Misreading Venezuela

Contrary to what Americans hear constantly from the media, Venezuelans have a poor opinion of their president, Hugo Chavez, and a positive opinion of Americans and the United States.

As a senior Venezuelan currently living in the U.S. while keeping up-to-date with Venezuelan affairs (I am also a former member of the Venezuelan congress), I have come to accept that Venezuela generally merits little attention from U.S. society, except in three or four areas: baseball players, beautiful women, oil and the antics of Hugo Chavez.

Hugo Chavez’ September 2006 UN speech in which he called President Bush a “devil” and spoke aggressively against the United States, helped to push Chavez and Venezuela, even if negatively, onto the American consciousness. Due to this speech, millions of U.S. citizens felt curious enough to do some research on Chavez and learned, for example, that Citgo, the chain of corner gas stations, is really a major oil company owned by the Venezuelan government and being used by Chavez to make inroads into American domestic politics. Americans also learned that Chavez loved Saddam Hussein and now calls Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe "brothers." However, few still know that his buddies in the U.S. include:

• actor Danny Glover, who received $18 million from Chavez to make a movie. Glover has been known to compare Chavez to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.;

• Joseph Kennedy Jr., who runs Citgo’s distribution of “cheap” Venezuelan fuel oil for Chavez in the northeast;

• Jesse Jackson, who was decorated by Chavez in Venezuela;

• Ramsey Clark, a famous anti-war activist from the Vietnam era and one of the lawyers who defended Saddam Hussein;

• Don King, the boxing promoter;

• Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist; and

• Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt.

The intense propaganda machine installed by Chavez in the U.S. (that costs the Venezuelan Embassy well over a million dollars per year) is trying to sell U.S. public opinion on the idea that Hugo Chavez is universally loved by Venezuelans while the United States is bitterly hated.

In fact, neither of these two claims is correct, judging by all credible polls, both in Venezuela and outside the country. In Venezuela the most professional and respected polling company, Hinterlaces, produced its poll for the month of June, with a 95% reliability. Some of the results are quite interesting:

• Hugo Chavez is rejected by 43% of those polled and approved of by 39%;

• Attacks against the U.S. by Chavez are rejected by 75% of participants and approved of by 14%;

• To give money away to other countries, as Chavez is doing from the Venezuelan oil largess, received the support of only 9% of those polled, while 87% rejected it;

• The pretense of Chavez to re-elect himself indefinitely by modifying the existing constitution is rejected by 63% of those asked and approved of by 19%.

• 81% of Venezuelans would generally like to see new political leadership in the country.

According to the survey by Hinterlaces, the political style of Hugo Chavez is starting to rub Venezuelans the wrong way, since he is increasingly being perceived as a dictator. A poll conducted by a reputed Chilean company, Latinobarometro, in January 2007, indicated that Venezuelans clearly prefer democracy to any other political system. This poll also revealed that Hugo Chavez had a very low approval rating in Latin America, only better than Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Peru’s Alan Garcia. The highest ranked Latin American leader in this poll was Brazil’s Lula da Silva, followed by Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, while Hugo Chavez, Alan Garcia and Fidel Castro were at the very bottom of the ladder.

Pew Global Attitudes Poll, issued in June 2007, surveyed the views on the U.S. in 47 countries, including Venezuela. While it is true that the U.S. image in Latin America has deteriorated, the clear majority of respondents in countries such as Mexico, Peru and, yes, Venezuela, expressed a positive opinion about their northern neighbor. In fact, it might come as a surprise to many Americans that more Venezuelans (56%) thought favorably about the U.S. than did the British (52%), the Swedes (46%) and the French (39%). While 71% of Venezuelans enjoyed U.S. music and movies, only 63% of the British shared their enthusiasm. At the same time, 76% of Venezuelans professed admiration for U.S. science and education, while 74% of the British did. Venezuelan opinion of the U.S. was much more favorable than that of most European countries.

The picture Venezuelans have formed of Hugo Chavez and of the U.S, according to these polls, is not the picture Hugo Chavez’s propaganda machine in Washington is trying to sell to American public opinion. The positive sentiment that Venezuelans have about the United States appears to be culturally driven, not political. Not since the times of Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt and President Kennedy, a team that made possible the end of dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere and the success of the Alliance for Progress, have there been warm relations between the political leadership of both countries.

The U.S. should consider taking the initiative to work with the Venezuelan people, through organizations of civil society, to promote the conversion of more Venezuelans into productive citizens. The Venezuelan population is highly dependent on a paternalistic, authoritarian state and cannot prosper without a critical mass of self-starting citizens. Such an initiative could create new good will for the U.S. in my country.


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