What would it be like to have a President who’s capable of sitting down and talking for five hours with anyone? Inquiring U.S. citizens would like to know.
Chávez recalled that, when he exited prison following the 1992 insurrection, he was shunned by the media which had been given instructions not to interview him. “We formed small groups, street by street, town by town. The network of networks should be like the fire that spreads or the sun that rises and intensifies the light,” he said. “We need people armed with ideas, with creativity, and also with rifles,” he added, “because when the changes come for real, through a Constitution, they must be defended. Even though the changes are made in a peaceful manner, the oligarchy will take up arms.”
The Venezuelan president’s meeting with members of the “In Defense of Humanity” network
This past April 12th, some hundred intellectuals and artists met with Venezuela’s president during the international conference convened by the network of networks, “In Defense of Humanity” under the theme “Armed With Ideas.”
Over five hours, during which intellectuals posed a variety of questions, Hugo Chávez, in military dress following his participation in a military parade, spoke of the coup d’etat six years prior, the situation in Colombia, in Venezuela of course, their political principles and many other subjects.
He began in an intimate tone, recalling certain unknown details from the hours between April 11 and 12, 2002, when Chávez and his government were held by putschists. Among them, the words of his then Defense Minister, José Vicente Rangel, who also accompanied him at the conference: “Tonight, here, I sacrifice myself,” “The Palace must be defended with our lives.” To which Chávez responded: “I don’t think it will end here.” “For me, if it ends here, I’ve lived a full life; I’m ready to sacrifice myself,” said the Minister. Rangel telephoned his son to say, “Pepe, I already told Anita (his wife) that if this day should come, she would end up a widow.” The Venezuelan president emphasized the dilemma that the soldiers and cadets holding them then faced: “It was one of those moments in which one had to prove whether it was worth it to live,” and the cadets refused to obey the orders of the putschists. Chávez recalled that it was then that Fidel Castro’s telephone call came through; technically unexplainable, because “the telephone lines had been telepathically cut using the latest generation U.S. technology, because an armed fleet was already in Venezuelan waters.” Communication was achieved thanks to “Cuba’s invisible satellite,” he said ironically. Fidel told him, “Chávez you are not to die today, do not sacrifice yourself.” “And so, he strengthened the idea that I came to elaborate,” added the Venezuelan president. “I saw that they had come to kill me and I remembered el Che when he told his torturers to look at him, that they were only going to kill a man. Then other soldiers came out, also in the darkness, and I told them that if they were going to kill this man, they’d have to kill us all, and in those seconds my life was decided. Meanwhile, the people came out and mobilized themselves and communicated saying ‘take care of this man, for the people are already in the street.’ Two priests were even witnesses to the fact that I had refused to sign a resignation. However, all the television stations came out with the news about the resignation document that I’d never signed. And when the people took to the streets, they broadcast animated cartoons, as though nothing was happening.”
Shortly thereafter, Chávez joined a debate held at the conference with historic overtones of Lenin’s “What is to be done?,” and which he described as “the anguish of the concrete.” To paraphrase Alí Primera: “A sun is rising; we should push the sun.” “We face a historic opportunity,” he added.
He recalled that Simón Rodríguez, Bolívar’s teacher, said that there are two types of men. Those who were always writing and those who were always fighting. If everyone belonged to the first group, there would be no trees due to all the paper they would need and if everyone belonged to the second group, there would be no steel because of all the weapons they would require. In this way he suggested the necessity of the existence of both and that each group was essential enough to make dangerous the existence of only one or the other. He also explained the development of certain meetings among rebel military officers while he was young, with the aim of regenerating and democratizing Venezuela, just as in the first years of his government: “It was an interminable and exhausting argument that never went anywhere, and it was from there that infiltrators whose objective was to block and render us useless would be talking about the sex of angels or the three feet of a cat.” Which led to the coup d’etat in April of 2002. “Every revolution needs the lash of the counter-revolution,” he went on, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, implying that these hard moments could serve to get beyond such paralyzing debates. After the failed coup, Fidel told him, “It won’t take much for them to try again for you.” And actually, just a few months later, the petroleum strike began with the objective of toppling the government at the cost of sinking Venezuela’s economy internationally.
He then went on to recall the overwhelming support for progressive policies in Latin America: “The king of Spain tolerated me when I was alone, but now there are more of us, hence his arrogance when he could no longer bear listening not only to me, but to Daniel and to Evo…”
In this confidential line, he explained Fidel Castro’s comments following the defeat of last December’s referendum for constitutional reform, when he said, “Chávez, a leader such as yourself, right now, cannot take on the leadership of the practical battle at the same time you are leading the battle of ideas,” leaving him to understand the necessity of surrounding himself with colleagues who could dedicate themselves to these ideas. Chávez acknowledged errors, for example, the shortages of essential food products in the days preceding the referendum. It was then that he recalled the food crisis that a large part of humanity is suffering today. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between $1.2 and $1.7 billion dollars are needed to attend to the urgent hunger situation in 37 countries, “but this is what the U.S. spends in only one day in Iraq,” he said. He referred ironically to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis, and indicated that perhaps Venezuela could give it a loan so that its staff could be paid, or at least get some humanitarian aid.
But he returned again to the heart of the debate at the conference about how the voice of intelligentsia can reach the rest of society and be involved in the struggle for a better world. Chávez recalled that, when he exited prison following the 1992 insurrection, he was shunned by the media which had been given instructions not to interview him. “We formed small groups, street by street, town by town. The network of networks should be like the fire that spreads or the sun that rises and intensifies the light,” he said. “We need people armed with ideas, with creativity, and also with rifles,” he added, “because when the changes come for real, through a Constitution, they must be defended. Even though the changes are made in a peaceful manner, the oligarchy will take up arms.”
It was then that he directed a message toward a meeting of two sectors historically distanced from one another; the military and intelligentsia. “It’s important that the soldiers of Latin America absorb the ideas of renewal and change. Many times, intellectuals don’t see soldiers; they view them as parasites who don’t think. They should see them, hear them, find them…’It’s not a small thing in Latin America to be able to count on soldiers the way Chávez does,’ Cristina Fernandez told me. There where you live,” he added, “ask yourselves where the soldiers are. A good patriotic soldier tends to multiply within the military structure. One day Ignacio Ramonet asked me if it was true what they say about me entering the military academy with one of Che’s books under my arm. And I told him, ‘It’s not true. I didn’t enter with any book, not to mention one by Che. What is true is that when I left the academy, yes, I left with a book by Che under my arm.”
He continued with his anecdotes about the necessity of an armed revolution. He recalled that the news of Allende’s death struck him in the mountains of Venezuela where with an ancient radio he was trying to listen to the worldwide reactions and could hear Fidel Castro’s declarations: “If each worker, each Chilean worker, had had a rifle at hand, the fascist coup would never have taken place.” “Keep fighting,” he told the intellectuals “and never hesitate to direct your ideas to Latin America’s soldiers, so often used and manipulated, because within, there’s heart, there’s fiber. Because to avoid a war of weapons one must say to the enemy that this revolution is peaceful, but backed up with ideas and with rifles.”
During the question and answer session he responded as to the degree of involvement he might play in a hypothetical humanitarian exchange in Colombia. With Ingrid Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, present, the Venezuelan president revealed that Raúl Reyes presence in Ecuador was part of a hostage liberation plan coordinated with Chávez and Correa. “There was a third attempt at release; I asked Rafael Correa that it be done through Ecuador. This was why the FARC spokesman was in Ecuadoran territory. The French government itself was aware of that, with a commission aimed at Ecuador. That’s why they hunted him.” He recalled that the FARC commander Iván Márquez had mentioned that they could barely turn on a radio or a cellphone before having to take off running because the zone would immediately be attacked with missiles. He also told Chávez that the tragedy of the attack on the FARC camp might have been even greater because an even larger civilian group was headed toward the camp. This guerrilla advance party had as its objective the liberation of a group of hostages without conditions, “because we couldn’t offer anything to the FARC beyond political recognition.” Chávez also denounced the present persecution of the spokesman Iván Márquez, with the objective of impeding any kind of humanitarian liberation. “They are even holding prisoner two women whose sole function was to provide proof of life for the hostages, including one to be found in prison, seriously ill, and the other pregnant,” said Chávez.
The Venezuelan president also denied all the Colombian government allegations that linked his government with the guerrillas. “The computer that was miraculously saved from the bombing is a magic computer which says what they tell it to,” he denounced. He recalled that he could also distribute the declarations of some of the two hundred Colombian paramilitaries trained to kill him, some of them underage, who were detained when they entered Venezuelan territory. All of them were subsequently pardoned for humanitarian reasons.
For her part, Yolanda Pulecio, Ingrid Betancourt’s mother, said that she felt safer in Venezuela than in Colombia and expressed her indignation for “the fact that we do not have a real press in Colombia. All you can read there are lies; even the polls lie.” Chávez indicated that he did not agree with Ingrid being held hostage, that “it makes no sense.” He called to the FARC leader, “Marulanda, can’t you see what’s happening in Latin America?” in reference to the peaceful progressive process winning over the region.
The President of Venezuela announced that in October, the Simón Bolívar satellite will be functioning, and will permit among other things, the distribution of cultural content over all of Latin America. He also addressed the recent nationalization of the Sidor steelworks: “Sidor refused over many years to negotiate and comply with the law which establishes that no pension should be less than the minimum salary. This business with 13,000 workers privatized itself and put more than half of its workforce as subcontractors in abusive working conditions. And to top it off, previous governments subsidized it; this business received subsidized electricity while Venezuelan towns went without electricity. They did not wish to negotiate, and I decided to nationalize [them].”
He also referred to Telesur, indicating that it is a space that is not being used to its full potential; “it needs to be revised,” he said. He cited the case of Fredy Muñoz, the station’s journalist under persecution in Colombia.
He denounced the fact that in Bolivia “there’s a Kosovo-type plan” with the aim of breaking up its territorial integrity. “It’s a truly poisonous lie,” he added, “that a Venezuelan Hercules aircraft which brought humanitarian aid, doctors and medicine to Bolivia a few days ago to alleviate the tragic flooding, lived through moments of grave danger under attack by some hundred people whose intention was to make it land in the north of Bolivia so as to make off with its fuel. That’s when the press began to say that it was carrying troops and weapons, something that was untrue, and the plane had to abort its landing and take off again in order to make an emergency landing in Brazil, because it was running out of fuel.”
“The oligarchy has such hate,” he added, “that it continues to sabotage an absolutely democratic process which includes a referendum for a Constituent Assembly; it even uses molotov cocktails to bomb the headquarters in Sucre. Despite that, the Assembly managed to approve the new constitution that should go to a popular referendum, and the right-wing doesn’t want that. And now the agitation for independence. This is the empire’s doing, with all its cold war experience. They tried first with the capital city, then with autonomy. They’ve even got a color for their counter-revolution, green, and a poster that says “I’m autonomous.” Many Bolivians are being used as cannon fodder just as happened in Venezuela; it’s time for us to avoid a tragedy in Bolivia. I have faith in their leader but I also have fears. But Evo’s not going to split - like Jalisco - and Bolivia will triumph.”
Afterwards, he spoke of Argentina: “The media claimed that with Cristina, relations with Caracas would suffer, something absurd. The media is now presenting the theme of taxes in Argentina as something to use against the government, but the citizens have not accepted it. When the people roar, the oligarchy trembles; when the people freeze, the oligarchy celebrates.”
Continuing to speak of the continent, he said “Central America is South-Americanizing itself. I went to Guatemala and to Honduras, the latter for the first time; before it was off limits. Changes can sometimes be slow. I understand Lula; Lula’s our man. They’ve tried to exploit our differences; therefore we’ve decided that we’re going to get together every three months.”
About the social struggles, Chávez criticized the idea of anti-power that often predominates at the World Social Forum, in an uncited reference to Toni Negri: “When I was in prison, some told me that I shouldn’t leave, that I shouldn’t accept amnesty, that my mission was to continue as a prisoner. Their idea was that I had become mythological, and I said that I didn’t want to be a myth, that I wanted to go to the street, with the people. And later that bothered them because I presented myself as a presidential candidate, and they said no, that the choice was anti-power. You have to have power in order to change it.”