Sunday, February 6, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the World Social Forum

Porto Alegre, Brazil- On January 29th Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, held a press conference at the World Social Forum. Sarita and I attended as reporters from the CPJ, the student paper of The Evergreen State College.

Chavez has intrigued me since I heard reports on Democracy Now! on the 2002 USA backed attempted coup. During the coup the military seized the presidential palace and Chavez was flown out of the country. However, the loyal palace guards and 1 million people in the streets took the palace back and returned Chavez to power. The entire episode was captured in the documentary olThe Revution will not be Televised.

Chavez supporters hail him as a president of the people, the most progressive in Latin America. His opposition considers him to be a communist dictator with too-close-for-comfort ties to Cuba. I jumped at the chance to hear him in person and decide for myself what kind of president he is.

The press conference was held at the hotel São Rafael in Porto Alegre. When we arrived the line for registering as press was already wrapped around the room three times. We waited in line for forty-five minutes until someone yelled, “That’s it, no more press”. The line of reporters exploded into chaos. Everyone ran for the room where Chavez would speak. The crowd pushed up against the door and demanded to be let in. They started chanting, “Somos jornalista, no somos terroistas.” We’re journalists, not terrorists. We could see through an open door that there was plenty of space in the pressroom.

Finally the organizers succumbed to the crowd and the mob of reporters flooded into the room. Sarita and I were surfed to the front of the room. We sat on the floor about ten feet from the podium.

I highly doubted that Chavez would speak at such an insecure event. No one went through any kind of security clearance and there were no armed guards in sight. Yet after fifteen minutes of chaos, Chavez walked into the room and the room exploded with blinding camera flashes.

Five names were of reporters who could ask one question each were picked from a hat. He was asked about the role of the military, how the Brazilian media covered the 2002 coup, Venezuela/Cuba relations, Venezuela’s international relations with the EU, US and Colombia and about the situation in Haiti.

Chavez was cheerful and witty as he answered the questions in true South American politician style, rambling into long speeches about topics he felt were more important than the questions asked. Here are some of the salient points that Chavez made:

  • The role of the military should be that of “liberators”, an anti-imperial force that protects the people. He stressed the need for the people to be more involved in the defense of the country. In addition the military should be more involved in society through civic and education projects.
  • The world is in the middle of a severe environmental crisis. He referred to the planet as a living body that has, “a pulse, temperature and equilibrium.” He said, “If we don’t transcend the capitalist, neoliberal model, the planet cannot resist anymore.” He stressed that is necessary to join with the people of the North the fight for a better world.
  • The people of the USA are victims of a “media dictatorship”. The media is controlled by a few large corporations like CNN, FOX, etc.
  • Chavez described his visit earlier that day to a settlement of the MST (Landless Workers Movement). He was pleased with their regard for the local ecology. He described their polyculture method of farming rice using organic fertilizer. Carp that swim in the rice paddies do the tilling by burrowing into the soil and eat parasitic insects. He was impressed with the MST seed saving program and signed a paper showing his intent to start a seed trade with Brazil. He spoke against genetically modified crops.
  • Chavez defined the free market neoliberal thesis as, “Privatize everything, wait twenty years and when everyone is dying of hunger…the economy will magically begin to flourish.” He is opposed to free trade agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). He explained that his version of the FTAA would be neighboring countries trading resources they are rich in for resources they badly need. As an example he said Venezuela sells Cuba oil at a 20% discount. They pay the discount back by providing social services in Venezuela. Thousands of Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela and Cuba is helping them develop a sugar industry.
  • In regards to the recent coup in Haiti, Chavez said there is only one president of Haiti and it is Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  • Chavez was very explicit when addressing US/Venezuela relations. He said, “We are anti-imperialist, they [the USA] are imperialists.” He responded to a recent comment that Condoleeza Rice made referring to Chavez as “a negative force in the region”. He said, “The biggest negative force in the world is the USA.” He also mentioned that Bush constantly talks about fighting for freedom and justice “but never speaks about equality.” He said Bush should take a lesson from some of the American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr.

After the press conference we rushed to the stadium where Chavez would speak to thousands of participants from the World Social Forum. However, that is a different story and Chavez didn’t cover anything new in his speech.

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