IN October 1999, after only eight months in office, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a state visit to Japan. I had the honor of meeting him at The Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Tokyo after he gave a speech that remains engraved in my memory. He shared with the diplomatic corps and journalists his discussion with the Emperor of Japan who had asked him how a country as rich in natural resources as Venezuela can have 80% of its population living under the poverty line. Chavez confessed that while he welcomed the Emperor’s concern, he was not expecting such a question from him.
The Emperor pinpointed the dilemma Chavez faced all his life: a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. How can it be that Venezuela’s vast natural resources could only benefit the elite? How can such a trend be reversed after plaguing his country for so long? How could anybody convince the country’s privileged class that it is in their interests that the fundamental rights of all Venezuelans are respected? Is it acceptable that foreign companies control 95% of the petroleum reserves of his country?
Chavez acknowledged that it was a daunting task and that he was facing tremendous resistance to change from those who had always controlled the country economically, politically and socially. But his determination to improve the lives of average Venezuelans remained unshaken. This resolve has been reinforced daily by the unconditional support of the people who have been suffering from misery for as long as they have been alive.
Making references to the role of the Army that he had complete control over, he reas- sured us that while he would be spending more than 15 days abroad there wouldn’t be a coup-d’état as expected by people in the region. He said that “his” Army was playing a constructive role in bringing about positive change for the underprivileged.
I remember a sincere and charismatic leader whose words emanated from his heart. His perfect diction was only surpassed by his ability to articulate clearly and simply the problems of his beloved country.
Chavez was traveling with Venezuelan businessmen and women. Paradoxically, I remember one of this contingent said after the speech, “He talks too much; we should put a muzzle on his mouth.” How disrespectful to a president you are traveling with! Can these elite really take part in the dramatic changes needed to make Venezuela a prosperous and equitable country for all its citizens?
When I shook hands with Chavez, he told me he would go to Haiti soon. Because 94 95 Haitian Culture & Politics there were so many people in line to greet him, I regret that we did not have a chance to talk more.
He did keep his promise and was received spontaneously and with triumph by the Haitian people. He called Haitians “the black angels.” And it seems he subsequently developed a profound and unconditional love for Haiti and its people.
I was at home when the Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s vice president, announced Chavez’s death. Although our encounter in Tokyo was brief, I have cherished the memory of the moment I spent with the great Hugo Chavez after his speech in Tokyo. I was saddened by this premature loss.
That evening and through the night I tried to think of the impact Chavez’s death would have on Haiti. What would be the effect for Latin America and the Caribbean? What would become of the relationship between the United States and Venezuela? On the morning of Chavez’s funeral, I woke up from a dream I hoped would become reality: U.S. President Barack Obama was attending Chavez’s funeral. While I was struggling to differentiate dream from reality, I remembered President Obama’s statement in 2007 during his first campaign. It was criticized forcefully by politicians of both side of the isle. This was probably the most important foreign policy statement by a major public figure in American politics:
QUESTION: “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
OBAMA: “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous” (CNN/YouTube Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Debate, Charleston, South Carolina, July 23, 2007). Obama also said, “Yeah, nothing’s changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries. I find many of President Ahmadinejad’s statements odious and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don’t have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate.”
With all of these thoughts going through my mind, I was hoping President Obama would seize the opportunity to demystify the Cold War mentality still prevailing in the world. I was hoping President Obama would free the world from the ideological divide of socialism, communism and capitalism, and take the risk at home to meet Chavez even in his coffin. I was hoping President Obama, having freed himself from “the Sword of Damocles” through reelection, would take the bold decision to be among the leaders of the world who have been at odds with U.S. policy. I was hoping all of this until I realized that I was being naïve, which is just what they called President Obama when he made his statements in 2007. I was dreaming.
For his generosity and for his commitment to help the underprivileged, the world is indebted to Chavez. His death must mark the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity for the world. This is the only way that we, the leaders and citizens of the world, should express our utmost sincere thanks to President Hugo Chavez Frias. tj
This article appeared in Issue #271. Click here to order from Amazon