Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cowboy in Caracas Ex-Priest Charlie Hardy, Turned Journalist Speaks on Venezuela

Ex-Priest Turned Journalist Speaks on Venezuela
Charlie Hardy spoke about his experiences in Venezuela to a large group at the Kansas City Public Library.
Credit: Michael McClure

Charlie Hardy is a former Catholic priest from Wyoming who has lived in Venezuela for the last twenty-five years. Hardy lived in a cardboard shack for eight of those in years in a barrio in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.

He spoke about his book “Cowboy in Caracas – A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution” at the Plaza Library on February 26, 2010. The following is a transcript of an exclusive interview Mr. Hardy granted to

Why did you decide to go to Journalism school?

“In 2002, there was a coup in Venezuela – somebody said to me afterwards “Hey take a look at Narco News”. I had never heard of It was an online newspaper, so I looked and they had a good article about what happened in Venezuela. Then I saw where they were going to have a school for authentic journalists. I thought well maybe I would become a journalist because I could see that the truth wasn’t getting out of Venezuela. So, I applied for a scholarship and then I got a letter saying “Sorry we don’t have enough money – we want someone in radio, video and so on down the line. It went onto say “But we do want you as a professor – you write too well and you don’t need the school but we need you”. Professors at the school pay their own way. This is a unique school, all of the students have scholarships, but all of the professors have to pay their own way.

A former priest gave me a thousand dollars and with that I was able to pay my fare and pay for my lodging and so on, and it’s still that way basically today. It’s been an exciting thing – if you were to look at Narco News and the students that are there from India, Egypt, Argentina from Chile, from Mexico - all over the world. And then you look at the quality of the people who give the classes.

For me it was a real privilege. One professor was Alvaro Garcia, he is now Vice President of Bolivia.

Another professor was Gary Webb who wrote the ‘Dark Alliance’ that was about the CIA getting drugs into Los Angeles. He won the Pulitzer Prize for some other writing but because of the ‘Dark Alliance’ he was blackballed. Other major newspapers came out and said they talked to the CIA and the CIA said they never did that.

Eventually Gary committed suicide. It is one of those stories of one of those people who did his best to be an authentic journalist and maybe was killed in the act of doing it. I say maybe because he died with two bullet holes in his head.

Some would say that is not possible, but I guess it is possible – who knows?

All I know that for me it was a privilege to be there.

This may sound strange, but I wasn’t impressed because he got a Pulitzer Prize, because I think John Kennedy got a Pulitzer Prize because his father, as I remember, knew some important people on the committee. It is that kind of people that Al Giordano of Narco News has recruited to give their time and to be with young people. That for me is just a hopeful thing.

So, I was Catholic priest – it was 1965 when I was ordained and came out of the seminary. Someone once said to me that when a young man is going to be ordained makes a choice that will determine the rest of his life. That choice is, does he want to serve the people or does he want to be a bishop. I would say the same thing about journalists today.

Journalism schools or Social Communication as they call it in Venezuela, are full of people. It’s hard to get into those schools because they want to be on television, they want to be stars. So I think that same question applies to young people today who want to be a journalist – do they want to serve the people and get the truth out, or do they want to be a star on television.

I was observing a demonstration in Caracas, and there was a woman from one of the major television stations and I knew right away that she had never attended the NarcoNews School of Authentic Journalism because part of it is security for a journalist. I remember being told “Never wear sandals to a demonstration – wear shoes that are tight on your feet in case something happens.” So here was this woman in high heels, and when the police fired some tear gas she wasn’t in any shape to run down the street. So it’s that question – there are reporters in high heels and reporters in ties who stay in fancy five star hotels who tell us what is happening around the world, and that to me is not authentic journalism – it’s the people who get out and talk to the people.

I have the same concerns for the U.S. On CNN recently I saw about three ads for Colombia (South America) in about forty minutes. The ads basically said “When you go to Colombia there is risk –beautiful beaches, the wonderful people the history and so on. The only risk when you go to Colombia is you may never want to leave. Our word for foreigner is friend”. Ok that’s what I see on CNN, but I know that there are over 3 million people from Colombia in Venezuela. You don’t find Venezuelans going to Colombia. Why have the people left – economic reasons but there is also people that have been driven out by paramilitaries, etc. Within Colombia there are over four million people who are displaced, who have been driven off their land. So, okay the word for foreigner is friend, but I wonder what the word is for the people who live there? If there are so many ads on CNN from Colombia, what kind of balanced news are you going to get from CNN about Colombia? About Venezuela? Venezuela is talked about as a dictatorship, it is not. Again, I am a gringo that has lived there 25 years, but we have never had as much freedom as we have today. Whether it is radio, television or newspapers, Hugo Chavez is portrayed as a dictator.”

The Wall Street Journal and the AP have reported this week that “the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights strongly cites a lack of independence of Venezuela's judiciary, the closing of news media outlets that are critical of the government and political discrimination and repression under Chavez.” What is your reaction?

“Someone asked me about the taking of five media licenses, but over 100 licenses were renewed because the people handed in the forms they were supposed to and did the things they were supposed to do. In America, if someone loses their license from the FCC is it President Obama who puts them off the air? These five stations didn’t fulfill the requirements of law, and since that time some of them have come forward with the papers they need. But they make a big deal – it’s Chavez who did this.

Regarding the Judiciary – in Venezuela we have five independent bodies, the executive, judicial, legislative – there’s also the people’s power which includes attorney general, ombudsmen and the controller. Then there is the electoral power. Interestingly, the president is a male but the president of the congress, the chief justice, the attorney general and the head of the electoral commission are all women. But, gee (the critics say) it is probably because Chavez is beating them or something. Even though he doesn’t appoint them – there is a process involved. Yes at the present moment – most people in congress are supporters of the current government. But part of the problem is that the opposition pulled out of most of the elections. They could have won seats in congress, so you can portray it any way you like.

The InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights – in 2002 there was coup – Chavez was kidnapped, he was gone – they wrote a letter to the dictator who took over and said “We hope you support human rights” they didn’t ask about the resident – where was he? This is not an unbiased commission.”

What is the stance of the Catholic Church in relationship to the government?

“The Catholic Church is very much supportive of President Chavez, but not all the bishops are. I was once in Mexico with Bishop Samuel Ruiz – who was bishop in the area where the Zapatistas are in Chiapas. We were talking for an hour about the Zapatistas. And I asked him “Do you mind if we talk about the Catholic Church for a while?” and he said “I thought we were talking about the Catholic Church. If you want to talk about us Bishops, fine, but we are only a part of the Catholic Church we are not the Catholic Church.” I also remember that I asked him if “Liberation Theology still existed and he said “Is there a theology of slavery?”

Many on the American right frequently accuse President Obama of being socialist or even communist – what do you think of that since you are living in a socialist country?

“I think we need talk about Socialism for the 21st Century not the 20th Century. We have two competing theories in the world right now – Capitalism or Socialism. On the one hand- Capitalism is about money and corporations and Socialism is about people. We need to decide what we think is more important – people or corporations?”

Charlie Hardy’s talk was sponsored by American Friends Service, Holy Family Faith Community, Colombia Support Network, Peaceworks, The Loretto Community of Kansas City and The Cross Border Network.

KCTribune wants to thank Judy Ancel and the The Cross Border Network for their assistance in arranging this interview.