While I was watching a huge rally in support of Venezuela's current government, President Hugo Chavez passed through the crowd on the back of a truck. A stranger nearby commented: "Look at the eyes of the men. They're crying." They were - a reaction few presidents could provoke.
I have lived in Venezuela for most of the past 19 years. As a Catholic missionary priest, I spent eight of those years in a cardboard-and-tin shack with mice, rats and cockroaches, surrounded by human and animal excrement. It was part of a public housing project constructed during the first presidency of Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1978) when oil money was pouring into the country.
In 1989, a few months before the happenings in Tiananmen Square, I witnessed the Caracas massacre when hundreds were shot down in the streets. I saw naked bodies strewn on the floor of a hospital morgue.
A year later I slept in the cemetery several nights when bodies that the government had buried in black garbage bags were being excavated from a pit that it denied ever existed.
The beautiful democracy that the aristocracy here painted for the world was a fraud.
In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected president with almost 60 percent of the votes, incredibly overthrowing the entrenched and well-financed elite that had controlled the country for decades. That elite has never forgiven him and today is doing everything possible to tumble him. Sadly, the U.S. government and mass media have joined in this very undemocratic effort.
Their accusations have some common themes. First, Chavez is a communist because of his close association with Cuba. Is George W. Bush a communist because the U.S. has close ties with China?
Chavez's hero is Simon Bolivar, not Marx or Lenin. Bolivar liberated much of South America from the Spaniards, but he was also concerned about another colonial power, saying that "the United States appears to be destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty." It is a concern Chavez shares. After the April 2002 coup against him, Condoleezza Rice warned Chavez, not the coup leaders, to "respect constitutional processes."
A second accusation is that Chavez is a dictator and will limit freedom of expression very shortly. This has been said since 1998 when he was just a candidate for the presidency. To date, there is not one deprecating word against Chavez that has not been printed or spoken.
But I have government-censored Venezuelan dailies, before the time of Chavez, with blank pages.
Third, it is said that Chavez opposes the forthcoming Aug. 15 presidential referendum that could oust him from power. The reality is that it is the opposition that rejected the idea of the referendum and has done everything possible to avoid it: the two-day coup; a two-month lockout/strike by big business and by many well-paid executives and workers in the national petroleum industry; and, millions spent on media campaigns against him.
Chavez himself proposed the idea of a presidential referendum midway through the term and has constantly voiced it as the constitutional way to remove him.
Fourth, international news releases often refer to Chavez as "a former lieutenant colonel who led a failed bloody rebellion in 1992." This would be similar to continuously identifying President Bush as "a former National Guard captain who avoided service in Vietnam and had a bout with alcoholism in his youth."
About 12 militants died in the rebellion. What is not mentioned is the multitude that had been shot down on the streets by the Perez government before and after that attempt. Perez was impeached in 1993 and now lives in New York.
A great difference exists between what one reads in the U.S. newspapers and what one hears in the barrios and villages of Venezuela, places where the elite do not tread. Adults are entering literacy programs, senior citizens are at last receiving their pensions, and children are not charged registration to enter the public schools. Health care and housing have improved dramatically.
Is the present government perfect? No, but the country is light years ahead of where it was under those who ruled before and want to control it again. They still have power and money. If you doubt it, just look at most news releases and editorials about Venezuela.
But if you want to know what is really happening in Venezuela, come and look at the eyes of the men the next time Chavez passes by.
Charles Hardy is a free-lance writer living in Venezuela. He is a native of the U.S. state of Wyoming.
This article was originally published by The Rocky Mountains News on June 25th.