Hugo Chávez among his supporters, November 2008
Weddings can be boring, the fulfilment of a duty or a social obligation for many guests. Or they can be an excess of fun, as they sometimes are, in villages in Poland, where the guests eat and drink, fall down, wake up and drink again, in a celebration that lasts several days.
However, it is rare in this post-communist era to be at a wedding where you rub shoulders with an elderly army wife who has met Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung, have an animated discussion with a Washington lawyer who has, for once, got the better of the Americans in a difficult fight by Cubans for their place in the sun, or renew the acquaintance with a Venezuelan ambassador who recently pulled the rug from under the Bush administration in the diplomatic war of attrition between a neo-conservative White House and Hugo Chávez.
Chávez’s Venezuela is today one of the countries that can be counted on the fingers of one hand, where a wedding can still be an occasion to talk about the victories against “imperialism”, about the struggles of the working class and bask in the satisfaction that, at least in Latin America, the world is still not unipolar.
Not all weddings are like that, of course, in Venezuela, where its super-rich, like in Brazil, Argentina or Chile, share a common hatred for a Chávez or a Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or the late Salvador Allende, indeed, anyone, for that matter, who threatens their lifestyles that are worlds apart from the conditions in which Latin America’s poor people live.
This columnist arrived in Venezuela three days after local elections gave control of the national capital’s city hall and five states, including the economically vital ones like Carabobo and Táchira, to the opposition. Last year, Chávez lost his bid in a referendum to eliminate term limits as part of constitutional changes.
I found this puzzling, arriving in Caracas from the United States of America, where the propaganda against Chávez is searing, where only one view of Chávez can be read or heard in the American media, the view which the Bush administration has put out in the last eight years: of Chávez as a dictator, who has crushed freedom and runs the country with an iron hand, muzzling the media and preventing those who oppose the president from having any say in the affairs of the country. It was refreshing to discover that elections are free in Venezuela. Free enough for the people to reject government-initiated constitutional changes and to vote in the opposition to share power. Oppression is something that experienced travellers can detect within minutes of touching down in a country. For a journalist, that experience usually begins when the immigration officer looks at the “arrival” form and notices that the visitor he is dealing with is from the media. Caracas was welcoming.
But much more than the immediate outcome of Venezuela’s local polls, it was inspiring that the country’s democratic traditions and institutions had survived almost half a century. They were put in place in 1959 when Rómulo Betancourt, a president elected by popular vote, sent junta leader General Marcos Pérez Jiménez into exile — where else, but in Miami. It is difficult for Indians, who have experienced nothing but democracy since Independence — except for the brief Emergency — to understand the import of this. The decades when democracy took roots in Venezuela coincided with a period when much of Latin America saw some of the worst human rights abuses by juntas, whose leaders crawled when they were commanded to do so from Washington: to be exact, from Langley, the CIA headquarters.
In a sense, the wedding in question was symbolic of Venezuela’s initiation into democracy and the eventual emergence of Chávez as the inheritor of Fidel Castro’s legacy in Latin America. The bride’s father, the late Héctor Abdelnour Mussa, was a Venezuelan army officer who was exiled, not formally, but ‘kicked up’ and sent abroad by the junta to have him out of its way.
But during the transition to democracy in 1958, Mussa was given the assignment of gifting a Venezuelan plane to Castro as he prepared to give the final push for his revolution. Mussa procured the plane and packed it with arms that were used by Castro, Che Guevara and their comrades in the final battle that led to the humiliating departure of the dictator, General Fulgencio Batista, for the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day in 1959.
A close relative of the bridegroom had several guests spellbound at an after-wedding breakfast with tales about her meetings with Mao, Ho and North Korea’s elder Kim. These were the years when she lived in Beijing where her husband was posted as Venezuela’s military attaché by president Raúl Leoni Otero, who succeeded Betancourt. Her brother decided to make China his home and may still have lived there if it were not for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards kicked him out for being a foreigner.
The anecdotes made me realize that Chávez was not a 21st century aberration and that even half-a-century ago, Venezuela wanted to chart its own path in diplomacy that was independent of Washington.
Then there was the lawyer, José Pertierra, who came to the US with his parents at the age of 10 in a wave of Cuban migration to America that followed Castro’s revolution. Today, Pertierra is very prominent among Cubans in the US who look at their country of origin without the myopia of the Cuban American community in Miami, which has held Washington’s policies towards the Castro brothers hostage to their anti-communism.
Pertierra represented the father of Elián González, then six, in the internationally famous case in 1999 in which the Cuban boy was found adrift at sea and became an object of contention between the US and Cuba. Pertierra won the case for the boy’s father, who was supported by the Cuban government in what was probably the first setback in four decades for anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Miami, who operate there like a mafia. The Elián González case was a reminder to the world that Castro’s fighting spirit was unflagging even in his country's adversity. The case was a demonstration of how a small country could stand up to a superpower at the peak of its strength.
Encouraged by Pertierra’s success in the Elián González saga, Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, who was until recently Venezuela’s ambassador in Washington, appointed him as the lawyer for the Chávez government in its fight for the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born CIA operative who later set up his private spy agency in Venezuela and bombed a Cubana Flight from Barbados to Cuba in 1976, killing all 73 passengers. In what is probably the worst example of American double standards on terrorism, Carriles now lives in the US, where Venezuela’s requests for his extradition have been turned down.
Herrera is the hero of what has come to be known in Western hemispheric diplomacy as “Black September”. He was withdrawn by Chávez from his post in Washington in September, denying the Bush administration an opportunity to expel him in a tit-for-tat reaction for Venezuela’s expulsion of the US ambassador, Patrick Duddy, in solidarity with Bolivia’s action in throwing out the US envoy to that country.
Herrera’s tenure as Chávez’s envoy in Washington was to Venezuela-US relations what Mani Shankar Aiyar’s tenure as consul general in Karachi was to Indo-Pakistan relations. Herrera was a constant thorn in Bush’s side because he was able to reach out to the people of America, especially the poor, who are Chávez’s own constituency in Venezuela.
For at least two years, he became a symbol in US inner cities of a programme by Venezuela and its oil company, Citgo, for providing cheap heating oil for American citizens who could not afford to heat their homes in winter. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have gratefully accepted this gift from Chávez. For India, which gave away precious five million dollars to the American Red Cross in 2005 as relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina without even a token of appreciation or recognition from anyone in the US, Venezuela’s example of putting its resources to the best use to reach out directly to the American people is an example of people-to-people diplomacy that is worth emulating.