In Venezuela the Poor Are Happy and the Rich Are Mad. That Must Mean Something

Colombian author William Ospina recently wrote a column in the Colombian daily El Espectador in which he expressed a level of appreciation for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But what was perhaps more interesting was the kind of response he got for taking what was called a “polemical” position.


Colombian author William Ospina recently wrote a column in the Colombian daily El Espectador in which he expressed a level of appreciation for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But what was perhaps more interesting was the kind of response he got for taking what was called a “polemical” position.

Venezuelanalysis translates here an interview of William Ospina by Cecilia Orozco Tascón of El Espectador. We have also translated his original column, which can be read here.

“Chavez will enter into the mythology of popular folklore”: The famous writer William Opina, whose recent column called Hugo Chavez “a great man who has tried to open the way to a little justice in a scandalously unjust continent”, speaks about his polemical position that is contrary to the majority of social institutions in Colombia and Venezuela, at a moment when the leader is fighting for his life.

Cecilia Orozco Tascón: The very political and belligerent nature of your column last Sunday was surprising. Why did you radically change your topic and tone?

William Ospina: I like to write about books, cinema, travel, but I’m also passionate about politics. Every once in a while, when I am interested, I write columns like last Sunday’s where I take a position and I like it to be clear.

Your defense of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments compares their elections with elections in Colombia and suggests that they are perhaps more democratic than here where votes are “bought and herded”. However, you ignore the arguments of those who accuse those regimes of limiting freedoms.

I don’t say that Cuba and Venezuela are necessarily more democratic than Colombia. I say that their electoral victories are always seen as more suspect. And I say that Colombia is not as democratic as they make it sound. That is something we all know here. It is not a discovery of mine. However no one criticizes the governments of Colombia for their precarious democracy like they do everyday with the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. Now, neither in Cuba nor in Venezuela have there been massacres and holocausts in the last thirty years like there have been in Colombia.

You are also critical of a large part of Latin American press which you say “has made a big effort” to make Cuba and Venezuela appear incorrect for taking a position against the United States. Do you think the region’s media have yielded to US interests just like, as you claim, many governments have done?

When I was a boy the radio poured rivers of hate against the Cuban revolution. From the time I was eight years old I remember the same phrase being repeated every day: “Cuba, the pearl of the Antilles, now converted into the red hell of America”. The Cuban project was generous. The United States, with their blockade, prevented this project from spreading, and later they claimed it had failed. Let’s look at the beginning of the Chavez government. They already said the same things about him that they say now long before he was reelected, after one year, after five years, after seven years. And many of the criticisms have been classist and racist. Now, I don’t think the media systematically conspires, but I think there are informative inertias and prejudices that are perpetuated, and not all media outlets are temples of democracy.

To say that Chavez is “a great man who has loved his country” is perhaps a statement inspired by the fact that he is currently fighting for his life?

You don’t need to love or admire Chavez to accept that he is a great man: the whole world is paying attention to his life and death. And with respect to how much he has loved his country, you can feel it. It would be absurd to say this only because he is sick. I say it because I can see it. And that doesn’t mean that everything that he does is correct. I’m not saying we should make him the pope.

But you admit that your column praises him without making any criticisms.

It’s not about praising him but rather recognizing the value of his policies in general. Nor is it an analysis of the accomplishments of his government. I can summarize what I said in the column like this: Venezuela is the only country in the Latin America where the poor are happy and the rich are angry. That must mean something.

To justify the reelection of Chavez you assure that “in Colombia we have been reelecting the same person with the same policies, but with different faces, for two hundred years. The only one who was a little different was Álvaro Uribe, only because he was a little worse.” Uribe, who you criticize, got himself reelected once, and Chavez three times. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?

I think in that statement I was a little unfair to Uribe. The reality is that in Colombia there have been several people who have been worse. And Uribe did do some useful things. Although many of my friends on the left hate him and do not recognize any good things, the country was worse when Uribe came to power. Why deny that he brought peace to some sectors of society and some regions? We know that he did not always do it in a clean way, and the way he acts worries me. He was handed a country with an internal war and he almost gave it back with three external wars. He said he didn’t have enough time. But I should be clear: I am not against the principle of reelection. I didn’t support Uribe, but I thought it was logical for him to be reelected as long as it was done legally. Chavez has been in power for thirteen years in Venezuela, always elected by the people. That doesn’t seem like an atrocity to me.

You assured that “perhaps we will have the opportunity to see Chavez go from history to popular mythology.” Is that a literary exaggeration or a political reality?

All mythology is, in some way, a literary exaggeration. I am not making Chavez into a myth, the Venezuelan people are. The same day that my column was published, the Spanish newspaper El Pais had a headline that said “The Myth of Chavez Fills His Absence”. To say that someone is entering the humble, colorful, inspiring popular mythology of Latin America does not mean you are praising or criticizing, exonerating or condemning. It just means you are recognizing their presence and importance in our collective imagination. I mentioned Eva Perón, Pedro Páramo, Frida Kahlo. Chavez does not belong to the comic books, but rather to Latin American history, and when he dies he could enter the mythology of popular folklore with people like José Gregorio Hernándes, with Santa Muerte, with Che Guevara, with José Alfredo Jiménez. A popular folklore that people like Uribe, Menem, or any given business leader will never enter.

Are you aware of the reaction that your position could create in a country like Colombia that is full of Venezuelans who felt obligated to leave their country because of what they consider to be abuses of the Chavez government?

I wasn’t aware that Colombia is full of Venezuelans. What I did know, on the other hand, is that Venezuela has been full of Colombians for many years. I don’t think they are kicking out Venezuelans. I know many people there, intellectuals, artists, business owners who are for and against the government, because every government has its supporters and detractors. Here it is common to be against Chavez, and so it seen as scandalous to have respect for that political process. There are people who tell me that I am brave for saying that it is interesting and that I have respect for it. It’s as if in Colombia one is obligated to be against Chavez. There is a lot of polarization in Venezuela, but not the kind of political violence we often have in Colombia.

Would you prefer the type of government they have in Cuba or in Venezuela in Colombia?

I think Cuba has tried to find its way although it has been difficult. Venezuela has done the same but none of those will work for Colombia who has to find its own way. For that reason we have to make an effort to reflect on our history and culture in order to construct a happier and less divided society. I don’t know if they are governing well or not in Venezuela. I know the people are with Chavez, and that, in a continent that is so cruel to the poor, is noteworthy.

You are definitely an adherent of the ideology of Chavez…

I don’t have an ideology. I believe in the basic justice of supporting the most humble. Rich people can fend for themselves, they know how to do it, and they know how to sound the alarms when they are being attacked. Colombia, on the other hand, is an endless pit of suffering for those who are not able to make their voices heard. We know much more about what happens to the rich than what happens to the poor.

Citing from your column: “The United States governments that bought Florida, robbed Mexico, seized Puerto Rico and separated Panama, would have annexed the beautiful island of Cuba…”  Are you saying you are anti-American?

The United States amazes me. I have enormous appreciation for their literature, their arts, and I know their history to some extent. It is a great country, but its government is another thing. No one can say that I am lying or even exaggerating: they bought Florida, they stole Mexico, they took over Puerto Rico and they annexed Panama. This is an incomplete list. To say the truth doesn’t mean there is hate. Hate is a sentiment and what I am saying is a list of facts that the whole world knows. If we want to talk about positive things we can also do that: they helped Europe eliminate the Nazis, the US is the homeland of Poe, of Faulkner, of Franklin and of Steve Jobs.

In any case, you say that “The best way to admire, respect and honor the United States is to fear them, and not be misled about them. To them we are another world: primary resources, natural jungle, immigrants…”  Is that not more of an extremist political position than that of an intellectual?

It is not extremist to have fear. It is a matter of sensitivity. I respect them and honor them. I have written about Whitman, about Eliot, about Emily Dickinson. A little while ago I published in this paper a story about the death of Ray Bradbury. And to me few things are more beautiful than a Buick from the 1950s. But one thing is their admirable culture, and another thing is their crazy foreign policy.

Your ideological position, morally impeccable, is on the other hand debatable because of the consequences that a revolution like that of Chavez can have. Many Venezuelans who have left their country say that they were expelled. Do you think they deserved that simply because they were wealthy?

I believe in the possibility of constructing a more equitable society, and I understand that there must be many people who feel hurt by the structural changes that Venezuela has gone through.

Given that you are one of the most well known writers of the generation that followed [celebrated Colombian writer] Gabriel García Márquez and others of the Latin American “boom” that supported Castro, would you not be a part of the 21st Century if you represented a more moderate and modern left?

I admire some things about Fidel Castro, but I’m not interested in being his follower. Nor am I interested in being a follower of Chavez. When I disagreed with what [Chavez] was doing I did not hesitate to write him a public letter that is still circulating on the internet. Now, who decides who belongs to the 21st century and who doesn’t? This talk of a moderate and modern left sounds elegant and decorative. I’d prefer to belong to the radicals of the 19th century before being a softy of the 21st century.

Do you think the symbols of this century are more superficial and less respectable than those of before?

No. I think this century has new challenges and they cannot be compared with those of the past. For example, I see many limitations in the old Marxism. This is an era when we have to think about protecting the planet, natural resources, and conservation of our water, air, jungles, etc. Among our new challenges are also the struggle for love and solidarity, but they are just as flawed as before.

Other writers and award-winning authors that once admired Fidel Castro but later regretted it call those who surround Castro “the useful idiots of communism”. What do you think of this remark, and those who say it?

I usually don’t make insults. Respecting your adversaries strengthens your own opinions, while those who put down their adversaries weaken the importance of their own opinion. What would it matter to be right against a bunch of fools? It is better to be right against people who are serious and brilliant, but mistaken.

Have you been criticized, insulted, or threatened due to your column?

I have very good readers. When they do not agree they make fun of me, sometimes they embarrass me, but they have never threatened me.

On the internet, in the comments sections of newspapers, many people are aggressive and make insults when they do not agree with the opinion of the writer. What was the reaction to your column “At Mythology’s Door”?

There were some positive opinions, some very worthwhile in which some readers said that they did not share my opinion but that my comments made them think about the topic. In general I have never had the feeling that my articles produce insults. Of course, there are always some loud comments but usually the messages are quite thoughtful.

Have you met Hugo Chavez personally? How many times and why?

I saw him once from a distance when he was giving a speech. I don’t know him personally and I have never spoken with him. I am timid, and people who are so efficient and active are a little overwhelming for me. I remember when in 2009 people here were saying that I had been in Venezuela debating with Mario Vargas Llosa, defending Chavez. I have never debated with Vargas Llosa, although I would like to. I think that rumor was made up by Teodoro Petkoff, perhaps due to some misunderstanding. I was in Switzerland working on a play with Omar Porras and after that I travelled to Spain to present my novel “El País de la Canela”. That’s when I was surprised with the news that I had been chosen for the Rómulo Gallegos award. But not even on that occasion did I meet Chavez.