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Visiting Venezuela: an activist on what he learned

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Say what?

Hugo Chavez, the charismatic president of oil-rich Venezuela, is one of those polarizing figures whom people either adore or detest. And it's not hard to guess where many in the US stand.

When a coup briefly ousted Chavez, the US was quick to recognize the resulting government. Last summer televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that the CIA ought to assassinate Chavez.

Chavez has taken up his side of the hostilities, opposing US initiatives in the UN and elsewhere. And then there was his recent soapbox effort in the UN, when he compared President George Bush to the devil.

But not all Americans share the government's view. Some are intrigued by the democratic and social reforms Chavez is trying to put in place. They're interested in what he's doing to aid cooperative businesses, promote literacy, and extend the nation's health-care networks to poor rural areas. They find a lot to like in the new constitution he helped shepherd through.

Among them is local activist Vic Vinkey. This spring Vinkey, a member of the Rochester Committee on Latin America, went to Venezuela on a trip sponsored by the human-rights group Global Exchange to experience the nation's transition firsthand.

In the aftermath of the UN speech, and as the UN wrestled with a vote that could give Venezuela a spot on the UN Security Council, we spoke with Vinkey about his experience. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

City Newspaper: You've been on these trips before, but this was your first time going to Venezuela. Why Venezuela?

Vic Vinkey: I like to visit countries that seem to be in transition, where new and interesting things are happening. And in the case of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has been transforming the country. It seemed to me that there's a great social experiment going on there. He is redistributing the money from oil to the poor and less advantaged in a society that previously just sent it to the wealthy and powerful. That plus the fact that they have the new constitution and other things going on.

Explain that new constitution to us.

When Hugo ran for election for the first time, a big part of his platform was a new constitution. He solicited input from the entire populace. People from all over the country, rich and poor alike, sent in their suggestions. I talked with a woman who said, "Here's what I sent in, and here it is in the constitution." As a result, it's a pretty lengthy constitution. But it includes a lot, including rights for women and rights for the native minority peoples.

The constitution establishes five branches: the traditional executive, legislative, and judicial, which we have. Then it has a fourth branch, which is the nonpartisan electoral commission, made up of people from academic life, primarily. They set the standards and conduct the elections throughout the country, so that they have uniform standards, not varying form state to state as we do.

The fifth branch is the people's branch, and that includes an ombudsman and an attorney's office that's empowered to carry out cases in response to complaints from the citizens.

Do you see any downsides to this social experiment?

I can't think of any. The constitution's very popular. When it first came out, it was a bestseller on the newsstands. You can still buy copies on the newsstands. It gives the people a connection to the government. When there was an attempted coup that ousted Chavez for three days, people rose up and said, "This is not in accordance with the constitution."

Were there any surprises on your visit?

I was not totally surprised with the degree to which people are involved in the government and are in favor of Hugo. Although not all of them would initially come out and say that they're Hugo supporters, when you talk to them you find that they voted for him last time and they're in favor of a number of things that he's doing.

They have a women's bank --- a bank that's created just for women, set up to support and encourage women businesses --- small businesses, generally, that could be run out of the home for instance. And that's their sole purpose.

I didn't realize they were supporting cooperatives to the degree that they are; they try to provide financial and legal and other assistance.

Obviously our government has a negative view of Venezuela and particularly of Chavez. How do people there view that, and how did they view you as an American?

In my experience, they're quite sophisticated in separating out the individual from the president of the United States. They have a very negative opinion of the president of the United States, but we didn't encounter any hostility as Americans. People were uniformly friendly and anxious to tell us about the country.

Chavez has advocated a South American determinism that would have the US in a less hands-on role than it is now. Could you talk about that?

Chavez is a great admirer of Simon Bolivar, as many people in South America are, and he is working very hard to bring the countries of South America together. Some people say he's been a little too aggressive proposing his own views, but he's achieved a lot of cooperation quickly from Bolivia and Argentina and from other countries, too. He's formed an alliance that he's shaping as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas that the Bush administration and previous United States administrations have been pushing. There's a lot of opposition to the FTAA in South America, although some countries have been willing.

He's also worked with other countries to propose an exchange of resources. He's proposed an ambitious project for a pipeline that would go from Bolivia, which has rich natural gas resources, and Venezuela, which is rich in oil, to Argentina to provide those resources to Argentina and perhaps other nations further south. Along with the trade alliance and the exchange of oil and natural resources, also he was instrumental in forming teleSUR, which is a broadcast facility serving South America.

You have mentioned the possibility of a personality cult forming around Chavez, that he is a very charismatic figure that people tend to gravitate toward. At the same time, he comes from a military background, so even though it's a democratic project he's launching, there's this military training and military ties.

Right. Well, Eisenhower came from a military background, too.

Chavez is, of course, very popular with the people, and you see his picture up a lot. There is a danger, because he doesn't have any significant rivals, and he doesn't have much opposition in the legislative branch. And he likes to talk, and sometimes he speaks in an aggressive manner.

His remarks about Bush at the UN put a lot of people off.

President Reagan started this rhetorical attack by calling Russia the Evil Empire. Or how about President Bush calling three nations the "axis of evil"?

I think it was a mistake for Chavez to mention that in his UN address, but he didn't start out speaking that way. Unfortunately, the US media, I think encouraged by our government, has kind of developed a habit of wanting to do a knee-jerk attack on Hugo. Maybe that's because of his relationship with Cuba, with Fidel. Hugo went on in his United Nations speech to talk about the injustice of the present United Nations system, and he proposed getting rid of the veto and giving the poorer and the less powerful countries a greater voice in the organization and less control from those few that are on the Security Council.

A lot of people like to refer to him as a dictator, and the plain fact of the matter is that he's survived eight elections and referenda. We talked to a pollster there who told us that 40 percent of the people solidly support Chavez, 40 percent are more or less non-committal but will probably vote for him in the next election, which is this December. And the remainder are probably pretty solidly opposed to him. This is his last opportunity for election, so after this six-year term he'll be out of office.

Do you think that after he's gone Venezuela will continue to have aspirations to be a player on the world stage? And do you think that the democratic reforms he's trying to put in place will continue?

I think I would say yes to both. I think Venezuelans will continue to have international aspirations. They may achieve status as a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council. They have all this oil, and unless there's a tremendous decrease in the price of oil I think they'll continue to play a major role in the world stage, just because of that.

Whether the next president would have as openly-voiced opposition to the United States, I don't know. The US is certainly encouraging that. When I was there, there was a major military maneuver off the coast of Venezuela. There was a US aircraft carrier there, and there were pictures in the news media of the United States ambassador coming on board the aircraft carrier as part of the military maneuvers. So I think to a certain extent you can understand Hugo's reaction with these sorts of threats.

It's this attitude of provocation that comes from the United States that encourages a response from Hugo. Neither of them makes much sense to me. I think that we should try to get along.

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