Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters at the National Assembly after delivering his annual address before the legislature, Jan.17, in Caracas. Mr. Chavez said that international mediators seeking to end a bitter general strike by the opposition must first recognize him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Photo: AFP

NEW YORK–There will be no civil war in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez Frias declared during a recent press conference at UN headquarters.

“What my government confronts now is a subversive movement that uses terrorism to impose its will against the national constitution,” he said.

Pres. Chavez was at the UN to hand over the chairmanship of the Group of 77 plus China to Morocco. Last year Pres. Chavez became the first head of state to personally travel to New York to take over the chairmanship. The Group of 77 is a confederation of developing nations that often vote in the UN as a bloc.


At the press conference, Pres. Chavez refuted allegations that he was a dictator. He said he could provide many examples of how his government had contributed to the democratic process, and how he had supported the political and human rights of Venezuelans. While the president was holding his press conference, several dozen demonstrators gathered across from the UN building shouting slogans, banging on pots and demanding his resignation.

Mr. Chavez’s detractors see him as a dictator and a would-be communist. They point to his relationship with Cuban President Fidel Castro, and they talk about his visits to places such a Libya and Iraq.

Mr. Chavez was elected democratically in 1998 and 2000, with over 56 percent of the vote. However, opponents say there must be a referendum in Venezuela by Feb. 2. Asked by reporters if he could accept the referendum proposal, he said it would be ” very nearly impossible” to hold such a referendum so soon.

“Replacing a president is not like taking a baseball pitcher out of a game or changing one’s shirt,” Mr. Chavez told reporters.

Taking a small copy of Venezuela’s constitution out of his pocket, Mr. Chavez said a referendum could only be held in August 2003, as his presidency enters its mid-term.

In April 2002, opponents of Mr. Chavez–with U.S. support–staged a coup that lasted for two days. Mr. Chavez told reporters that following the coup his government resumed a “democratic life and followed a constitutional path.”

“The people put Hugo Chavez back into power after the coup,” observed Elombe Brath of the Harlem-based Patrice Lumumba Coalition, adding that Mr. Chavez represents a large segment of Venezuelans who are Black.

“The same type of movement of Black Panamanians that elected Manuel Noriega in Panama was used to elect Mr. Chavez in Venezuela,” Mr. Brath stressed.

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Curtis Stuble told Reuters Jan. 16 that the United States had no position on elections in Venezuela, but that a “deal” needed to be forged quickly.

“An urgent agreement on elections in Venezuela may be the only way to defuse the crisis there,” Mr. Stuble said.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, characterized Mr. Chavez’s supporters in a Jan. 12 article in the Washington Post.

“The pro-government marchers are from Venezuela’s poor and working class communities. They are noticeably darker descendents of the country’s indigenous peoples and African slaves,” Mr. Wiesbrot wrote.

“[The marchers] were seen carrying pocket-size copies of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. Women’s groups were there because of anti-discrimination articles in the constitution; Indigenous leaders because this is the first constitution to recognize their people’s rights,” he wrote.

Mr. Wiesbrot concluded that the marchers saw themselves as “defending constitutional democracy and civil liberties” against the “threat of fascism,” which they believe is the political platform of the opposition—the people that sponsored the April coup.

According to Amy Chua, a Yale professor of law and author of “World on Fire: How Free Market Democracies Breed Ethnic Hatred & Global Instability,” says that Mr. Chavez, along with 80 percent of Venezuela’s population, is referred to as “pardo,” a term that has class and ethnic overtones that refer loosely to brown-skinned people of Amerindian or African ancestry.

She said Venezuela’s economy is controlled by a minority of “cosmopolitan Whites” or “martuanos,” the Venezuelan term for persons with European features. Observers say Mr. Chavez promised to “cleanse” his nation of corrupted and co-opted elites who have gained political power.

His supporters say he pledged to resist globalization while keeping foreign investments on Venezuela’s terms.

“What Chavez represents is an ideology that is neither left nor right but firmly rooted in the concept of national sovereignty, a democratic nationalism, that has arisen largely in reaction to United States economic and military domination of the region,” writes Justin Raimondo in a January 2001 article called “Behind the Headlines.”

“Chavez is no commie,” Mr. Raimondo insists. “He is a military man who resists Pres. George Bush’s attempts to down grade his nation’s army into a narcotics squad; and he has refused to allow the U.S. to conduct their phony war on drugs on Venezuelan territory. He has established a military zone on the border with Columbia precisely because of that nation’s inability to control drug trafficking and guerilla incursions into Venezuela,” Mr. Raimondo stressed.

Mr. Raimondo believes the greatest concern of the Western powers is Mr. Chavez’s call for a “configuration” of Latin American states for the new century. Hugo Chavez ’s vision of a rail artery that would join the Caribbean basin through railways and link them with the great rivers, which Mr. Chavez calls the “arteries of continent,” is what really scares the U.S. State Department, Mr. Raimondo said.

“Hugo Chavez is a Black man who has angered the oil barons of the world such as Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and, of course, Pres. Bush,” Viola Plummer of the December 12th Movement said. The organization had representatives at the UN to greet Pres. Chavez.

“He is carrying out the vision of the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, who also dreamed of a united Latin America,” Ms. Plummer said. “To the U.S. State Department that is a crime, but for the people in places such as Venezuela, that may be an ambition worth fighting for,” she added.

“We need to see that what is happening to Chavez and what is taking place with Pres. Robert Mugabe are part of an American hegemony,” insists Mr. Brath. “America sees the danger of both leaders developing a society that uplifts their people. Both men have a vision that gives their people a chance to get out of slavery and servitude, and develop their resources to help advance their families,” Mr. Brath added.

There has been an oil workers strike in Venezuela since Dec. 2, 2002, which has paralyzed the economy. Observers say the strike is the work of business interests opposed to Pres. Chavez’s threats of nationalization of some businesses and his attempts to seize control of the oil sector.

Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil producer. The United States gets 13 percent of its oil from Venezuela.

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