“Hugo Chavez is giving the poor some hope, and it is contagious”

Interview with Father Roy Bourgeois, Catholic priest founder of the School of the Americas Watch, who talks about his impressions of his recent visit to Venezuela.

Sunday I visited some long-time friends in a barrio on the periphery of Caracas, Nueva Tacagua. The part I was visiting is composed of cardboard shacks (called “ranchos” in Venezuela) covered with laminated tin sheets to keep the cardboard from collapsing should it sop up the water when it rains. I lived in one of these shacks from 1985 to 1993 as a Catholic missionary priest at that time. My home no longer exists due to a landslide in August 1993 that wiped out my immediate neighborhood. This public housing project was built during the first presidency of Carlos Andres Perez when oil money was pouring into the country.

I had finished visiting one family and was on my way to another home when my cellular phone rang. “Charlie, there are some Catholic missionaries from the U.S. on Alo Presidente.” I had just passed a shack where I had heard the president speaking. (When you live in a cardboard house, not only can passersby hear every word you say but they also know what you are watching on television.) I backtracked and knocked on the door. A woman whom I did not know answered and I asked, “Would it be possible to watch
Alo Presidente with you for a few moments?”

If I had been in a wealthy part of the city, I would never have done that. But barrio life is
different. She let me in, gave me a chair and I sat and watched and engaged in conversation for the next half hour. Speaking to President Chavez was a Catholic priest associated with the Maryknoll Missionaries, Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch (
www.soaw.org), an organization that tries to keep an eye on the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). He mentioned that two of the generals who had led the April 2002 coup in Venezuela were educated at the school: General Efrain Vasquez Velasco, the Army Commander-in-Chief, and General Ramirez Poveda. The next day, I had a chance to interview Father Bourgeois and the following is a transcript of our conversation. If this were for a printed publication, I might have edited it in order to shorten it, but the internet gives me the chance to share with you what he said to me.

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Hardy: Why did you decide to come to Venezuela?

Bourgeois: Because of what we have been hearing—that there is something going on in Venezuela, that there is a revolution going on here where the poor are being talked about, that somehow we’ve got a president and a government here that’s on the side of the poor that is offering the poor a vision that gives them hope and promise for a better way of life. That is something very, very unusual in Latin America I was invited to come as a part of a delegation and thought it was important to come and to see for myself what is happening here.

Hardy: Who invited you to come?

Bourgeois: The Maryknoll Global Concerns Office in Washington, D.C., wanted to pull together a delegation and invited me as founder of the SOA Watch. That fits in very well with what we are all about.  So, I came and I am grateful that I came.

Hardy: Who are the other people that came with you?

Bourgeois: There was a representative of a large national peace organization, Pax Cristi, which is in the U.S. and also exists worldwide; someone from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); a reporter from SOJOURNERS magazine, a well-known periodical in the United States; and someone from the religious sister’s community.

Hardy: How long ago did you come?

Bourgeois: I have been here for about a week.

Hardy: What was your impression of Alo Presidente?

Bourgeois: Let me touch on something else first. I have been a Catholic priest for about thirty-two years. I got educated in Latin America years ago in Bolivia where I was arrested and forced out of the country. I could not get back into Bolivia during the
days of General Hugo Banzer.

Hardy: What did you do? Why were you forced out?

Bourgeois: I lived in a barrio. I just went up into a barrio in one of Maryknoll’s big parishes and just lived there with the poor. I had a little apartment, paid $13.00 a month and lived with the people. And they taught me; they educated me. Those whom I went to serve became my teachers. They taught me about my country’s foreign policy. There we were supporting a brutal dictator, General Hugo Banzer, who came into power through a violent coup and sent his men around the country with their guns to defend that system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor. I was forced out of Bolivia and went to the U.S. and started to educate North Americans, people of my own country, about U.S. foreign policy. I later went to El Salvador, then later to Guatemala. Wherever I went, I saw a common denominator: my country, the United States, was defending its economic interests. It had been very difficult and challenging for us trying to educate people in the United States about Latin America. It seemed so distant. But then something happened. On November 16, 1989, there was another massacre in El Salvador. This time it was six Jesuit priests at the university, a Salvadoran woman co-worker and her teenage daughter who were dragged out of their rooms during the night and shot at close range. At the same time we were pumping about a million dollars a day into the government there. A congressional task force was sent to investigate and they came back reporting that those responsible were trained at the U. S. Army School of the Americas in
Fort Benning, Georgia.

When I read that report that got a lot of press in the U.S., my instincts just set in–helped along by my own experience in Bolivia and my trips to the other Latin American countries. I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and started to do some research. I was joined by some friends: a Jesuit, a Dominican, three Salvadorans, Kathy Kelly who is doing a lot today on Iraq and three others.

We began with ten people. Last November, just three months ago, ten thousand gathered at the main gate of Fort Benning to call for its closure. Who were we? About half were college students. We had a lot of nuns there who had worked in Latin America and some clergy. There were a lot of senior citizens, a lot of military veterans, parents with their children.

What has happened is that this issue—that school in our backyard—became a door to Latin America. We learned through some basic research–through the Freedom to Information Act, from some of our human rights’ reports– that there were over 60,000 soldiers who were trained there: commando operations, psychological warfare, counter-insurgency techniques. And who are the insurgents? They are who they have always been in Latin America. They are the poor, those who call for land reform, adequate housing and welfare, schools. These are the targets of those trained at this school.

But what really exposed this school for what it was, a school of assassins, was when the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Salvador was made public [1993] and received lots of press. It revealed that those who killed Archbishop Romero were graduates of this school. Those who killed the Jesuits and the two women were graduates of this school. Those who raped and killed the four U.S. church women, two of whom were Maryknoll sisters, were graduates. In El Mozote where over eight hundred were killed–men, women and children—they were graduates of the school.

The list went on and on and on. This was getting a lot of publicity and people began to make a connection between these atrocities and this school and its graduates. So, not overnight, but in time a movement began to take root. And now we have this huge, grassroots national organization called the SOA Watch that is educating people on Latin America. This door, again, has become a window to Latin America. It is bigger, we realize, than just this school. This school simply provides the muscle in Latin America for its foreign policy. It simply provides for the economic interests of that small, powerful, wealthy elite.

Now, back to Venezuela. Coming here has been such a joy for me: to come here and meet with the leaders of the “pueblo.” We went into some of the barrios here and there was a hope here that I found which is so important. Talking to the people and hearing their excitement—just seeing in their eyes hope and joy. They’re talking about schools, literacy programs, health care, hands-on stuff that they are involved in. And how they talk about “their president” who has now brought them into a whole new future. You know, it is revolving around them and not around the rich. And, oh man, this is so rare!

Now the problem, the challenge, as you know is that in the United States the lies are being published. We are not getting the right information, just as we never got the right information about El Salvador or about Guatemala or Bolivia or about Chile in those days, and on and on. It is so different here today.

But what is important is for North Americans to come here, connect to people like Lisa Rodriquez and other Maryknoll missioners who have been living here for many years, to draw on their experience and their contacts. They put us into contact with the people.

So we came and listened. We came to learn. Now we’re going back. I leave tomorrow for the U.S. and I cannot wait to meet with the national office of SOA Watch and to get on the phone and to call Maryknoll friends at their headquarters and to talk to so many
others—we’ve got a big network out there—to talk about what I have seen and heard in Venezuela.

What we want to do now is to bring more people here, delegations, to learn and to see for themselves what is going on here because Venezuela has become for us a model. It is a model that gives the poor some hope and it is very rare that this happens.

Hardy: Yesterday you appeared on Alo Presidente. What is your opinion of the program?

Bourgeois: Oh, wonderful, wonderful. It was incredible, incredible. I mean, I have never…, where…, of course it is a program for the majority of the people of Venezuela—who are poor. Of course the rich think this guy—you know, what is this? They get bored and tired. They don’t have the time nor the patience. But it’s not for them. It is for the poor.

He recommends books. You know what one of the books was that he recommended? Noam Chomsky! He’s recommending all these articles that he has read in the newspaper—he is a teacher! He is looking at Latin America like few have: through the underside of history. He is looking at it through the eyes of the poor and the oppressed. And when you do that you are going to have a lot of enemies. And he’s got enemies. He’s got the opposition.

But that [television] program—it was just incredible. It was wonderful to see it. It was teachable moment, helping the poor to see how they have been lied to, how they have been deceived. He is opening up their eyes, little by little. Of course the problem is that there are a lot of people in Venezuela, especially the super-rich, who do not want the poor to become educated. They want them to be paralyzed, to be docile. And this is what is most frightening for them: they know that in Venezuela right now this man, Hugo Chavez, is giving the poor some hope and it is contagious. And they realize that the eyes of Latin America are beginning to turn to Venezuela as they turned to Nicaragua years ago. They see some hope here.

And, of course, in the midst of it all, the United States and George Bush are here to do everything they can to make sure that this revolution fails. Because if it succeeds, if the poor here will get justice, if there will be a real re-distribution of the resources here (especially the wealth, the money, the power) and in a country like Venezuela, this will spread to other countries. And so, what is at work of course and this is no secret, the U.S. is pumping money into Venezuela as we pumped money into Chile when Allende was there.

Hardy: You had a private interview with President Chavez today. What did you talk about? How did it go?

Bourgeois: It was wonderful. We talked about this issue of the School of the Americas. He is going to have to do his homework on the matter. We are not quite sure how many, or if, Venezuelans are at the school. Since 9-ll we have had real problems getting
information. But I have the feeling that if they are there, they won’t be there for long.

We also had a religious sister with us who works with about 200 families whose homes were destroyed in mudslides. And this…this really impressed me…it really got to me. She had a specific request, just as I did, and I felt I was listened to and I felt somehow
he is going to do something here. What happened with the sisters is that he got on the phone. He wasn’t just bluffing [by saying something like]: ”I’m going to take your letter, I’m going to take your request, I’ll give it to my secretary” and then you never hear
from the secretary, etc. That’s the way it is normally done. No, he got on the phone! And I had the feeling, the problem is going to be resolved.

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Most of our conversation had been in the back of a taxi and had to end when we arrived at Radio Nacional where he had another appointment. Hope you enjoyed listening to it.

Charles Hardy is a regular columnist at www.VHeadline.com
He can be reached at
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