‘My Friend, Hugo Chavez’ & ‘The Chavez I Knew’

March 8th, 2013 - by admin

Greg Palast / BBC Television & Lucia Newman / Al Jazeera – 2013-03-08 00:49:03


Vaya con Dios, Hugo Chàvez, Mi Amigo
Greg Palast / BBC Television & GregPalast.com

Hugo Chavez will be remembered by American poor as the president who sent millions gallons heating oil to our cities, so we living in the richest country in the world, didn’t freeze to death. Not ONE American oil company that puts profits over people, ever did!

(March 5, 2013) — Venezuelan President Chavez once asked me why the US elite wanted to kill him. My dear Hugo: It’s the oil. And it’s the Koch Brothers — and it’s the ketchup.

Reverend Pat Robertson said: “Hugo Chavez thinks we’re trying to assassinate him. I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.”

It was 2005 and Robertson was channeling the frustration of George Bush’s State Department. Despite Bush’s providing intelligence, funds and even a note of congratulations to the crew who kidnapped Chavez (we’ll get there), Hugo remained in office, reelected and wildly popular. But why the Bush regime’s hate, hate, HATE of the President of Venezuela? Reverend Pat wasn’t coy about the answer: It’s the oil.

“This is a dangerous enemy to our South controlling a huge pool of oil.”

A really BIG pool of oil. Indeed, according to Guy Caruso, former chief of oil intelligence for the CIA, Venezuela hold a recoverable reserve of 1.36 trillion barrels, that is, a whole lot more than Saudi Arabia. If we didn’t kill Chavez, we’d have to do an “Iraq” on his nation. So the Reverend suggests, “We don’t need another $200 billion war…. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

Chavez himself told me he was stunned by Bush’s attacks: Chavez had been quite chummy with Bush Senior and with Bill Clinton. So what made Chavez suddenly “a dangerous enemy”? Here’s the answer you won’t find in The New York Times: Just after Bush’s inauguration in 2001, Chavez’ congress voted in a new “Law of Hydrocarbons.” Henceforth, Exxon, British Petroleum, Shell Oil and Chevron would get to keep 70% of the sales revenues from the crude they sucked out of Venezuela. Not bad, considering the price of oil was rising toward $100 a barrel.

But to the oil companies, which had bitch-slapped Venezeula’s prior government into giving them 84% of the sales price, a cut to 70% was “no bueno.” Worse, Venezuela had been charging a joke of a royalty — just one percent — on “heavy” crude from the Orinoco Basin. Chavez told Exxon and friends they’d now have to pay 16.6%.

Clearly, Chavez had to be taught a lesson about the etiquette of dealings with Big Oil.

On April 11, 2002, President Chavez was kidnapped at gunpoint and flown to an island prison in the Caribbean Sea. On April 12, Pedro Carmona, a business partner of the US oil companies and president of the nation’s Chamber of Commerce, declared himself President of Venezuela — giving a whole new meaning to the term, “corporate takeover.”

US Ambassador Charles Shapiro immediately rushed down from his hilltop embassy to have his picture taken grinning with the self-proclaimed “President” and the leaders of the coup d’état.

Bush’s White House spokesman admitted that Chavez was, “democratically elected,” but, he added, “Legitimacy is something that is conferred not by just the majority of voters.” I see.

With an armed and angry citizenry marching on the Presidential Palace in Caracas ready to string up the coup plotters, Carmona, the Pretend President from Exxon returned his captive Chavez back to his desk within 48 hours. (How? Get The Assassination of Hugo Chavez, the film, expanding on my reports for BBC Television. You can download it for free for the next few days.)

Chavez had provoked the coup not just by clawing back some of the bloated royalties of the oil companies. It’s what he did with that oil money that drove Venezuela’s One Percent to violence.

In Caracas, I ran into the reporter for a TV station whose owner is generally credited with plotting the coup against the president. While doing a publicity photo shoot, leaning back against a tree, showing her wide-open legs nearly up to where they met, the reporter pointed down the hill to the “ranchos,” the slums above Caracas, where shacks, once made of cardboard and tin, where quickly transforming into homes of cinder blocks and cement.

“He [Chavez] gives them bread and bricks, so they vote for him, of course.” She was disgusted by “them,” the 80% of Venezuelans who are negro e indio (Black and Indian) — and poor. Chavez, himself negro e indio, had, for the first time in Venezuela’s history, shifted the oil wealth from the privileged class that called themselves “Spanish,” to the dark-skinned masses.

While trolling around the poor housing blocks of Caracas, I ran into a local, Arturo Quiran, a merchant seaman and no big fan of Chavez. But over a beer at his kitchen table, he told me,

“Fifteen years ago under [then-President] Carlos Andrés Pérez, there was a lot of oil money in Venezuela. The ‘oil boom’ we called it. Here in Venezuela there was a lot of money, but we didn’t see it.”

But then came Hugo Chavez, and now the poor in his neighborhood, he said, “get medical attention, free operations, x-rays, medicines; education also. People who never knew how to write now know how to sign their own papers. Chavez’ Robin Hood thing, shifting oil money from the rich to the poor, would have been grudgingly tolerated by the US. But Chavez, who told me, “We are no longer an oil colony,” went further… too much further, in the eyes of the American corporate elite.

Venezuela had landless citizens by the millions — and unused land by the millions of acres tied up, untilled, on which a tiny elite of plantation owners squatted. Chavez’ congress passed in a law in 2001 requiring untilled land to be sold to the landless. It was a program long promised by Venezuela’s politicians at the urging of John F. Kennedy as part of his “Alliance for Progress.”

Plantation owner Heinz Corporation didn’t like that one bit. In retaliation, Heinz closed its ketchup plant in the state of Maturin and fired all the workers. Chavez seized Heinz’ plant and put the workers back on the job. Chavez didn’t realize that he’d just squeezed the tomatoes of America’s powerful Heinz family and Mrs. Heinz’ husband, Senator John Kerry, now US Secretary of State. Or, knowing Chavez as I do, he didn’t give a damn.

Chavez could survive the ketchup coup, the Exxon “presidency,” even his taking back a piece of the windfall of oil company profits, but he dangerously tried the patience of America’s least forgiving billionaires: The Koch Brothers. How? Well, that’s another story for another day. [Watch this space. Or read about it in the book, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits. Go to BallotBandits.org).

Elected presidents who annoy Big Oil have ended up in exile — or coffins: Mossadegh of Iran after he nationalized BP’s fields (1953), Elchibey, President of Azerbaijan, after he refused demands of BP for his Caspian fields (1993), President Alfredo Palacio of Ecuador after he terminated Occidental’s drilling concession (2005).

“It’s a chess game, Mr. Palast,” Chavez told me. He was showing me a very long, and very sharp sword once owned by Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator. “And I am,” Chavez said, “a very good chess player.”

In the film The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight bets his life on a game of chess with the Grim Reaper. Death cheats, of course, and takes the knight. No mortal can indefinitely outplay Death who, this week, Chavez must know, will checkmate the new Bolivar of Venezuela.

But in one last move, the Bolivarian grandmaster played a brilliant endgame, naming Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, as good and decent a man as they come, as heir to the fight for those in the “ranchos.” The One Percent of Venezuela, planning on Chavez’s death to return them the power and riches they couldn’t win in an election, are livid with the choice of Maduro.

Chavez sent Maduro to meet me in my downtown New York office back in 2004. In our run-down detective digs on Second Avenue, Maduro and I traded information on assassination plots and oil policy. Even then, Chavez was carefully preparing for the day when Venezuela’s negros e indios would lose their king — but still stay in the game.

Class war on a chessboard. Even in death, I wouldn’t bet against Hugo Chavez.

Addendum: As a purgative for the crappola fed to Americans about Chavez, my foundation, The Palast Investigative Fund, is offering the film, The Assassination of Hugo Chavez — based on my several meetings with Chavez, his kidnappers and his would-be assassins and filmed for BBC Television — as a FREE download. DVDs are also available.

Investigative reporter Greg Palast covered Venezuela for BBC Television NewsNight and Harper’s Magazine. Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and the highly acclaimed Vultures’ Picnic, named Book of the Year 2012 on BBC NewsNight Review.

Visit the Palast Investigative Fund.
Copyright 2013 Greg Palast, All rights reserved.
Greg Palast, PO Box 90, Greenport, NY 11944.

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‘The Chavez I Knew’
Lucia Newman / Al Jazeera

CARACAS, Venezuela (March 7, 2013) — I must confess that it took me some time to take Hugo Chavez seriously. The first time I heard of him was in 1992, the day of his botched military coup attempt against Venezuela’s then President Carlos Andres Perez.

As I walked through the Miraflores Presidential Palace the next day, counting the bullet holes in the walls, I was quick to dismiss Lieutenant Colonel Chavez as a soldier with more illusions of grandeur and thirst for power than brains.

Seven years later when the obscure former military officer and paratrooper resurfaced to run for president — and actually got elected — I was more than surprised. Now I was really curious.

The first time I came face to face with Hugo Chavez in 1999 in Havana, shortly before he was to be sworn in Venezuela’s president. I was the correspondent for CNN. When Chavez addressed students at the Aula Magna of the University of Havana, with President Fidel Castro in the front row, I knew that I had underestimated the man.

Hugo Chavez was a man with a clear mission, driven by a sense that his destiny was to change the course of his country’s history. He believed he could become the modern day version of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s national liberation hero.

Charismatic Chavez
In the following years I was to come face to face with President Chavez repeatedly and interview him on a number of occasions. I watched as he became more and more sure of himself, using his extraordinary charisma to hypnotize not just the average person but even some who opposed everything he stood for.

I also watched as he consolidated power, controlling practically all of Venezuela’s institutions as he declared Venezuela a Socialist nation. He even changed the nation’s coat of arms so that the white horse on the lower half would face left rather than right.

The Chavez I knew was kind and generous with his friends and allies , but merciless when it came to insulting, ridiculing and taunting his foes. He knew no limits. Chavez called US President George W. Bush a donkey, “Mr Danger”, and Satan, and his neighbour (former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe) a fascist, an ignoramus and a murderer.

The Chavez I knew had the rare quality of being simultaneously extraordinary and like any ordinary man. He joked, danced, sang, hugged and kissed. He connected with Venezuelans, especially poor Venezuelans, like no one could. He was often straight out vulgar, but he knew his own people and they applauded his outbursts.

He once went as far as to insinuate that former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so aggressive towards him because what she really wanted was to sleep with him! When I asked him how he could demand respect from the US government while making comments like that one, he excused himself by saying that when a person is constantly attacked by the world’s number one super power, he has to defend himself. His opponents were always referred to as “the squalid ones”, or the bourgeoisie. Never mind that some of them lived in the slums.

The Chavez I knew loved his people, or at least most of them, but I do not think he felt like a civilian. He was above all a soldier. Perhaps that is why it was so easy for him to give orders and demand obedience. He loved wearing his military uniform, and even though he once promised to stop wearing it because he knew that it alienated many of his countrymen — who equate olive green with military dictators — he couldn’t help himself. When he felt threatened, defiant or angry, he would put it back on.

The Chavez I knew would sometimes go into rages, with time becoming more and more frustrated because he could not prevent corruption and inefficiency within his government. His plans for transforming Venezuela, even with $90 billions a year in oil income, were not progressing fast enough. Like his friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, he attempted to micromanage everything. And the stress, I think, took its toll.

Chavez will undoubtedly go down in history as a man who above all believed in social justice and put the needs of Venezuelans millions of poor on the front burner of the country’s political agenda.

Chavez Cult
But I am convinced that in the end Chavez was a victim of his own bigger than life persona. He created a political movement that has unquestionably transformed (his critics say destroyed) Venezuela, but like so many revolutions in Latin America, its success rested too much on one man, and Hugo Chavez did nothing to limit the cult of his own personality.

When he came down with cancer nearly two years ago, his Socialist Party had just lost its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. He knew that to guarantee victory in the October, 2012 presidential elections, he and no one else had to be the candidate. According to sources close to him, Chavez refused to undergo the entire chemotherapy treatment that his doctors had insisted he needed to survive.

He said he could not campaign if he felt ill. “He once said that if he had to consume himself, he would consume himself for the cause of the Venezuelan people. He gave himself to his people to such an extent that he put his health and his life at risk,” National Assembly Deputy Jorge Chavez (no relation) told me the week before President Chavez died.

I remember being taken aback when I heard President Chavez refer to himself in the third person at a campaign rally last September. “I am not Chavez. We are all Chavez, you are all Chavez. Chavez is the Revolution that cannot be destroyed,” he roared, as thousands chanted CHAVEZ CHAVEZ CHAVEZ in unison.

In the following days, the catch cry became “We are all Chavez.” I am convinced that he was already beginning to try to pass on the torch, knowing that in all likelihood he would not be among his people much longer.

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