TransAfrica Forum Delegation Left Venezuela With a Very Positive Image of the Bolivarian Project

TransAfrica Forum president Bill Fletcher talks about his impressions on race, class and the process of social transformations currently underway in Venezuela. Criticizes US government intervention in the affairs of Venezuela

After spending seven days in Venezuela in January of 2004 visiting several social organizations and meeting people in the Venezuelan government, the US-based TransAfrica Forum delegation headed by its president Bill Fletcher, actor Danny Glover and others, returned to the United States delighted with the warm treatment that they received from the Venezuelan people.

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TransAfrica Forum president Bill Fletcher (left), actor Danny Glover and Venezuelan Ambassador to the US, Bernardo Alvarez, during the broadcast of President Chavez’s weekly live TV show on January, 2004.
Photo: Carol Delgado – Venezuelanalysis.com

During their visit, the delegation inaugurated a school dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and also opened up a photo exhibition dedicated to Dr. King’s work and legacy. The TransAfrica Forum delegation visited several poor neighborhoods and met with groups that support Venezuela’s progressive government and also with groups from the opposition.

After their return to the US, Venezuelanalysis contacted Mr. Bill Fletcher in his office in Washington DC, from where he kindly agreed to an exclusive interview which we now present to our audience:

What is your view, after having visited Venezuela, about what Venezuelans think of the Chavez administration?

It was interesting to see regular people everywhere waving the Venezuelan constitution. This is quite different from the people in the US. People made very clear to us that the constitution represents the kind of society they want to live in. We did not detect any preconditioning on the part of the people for this genuine feeling.

We also noticed that the anti-Chavez sentiment is real, especially in the media.

Racism was directed not only to Chavez and his followers, but also to our delegation, making racial remarks against us in newspaper cartoons, e-mail that we received, and newspaper editorials. The opposition to Mr. Chavez did not respect the point made by our delegation and dismissed us without taking seriously our observations and analysis.

“A person told me in a barrio (slum), ‘Bill please tell people in the United States to stay out of our problems. We are trying to solve our problems for the 80% of (poor) people in Venezuela’”

You met President Chavez and had a chance to talk with him. What can you tell us about him and his plan of government?

It was interesting to see that President Chavez is a warm and very accessible individual. It was striking to us the fact that he says he is both of African descent and of Indigenous descent. We also noticed ambivalence about race in Venezuela: on one side constitutional rights for Indians are guaranteed but the constitution mentions nothing about blacks in Venezuela. It seems that there is a blind eye to blacks. I was struck by how beautiful the people are in Venezuela due to the mix of races. We also noticed that as people get wealthier, the whiter they are. I feel that black issues need to be injected into politics.

The Venezuelan government is very interested in developing programs on the ground for the people. We observed a tendency to supplementing rather than substituting, democratic representation with participation. Regular people seem to be very vested for success in the president’s social programs.

What do you think about the activities that the Chavez administration is implementing in Venezuela?

According to the opposition, while some of the government programs are good, other items are falling apart. However, we could not get a good feeling about this in the time that we were there.

Do you agree with the opposition in Venezuela that there is no freedom of speech, and that a communist government is being installed?

Not at all. The opposition in my view has done a poor and idiotic job by presenting a different picture from reality. They seem to be very disingenuous in their approach to criticizing the president, as if they would not know what they are talking about. The private media is quite comfortable in Venezuela lying about current events, behaving in a racist manner, and ridiculing Mr. Chavez’ supporters rather that politely questioning them.

What is the most remarkable issue that you learned from this trip about Venezuela and the process of changes that is currently taking place?

The process of the building a new constitution signifies democracy at work. A person told me in a barrio (slum), “Bill please tell people in the United States to stay out of our problems. We are trying to solve our problems for the 80% of (poor) people in Venezuela”. This statement was repeated by others in other locations, which means it is a genuine feeling among Venezuelans, and not something planted by the government. Also, what sticks the most in my mind in this trip is the people’s simplicity and kindness in the barrios.

What is the least remarkable item?

This was a wonderful trip. I could not find anything wrong there. We saw a social movement taking place, with struggle and high degree of tolerance on the part of the government. People are not been jailed or shot when dissenting. If the coup d’etat in April 2002 would have happened in the US, a lot of people would have been jailed. From the coup d’etat against president Chavez in 2002, no one has been jailed.

I do have some points of concern, however, with the Bolivarian process:

  • The issue of anti-racism has to become more central to the Bolivarian cause, since racism is alive and well in the country;
  • President Chavez should handle better the relations with the labor unions, those in the opposition and those on his side;
  • The role of the workers in the development of the economy and PDVSA (the nation’s oil company) must be defined and supported by the government.

What social and political groups did you meet?

We met with the government, mostly with the Ministry of Education who was our host during the trip, with Bolivarian schools, with the Democratic Coordinator (CD – opposition force), the old labor federation Central of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) which is part of the opposition force, the new labor organizations National Union of Workers (UNT) and Main Central of Venezuelan Workers (CUTV) which favor the Chavez administration, Petroleum of Venezuela’s (PDVSA) president Ali Rodriguez, the National Council of Telecommunications (CONATEL), women organizations, and members of Congress.

The CD was very polite with us, open, friendly but the program for advancement for Venezuela was very general, vague, and with no specifics. Only general items such as fight poverty, create more jobs, improve health and other social programs was included in their agenda, but no specific plan on how they plan to improve things in Venezuela. I could have written their plan from here in the US. It seems that the opposition is only interested in toppling President Chavez but they have no agenda for the country’s economy and development.

The union meetings with CTV included only men, and a presentation was given that lasted one and a half-hour with no opportunity for dialogue. An opportunity was missed by everyone for a discussion about his or her concerns and issues. With the CUTV and the UNT, the meeting was totally different: a short presentation was given, with plenty of time for dialogue and several women were present. The meeting with the UNT and CUTV was very dynamic with a lot of interaction.

We were impressed with the amount of time that Mr. Ali Rodriguez, President of PDVSA, gave us in his meeting, as he explained in general terms how the company was hurt by the lockout, how this translated into hurting the country and how the company has risen from low production to current high levels.

Is there any sector of society that you would have want to meet? Why?

We would have like to have more time with the campesinos (farmers) in the countryside, and learn more about the land reform project currently underway.

Do you think that President Chavez does not have a strong support from most Venezuelans?

President Chavez appears to have very strong support of the population. The challenge is that Venezuela is a country with many problems, and I wonder if this will be a problem for the president in the future.

What other activities are you planning to follow up on your visit to Venezuela?

We will be issuing a report of the trip, which will be made available to the press and will be posted in our web page. This will contain the views and opinions of the delegation. We will also continue the dialogue and support of afro-Venezuelan organizations.

What can you tell us about the relations between Venezuela and the US, in light of the recent comments made by Condelezza Rice and Colin Powell about the process of referendum, and the reaction of President Chavez to these comments?

The Bush administration has no interest in having a healthy relationship with the Venezuelan government, no matter what the Venezuelans do. The US government wants to maintain a hostile relationship because the Chavez government refuses to do what the Bush government wants them to do. Condolezza Rice has made illogical statements, for example, she backed up the golpistas (coup plotters) during the coup d’etat blaming President Chavez saying that the coup was his own fault, but at the same time she stated that the coup was a lesson for President Chavez to learn about democracy. Backing the golpistas is highly anti-democratic.

Mr. Bush is increasing the level of intervention in the affairs of Venezuela. This is also illogical, because he stayed completely out of the affairs of the recall election in California, a state in the Union, but he is increasing his involvement in the Venezuelan call for referendum, by recently siding with the opposition forces.

In my view, Mr. Chavez is not creating a climate of discord against the Bush administration; the real problem is that the US government acts always to treat the western hemisphere as a province of the US. When governments in our hemisphere have differing views from the Washington line, and these governments want to govern with independence from Washington, the US government gets upset and begins to force the country to realign to the US policy.

Having met President Chavez, what would you recommend President Bush to do about Mr. Chavez’ project?

For Bush I would recommend to leave Venezuela alone, which he will not do, respect the Chavez administration desires to follow a different path, and to leave up to the Venezuelans to decide their destiny.

What would you recommend Mr. Bush to implement in the US from Mr. Chavez’ activities?

For Bush I recommend to implement a literacy campaign such as the one being implemented in Venezuela (the Robinson Plan), and to implement a health care campaign similar to the one in Venezuela with doctors inside the poor neighborhoods (Inside the Barrios Plan). However, there is a different priority in the Bush administration, since the mindset here is profits only, that is why the priority is big business welfare. The Bush administration has chosen to ignore the 44 million people without medical insurance in the United States.

Did you detect any kind of racism and/or discrimination in Venezuela? Explain.

Racism is my main concern in Venezuela. In the US under slavery the system considered blacks those with 1/16 black blood, so even those who looked white with light skin were considered black. Mulatos had no role in the US society except in Louisiana. In Latin America, the role of the mulato was always more relevant due to history and demographics as a mechanism for social control. Racism then plays a different role because there is more mixing. It does not mean that there is no racism in Venezuela, as many suggested to us there, but rather, dealing with racism in Venezuela requires applying different strategies which could not be those already applied in the US.