Over the last several days a well orchestrated attack on the visit of the democratically elected President of Venezuela to Oxford has been circulating through University e-mail addresses.
An analysis of the e-mails sent indicates that this entire campaign is little more than the effort of a 'circle of friends': a number of these messages purportedly written by various people (among them one pretending to be the Venezuelan ambassador in London) do in fact originate from the very same computer. In most other cases the authors of these e-mails do not even go to these lengths to conceal their mutual connection and just 'cc' each other when sending us their emails.
The e-mails are filled with a combination of half-truths, distortions or even plain lies but we believe it necessary to respond because it is the International Human Rights Seminar's invitation which the President has accepted.
Accordingly, for the purpose, not of dignifying the personal attacks on President Chavez, but rather for setting the record straight, we are responding to the specific points contained in most of the communications.
The President was one of a group of military officers who in the early 1990's decided that they could no longer serve a government where corruption pervaded every public activity, enriching the few and continuing the impoverishment of the masses. They tried to take power and failed.
In 1998, that same movement took power, constitutionally, through the ballot box. Their leader Hugo Chavez Frias became President of the Republic.
A new Constitution was drafted and overwhelmingly accepted by the people of Venezuela. (It was this same Constitution that the coup leader Carmona suspended immediately after taking power in his brief tenure in April 2002) Now what about this Constitution? It requires elected officials to be accountable to the people, not in words but in practice. Any public official may be subject to a recall referendum by the people when half of the elected term is over. So unlike most democratic systems, the fixed term goes out the window if the majority of the people want the elected office holder out. A new election would be called in the event of a negative vote. President Chavez is subject to this provision. His opposition may mount such a referendum in August 2003. (When the Constitution was approved, he had to stand again, and again he won.)
The opposition does not want to take advantage of their constitutional remedies, because they believe that they will be overwhelmingly defeated. Consequently, they have tried to disrupt the process even up to attempting a coup d'etat last April.
The freedom of the press is guaranteed and the result is that the media, not unusually, owned and controlled by powerful special economic interests opposed to the Government's social development programmes have mounted an increasing attack on the President. Fair reporting however, is a minor casualty of this media onslaught compared with media provocation.
Human Rights Watch has recently condemned the distorted coverage and acts of the media as being provocative of violence. In addition some two weeks ago the US embassy, in relation to the freedom of speech, reminded the media to "act in a responsible manner", condemning calls for violence and military action that the media have been broadcasting since April (statement of the US embassy in VENPRES). A similar observation was made by peace-Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter as a result of his recent mission to Venezuela.
While the Venezuelan media (and some of the writers to Oxford) claim that a recent march against the government involved some 1,000,000 people, demonstrations in support of the government and typically significantly larger in number (as is evident from the coverage by major news providers such as EFE, Reuters and even CNN) are completely ignored by the Venezuelan media.
When in September the supporters of the President marched in opposition to a Supreme Court ruling, which denied the State's efforts to try some of the coup plotters, CNN put the figure of the marchers at an incredible 2,000,000. This outpouring of humanity in support of the President was ignored by the media. Today, Sunday, once again, supporters of the President have taken to the streets. All of the early reports indicate that the number of marchers is again of a similar number.
More importantly however, the opposition march openly called for military action and among the speakers to address the rally were leading military figures of the failed coup in April. In contrast, yesterdays demonstration in support of the government specifically called for 'Peace and Democracy'.
As to poverty under Chavez - he is committed to using the revenues from the natural resources of Venezuela to alleviate the plight of the poor. No prior government in memory ever cared about this mass of 80% of Venezuela's population.
His programmes, even now are giving people running water, sanitation, new schools and even the first new village specifically for the homeless. He is committed to a moderate land reform programme, where unused, currently non-producing land may be acquired from the absentee owners and given to the campesinos.
His approach to the economy is to encourage private investment to work with the State. So, for example, where a rural sugar factory had been closed for 30 years, the government encouraged a private (Spanish) investor to come in and revitalize the only source of employment in that area. When the investor ran out of money, the State loaned funds to the company, on condition that the workers were made shareholders. The factory is up and running once again.
Recently, British Gas and other international energy companies have signed agreements to develop off-shore resources - but on terms favorable to Venezuela and the environment. What the anti-Chavez forces do not reveal in their attacks on the Government, in respect of the very real economic difficulties of the country is that when Chavez took office the country had a foreign debt burden in excess of US $23 billion. Whilst the Government has reduced this indebtedness and paid over US $14 billion in debt service, the principal is still just over US $22 billion
Who ran up this debt and who benefited? The facts are clear and anyone can draw his/her own conclusions.
In 1968 under President Leoni, the debt was US $447,220,000; 1973 (Caldera) - US $900,000,000; 1978 (Perez first administration) it jumped to US $6.5 billion; 1983 (Campins) - US $11.260 billion; 1988 (Lusinchi) - US $24.650 billion; 1993 (Perez Second administration) - US $26 billion; 1998 (Caldera) - US $23.170 billion; Chavez - US $22 billion.
At one point US $11 billion of illegal private, non-state debt was wrapped into the State figure resulting in the huge increase between 1983 and 1988. This is the burden inherited by the Chavez government and the poor of Venezuela.
This is not to say that Venezuela is not in an economic crisis situation and in fact the President has acknowledged some responsibility for this. However, for the most part this has to be seen in the context of the generally bad state of the economies across the Latin-American continent, who are hit particularly hard by the global economic down-turn.
Finally, as to the deaths of the coup in April. It is claimed in many of the emails we received that a) most or all of the people who died were anti-Chavez protesters and b) that President Chavez and his forces were solely responsible for the killings. A brief look at the findings of Human Rights Watch should suffice to dispel this myth
"Human Rights Watch has obtained information indicating that much of this violence was committed by police officers during political protests in poor neighborhoods of Caracas" (hrw.org/press/2002/04/venezuela0416.htm)
Chavez' largest support actually comes from the 'poor neighbourhoods' and combined with the fact that the Caracas police is controlled by the mayor of the city who is fervently opposed to Chavez if anything implies the opposite of what the authors of those emails are trying to make us believe.
At the time of the coup the local military coup plotters threatened to shell the Palace if the President did not go with them. There were some 50,000 citizens surrounding the Palace determined to protect the President and his cabinet, all of whom were inside. The President realized that if a gun fight broke out and artillery was used, that thousands of innocent people around the Palace perimeter would be killed. He elected to go with the coup military group, but not resign; in order to prevent this tragedy.
The rest is history. In the next 24 - 36 hours, the people stormed the Palace, trapping the champagne toasting coup leaders. The President was returned to power, but not without some loss of life.
Most of the deaths however, occurred not on 11 April, but on 12 and 13 April and the victims were supporters of Chavez - killed by the Caracas police as mentioned above.
The government is considering ways and means to have a fair and impartial investigation of these events.
It should not be forgotten, that the reason why IHRS has invited the President is to focus on the very real human rights achievements that have actually been accomplished under his government and that are being acknowledged by international (e.g. HRW) as well as domestic human rights organisations (PROVEA as well as a range of indigenous organisations):
For instance, under Chavez' government for the first time in 50 years there are no political prisoners (even after the April coup attempt !). Also, for the first time in the same period the balance between prisoners on trial vs those actually sentenced is positive (i.e. there are now less people in jails in Venezuela that have not yet been sentenced; in contrast in the past some people had been imprisoned for over 25 years until they were finally being declared innocent.)
For the first time in the country's history no censorship on the media has been denounced in courts; in other words, even though the the media constantly complain about the freedom of speech being at risk, they do not actually have a case (e.g. recent HRW report on Venezuela).
In terms not only of human rights but in particular with respect to the rights of the indigenous population the new Venezuelan constitution is amongst the most progressive pieces of legislation world wide. The constitution explicitly guarantees the rights of all indigenous people in articles 119 to 126. This protection has rarely been enacted by a state.
Great universities, like Oxford, inevitably become places of turmoil as they open their doors to ideas and individuals whose very essence ensures opposition. It is the strength of such great places of learning that they fully allow this expression and debate. It is after all in the cause of intellectual freedom. The Seminar with its motto "Non nobis solum natir sumas", fully embraces this tradition in the interest of human rights.
If any guest - including President Hugo Chavez Frias - accepts an invitation to speak to the IHRS Seminar, he does so in the full knowledge that he will meet some dissent and opposition. It is important to add that some world class figures have declined for this very reason.
The University takes no position, except to allow intellectual freedom and discourse to take place within its walls, and for this we are all the richer and suitably grateful.
IHRS, (Oxford, Monday 14th October 2002)