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?
GG: Since President Obama has taken office, has US policy toward Venezuela changed since the Bush years?
HC: Yes, for the worst.
GG: For the worst?
HC: Yes, for the worst. The seven Colombian military bases. They are a threat to Venezuela. Why hasn’t Obama–and today at the UN he listed all the steps he has taken [to improve relations with the rest of the world]–eliminated the Fourth Fleet? It was Bush that re-established the Fourth Fleet, a threat to all of Latin America, with the commander of the fleet saying that its purpose was to patrol South America’s rivers. We are all worried about this in Latin America, and each country has expressed concern in its own way, Venezuela, Bolivia, even Brazil. Now with these seven military bases, the Colombian conflict is going to be spilling out across South America. Hopefully Obama will listen to other voices, and not just repeat what the Pentagon says, those same advisers of Bush, the war makers.
GG: Do you think it ironic that the Right in the US now uses the same tactics and rhetoric to attack Obama that the Venezuelan right uses against your government? Did you follow what happened just two weeks ago, with Obama’s planned address to schoolchildren, when they attacked him in terms very similar to the criticism used against your education reform?
HC: Ah, yes, I read about that, that it was socialist indoctrination.
HC: If only it were socialism! I believe they are scared. And this fear is dangerous. Because independent of whatever reasoned criticism we might have of Obama–such as that concerning the Fourth Fleet, which is an effort to make his actions be coherent with his words–here within the United States, the recalcitrant right is scared. And they hate him. First, because he is black…
GG: This is a debate now within the United States…
HC: Jimmy Carter is saying it. And hopefully Obama won’t be assassinated because of it. But Obama has also taken up the theme of social reform almost as if it were a point of honor, because he made the pledge during the campaign. And also, as Obama knows, out of necessity. Everyday there is more poverty in the United States, everyday there is more uncared-for people who don’t have medicine, doctors, or even education. This country is eating itself from the inside. What’s happening to the American, how do you say it, Dream [in English]. I believe in the American Dream, but the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., not the dream of consumerism, unbridled capitalism or individualism, that craziness, that’s not a dream it’s a nightmare. Now, the recalcitrant right attacks Obama hard, calling him a socialist…
GG: Even a Nazi.
HC: Yes, a Nazi! When we met in Trinidad and shook hands, the right roasted him here for doing so: "Chávez! Why are you greeting Chávez?!" Imagine the craziness just for saying hello. It’s irrational. The right here is scared that Obama is awakening a popular current in the people of the US, and they are trying to stop it. Where it is going to wind up, who knows? But I have a question, where is the US people? Where are the people, when their leader tries to propose something in benefit of the people? The people need to go out into the streets, not just to vote but to passionately protest, to support the president, so he can fulfill his promise. Where are the people?
GG: It is the right that is in the street.
HC: Yes, the right has taken over the street. There is much to do. Those who represent progressive thought–and I include you–need to know that without the people, there is no democracy. The people of the United States need to wake up, wake up and help construct a new country, a great nation, a true democracy. Obama can be an opportunity, and you need to support him with great force, in order to contain those that ferociously oppose whatever change. Like in Honduras. It’s the same situation. The progressive community of the United States needs to support Obama to achieve change, and then it has to demand more change, and more change, and more change.
GG: There is a sense among progressives in the US that the Bolivarian Revolution has reached its limits, at least domestically. They have heard much about your anti-imperialism and your efforts to form a multipolar world, but they know less about what is happening in the country, the successes and failures in advancing a "protagonist democracy."
HC: Many political analysts–the majority of them spokespeople for the right–along with the media–also dominated by the right–go around creating the idea that the government of the Bolivarian Revolution is on the point of collapse. The fall of the price of oil affected us in a way, but not fundamentally, not at the roots or the base of the process. We are passing through stages. We are starting the second decade of the revolution, and are now approaching a new political horizon. The communal councils for example, continue to extend, continue to grow, and they have evolved into a more ambitious project, a socialist commune. We are leaving behind–slowly, but steadily, not in a day, a year or five years–oil dependency, advancing the industrialization of the country. If some people here believe–people of good faith, readers of The Nation–that the Bolivarian Revolution is exhausted, tell them that it isn’t. You can tell them to come and see for themselves. Venezuela is of course a country that has problems, and its revolutionary government has failures, and has made mistakes, but it is an ongoing process.
GG: Venezuela has impressively reduced poverty, inequality, unemployment…
HC: We have achieved nearly all of the Millennium Development Goals. I was here almost ten years ago, in the Millennium Summit, and they even assigned me the task–I wasn’t yet considered the devil, though they were undoubtedly still evaluating me–to coordinate one of the roundtables. I was there for a few days, day after day working and talking with Clinton, Fidel was there too. I remember the day Fidel shook Clinton’s hand, Clinton and Fidel, and I was witness to their short conversation. We had meetings with delegates from Africa, Asia, from China, Russia. Now, we proposed some goals [to reduce poverty]. But today, at the global level, we are poorer than ten years ago. And not only in absolute numbers but relative numbers. But in Venezuela, poverty continues to go down. Unemployment continues to go down. The minimum wage is the highest in Latin America. Social security continues to reach more and more people. The standard of living has risen in Venezuela and according to the measures used by the United Nations Development Program we are in the top rank of human development. We are far from our goals, but we have left the inferno. Attention to the excluded, literacy, Venezuela is now a territory free of illiteracy. Poverty has been halved from it was ten years ago, which was one of the Millennium Goals. Access to potable water, we passed that Millennium goal a long time ago. In education, we have doubled the number of children going to school. It is possible to leave poverty, it is possibly to pull people out of misery. We call this socialism. In Obama’s reflections–the ones I have heard–there are elements of this thought. We don’t call it socialist, but it is a revindication of public policy.
GG: What you have achieved inspires many. But can you talk about the failures, or the concrete plans you have to address ongoing problems, such as inflation, crime and insecurity?
HC: On every front, there are failures and still much work to be done. Right now we are in the process of what we call the three Rs: revision, rectification and re-starting. In health care, in education, improving services, correcting mistakes. We are increasing participatory democracy, protagonist democracy. Delinquency is a global problem, not an exclusive Venezuelan one. Corruption is hurting us. I believe Obama talked this morning of the problem of corruption in developing countries. But here, in the US, there is a lot of corruption. In Europe there is corruption. Capitalism is the reign of corruption. Everything that happened with the big corporations, the big banks, the big insurance companies. What is it? Corruption. Corruption of values, fraud against the people, theft from the citizenry. Now, when I mentioned earlier about a new stage, 2010 to 2020, I was talking about above all a project that had to solve these problems, this weakness.
GG: But how, exactly? Can you give some concrete examples, say, in reference to violence and public security? One recent report identifies Caracas–in terms of homicide rates–as the second most violent city in the world, after Ciudad Juárez.
HC: Ciudad Juárez?
GG: Ciudad Juárez.
HC: I think there are cities in the United States that are more violent. I don’t want to minimize the problem. Look, we are attacking the problem with a lot of energy, with distinct programs. For example, a little while ago we enacted legislation restructuring the National Police, because historically, going back many years, the police department was penetrated by delinquents. So we are trying to cleanse the police. But at the bottom of this is a cultural problem. Out-of-control crime, in all these countries, is part of a moral crisis. Ask yourself, how many children right at this moment are watching violence on TV, on the Internet? Music that encourages drug use and irresponsible sex? This is a product of the capitalist model, the culture of capitalism, hyper-individualism. It’s part of the great crisis of the time. It requires a new world, with new values. As Jesus Christ says, "love others as yourself." If you love others as yourself, you are incapable of hurting others.
GG: One last question. Since 2003, the relationship between you and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been fascinating. Working together in the field of international relations, you have led what some have described as South America’s second independence, or at least have brought about the end of the Monroe Doctrine. But in about a year, that relationship is going to end, when Lula’s second, and last, presidential term expires. We are going to be in a "post-Lula" world. Have you given any thought how this is going to affect your foreign policy, since you have worked together in a very…
GG: Yes, closely.
GG: Yes, coordinated.
HC: Lula is a great person, a great compañero. They tried to create a rift between us, but it failed. I have the hope that after Lula comes someone who will continue along the same path. Lula has managed to put his own stamp on Brazil. Brazil had lost its way, it had fallen into the hands of, well, neoliberal governments. It lacked leadership. About four or five years ago, Brazil was at the point of losing its petroleum reserves. But no longer. Lula rescued [the state oil company] Petrobras, he invested resources, and recovered the independence of Brazil. The country no longer depends on the International Monetary Fund. Brazil’s monetary reserve has grown exorbitant due to exports. The attitude of Brazil toward its small neighbors has greatly changed, toward Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, the smallest and weakest countries, and above all because of Lula. This is Lula’s great legacy, and it is going to be difficult to change. Many things will change. Someone will take office with his or her own stamp, own style. But Brazil is now standing. With Venezuela, there will be changes, in the relationship we have, in the strategic alliance. But I have much faith that the person who comes next will be a man or woman of the left, from the Workers Party, who will continue to try to meet the challenge presented by Lula at his inauguration. Remember, the 2002 coup in Venezuela was not just against me but against Lula, who was a presidential candidate at the time. It was meant as a demonstration effect. They were telling the Brazilian people, look, if you elect Lula, this is what could happen to you. So, when Lula was inaugurated on January 1, 2003, I went. I’ll never forget it. We were in a terrible battle at home, of destabilization, economic and petroleum sabotage, terrorism, threats of more coups. But I wanted to go to Brasilia. There, Lula told us that we needed a project that covered all of South America. He knew that this challenge needed to go beyond Lula, beyond Chávez, and beyond Evo. When each of us are gone, the people are left standing, and South America is South America, with its own voice.