In a page three article in the New York Times last Saturday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is said to have “rankled Washington with his leftist agenda and authoritarian impulse,” and “provoked controversy through his coziness with dictators like Mr. Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.”
Not until the fifth-to-last paragraph in the full-page article does the author interview a person from the “barrio,” one of the well-known working class neighborhoods that fill cities throughout the country.
“Now there is concern for the barrios, for the people who are in need,” a local says about Chávez’s presidency.
This disparity in the media, according to Lisa Sullivan, a Catholic Maryknoll missioner who has lived in Venezuela for 16 years, is exactly the kind of disinformation that she says has unfairly tainted Chávez and the new political and social programs he’s created as president.
“All people need are two or three words like ‘authoritarian’ and ‘dictator,’” she said, and their view is immediately skewed.
“Not only is [Chávez] not authoritarian, [the establishment of the Venezuelan government] has been the most democratic process in any Latin American country in recent years,” she said.
“He is very strong and he’s a very colorful guy,” she said. “He very clearly has positions that are different from the Bush administration and he does not hide those.”
Sullivan, who is on a speaking tour of the Bay Area, shared this message Tuesday evening with a group of more than 50 people who packed into the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall in Berkeley. The group listened with enthusiasm uncharacteristic even for Berkeley as Sullivan told stories and answered questions about the country where she’s lived, worked and raised three children.
For many, whose only exposure to Chávez had come through American mainstream media, Sullivan’s presentation was an insider’s perspective on what event organizers and enthusiasts called the most exciting social and political experiment in years.
Chávez, who has never characterized himself as anything in particular, is seen by many as a strong progressive and has made headlines since coming to power while his opposition has continually tried to oust him.
Mainstream reporting, said Sullivan, has focused on the opposition and completely forgotten to interview those who have been most affected by new social and political policies set up by Chávez.
Throughout the evening, Sullivan told stories about these under-reported programs such as Barrio Adentro, which brought in several hundred Cuban doctors to set up local health clinics. Today, that program has blossomed and now includes 15,000 doctors who have helped to create an extensive and effective public health program.
Other stories included one about an idea borrowed from India where small groups of women received targeted grants meant to help them open small business and empower women throughout the country.
And while his plan isn’t viewed as perfect by “Chávistas” (supporters of Chavez), Sullivan said he has built the respect of the people who see his commitment to them.
All of these programs are funded by money produced by the national oil-company which Chávez pushed to re-vamp soon after coming to power. 18 months ago, after what the media called a national strike, but Sullivan argued was a lockout, Chávez fired the 18,000 top executives at the oil company and re-made it to insure the money it made reached the people instead of being hoarded. Today, the company, called Pdvsa, produces a healthy 2.6 million barrels a day as Venezuela maintains its spot as the world’s fifth largest oil exporter.
Broadly, said Sullivan, Chávez is trying to create his own unique system based on bits and parts of the systems used by other countries.
“The sense is we are going to try to pick the best of what we see around us,” she said.
The timing of the Berkeley event was also important because it happened just days after the recall election that Chávez squarely won as the country experienced its highest voter turn-out of all time.
Although the New York Times quoted polls that said Chávez “might win an endorsement of his rule,” Sullivan told the audience that the word on the street was that he would almost certainly win.
According to the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, 58 percent of the electorate who turned out voted for Chávez, as opposed to 42 percent who voted against him.
The very idea of a recall election, said Sullivan, was another sign of Chávez’s push for democracy because it was written into the Constitution by Chávez himself, giving the opposition a way to oust him.
And as a sign of how seriously people have taken their newfound democratic opportunities, Sullivan told the audience about how her son waited in blistering heat for 12 hours just to register to vote and about her husband who waited in line until 1 a.m. to cast his vote, passing the time by playing dominoes with friends.
“The recall is the first one that has been legally binding in Latin America, and it’s an example of participatory democracy,” said Sullivan. And because this and other Chávez programs, she said, “people have a renewed sense of dignity.”Å