Discussing Democracy: US Voices on the 2012 Venezuelan Elections

As part of ongoing efforts to disseminate US and Venezuelan voices engaged in the struggle for social and economic justice, Correo del Orinoco International brings readers this interview with Lisa Sullivan, Latin America Coordinator for School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). 

By Correo del Orinoco International, Lisa Sullivan
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As part of ongoing efforts to disseminate US and Venezuelan voices engaged in the struggle for social and economic justice, Correo del Orinoco International brings readers this exclusive interview with Lisa Sullivan, Latin America Coordinator for School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). Based in Venezuela since the 1980’s, Sullivan provides a unique look at the Chavez and Obama administrations, the Bolivarian Revolution, and the leadership role played by the Venezuela people and President in bringing about positive change for the people’s of the Americas – both North and South.

As an active member of School of the Americas Watch, what are your thoughts on the Obama administration and its foreign policy towards Latin America?

I think both the administration and its policies have been a huge disappointment. Many believed  that  Obama would perhaps be more open to  change  that  would  benefit all types of people. However, it has become clear that not only no change in US foreign policy has taken place, but that the Obama administration’s opposition to change has been much more sophisticated. In fact, it’s  actually  much  more aggressive, as we saw in the 2009 coup in Honduras.

The coup against President Zelaya showed us an Obama State Department that responds with smoke and mirrors. We saw their initial affirmation of, “this is a coup”, which they later turned into “ah no, these are just ‘problems’ taking place in Honduras”. Eventually, they just lined up with the people involved in the coup but did so in such a subtle way that it didn’t enrage people. The Bush administration, on the contrary, would have been much more direct, much more verbal about its opposition to progressive change. I think that’s the only real difference in terms of US attempts to roll back the changes taking place in Latin America.

One of my main concerns is that within the Obama administration’s “sophisticated approach” we see the stage being set for aggression with the demonization of all those leaders involved in the struggle for greater sovereignty. This was done very effectively in other parts of the world, with, for example, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The Obama administration has clearly done this with Venezuela’s Chavez and, to a lesser extent, with Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. So, if and when the situation changes, if the US sees an opening, something could be made to happen.

Whether they support direct military intervention or what have you, in the back of people’s minds in the US is the idea that, “oh well, wasn’t he that bad guy?” I think the Obama administration has really contributed to that drumbeat, to the demonizing of anyone who has worked to protect their country’s economy and natural resources.

Tell us now about Venezuela’s role in the struggle to close down the School of the Americas?

Venezuela has been enormously significant for the SOAW Movement. In 2004, prior to the visit by Father Roy Bourgeois and I with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the country was still sending troops to the SOA despite the fact that two leaders of the 2002 coup against Chavez had graduated from the SOA. Now, what we found out in our meeting with President Chavez, who had looked into the matter himself, was that the SOA often sidesteps official channels and directly invites certain soldiers and officers, especially those who are bright and considered “up and coming”. Governments are sometimes unaware of exactly who they have studying at the SOA.

Chavez took this issue seriously and firmly said, “That’s it. No more”. A month after our meeting Chavez announced that no more Venezuelans would be going to the SOA and has been faithful to that commitment.

Venezuela has been so important for the work of SOAW because there’s just such clarity on the part of the Bolivarian Revolution and President Chavez that this struggle, our struggle, is a question of sovereignty. That word sovereignty truly regained its place with the Bolivarian Revolution and has really taken off. People have begun to understand what it means to be a sovereign nation and to exercise their right to self-determination. That clarity has been extraordinary and has spread out across the continent.

Living and working here in Venezuela, what are your thoughts on the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for October 7th and on Venezuelan democracy in general?

It’s clear to me that as long as  Chavez  is  healthy,  there is absolutely  no  doubt  in  anyone’s mind that he will be re-elected. Of course, the concern is currently about his health.

The opposition has never been able to elaborate what they’re all about – they’ve always just been about what they’re against, Chavez, but they’ve never been open about what they’re actually for. Now, it’s important to understand that people’s lives have changed as part of  the  Bolivarian  Revolution. People now have access to things they didn’t have before, and they know why. Those people are going to vote, again, and for Chavez.

Venezuela is a country where people practice democracy, perhaps more so than any other country in the world. People have voted, voted transparently, including with observers from all over the world. The actual number of elections is just extraordinary. This is a country that is truly living democratically. To mis-portray that, as the mainstream media does, is really just an  ugly lie. The people of the US, those in solidarity with Venezuela, must really acknowledge that this country is exercising a true democracy. There’s this concept here that people are full citizens and that they have the right to education, health care, housing, food, basic dignity, and there are efforts to say: “look, this is our country, these are our resources, and how do we harness them to improve our quality of life?” A multitude of creative attempts have been made, some with better results than others, but in general there has been a catapult of solutions aimed at attending to people’s needs.

Meanwhile, in the US, people are still entrenched in the “representative” system and people generally feel disempowered. As a result, people often don’t even vote. Here in Venezuela, people had to break apart that supposedly representative system in order to bring about real, participatory change. Since then we’ve had the repeatedly successful elections of President Chavez, the re-writing of the constitution, the reversing of the coup, the grassroots consolidation of the social missions, etc.

I’ve been in Latin America since 1977, and have seen atrocities, have visited with hundreds of people who  lost  family  members because in those years peaceful social change was never possible. The loss of life associated with attempts at change was enormous. With Venezuela, currently, we should all be so glad that the society is trying to bring about major social change through the ballot box.