There Is Much to Do: An Interview With Hugo Chavez
Three years ago, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez caused a stir when, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he called then-US President George W. Bush a "devil." "I can still smell the sulfur," he said, standing at the same podium where, a day earlier, Bush had given his own address. Last week, Chávez once again followed a US president in the UN podium, but this time he caught a whiff of something different--"the smell of hope." In the following interview--conducted at Venezuela's mission to the United Nations in New York--Hugo Chávez talks about his relationship with Barack Obama and what his election could mean for the United States, as well as about the Honduran crisis, plans to extend the Pentagon's presence in Colombia, domestic successes and challenges, and the legacy of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Greg Grandin: I'd like first to ask you about the Honduran crisis. Manuel Zelaya--the president overthrown in a coup on June 28--is currently in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, having returned to the country in secret. What happens next? What can be done to force those who carried out the coup to negotiate?
Hugo Chávez: It's not for me to decide what the next step is. Zelaya has called for dialogue. That was the first thing he did as soon as he entered the Brazilian embassy. The coup-plotters have responded with repression, death and terror. I believe that the brutal nature of this coup will lead to its failure.
GG: But how do you explain the intransigence of Roberto Micheletti, the president installed by the coup? There is about a month to go before the scheduled November 29 presidential elections, and whether Zelaya is returned to office or not, we know that one of two candidates from either the National or Liberal parties--both conservatives--is going to win. So why wouldn't the de facto government want a negotiated solution, allowing a symbolic return of Zelaya to the presidency for a short period in order to legitimate the outcome of the election?
HC: Noam Chomsky has a book, which I read for the first time when I was in Spain, called Fear of Democracy. There is your answer. Fear of democracy. In Honduras, they had a sham democracy. It was run by elites, what was called a liberal democracy but in reality was a false democracy. Honduras has been governed by a small group that for a long time has been supported by the United States, which used Honduras as a military base against other countries of Central America, against Cuba, turning the country into a colony. Manuel Zelaya came from the ranks of the Liberal Party, he entered the government as an intelligent young man, breathing in the new winds blowing from South America, the winds of change, I would say even winds of revolution. It is different from the revolution of the 1970s. This one is carried out not with rifles but by a peaceful people, it is a democratic revolution. Montesquieu said that men needed to be able to ride the wave of events. And that's what Zelaya did. With his cowboy hat he climbed up and rode the wave. And as soon as he broached the question of convening a constitutional assembly to consult with the people about refounding the republic, the political class that has governed all this time, the Honduran bourgeoisie, became frightened. That is the fear of democracy.
GG: What is the importance of events in Honduras for the rest of the continent? There are signs that the right, the transnational right, is regrouping, and that it sees Honduras as the first battle in a larger struggle to roll back the left.
HC: They are going to fail. Of course, it is important not to underestimate the continental right. It has gone on the offensive in many places. They attacked Venezuela, hard, with the support of Bush, as you know. They attacked in Brazil, trying to destabilize Lula so the Workers Party couldn't govern. They failed. They attacked Bolivia, hard, with all the venom of a serpent, in an effort to overthrow Evo Morales. They failed. They attacked Ecuador, and Rafael Correa is still there. Then, in Honduras, they attacked what they believed to be--and in a way was--the weakest flank. But they were in for a surprise. For three months, the Honduran people have been in the street, with unprecedented strength. That's what they found on the supposed weak flank. So I think the continental right should well consider its next step. They haven't even been able to consolidate their power in Honduras, notwithstanding that they enjoy the monolithic unity of the Honduran bourgeoisie and the support of the military, so if they decide to attack again in South America, they will fail. It is a battle, a game of chess, that we are fighting everyday. But the continental right has lost its way, it doesn't have a project for governance. In the United States, the government is bailing out banks, intervening in the economy, yet in Latin America, the right continues to talk about "free markets." It's totally outdated, they don't have arguments, they don't have any sense.
GG: But they will have seven US military bases in Colombia.
HC: It seems as if there are two Barack Obamas. And hopefully, the Obama who spoke today at the United Nations will win out in the end. But it was Obama who also approved the seven military bases in Colombia. Nobody can think otherwise, because who is the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the military if not Obama? If Venezuela decided to send troops to another country, or to set up a military base in Puerto Rico, it would be me, as president, making the decision. So Obama is full of contradictions, and hopefully the people of the United States, you, the thinking public, need to push your president. If I were I New Yorker, I would say, Mr. President, why are you putting military bases in Colombia? I said to Obama in Trinidad [at the Summit of the Americas in April] what I said to Bill Clinton ten years ago--one could at least talk to Clinton--and the same I told George W. Bush--only one time, because one couldn't talk about anything with him--"let's look for peace in Colombia." Hopefully the people of the United States will demand from its president, and its government, and its congress, to stop with the politics of war throughout the world. Obama said some troublesome things today, veiled threats. I have the phrase here, if I am not mistaken, that the US "will know how to defend the interests of all." Does this mean that tomorrow Obama is going to be able to say that he has invaded Iran in order to defend the interests of Venezuela, or of Mexico, or of Algeria? No, Venezuelan interests are to be defended by Venezuela. The US should defend the interests of the US. Where are the US people, where are the intellectuals, who could put limits on their government?