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Belafonte and Sheehan love Chávez, not Venezuela

By Gustavo Coronel

July 9, 2006 | As a senior Venezuelan I have seen my country and my people living in much better times than today. Therefore, I feel sad when I listen to the likes of Cindy Sheehan and Harry Belafonte speak of their love for Hugo Chávez. On the July 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, guest host and MSNBC White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviewed Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan said that "Hugo Chávez in not anti-American" and that she'd rather live under Chávez than Bush. Sheehan cites the aid of Chávez to New Orleans' Katrina victims and the oil subsidies to the U.S. "poor" as examples of Chávez humanity. She was in Venezuela back in January where she kissed Chávez and appeared totally under his spell. In her enthusiasm, she mentioned on Hardball that Chávez had already been elected eight times. In fact, he was elected in 1999 and re-elected two years later (comfortably running against his partner in the failed 1992 coup d'état, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, now Ambassador to the U.N.) and survived a controversial presidential recall referendum in 2004, validated by Jimmy Carter but denounced as fraudulent by millions of Venezuelans.

Sheehan has clearly let resentment get the best of her. She lost her son in Iraq and she blames Bush for it. This is a very personal feeling that should be respected. But to extrapolate from there to "love" Chávez, only because he hates Bush and opposes him violently, is morally wrong. Chávez is a friend of Saddam Hussein, a pupil of Fidel Castro, and is now an ally of Ahmadinejad in Iran and of Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Sheehan's understandable bitterness for the loss of her son is somehow mutating into an ideological embrace of the most despicable tyrants and rogue regimes of the world.

The case of Belafonte is more difficult to understand on the basis of a personal experience. It responds to ideology. Belafonte has long lived in awe of tyrants, from Castro to Chávez. TransAfrica Forum has just instituted its first International Freedom Award and, not surprisingly, the first recipient was TransAfrica founder and board member, Harry Belafonte. In this rather incestuous event Belafonte gave an acceptance speech in which he dedicated an inordinate amount of space to Chávez and his "Bolivarian Revolution." Belafonte said: "I am deeply respectful of President Chávez. I am very blessed to have the friendship of Bernardo Alvarez, the [Venezuelan] Ambassador [to the U.S.]," adding "we have pledged to not only support the Bolivarian Revolution and what the Venezuelan people are trying to achieve in their country, but to help spread that wonderful movement to other nations in the southern hemisphere…Chile, and on and on...." Let me say the following to Mr. Belafonte: If, (1), You deeply respect a man who, in 1992, led a bloody and inept military coup against a democratically elected president, causing the deaths many innocent Venezuelans; (2), You deeply respect a man who is aligned today with Iran and North Korea; (3) You deeply respect a man who is leading one of the most corrupt and wasteful governments in Venezuelan history, then, I cannot respect you. I cannot respect you when you pledge to help spread Chávez's madness to other countries. In so doing you have corroborated what many Latin American governments are saying: Hugo Chávez and his followers are becoming a main source of political and social instability in the hemisphere. Hugo Chávez has given or promised more than US$16 billion to governments in the region and intervened in their internal political affairs, trying to promote his revolution. And now you tell us that you personally or, worse, TransAfrica Forum as an institution, have become one of his agents.

You speak in your speech of "Afro-ness in Latin America: Afro-Venezuelan, Afro-Brazilian" etc. I think this is racist. In Venezuela we are very proud of just being Venezuelans, not Euro-Venezuelans, Asian-Venezuelans or Afro-Venezuelans. Trying to divide our population into racially identifiable groups, in a purported name of anti-racism, is absurd. You speak of an African Diaspora, technically a correct term, but one which suggests the absence of African  racial or cultural integration in Latin America, which I think is most improper. Certainly in Venezuela, cultural and racial integration of people of African descent has been extremely high.

You use the same argument of Sheehan concerning the Chávez aid to New Orleans during Katrina to base your enthusiasm for Chávez. Did you know that Hugo Chávez prevented U.S. aid from reaching Venezuela during the 1999-2000 Vargas mudslides that took more than 35,000 lives? $25 million of U.S. aid that could have saved many lives was turned back (and lost for the U.S.) within sight of the Venezuelan coast by this small-minded tyrant. If he did this in 1999 because it would have been "politically" damaging to him, don't you think he could be "aiding" some of the U.S. poor today to reap political benefits? He is using the Venezuelan people's money, not his own money, to reap the praises of persons like you and Sheehan.

You ask Chávez: "Can you bring something to the table to the Black farmers in Alabama?" Frankly, Mr. Belafonte, this sounds undignified. I think the Black farmers of Alabama are not looking for handouts from a tyrant but looking for opportunies to work and to create their own wealth. To suggest they are after handouts from anyone is demeaning to them. If you, as you claim, and I have no reason to doubt, "love this country," I ask you to fight for what has made this country great: freedom, justice and love of democracy. If you go abroad, try to fight so that the countries you visit enjoy these same blessings. Today, millions of Venezuelan lack freedom, justice and democracy. They are the object of social, political and economic retaliation for having voted against your friend in the presidential recall referendum of 2004. Next time you visit Cuba ask your friend Castro to hold free and fair elections, after 45 years in power, ask him to free the hundreds of political prisoners that crowd the prisons of the island. Only when you do this can you claim to be true to the ideals of the U.S., country you claim to love.

You say: "I seek to continue to serve…Venezuela…and revolution wherever it is…we embrace [the] Bolivarian revolution." You have a right to serve revolution, to align yourself with the tyrants of this world. But, in doing so, you cannot expect to keep the respect of democracy-loving people around the world. Loving Chávez is quite different from loving Venezuela. Loving ideology is quite different from having real compassion. You cannot have a split personality and represent the United Nations, on the one side, and declare your love for tyrants and rogue governments on the other. You cannot speak against racism and use racist remarks, as when you referred to Colin Powell as a 'house slave of the Bush administration' in 2002.

I congratulate you on winning the inagural Amilcar Cabral International Freedom Award, instituted by your organization. In a visit to Cuba, in 1996, Cabral gave a speech called "The Weapon of Theory" where he said, among other things: "…class struggle is the motive force of history…." For him, the fight against colonialism was not the main thing, class struggle was. He was a typical Marxist. And he added something in that speech that should serve Belafonte as a caveat against his adoration of Chávez's revolution: "…the development of a phenomenon in movement, whatever its external appearance, depends mainly in its internal characteristics." Chávez's revolution might look acceptable on the outside, given the huge amounts of money at its disposal to buy loyalties and consciences, but it's rotting away from the inside. Corruption, abuse of power and ineptness are its internal characteristics.

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