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I went to see the Chávez circus in Washington, D.C.

By Gustavo Coronel

06.03.06 | Well, it was no Cirque du Soleil nor Ringling Bros. It was more like a small town circus in the Venezuela of our childhood: sad clowns, malnourished lions, third rate trapeze artists. I attended a portion of the event called National Venezuela Solidarity Conference, which was inaugurated by the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States and held at George Washington University, in Foggy Bottom, during the weekend.

The name given to the event was grossly inaccurate. It was not solidarity for Venezuela what brought most of the people together but rabid anti-Americanism. In fact, it was not even support for Chávez or his revolution what seemed to serve as the main cement binding the audience. It was hate of Bush and, more precisely, hate or resentment against the U.S. political establishment, which the members of the audience perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the main cause of the misfortunes of the United States.

As a Venezuelan citizen, enjoying the hospitality of this wonderful country, I will not get involved in that fight. I paid my ticket to go and see an event about Venezuela and what I saw was an anti-American event organized by communist, socialist, racist and other extremist groups that would support anyone who sounded like an enemy of the U.S. government.

First Impressions

Let me tell you some of the things I saw. As I entered the place there were a line of tables, each one with the name of a sponsor organization. These organizations were selling books, shirts, posters, postcards, flags, coffee and assorted bric a brac. I asked for Venezuelan coffee but they had none. The books being peddled were mostly about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Guevara, Castro and, of course, Chávez. At the site of an organization called Freedom Road Socialist Organization, I saw a book extolling the virtues of the FARC, the narcoterrorist Colombian guerrilla group, being sold. I found this very revealing, at an event promoted and inaugurated by the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States. The people at the tables did not seem to be interested in the event as such and were there simply to sell their stuff. They were ideological street peddlers and could have been found in the streets of Caracas, Harare or Tehran. Most of the members of the audience, however, did not look capable of paying $15 for a book on the virtues of the FARC. I know I could not, even if I had wanted to.

I collected some of the free material, including an issue of the Workers World, with the slogan: Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite! This issue had articles on the Cuban Heroes put in prison in the U.S. for spying for Cuba, about the Puerto Rican protests against the FBI and similar pieces about imperialism, colonialism, racism etc.

The sponsors of the event included pro-Cuban, pro-Iranian, pro-Sandinista, pro-Socialist and Communist groups, as well as groups associated with racist icons, quite a mixture of partially digested extreme ideologies. Being there felt like being in a different planet.

The Event

Mr. Chuck Kaufman, who used often the words imperialist and colonialist to define the U.S. opened the event. He warned the audience about the possible presence of provocateurs in the room (I think he was looking at me when he said that, as I seemed to be the only dissenter in the room). Mr. Dan Hallinger, a professor at Webster University, who apologized about having few women in the panels, followed him. In fact, there were few women in the panels and very few blacks in the audience. He introduced the "important" Venezuelan people there: The Ambassador, a Consul called Martin Pacheco, former Vice President Adinas Bastidas (now living in Washington, D.C.), three other members of Venezuelan consulates in the country and a group of about 15 Venezuelans who were asked to stand up (I stood up and was conveniently photographed for future reference).

The Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Bernardo Alvarez, formally opened the event. He gave a low-key, moderate speech of ten or fifteen minutes in which he announced that Chávez would probably make a reference to the event in next day's Aló Presidente, although this seemed to elicit little enthusiasm in the audience. He also said that Chávez was not an accident in Latin America and mentioned Evo Morales as an example. There were applauses and a few shouts: Long lives the revolution! An assistant to Alvarez waved a Venezuelan flag from his seat.

A Venezuelan lady, Xiomara Garcia, from the Bolivarian Circle of Oregon, spoke next. She sounded like a sincere person until the moment she congratulated Chávez for fighting corruption and managing the country well. At this point I had strong doubts about her sincerity, since corruption in the Chávez regime is the highest we have ever seen in Venezuela and Chavez's managing abilities are at the same level of his abilities as a baseball player.

At this point in time, Dan Hallinger said to us that Mr. Andrés Izarra, the keynote speaker, had failed to show up. In his place, however, we heard a Latino leader from the West Coast, Mr. Antonio Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez proved to be very articulate and spoke to us about Latino power and how the Latinos would take over the control of the U.S. at some point in time, in order to recapture what had always been theirs. He also congratulated Venezuelans for organizing so well into cooperatives and mass groups. He knew little about Venezuela and seemed to care even less, giving us, instead, an anti-American speech, not only against Bush but against the Democrats as well.

Hallinger reminded the audience that "Chávez was not crazy, that he made others crazy." He also apologized for the lack of translators and asked for volunteers. I almost volunteered, except that the organizers would not have agreed to let me do it. I thought it would have been great fun to be a translator for, say, Adina Bastidas, one of the most notorious members of the Chávez regime.

The Main Panel

The main panel of the morning was incomplete, said Hallinger, due to the denial of the U.S. government to issue visas to those coming from Venezuela. Participants included Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum; a young Venezuelan called Jorge Alonso Guerrero, from the Afro-Venezuelan Network and Mark Weisbrot, probably the better-known Chávez apologist in the U.S.

Mr. Fletcher gave a well organized, academic speech on the Haitian revolution and the Monroe Doctrine. He was very careful about saying that he only agreed with the "general thrust" of Chávez's regime, not necessarily with all of his policies. His speech was probably not in tune with what the largely young and emotional audience was expecting.

The Venezuelan representative, Mr. Jorge Alonso Guerrero, gave a more passionate speech, which sounded better in English translation than in the Spanish original. He was very candid when he said that the first signs of aggression from the U.S. took place in 1999, when "the government denied the entrance of the U.S. marines in Venezuela, after the mudslides took place." Of course, Mr. Guerrero had it all upside down. The U.S. sent help to us in 1999 and Chávez denied the entrance of the engineers who would have cooperated in the reconstruction of the bridges and roads that had collapsed. Chávez acted as a barbarian. The act of aggression was his, not the U.S. The audience was left pretty much speechless. The translator, however, had said that "the people" of Venezuela had denied the entrance to the U.S. help and I shouted "No. Not the people. The government of Chávez did." The translator was forced to correct her version. The other "act of aggression of the U.S. against Chávez," the panelist said, came when he was denied a U.S. visa. He forgot to mention that Chávez had led a bloody military coup in 1992 against the democratically elected government of Carlos Andres Perez. This explains the denial of the visa.

Mr. Mark Weisbrot gave the audience a few remarks on how democratic the Chávez government was and said that the "OAS observers had made a very favorable report on the last legislative elections in Venezuela." In fact, the report was highly critical of the manner in which the National Electoral Council had handled these elections. The manipulations of the National Electoral Council had led to the withdrawal of all opposition candidates and to an 85% level of abstention in the elections. In their report the OAS observers recommended changing the composition of the National Electoral Council, due to the fact that the people of Venezuela clearly did not trust the current Board and suggested changes in the mechanisms for conducting future elections, to guarantee a degree of transparency that is not present today. Hallinger closed down the panel with a series of very ill informed statements about Petróleos de Venezuela and the poor management it had received in the past, when the managers were former, non-patriotic employees, of the multinational companies. Hallinger proved to be very ignorant about the Venezuelan oil industry.

The session was opened for questions. I consulted with one of the organizers about the time I would be allowed for making a general comment on what I had heard and he said: "about one minute, only for a question, no speeches." Under this severe limitation I preferred to keep silent since I felt like the mosquito that, flying over the elephant, thinks: I know what I have to do but I don't know where to start!

The rest of the program and a final comment

The program for this event was long. It included individual workshops on themes such as: Venezuela and Africa; the wonders of the Cuban medical assistance to Venezuela; going to Venezuela to see the revolution at work; how to buy from Citgo; the U.S. war on Cuba and the Luis Posada Carriles case. The problem with these workshops is that there were not enough people to attend them all simultaneously. They should have been less numerous.

In general I found this event poorly organized and pretty harmless. It is clear that traditional, anti-establishment, extremist groups find in this type of gathering a vehicle to vent their frustrations, comfort each other and renew their collective hopes for radical change. Some of the participants are men and women of good will, sincerely convinced that society should change their ways. Some of their concerns such as economic inequality, racism (which works both ways, not only from whites to blacks) and social and political exclusion (like the one Chávez has imposed on the Venezuelan middle-class) are legitimate and I share them. However, many of the participants used this event to vent their hate and anger against the U.S. By doing this, they simply utilized the Venezuelan tragedy to further their own narrow ends. As a Venezuelan I find this criminal and inconsiderate on their part. They have converted the Venezuelan political and social tragedy, which Venezuelans are suffering in their own flesh and blood, in part of a global conflict. In this conflict they embrace the cause of mass murderers (Hussein, Castro), barbarian dictators (Mugabe) and authoritarian populists (Chávez), just because they hate the government of their own country.

The promoters of this event are especially to blame. They are manipulating some people of good will, turning them into tools of aggression against organized society, to advance their private agendas for political power and ideological supremacy. They are using the financial resources that belong to the Venezuelan people to support these events. Most of the panelists and staff for the event were connected with, and in the payroll of, the Chávez government (Embassy, Venezuelan Information Office, consulates, etc). In doing this, they deny with their actions what they claim with their words.

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