Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A visit to Venezuela contradicts the picture our leaders are painting

A visit to Venezuela contradicts the picture our leaders are painting
by Molly Sweetser
published March 19, 2006 6:00 am, Ashville Citizen Times

On Feb. 2, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared Hugo Chavez, the democratically-elected leader of Venezuela, to Adolf Hitler. Sitting in the morning sun, the sounds of life on the streets below me and thinking back on my two weeks here in Venezuela, nothing would lead me to compare this bright diverse country to Nazi Germany. I spent the last two weeks traveling in and learning about Venezuela with the San Francisco-based Global Exchange. Our delegation of almost 200 met with students of all ages, officials from PDVSA (the Venezuelan oil company), community leaders, doctors, farmers and many other Venezuelans.

The experience that best illustrates the feeling I find here in Venezuela was an evening spent with students in Mission Ribas, one of the social missions set up by the Chavez government. This center allows people who never had the opportunity to attend or finish high school to study and get a high school degree. One teacher wiped tears from her eyes as she told us how moving it was to empower her students to reach goals that had previously been impossible for them. The teacher had studied at a university before Chavez was elected and had not thought much of the educational missions until her mother began studying at the Mission Ribas school. The pride and knowledge that her mother received from the school then motivated the young teacher to get involved and to work at the Mission Ribas school.

Other students from their 20s to their 70s stood and told us how good it felt to finally be able to help their children with their homework or to have a whole new world of opportunities because they learned to read.

I have encountered the same pride and sense of empowerment throughout the communities I have visited. These are people who feel that Chavez has opened doors for them and is helping them to lift themselves up out of dependence and destitution.

These are not people who feel that they live in an oppressive dictatorship. Chavez, like any human being, is not perfect and there is a significant opposition and important questions left to be answered. However, much of the opposition is fueled by the United States.

Before the April 2002 coup that replaced the Chavez administration for two days, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and U.S.-AID gave large grants to the nongovernmental organization Sumate to develop its anti-Chavez platform. Resolution 328, currently in the House of Representatives, would continue this disrespectful and dangerous policy of funding anti-Chavez organizations. Many of the accusations in this bill are very misleading. In fact, the processes here have been very democratic. For example, the new constitution was drafted in 1999 by an elected constitutional assembly and then ratified with 72 percent support in a national referendum. Today, Chavez continues to have a high approval rating, much higher than our own president, and he was democratically elected not once but twice after the April referendum.

Coming from the United States, where our government regularly insults and threatens Venezuela’s democracy, I have been met with open arms and an overwhelming obligation to report back to the people of my country. The truth is that there is no dictatorship here.

As one student, a young man who had graduated from Mission Ribas and spoke impeccable English, said, “We want to be big people too. Why not?” That is my question — why not? The United States of America was founded on the principles of democracy and freedom. Would it be so wrong to stop meddling in Venezuela so that it too can enjoy its free and democratic government?

Molly Sweetser graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Math and has deferred admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Asheville.