Two nights ago took place, at American University, in Washington DC, a debate on the ten years of Chavez’s rule. Former Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria and Mark Weisbrot, member of a Washington DC based think tank, were the main participants. The moderator was Robert Pastor, a former high-level member of the Jimmy Carter government team and now at AU. The room was full, about 150 persons, much of them students from AU, GWU and Georgetown. These are my recollections of the debate:
I had never seen Weisbrot speaking. He is a bit lethargic, articulates well in a monotone and has little facial expression. He came across for much of his presentation as a social scientist, devoid of passion. He was convincing… for a while.
Weisbrot based his initial presentation on a paper he has written on the performance of Chavez’s government, as measured by statistics provided by…. The Chavez government. I have responded to this paper in detail in this blog (see below: Memo to Weisbrot et al) and offered comments on each one of the points he tries to make, such as the doubling of the Venezuelan GDP, social inequality in Venezuela and the like. Weisbrot repeated some of these statistics during his presentation but also added a few comments which I found very interesting, including:
1. “I am a reformist. I know little about revolutions. I am an economist. I know Chavez but not well”. Weisbrot painted himself as someone who was not particularly approving of Chavez’s revolution. And yet, he has become for the last years his almost exclusive spokesperson in Washington DC. As far back as 2003 Weisbrot was already interviewing Chavez (see my blog below: “The Fellow Traveler and the Gangster”) producing clearly whitewash jobs, not recommended for diabetics. If intellectual conviction is not what drives him to Chavez’s side, what is?
2. “I am very concerned about the attacks against Chavez/Venezuela in the U.S. media and in the opposition-controlled Venezuelan media”. Weisbrot makes the big mistake of equating criticism of Chavez’s undemocratic and abusive rule with attacks on Venezuela as a country. The Venezuelan media that opposes Chavez is constantly subject to harassment while the official media, six TV stations, several hundreds radio stations, and newspapers and publications, all financed by Chavez, present only his side of the coin. Globovision is the only opposition TV station active in Venezuela (RCTV is now cable, since it was closed down by Chavez and its assets confiscated) and invites Chavez’s followers to opinion programs, something not true of the other side. In fact, Chavez does not allow Venezuelan journalists in his press conferences.
3. Weisbrot presented the curious theory that “Venezuelan economic expansion only started in 2003, after Chavez obtained control of the Petroleum Company”. What he did was to start on his systematic politicization and destruction, as evidenced by its current chaotic financial situation.
4. “Mortality has decreased under Chavez”. Well, Weisbrot forgot about the 12,000 + Venezuelans who die violently each year in Venezuela, the most violent country in the western hemisphere.
5. “The Bolivar is overvalued”. Obviously, paving the way for the imminent devaluation that Chavez will be forced to make, in view of his acute financial problems.
6. “Venezuela should diversify from oil”. Well, welcome to the club. Today, under Chavez, the dependence on oil exports is greater than ever”.
All in all, Weisbrot presentation was weak, expressed without enthusiasm. He looked like a professional actor playing a role he did not like.
I had never seen Arria speak in public. He was calm and soft-spoken, two qualities I could not possibly show when discussing Chavez. This was positive for him. He said:
· “This debate could not have taken place in Venezuela, where the Chavez government has conducted a policy of intimidation and repression against the opposition”. Even distinguished foreigners are expelled or not allowed to enter the country, like Leech Walessa, Mario Vargas Llosa, Luis Herrero (European member of Congress) and Human Rights leader Jose Maria Vivanco.
· “Chavez statistics can be challenged and have been challenged by notable economists such as Francisco Rodriguez, now the Head of the United Nations team that puts together the Human Development Index (see Foreign Affairs, May 2008). I will mention only that the Misery Index, the product of distinguished Economist Arthur Okun, that places Venezuela last (as the most miserable) in a group of 60 nations”.
· “Chavez is not running a revolution, only a military regime”.
· “Today Venezuela is the most violent country in the region, leader in kidnappings and in violent deaths”.
· “The policy of handouts to the poor by Chavez is demeaning, humiliating, and does not produce truly independent citizens but ever more dependent poor”.
· “Chavez has aligned himself with the tyrannies of the world”.
· “Chavez ten years in power have been very successful…. For Hugo Chavez”.
· “Chavez won the presidency democratically and his family are now doing very well financially”.
As it always happens in these events, to the frustration of the 150 attendees who wanted to participate, there were only a few minutes left for questions. The moderator did what he could to allow for participation, although I have a feeling that he let Mr. Weisbrot talk too long when answering, especially because many of his answers were evasive and adopted the curious stance: “Here in the U.S. things are worse” or, “There is corruption in Venezuela but is the same in all countries, also here”. A few relevant things came up during the Q&A brief session:
· The link between Chavez and the FARC. Weisbrot, who said that the laptops had been tampered with, denied this.
· The level of corruption in Chavez’ Venezuela. Weisbrot said “it was not too bad, since it is present in all countries”.
· The political discrimination in Venezuela, as evidenced by the Maisanta and Tascon lists. Weibrot denied having said this.
· The fact that the April 2002 ousting of Chavez was not a CIA inspired coup, as Chavez has tried to make everyone believe, but a popular protest that ended with Chavez ordering the armed forces to repress the marchers and this order leading to his forced resignation.
· The fact that now Petroleos de Venezuela produced one million barrels less than when Chavez took over and the immense loss to the nation this has represented.
I would love to see more of these debates. Three times I challenged Chavez’s Ambassador in Washington DC, Bernardo Alvarez, to such a debate and he refused. At one time I was invited to debate in American University on the closing down of RCTV and the Embassy spokesperson did not show up. I challenged Rafael Ramirez, head of Petroleos de Venezuela, to a debate, to take place in Venezuela, and he did not answer. Even now, the debate at American University had to take place between a legitimate Venezuelan stakeholder and a U.S citizen designated by the Venezuelan Embassy, who, to say it kindly, is not fully conversant with the tragedies of our country. Chavez’s employees refuse to debate Chavez with us. This is a strategy. “In a closed mouth flies cannot enter”. The only one who can talk about his government is Hugo Chavez himself but even then he will not debate, simply will pontificate. This shows that freedom of expression does not really exist in Venezuela, since this freedom should be, in a democracy, a two-way street and not a dialogue between the deaf. In a country with real freedom of expression the government has the duty to answer the questions of the citizens. This is not possible today, under Chavez’s rule. He can talk and does, for six hours on TV, about his bowel movements but the real problems of our nation remain unanswered.