A Conversation With Hugo Chavez

The President addresses the distorted view that people in the US have about Venezuela, describes some of the achievements of his administration, the media, and his views on the US gov. efforts in trying to overthrow him.

  • This interview was conducted last May by Mark Weisbrot, and published by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) website www.NACLA.org

M: First I would like to try to set the record straight. This is for a U.S. audience. I have spoken with almost all of the journalists who report for U.S. newspapers from Caracas, and they agreed that people in the United States have a distorted view of Venezuela—they think it some sort of dictatorship, and has a repressive government.

Can you respond to this, and explain why you believe that Venezuela is a democracy?

H: Well we can try to measure democracy, just as you measure temperature with a thermometer, or pressure with a barometer. In light of everything that’s happened here, is there a single journalist imprisoned here? In four years of government, can anyone point to an imprisoned or persecuted journalist? Has there been a single media outlet closed for even a second? Well, yes, there was Channel 8, the state television, during the coup that they [the opposition] carried out. We can measure whether there is real repression of the media or of speech…

…Democracy is also about representation—from the parties, for example. You could ask how many political parties there are here. In a true dictatorship, you would have one party in the National Legislature, among state governors, city mayors. But if you look at Venezuela today, a coalition does have a simple majority in the National Assembly with about 52%, but the rest of the parties combined have about 48% of the seats—all opposition parties voicing opposition opinions.

You could also measure the number of marches and protests against the government, and measure over days and months, and you would see a measurable tally of protests that were allowed to take place and they were not repressed. I believe that there are a lot of ways to conclude objectively that we are a democracy. We’re not perfect, but we do have democracy.

I believe that our constitution is among the most advanced in the world in terms of its observance of human rights. It observes the principles of human rights in all the theoretical depth that implies [inaudible], and also attempts to sketch out the theory’s implications in a pragmatic and socially just and relevant context. Indigenous rights are one example, but also women’s rights, where we are trying to establish more gender equality and eliminate all unearned privileges—economic, political or social privileges. On the point of indigenous rights, which you already mentioned, indigenous representatives are gathering as we speak in Puerto Ayacucho, where they are preparing a document that will outline mechanisms for implementing the rights outlined in the constitution. This involves demarcating the indigenous territories and restituting their constitutional rights.

There are other elements in the constitution. As we were in the Southern Cone, I’m reminded of the 30,000 disappeared from the period of the last military dictatorship in Argentina. While we were in Buenos Aires, we met with some of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are carrying a heavy emotional burden in their hearts, still searching for information about their lost children. Thousands of them! In the Venezuelan constitution, we have addressed some of these concerns by prohibiting torture, disappearances, or detention of anyone without a judicial order. It also orders all public officials and military personnel to disobey any order from their superiors that would obligate them to torture or “disappear” someone. The constitution establishes the right to information, freedom of expression, the right to personal dignity, and economic rights that cannot exclude anyone. It’s a socially advanced constitution, among the most advanced in the world. The section on social rights is the broadest and the deepest in the world, and we’ve worked hard on it. There’s practically no social or human right that cannot be found in its pages.

M: And you did in fact release many prisoners who were awaiting trial when you took office?

H: Of course. More than 10,000. The oligarchy kicked off their media campaign immediately, saying that criminals and delinquents were being released onto the general population indiscriminately. In researching the policy, I myself went to the prisons, and interviewed the prisoners. I went to the prison where I had been held, and spoke with the prisoners, the wardens, lawyers and sociologists. More than half of the detainees in Venezuela were being held without a sentence, some of them for more than a decade! Well, as we began to implement the constitution and the penal code, we designed a whole set of measures that guaranteed not only certain juridical rights of prisoners, but also their right to work, to leave the prison and come back at night. The right to play sports, to attend cultural activities and express themselves. We’re still perfecting our policy.

A lot has changed in our prisons… We’ve set up computer labs with internet access in the prison, so that the prisoners can share their story with the rest of the world. The same access and rights go to the male and female prisoners. We’ve begun to offer micro-credits in the prisons to allow them to set up bakeries—we’re very happy with this. We’re even looking at freeing up some funding to have a prison system-wide consultation with prisoners and prison employees to suggest a series of further reforms of the prison system.

M: Let’s talk about the press for just a bit more. You have a problem with both the international and the Venezuelan press. The international press: the New York Times actually endorsed the coup in April of 2002. Probably the first time in more than 25 years that they supported a military coup against a democratic government. That was on the Saturday. And then on the Tuesday—this was their editorial board—they issued a retraction, but they never apologized. Have you talked to them since then? Or asked for an apology?

H: No, because I’ve begun to think that it’s not worth the trouble. During my first two years in government, I made it a priority to visit the editorial boards of several US newspapers, usually in the morning after a long night of travel having arrived at 3 in the morning. I would stay awake until 6 in the morning to speak with these editorial boards. I approached these opportunities optimistically, hoping to be able to have a good conversation and exchange, perhaps over coffee and with mutual respect. I was very patient with them, detailing our policies, leaving them my phone number, fax number, email. I told them if they had any questions or uncertainties, to call me so we could clear them up. That they should send a reporter to me whenever they wanted. I felt like this exercise was very important.

It seems to be part of a larger social defect in the US—that’s a society that should really develop some kind of response to the intellectual battering by part of the media that seems to take place daily. I sincerely hope that some day the US public will develop some kind of mass critical consciousness, that they will remove the veil from their eyes and see the media powers for what they are. No part of the human community can live entirely on its own planet, with its own laws of motion and cut off from the rest of humanity. They must be critical, and make it their personal responsibility to humanity and morality to discover the truth.

Eduardo Galeano once said, speaking about the global media companies, “Never before have so few fooled so many.”

M: But what about the Venezuelan media? This is an even bigger problem because they are actually a part of the opposition, it is very hard to have a fair election or have a referendum in such a situation, isn’t it? In the U.S., if you had ABC, NBC, CBS, all the cable channels and the newspapers lined up on one side, we would not consider that a fair election. But you also have the problem that if you try to do anything about that, they will accuse you of censorship.

H: We’ve just been trying to figure out our strategy in this area. It’s not the first time we’ve encountered this kind of media hostility. In the 1998 electoral campaigns, the ratio of media support between the candidates of the oligarchy and this humble servant was 10 to 1, in their favor.

The same thing happened with the Constitution—the entire news media was against the project, running full-page ads and headlines against it. Nonetheless, it was passed by 80% of the population! The ratio of media support for the opposition was 100 to 0 on the day of the coup. 100 to 0! It was a total white out of our side—worse than even during the election campaign.

In the same way that we and many countries have passed campaign finance laws, we must have some kind of regulation of the amount of air time candidates can buy or be given. We’re basing our law on an Ecuadorian precedent that sets a time limit on how much air-time can be given to political candidates.

M: Yes, Brazil has laws like that too.

H. Yes. It’s about time for a regulation of this type in Venezuela, passed through the legislative branch.

M: Can you talk a bit more about what your government has accomplished?

H: We’ve had 1,500 days in government, almost 4 years. Let’s take the balance of that time.

In the health sector, we have dramatically reduced infant mortality. It was at 24 per 1,000 when I came to power, and it is now at 17 per thousand. We should put that into human terms and scale, because sometimes these numbers seem cold. Going from 24 to 17 means a 30% reduction, which translated into real numbers means that thousands of children’s lives have been saved and they have survived, where previously they died just for being poor, or not having access to health services. Before, many expecting mothers did not go to the hospital, or their baby wasn’t vaccinated after birth. We have greatly improved pre-natal care, and expanded the capability of hospitals. We’ve carried through a successful immunization plan, in order to really get at the causes of mortality.

For the first time in Venezuelan history, a president has advanced massive child immunization campaigns against hepatitis B. We’ve brought down the infection rate by 15%. We’ve reduced school truancy, and school enrollment has gone up 30%—that’s 30% over what it was. With this increase, we have brought 90% of truant children into the school system. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. We’ve built schools all over the place. We’ve hired thousands of new teachers. We’ve raised the teacher salaries to their highest levels ever.

We’ve initiated the Bolivarian Schools program. We have one of the first Bolivarian high schools opening this afternoon. It’s in Amazonas state, where I traveled two and a half years ago. While there, I was approached by a group of teenage boys, who complained about the lack of money for their school. It was a dirty school without running water or clean bathrooms. Today, it is a beautiful school! I’ll update you on our progress up to today. We’ve created hundreds of schools across the country. Schools that were operating at a third of their capacity, we’ve invested millions of bolivares into these schools; we’ve made them like new. School districts that used to serve only 3,000 kids now serve thousands more. We’ve reduced school absenteeism from 10% in 1998 to 3% today. For the first time in Venezuelan history, anyone can be an athlete. I suffered my whole life from lack of access to baseballs and other sporting equipment. There was no equipment; there were no baseball diamonds. We’ve redone all the sports facilities across the country. We have the most and the finest sports installations in all of Latin America. The focus of our investment [in these installations] is at the school level.

In the educational field, we’ve opened up nearly 3,000 Bolivarian schools, which represents about 10% of the total number of schools in the country, where children learn only after having breakfast first. Before these schools [existed], kids would arrive at school without having eaten breakfast. There’s not much you can learn on an empty stomach! Now they eat first and then go to classes. They have mini libraries in each classroom. They no longer have to work out of tiny individual desks, now they work at larger tables with more legroom and where they can spread out, and have some ownership of their personal space. They can pour out their creativity, receive medical attention, they have computer labs with internet access. They have theatres for dance, plays, music, sports activities. Later in the day they eat lunch there and have a snack at tea time, even if it’s just a little juice and a pastry. Education is very important to me. I certainly care about the fiscal deficit, but I care about children even more.

M: It was announced recently that the land reform would cover 100,000 acres, or about 40,000 hectares…

H: … it’s very beautiful, very clean earth. Your brand new landholder can take a few kernels of corn, dig and put the seeds in a little hole, and tend it with care. A few days after the rain comes, you’ll see a leaf begin to poke out, and within a few months you have a stalk. You grab it yourself, tearing off the leaves, skinning it, deseeding it, cook it up and then you have cachapa [a corn meal delicacy].

M: I’d like to hear some more about agrarian reform here. What are your plans?

H: I’d prefer to call it an agrarian revolution. For forty years they’ve been talking about agrarian reform, and it’s done nothing but reinforce the old colonial system. First, we’re putting into effect the constitutional principles to obtain a real and lasting change in the rural areas—principles like prioritizing and taking seriously food security.

M: How many people have benefited from the land reform thus far?

H: Well so far this year we have distributed 600 thousand hectares of land through the distribution of land titles.

M: How many people more or less?

H: Okay, well out of 600 thousand hectares, more or less 2 people benefit per hectare, so we’re talking about 1,200,000 people. These are people that either were landless or had little land. We’re not only redistributing land, however, we’re distributing over 2,000 tractors, some from China and others from Brazil, as a kind of credit from these countries to us. It’s been almost 20 years since the country has upgraded its fleet of tractors—we had tractor cemeteries where all the scrap metal and useless machines were kept. Another thing we’re doing in the agricultural sector is the Zamoran Funds in honor of Ezequiel Zamora—real flagship and model programs. Kind of like the Bolivarian schools in the educational context, this is a holistic model. In Apura state near the Colombian border, we gave out nearly 2,500 hectares of land from our Santa Rita Fund to a cooperative and we gave out nearly 800 million bolivares in credit.

M: The land was previously owned by the state, right?

H: Most of it, yes, this was state owned land, with the exception of certain properties that had been invaded illegally by private landlords who didn’t have the ownership documents—we are in the process of recovering and distributing these lands.

M: And what about urban land reform?

H: That’s a project of our poor people’s empowerment program. It’s based on the principle that poor people do better when they’re given the tools they need to leave poverty behind. One of the means we’ve been using is urban land redistribution, and our goal is to redistribute 500 thousand urban land titles, which would benefit more than 2 million people in the biggest cities. And most of these people have never before owned land.

M: If we can switch topics… I would like to talk about the coup and the U.S. role in it. We know that there were meetings between the leaders of the coup and US officials in the months before it happened, and an increase in U.S. funding for opposition groups before the coup. Other circumstantial evidence of U.S. involvement was reported in the press. There’s an old joke that goes: “Why hasn’t there ever been a military coup in the US? Because there’s no American embassy in the US!”

H: Someone was telling me that joke this morning…

M: So, how involved do you think the US was in the coup?

H: Even with a certain amount of evidence and doubts in a lot of people’s minds, the US government has told the world that it wasn’t involved.

M: Although they did support it at first.

H: It seems that we can place the US position into three distinct periods. First, before the coup, the US was without a doubt supporting the opposition, even indirectly, meeting with the coup-plotters. Afterwards, during the coup, there are several military officers that have testified to seeing US military personnel at Fort Tiuna coordinating with the coup-plotters, communicating by radio with some central base of operations. There are Venezuelan military officials that claim to have seen a Black Hawk helicopter and American planes parked in Maiquetia on April 11 and 12.

The US ambassador was in Miraflores [the Presidential Palace] the day of the coup once the coup government was in place. There’s a letter from the Venezuelan charge d’affaires in Washington at the time, a man by the name of Guerrera. As I was in jail the afternoon of the 12th, Guerrera sent a letter from Washington to Miraflores to the so-called transitional government, saying that a high level official from the US government had indicated to him his satisfaction with Chavez’s ouster and with the installation of the new government. The official had mentioned however that they desperately needed Chavez’s signed formal resignation letter. For that reason, they sent the cardinal of the Catholic Church that Saturday the 13th in the afternoon, to try to plead with me in the name of God to sign the resignation letter; that Washington was waiting for it following the coup. Well, as you said yourself, the US government denied any participation in the coup a thousand and one times. I’ve said that I can’t blame them because I don’t have direct evidence, there’s just some circumstantial evidence and some lingering doubts in my mind. In the end, each person has to draw their own conclusions.

M: Let’s put this in a broader historical context, because it leads to another question. In 1954, the US overthrew the elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. In ’64, the US was apparently involved in the events leading to the military coup against President Goulart of Brazil. The following year the US marines invaded the Dominican Republic, another intervention against a democratic government. The Sandinistas were elected in ’84, and the US spent the next six years destroying the country through warfare and sabotage, and even intervened in the 1990 election.

H: You skipped Allende. [The U.S. was involved in the 1973 destabilization and overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile].

M: Yes…

H: And Panama, and Grenada.

M: Yes. The question is, the United States has gotten rid of most Latin American presidents that it didn’t like. Why do you think you will be different?

H: You have to look at each of these cases of intervention individually, in their historical context. Each case is unique. The overthrow of Arbenz in 1954 was done through an invasion. But it did not end there. It started a war that lasted for more than 40 years. The Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada—those were also invasions.

Venezuela also has to be looked at within a certain historical context. We have a strength that cannot be disregarded—a level of consciousness and mobilization that did not exist in these other countries. If you add up all the people who have participated in demonstrations since 1999 [on our side], counting each person as many times as they participated, the total is in the hundreds of millions. There were more than 8 million people who came out the day of the coup.

Also Venezuela has armed forces that are very solid, united, and capable of counteracting any faction that could threaten democracy.

M: Let’s go back to the economy for a bit, and look at the region.

H: It’s time for a new political and economic era. The old model has failed. It’s self-evident: this new era will be characterized by a struggle in between two competing political forces. Your question was if tension with creditors and international agencies will increase in during this period. They will certainly be feeling the political and economic tensions, driven primarily by the poor countries, the people in those countries. We will feel these pressures within our own countries as well—in the parliaments, the peasant movements, the student movements, the indigenous movements, the alternative movements, even within the militaries of these countries. Various pressures will be at play.

And in Latin America, one feels that there is a powerful current of public opinion on these issues that one didn’t see even two years ago. The path ahead still hadn’t been scripted, it wasn’t readily visible. To hear the Argentine president Kirchner say the kinds of things he said yesterday, such as “Argentina will pay its [foreign] debt [only] if things are going well for Argentina.” It’s a tremendous political commitment, and this will influence other countries down the road. To hear former Argentine president Duhalde introduce me as the key-note speaker at a private lunch for Latin American leaders—this is very surprising. It was the same in Cusco [The Rio Summit of Latin American Presidents in Cusco, Peru], where I heard the reflections of presidents that 2-3 years ago would not have even dented a rose petal when it came to the topic of debt. They wouldn’t have questioned the free-market model, and the need to follow the conditions of the IMF, the World Bank, etc. To hear 40 Congress people, 80 Congress people, to hear the indigenous leaders question the system of debt—all this goes to show that the popular pressures are alive and well here, too. So this is all about a pressure game—one has to understand each sphere of action where these pressures are being felt. You could say we’ve started the first battle.

M: And what role do you think that Venezuela has? One reason I ask this is that it often seems that there are times when the vast majority of people are ready for change, but one of the things that holds them back is when they think there is no hope of winning anything.

H: The Bolivarian process is at the forefront of this struggle. I’m laying in this hammock a calmer man than I was yesterday. Even a year ago, I felt almost alone. Today the situation is changing, that hope that you’re speaking of, that’s a moral impulse. It’s showing up all over the place. The people are coming to life again. Brazil is just another example of this. It’s not just about Lula, it’s a phenomenon, it’s the Brazilian people, millions of them. The Landless workers, the workers, the housewives, the favela [slum] dwellers—they have a hope, a faith. And you know that faith can move mountains. The indigenous of Ecuador, they took Luis Gutierrez to the presidency. The indigenous are mobilized in Bolivia, where they almost took Evo [Morales] to the presidency. Almost. They’re mobilized. In Central America, in Panama, things are happening too. In El Salvador, Farabundo Marti has come back strong. Sandinismo is the leading force in Nicaragua. In Uruguay, the Frente Amplio is occupying important spaces. There’s a faith that’s moving mountains, mountains of people. Which pressure will win out in the end? The pressure of the people that need to move the mountains merely to survive?

… Or the pressure of the economically powerful? These popular currents benefit from being the real political majority. Mao Tse Tung used to say that the final outcome from any battle is determined by the moral convictions of its combatants. When you compare the convictions moving the international creditor community and IMF on one side, with the convictions of the popular movements and some of their governments on the other, it is self-evident that we can claim to be on the side of right and morality.

M: Just a bit about the foreign exchange controls here. Now in the international press and the national press too, they say that these controls are being used for political reasons. But what I hear, since I have been here is that they’re being used to hold up money for companies that don’t pay their taxes. Is that true?

H: I should confess to you that the exchange controls ARE a political measure. One must reflect on why I made that decision. I think that I even made the decision too late! Do you have any idea how much capital flight we’ve suffered since I came to power? We’re not even talking about public or private debt payments, imports, trips abroad, all perfectly justified. We’re talking $32 billion without any sort of economic justification! This is a part of the coup-mongering, destabilizing political game of the oligarchy of this country. So those that accuse me of using the exchange controls as a political measure are often willfully obscuring the fact that they themselves are using capital flight as a destabilizing political measure. [The capital flight] is an immoral political measure, and our response has been to counter it with a state policy of the government, but a policy based fundamentally on a strong ethical code, based on the constitution and the national law.

M: Another topic: it is hard not to notice the difference between the color of the people on the two sides here. The opposition crowds are noticeably lighter and more European looking than those who support the government. Do you think there is a racial dimension to this struggle?

H: Yes, there is racism here—it used to be more hidden and now it is more open. But it is not the main factor. And this is part of the picture in other countries, too—look who supported Lula, or Evo Morales [in Bolivia].

M: Now about the present political situation. It would seem that an agreement has been reached with the opposition. Is that right?

H: Yes.

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