated to their interests, to their pressures, to have subordinated congresses that made laws to their convenience. A judicial branch subordinated to them – the Creole oligarchy. Those same sectors have even fallen into fascism. Some have a terrorist mentality. They seek to burn the prairie again.
In Venezuela we have to accustom ourselves to living over time in the middle of a low-intensity conflict and from time to time that intensity is going to have peaks. But we are ready to face any intensity before us. As Bolivar said: “to hesitate is to lose”. We will continue with our convictions, applying the Law, using state intelligence and security agencies to protect ourselves form those intentions. We are ready to be free. It must not be forgotten that in this country there is a great force that has become aware of things.
The verbal capacity is inherent in the culture of this people and the power of the word has reached a point of warfare through the media. The credibility of the word in this country would appear to be in crisis. Perhaps this is a failure of the capacity of the Government to transmit the process?
I believe that this reflection can be applied to the whole world that is subject to the advance of telecommunications, to the force of the voice that has nothing to do with the reality that is so often disconnected from reality. Many times there are perverse voices that deceive millions. A little like what the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says: “Never have so few deceived so many.”
Here in Venezuela part of the battle has been in the media. Inevitably. But this is not new. For already more than a decade we have been subjected to an intensive communications bombardment, debilitating for any movement. You say that credibility has been reduced. This depends on how you see it, from the sectors of the upper classes I do not have much hope in their believing in me because they are poisoned. Many suffer from a psychotic disassociation, that is, dissociation from reality, according to the psychologists. What does concern us is that the serious part of the country, the objective part believes us.
Of course, the level of credibility in the word of the government is important. A short time ago, on a Sunday we called together all the high school graduates who had never found a place in the universities. We had estimated 200,000 persons in the act. Nevertheless, we had an avalanche of 500,000 persons up to 80 and 90 years of age who answered our call to learn to read and write.
The Spanish writer, Antonio Gala, said once that the problem of man is not the flesh, or hell or the devil, but the banks. Is it because of this that Venezuelans cannot end up by taking charge of their own problems? To what point do you break with globalization?
The banks …. Someone said that the bankers have no heart. Above all in this world that is in the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The banks block development with all these mechanisms of speculative bubbles that they have generated.
Here there was a crisis of the banks in 96 when thousands of Venezuelans lost their lifelong savings. Thousands and millions of dollars were taken from the country. Now the blame not only belongs to the banks, it also belongs to the governments, it is the lack of political will, lack of national consciousness, so that each one occupies his space, we have been reviewing that in our constitution, a new law of banks was approved, new instruments for the supervision of banks are being developed, nevertheless, we are far from having a bank sector that is conscious of the needs of the country. But that is part of the battle.
Here there was an attempt from some banks to join a destabilizing movement. I gave them an ultimatum. “If you do not open the banks and pay the people, I am going to intervene the banks.” Here they imposed a forced savings plan during the coup d´etat and sabotage. And the people standing on line and they wouldn´t open the doors for them and the money was there, but they wouldn´t open the doors of the banks, or they didn´t deliver money. But by their decision. That did not meet an economic but rather a political rationale. The attempt was to remove Chavez from the government, I gave them a period and told them: they began to open and pay the people what they had to pay … And here they are…
It has been said that you have to be tamed. Even after strong shocks that your government has received and comments such as those of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez who has said that he would call for a civic military action to take power. Moreover, it is said that in one of the richest regions of Venezuela there would be movements to conform a separate Republic to divide the country. How do you foresee the new move of the opposition to remove you from power?
Look, we are speaking about the topic of scenarios. You have prepared quotes and references very well. I do not speak about the dead, rather I want to speak about realities. I refer to the political dead, to the moral dead, to unburied, putrefying bodies.
I prefer to quote Aristotle. And I am beginning to read a good book by Noam Chomsky that is called “The Common Good.” Chomsky begins by speaking of Aristotle and his formula. I am thinking and pondering over it, and comparing it with our time and our space. Aristotle said that the problem of an enriched minority and an impoverished majority is contrary to and denies democracy, that if one wants a true democracy it would be necessary to solve the problem by formulating two solutions; either reduce poverty or reduce democracy. In our case we have chosen to reduce poverty and increase democracy.
But here another problem is generated that Aristotle did not foresee in his time and it is the reaction of the privileged elite that is seeking a Pinochet, any tyrant to attack the rights of those majorities.
Here in Venezuela we have that: a privileged minority that is opposed to a full project, a full participatory democracy where they also participated because that wealthy class participated in this debate, but they do not accept the democratic game, then later they invented the matter of the coup d´etat, because they are trying to cause institutional shocks.
What happens with those intellectuals in Latin America, as is the case with Gabriel García Márquez, who some years earlier supported you and now seem to have changed their opinion. What is the contribution that these Latin American intellectuals are making to your process?
You would have to ask García Márquez. I have a commitment with the Hugo Chávez that I am. My commitment is to life. There are all kinds of Latin American intellectuals. There are many good writers who are illiterate; there is the case of a Peruvian called Vargas Llosa. I learned to know and love his writing, his art; I will never forget when I was a boy, 14 years old, and I read “La ciudad y los perros”. Later, I did a little research on him. I also read other books. “La fiesta del Chivo” on the life of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Without a doubt, he is an eminent writer, but he is an illiterate, in that he is unable to read the reality of his people, he even changed his Peruvian nationality for the Spanish nationality. I was reading a few minutes ago that there was a meeting in Madrid led by him, where he created a foundation against Chávez and against Lula. The Spanish foreign ministry attended the ceremony. This indicates a little how things are going in Madrid ….
There are all types of intellectuals. There is a group that was even part of the left, but that could not understand the world. In respect to the right to think and say what one thinks. But I follow Bolívar who said: “Before the claims of those who believe that they are wise, I prefer the advice of the people.” The people indeed are wise.
When does this passion for history, this enthusiasm for reading that you take as a sport arise?
Reading has always been a constant in my life. Through culture, study, we began to see the truth. Study and above all reading freed us from darkness. This is the thesis of Pablo Freire: “The importance of the act of reading”, it is an act of self-improvement. Yes, you obtain the edge of the freeing sword through reading.
I discovered the truth of the history of Bolívar one night when I was on duty as a soldier. We were never told that Bolívar was thrown out of Venezuela. I remember that I read a letter from Bolívar that says something like: “I am waiting for a moment of despair to finish with this life that is my disgrace”. Then I began to ask. Who treated him here so badly? Is it that those who opposed him wanted to take away properties, empty him spiritually? I asked: “But why the liberator?” Who expelled him? Were they the Spaniards? Hadn´t they already gone? It was General Páez. I admired Páez for a long time, and I continue to admire his persona and his value as an almost invincible warrior. Later he defeated the people. At the end he lost his moral posture and what Mao Tse Tung said came about: “At the end the war terminates in the favor of the side that has a moral position”. In that period, they were against Bolivar eliminating slavery, distributing land, giving education to blacks. Starting from my studies of Bolivar, I began to become free and become a rebel. “I rebel and then I exist”, as Camus says.
For this reason in our plan of Government a liberating process comes in this last stage, in this most recent period, which we call Misión Robinson. This is a program to read and write based on one carried out in Cuba that produced excellent results and is for those who did not have the possibility to become literate.
We realized that we had a debt to the people and that is how the library also arose and now we are publishing several million books more. We have libraries in the classrooms. The most important is Misión Robinson, I believe that many are sharpening the sword of light.
What is your relationship with President Fidel Castro. Is he something like a brother, a friend? What role does Fidel have in your life?
Fidel has always been an example. I was a soldier and always read him, about his life, his speeches. I remember that one night I was on duty with other cadets and we looked for a channel to hear music and suddenly from Havana I hear Castro´s speech. This was the period of the coup against Allende. I´ll never forget a phrase of Fidel: “If each worker, if each laborer, would have had a rifle in his hands, the fascist Chilean coup against Allende would not have taken place”.
For years, Fidel was a reference, above all moral. In ideological matters, it could be said that I am partly, even though I am not communist, I am a follower of Martí and above all of Bolívar. And I believe that Fidel has always been a bolivarian. And if you study José Martí, you find Bolívar.
A little while ago I answered a letter to Fidel, because he sent me a long letter, a kind of treatise on morality, politics, history, reflections. Then I write to him after having read one of those manuscript pages. And in one of the sentences that I wrote, my soul poured out and I wrote at the end: From now on I don´t know whether to call you brother or father”.
In this “Matrix”, are you the chosen person?
No, I don´t like the sound of that. I was elected, yes. I am one of those elected by the people, I am not a chosen person. I do not want to give it that connotation.
How do you consider yourself as a leader? You are not the typical president, a traditional westerner who has studied in Harvard University, you are not a blond-haired person who conducts himself as a formal President, according to your own functionaries you are considered as “the other President”.
You know, I am not President. I am a citizen but I believe myself to be a soldier citizen, of flesh and bone, nerve and spirit. Now that I have a jacket, a band that they placed on me, this is something else. I am Chávez. Will I be the other president? I prefer to say that I feel like the first President of a wave of Presidents. I reached this position through the people, I did not arrive to betray that people. In that sense I am Hugo, Hugo Chávez, the citizen, the soldier and, well, a President.
But not “The Other President.” I hope that those who come after me, come with a commitment, a line of thinking, and above all, what is important is to remove the poor, the needy from the situation in which they have lived for such a long time.
When you wake up in the morning, are you afraid for how long your government may last?
Do I think about that? No, I don´t. This is going to last a long time.
Apparently, the Manual on the Perfect Coup D´Etat is being perfected … I don´t know if they are going to achieve it or if it is a strong desire …
[laughter] No, here they are not going to achieve it. Here they couldn´t even apply the method that they applied to Allende. They wanted to apply methods of destabilizers to remove a President, obligating him to resign. Recently there was an African country with a similar situation. Here they tried to apply new formulas. Our formula is not perfect, but it has great strength.
Here there is a conscious people, a mass of people, every day stronger, a military mass joined with the people, there is a government that works a lot that does not rest during the day or at night and there is a project in which we deeply believe.
Every day I feel greater strength in this project. I see that new leaders are arising. And the day will come when they will not see me any longer because I am not indispensable. There are those who say that if I disappear, this whole project would crumble. But that is not true.
I returned with such emotion because hundreds of thousands of people had surrounded Miraflores Palace. Then little by little one begins to realize, above all in the last stage, when male and female leaders arise, and these beautiful flowers bud and full of hope (he indicates the red roses in front of him). This process is an avalanche of the people.