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Why I Didn’t See Chavez in New York (Or, a Tale of Two Presidents)

By Alexandra Beech

New York 18.09.05 | On Wednesday morning, a friend who was visiting a church three blocks away from my apartment called me. Excitedly, she told me that the Secret Service was at the Church because the President of Venezuela was going to speak there on Saturday with Jesse Jackson.

“Should I put our names on the church’s list,” she asked. Besides my name, I included the names of other friends.

On Friday, I stopped by the Church. The receptionist, a little embarrassed, said, “The Church was not allowed to create a list. If you want to attend you have to e-mail” The event was “by invitation only”.

On Saturday evening, I stopped by the Church. I was curious about who would be standing in line to see Chavez. One side of the Church was flanked by the Secret Service, wearing little red buttons on their lapels which could easily be mistaken for little Swiss flags. I turned the corner and was surprised by the large and vibrant crowd.

There were many white Americans – those venerable socialists who perceive in Chavez a hope for Latin America. Who can blame them? Most Latin American governments have failed the poor, so it’s only logical that anyone representing the left would draw their interest. These socialists usually ignore the dismal failures of other leftists, including Castro. They see a US government conspiracy in every Latin failure, unable to believe that failed leaders lead failed governments. Blame it on the American government and capitalism, but continue living in the US with its luxuries, including the deli around the corner where many bought goodies before the event. (Cubans don’t enjoy that luxury.)

Then there were Black Americans, there to support the Man who has craftily promoted himself as a Fighter Against Venezuelan Racism, as if Venezuela were Ecuador or Peru, where there are strict racial divides among the classes. Many of these Black activists have never seen Venezuela’s Very Blond First Lady, who quickly divorced Chavez and fled with their daughter. (She substituted his wife of color after he became a candidate.) Nor have these activists seen the leading members of Venezuela’s traditional political and business elites, who comprise as many colors as a rainbow. (A Real Rainbow, not a uni-color Rainbow Coalition.) I can not blame these activists for their well-intentioned beliefs, because they have confronted real racism. Their activism is founded on true persecution. (While no one can deny that Blacks have achieved real gains in the United States since my first cousin Gould Beech and his friend Washington Carver battled racism in the thirties, Katrina exposed the devastating poverty which many American Blacks face every day. I wonder what Jesse Jackson is doing in Venezuela, when there’s so much work to be done at home. But I guess that his involvement in Venezuela is a matter between him and his God.)

Others standing in line included a young man wearing a t-shirt of the Che Guevara, a group of Puerto Rican independence fighters, college students. Thinly scattered throughout were Venezuelans who claimed to be Bolivarian Circles from Connecticut and Boston. One young woman with fair skin and green eyes was holding a sign which read, CIRCULO BOLIVARIANO BOSTON. There were also Dominicans, and people of other Latin American countries. Venezuelan embassy employees were buzzing around, with tags dangling from their necks.

Who wasn’t be allowed to enter? Me. And members of Venezuela’s organized opposition. Our names were erased from the list. I guess that Chavez’s concept of participative democracy means that everyone who supports him is allowed to participate. Everyone else isn’t. (That’s how it works in Venezuela too.) I wonder what his American supporters, with their “invitation only” mentality, would mean for the future of this country. Viva la revolucion.

Later that night, returning from work, I walked by the Church again. A police woman standing next to a blue barricade told me I would have to cross the street. Since it was 9:30, (and she told me that Chavez had arrived late, around 7:30), I told her I hoped she had a stool. I warned her that Chavez is a talker. “I’ve heard,” she replied.

The following is an approximation of our conversation:

Me: He’s a talker.

She: I’ve heard.

Me: This is so ridiculous. No one wants to kill him. So much security. Do you know that the President of Colombia came to the US without bodyguards, while Chavez requested visas for over one hundred members of his security?

She: Oh, he even brought his own food. He didn’t eat anything that we provided.

Me: Are those embassy personnel?

She: Yes, it’s incredible how rude the embassy personnel are to the NYPD [New York Police Department]. When they walk by us, they’re supposed to show us their id’s, but they just walk by and ignore us.

I walked away, feeling irritated that Chavez’s paranoia was blocking the sidewalk that my taxes pay for, angry that much- needed NYPD officers were standing around doing nothing, getting treated badly by incompetent diplomats.

On Sunday, I noticed that thousands of Colombians had turned up to see President Uribe in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One man interviewed on television said, “He came to the United States to be in touch with his community.” Their yellow, blue, and red colors (same as the Venezuelan flag’s) seemed to mean unity. Their common fight was poverty, guerrillas, and economic inequalities. Among the crowd were not Bush-hating socialists or Puerto Rican independencists. Only Colombians of every color and race and class who were there to see their quiet president.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that those who support Chavez in the US care very little about the actual conditions in Venezuela. To them, Chavez is not the President of Venezuela. He is the Man who Defied Bush at the UN, the Man who Defies the “Empire”, the Man who Rails against Capitalism, the Man who Rails Against the Establishment.

The fact that Venezuelan poverty and misery has increased, that the country is fractured, that the country is steeped in violence, that one political party dominates - all of these details don’t matter, because Chavez is the new Che.

Therefore, the Venezuelan opposition needs to focus on the problems inside Venezuela, instead of worrying about the international court of opinion. Foreign activists will continue to support and defend Chavez – the Fantasy – at any cost. He is only convenient to them as a cause. The violence that they often display at opposition members, (such as tearing up opposition flyers and hurling it at activists while screaming obscenities) is misdirected anger, at the failures in their own lives or their own systems. Manipulated by propaganda and Chavez’s penchant for charismatic persuasion, even the best-meaning human on the planet would become an ignorant activist. But convincing them should not the aim of the Venezuelan opposition, which needs to focus on the Venezuela’s dissolving democracy.

This week, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe quietly came to Washington and held successful meetings throughout the capital. Then he discreetly came to New Jersey and met with his people. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo also held quiet but successful meetings in Washington. No drama, no screaming, no insults. Just work.

But work is not something that interests Chavez, (or even Jackson), unless the cameras are rolling. Venezuelans should also roll their eyes – and move forward.

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