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Venezuela: White Collar Views

By Alexandra Beech,

Two Catholic priests appear in today’s news, offering radically different views of Venezuela. Father Charles Hardy, a Catholic missionary who has lived in Venezuela for 19 years, writes that Hugo Chavez is so charismatic that he makes men cry, “a reaction few presidents could provoke.” Father Robert A. Sirico, who recently visited Venezuela, writes that in his pastoral work in prisons, “none has left an impression quite like the one I visited here on June 13.”

Father Hardy offers a critical view of Venezuela’s past governments. “The beautiful democracy that the aristocracy here painted for the world was a fraud.” When he was elected in 1998, President Chavez overthrew “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.”

Father Sirico, who describes a prison visit with Baruta mayor Henrique Capriles Radonsky, writes that the rhetoric of class warfare “is in style these days. Returning from the prison, we listened to Mr. Chavez booming on the radio... Attacking the upcoming referendum on his rule, he asserts that the battle is not against the ‘white oligarchy’ of Venezuela. Instead it is against one enemy alone: George W. Bush! Thunderous applause follows.” Now that over 2.5 million signatures have been collected, Mr. Chavez knows that it is difficult to portray the opposition as a white elite, so he has clearly shifted focus towards the US!

Father Hardy attempts to dispel what he deems incorrect “accusations” against the Chavez regime, beginning with his association with Fidel Castro. “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?” What Father Hardy doesn’t write is that Bush doesn’t ask legions of Chinese to come to the US to work as doctors, military advisors, and sports trainers in Harlem or the Appalachians. Nor does Bush sell oil at ridiculously preferential rates to China; nor does Bush defend China at every summit; nor does Bush visit China on secret trips; nor does he speak with China’s President Hu Jintao almost daily; nor does President Hu Jintao and his advisors offer advice to Bush on how to run the United States.

Father Sirico protests that Henrique Capriles Radonsky is being held under “trumped up political accusations following a protest in front of the Cuban Embassy in 2002. He has not been charged with a crime, and has been denied bail.” In fact, neither he “nor his lawyers fully understand the detention order against him. The authorities claim that he was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro. The incident at the root of this claim is caught on film. It shows the mayor calming an agitated crowd that had surrounded the Cuban Embassy, located in his district, to protest against Cuba's influence in Venezuela. At the time, the Cuban ambassador thanked Mr. Capriles on television for his efforts. Nevertheless, the videotape showing the protest is the main evidence against him.”

Father Hardy condemns the contention 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.” However, dictators detain their political opponents. Even if Chavez has not limited the freedom of expression through legal means, there is a law drafted by his lawmakers at the National Assembly (which he controls by five votes), that would greatly reduce the freedom of expression by limiting what can be broadcast on television and radio. Even if this law is never passed, violence against journalists has increased under the Chavez regime. During his testimony at a hearing on Venezuela in the US Senate on Thursday, the Human Rights Watch Executive Director for the Americas Division Jose Miguel Vivanco said that “many journalists working for media that support the opposition have been victims of aggression and intimidation by government supporters.” When Chavez has railed against the privately owned media, attacks against journalists and television networks have often ensued. In addition, Chavez often forces television networks to broadcast his speeches during key news broadcasts, such as the day that the National Elections Council announced the exact question that would be asked during the recall referendum for the yes or no vote.

Father Hardy complains that “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.” Far from rejecting the referendum, the opposition has spent the past two years collecting signatures under threat of harassment and unemployment. They have accepted the conditions set forth by a government dominated electoral board chosen by a government dominated Supreme Court chamber. Needless to say, the “reparos” process goes down in history as one of the saddest moments in Venezuelan history, when many elderly and handicapped Venezuelans who had been assisted in signing at an earlier petition drive had to prove they intended to sign, and when government employees were forced to withdraw their signatures under threat of unemployment.

Father Hardy writes that “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.” (I don’t know men who cry when they see Chavez, but Yussef Merhi cries when he remembers his cousin who was shot in the head during an opposition march.) What visitors will likely find in Venezuela, according to Father Sirico, is that “Chavez’s regime is notorious throughout the region for its dangerous blend of political populism, domestic socialism, and protectionist and nationalist foreign relations. To defend it all Mr. Chavez has militarized the civilian government.”

Many Catholic priests and nuns in Latin America focus their work on the poor, and that is where Father Hardy believes that Chavez has succeeded. “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.” Father Sirico presents a different version. “The streets are more violent and the entire atmosphere is politically charged -- with neighborhoods maintaining their own independent police forces. The government news channel broadcasts Cuban cartoons telling stories about what happens to those who betray the Revolution. As in Nicaragua, the literacy programs organized by Cuban ‘advisers’ are thoroughly politicized.”

Rather than anecdotal, the most efficient way to study the plight of the poor in Venezuela may be by studying its economic figures. In his testimony at the US Senate on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega presented a glum scenario: “The plunge in real income has led to an increase in poverty. The proportion of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty surged from 21% in 1998 to 33% in 2002, exacerbating the plight of Venezuela’s most vulnerable.” A weeping grown man does not signify success, but may represent the greatest con of this regime: filling the poor with short-lived or empty promises.

These two opinion editorials reflect how Venezuela’s deep polarization has even reached the foreign Catholic clergy. On the one hand, Father Hardy turns a blind eye to every single injustice that has taken place under the Chavez regime. His disdain for wealth makes him an easy spokesperson for the Revolution, blaming its failures on “the elites”, the media, and the US government. In his black and white version of Venezuela, the villainous opposition wants to hurt the defenseless poor. However, the truth is far more complex that this simple version, which is why Father Sirico’s article effectively reaches beyond wealth to observe what is at the crux of Venezuela’s problem: the lack of justice. “Without a strong and independent judiciary, there can be no freedom or stable democracy.”

To ensure that a transparent referendum takes place, Venezuelans cannot rely on the Chavez government to ensure justice. “Unless international organizations are watchful, it is likely Mr. Chavez will steal the referendum votes.” If that takes place, then grown men and women will certainly weep for Venezuela’s future.

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