Wednesday, March 03, 2004

An Open Response 

There is an "Open Letter from Venezuela" that has landed on Guillermo Juan Parra's blog, & has circulated through the poetry community today. It's signed by Venezuelan writers, artists & academics, appealing to their colleagues around the world to support their movement to remove President Hugo Chavez from office. Lest we believe that the thoughtful & creative arts practitioners of the world are unanimous in their support of the latest attempt to return Venezuela to "business as usual", allow me to offer this partial response.

Last Sunday, I participated in a Global Women's Strike benefit performance at the Bowery Poetry Club. I was one of the many artists from Philadelphia, NYC, Paris, Kiev & Caracas that support the vision of Hugo Chavez. My colleagues & friends that were part of last week's show are sharp & rigorous thinkers that see much of the anti-Chavez movement for what it is.

The economic direction Venezuela has taken since Chavez took office in 1998 has been one of opposition to the neo-liberal policies that have been disastrous to all but an elite minority in South America. In its opposition to so-called "globalization" policies, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (during the Chavez term) has constitutionally protected indigenous citizens to retain their intellectual property rights. His attempts at reviving OPEC (& subsequently doubling the asking price for Venezuelan oil) hasn't gone over well with international monetary organizations, which require a "restructuring" of oil export in such a way that would return the selling power to the kleptocrats of Venezuela's past. The dismantling of the state-run oil companies would mean surrendering Venezuela's oil-rich resources to foreign investment & the minority that benefits from such investment. Chavez is resisting a hostile takeover.

Chavez has a law & order problem. However, it's not the problem attributed to the dictators that anti-chavistas compare him to. The crime rate is very high. How high is it in Castro's Cuba? How high was it in Hussein's Iraq? In fact, the Chavez critics argue that he’s soft on crime. How soft? He freed thousands of prisoners during his first year of office. Over 80% of Venezuela's prisoners in 1998 were being held without trial. Chavez sent attorneys, judges & human rights workers directly into the prisons to expedite due process in a reasonable & timely manner. As a result, thousands were freed due to time served or lack of evidence. The Opposition claims this action put criminals back on the streets. They're right. It also returned many innocent citizens to their homes in the working world to feed their families.

The Opposition calls him a dictator. Among his "authoritarian" moves, he seeks to regulate the private media. Free speech advocates everywhere should have concern for such accusations. Now, let's address Chavez’s regulation proposal. He wants private media to give "equal time" for political candidates. Sound familiar? These are the guidelines the United States takes very seriously in its own media. But why is this regulation necessary?

Even the U.S. media's most conservative mass-media news station claims to be "fair & balanced." The private media in Caracas makes no such claims. Routinely, the president is called "crazy" & "insane" during news broadcasts. He is called a "sex pervert for Castro" during the evening news when he visits Havana. Private television in Venezuela is owned by a handful of media moguls who have no interest in being fair & balanced. They are the same television stations that celebrated their short-lived victory by admitting participation in the coup to depose Chavez in 2002.

And then there’s the coup. The Opposition gained power briefly in 2002. They immediately dissolved courts, legislatures & other bodies of government that provided even a possibility of checks & balances. The anti-chavista regime brutally suppressed Chavez supporters who marched in Caracas to show their outrage at the staging of the coup. The private media was forbidden to broadcast reports of chavista gatherings in the street. And this all happened over just one weekend, while an American jet arrived off the coast to whisk Chavez away to the Dominican Republic. This too, sounds familiar. In this case it didn’t happen. Ultimately, the coup was overturned by the people of Venezuela, & Hugo Chavez returned to the presidency.

The issue of the day is whether the signatures collected for a referendum to call for early presidential elections will be considered valid. The Opposition calls Chavez an authoritarian for casting a suspicious eye toward signature authenticity. What should be mentioned is that some of the key players in the recall referendum movement were also members of the coup plot. They have remained in Venezuela, & have exercised the freedom to organize against the policies of the president. If they were willing to collaborate in a coup, would they also consider signature fraud? It’s a good question. But we need to ask another basic, but important question. Who is being anti-democratic?

Chavez was elected by 56% of the Venezuelan vote. He called for a referendum for a new constitution, & the popular vote approved it. A multi-party assembly drafted a new constitution, & the people of Venezuela voted overwhelmingly in support of it. The military generals who plotted the coup against Chavez were expelled from the military, but were free to remain in Venezuela. The private media that conspired against him remains privately owned & vehemently opposed to his policies. We see the face of what the Opposition calls "a cult of personality." Now we must also examine those who have organized the latest campaign against him.

This is not to suggest that the Chavez opponents that signed the Open Letter do not have legitimate grievances against the shortcomings of his presidency. As artists, academics & intellectuals, we have the duty to defend the right to dissent. I am asking those who have received & read the Open Letter to question the motives of the Opposition’s core. I'm also hoping you will examine the existence of modern democratic systems (real & imagined) & ask, "Just what does democracy look like?"

Frank Sherlock

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