Hugo Chavez received much attention in the mainstream media for referring multiple times to George W. Bush as the devil during his speech at the United Nations last Wednesday, just a day after the U.S. president spoke to the same assembly. The aftermath of the Chavez speech coincided with a previously scheduled discussion at Resource Center of the Americas with Maria de los Angeles Peña Fonseca, a Venezuelan journalist and activist who has lived in the Twin Cities for two years.
Over the weekend, Fonseca discussed the changes occurring in Venezuela and the role of the charismatic leftist leader Chavez and his supporters in the South American country. “Poor people feel that we put Chavez in that place, in that environment, in government, so he could help us …,” Fonseca explained to a group of about 30 people in the Oscar Romero room of the local community center. She further clarified that it is the people who are taking the future of the country into their own hands, with Chavez as their spokesperson. She showed a few short videos related to the grassroots nature of Chavez’s political support, the creation of a rural community radio station by local campesinos, and the creation of various independent media collectives reporting on a wide variety of issues. The number of alternative media has gone from 23 to 300 since Chavez first came to power in 1998, according to Fonseca.
The U.S. media tends to depict Chavez in a different light than the one represented by Fonseca. Most often he is portrayed as a populist leader with authoritarian tendencies, enforcing a top-down revolution in Venezuela with a mandate from the uneducated and impoverished whose lives have not improved under his leadership.
The discussion held in Minneapolis focused heavily on the positive aspects of the Chavez government and the current situation in Venezuela, as the flip side to the mainstream media’s descriptions of Chavez.
One question regarding freedom of speech prompted a less non-Chavista Venezuelan at the discussion to voice concerns about the difficulty faced by non-Chavez supporters in obtaining government positions due to their political views. She further explained in a conversation afterward that there is little room for a middle ground in Venezuela for more moderate citizens. “You are either with Chavez or against him, and it is very difficult to be in-between,” she complained. “I have a friend who works in government and has to pretend that she is pro-Chavista to keep her job.”
Her views may also represent complaints from a political minority feeling left out in a country where 70 percent of the population is pro-Chavez. Fonseca responded by stating that there is not a single journalist or member of the opposition who has been jailed since Chavez has been in power, even after the coup attempt in 2002 that was supported by some of the major news media at the time.
Other aspects of the Chavez speech at the U.N. unrelated to his “devil” comments were given less U.S. media attention, such as his proposal for reform in the United Nations and support of the people of the United States as opposed to the current administration.
Chavez’s place in world politics has grown as he continues his “revolucion bolivariana” with the support of the majority of the Venezuelan public. He has pursued a foreign policy that is strongly opposed to United States imperialism, and aligning Venezuela with Castro in Cuba and Evo Morales in Bolivia. He has also offered cheap gas prices to the poor in the U.S., drawing attention to the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the military and overseas programs, while poverty increases domestically.
Chavez has been criticized for a similarly international focus, while domestic poverty in Venezuela remains a problem. However, Chavez often plans a trip to some of the poorer sections of the Bronx in New York City to voice his support of the poor during his visits to the U.N., something that it’s hard to imagine Bush doing.