Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera eschewed elitism last Thursday with a word on the American electoral process.
“You’re telling me that in a democratic country, if you want to be elected senator, you need to first have $15 million?” he asked a packed room of over 130 students, educators and activists at Tuttleman Learning Center.
Speaking at an event organized by the Pan-American Solidarity Organization, the ambassador said Washington’s capitalist aims for Latin America are outdated. He compared the notion of free trade to a horse race in which everyone bets on the fastest animal.
“Who is taking care of the asymmetries?” he asked. “We have had 25 years of economic and social crisis, but when I come here and say, ‘Look what is happening to us,” they say, ‘You have to keep trying.’ It’s amazing.”
Herrera said Venezuelans can relate to the country’s 21st-century view of socialism, which incorporates small regional assemblies called ‘solidarity networks’ into the political decision-making process.
“We may be a minority in Washington, but we’re not a minority in our own countries,” he said, referring to a speech by Under Secretary for Political Affairs R. Nicolas Burns that focused exclusively on America’s relationship with free-market countries in Latin America.
Venezuela’s swift transition to socialism has sent members of its National Assembly to more than 9,000 public debates across Venezuela, the ambassador said. Among the 69 reforms generated by these debates are movements to develop social or collective property, hold a national referendum on the elimination of presidential term limits and establish state control of universities.
University reforms have created a visible student opposition to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s administration. During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Herrera discussed the autonomy of Venezuelan schools.
“The universities we need to build this just and equal society are not the ones we have,” he said. “You have to have some connections with national planning because in the end, it’s the government that finances all those universities.”
The ambassador also addressed a senior journalism major’s concern that the Chavez administration has repressed oppositional Venezuelan media outlets.
“Any restriction you try to impose is not good by principle,” he said. “But at the same time, the concentration of the media in a few hands and the use of the media not to inform but to impose an ideology is so huge, particularly in our country.”
Steve Eckardt, the coordinator of the Philadelphia Cuba Solidarity Coalition and a journalist who observed Venezuela’s 2004 recall election, said Venezuelan media stations are especially polarized. He used the example of RCTV, a popular cable television network that did not have its license renewed by the state after actively supporting a military coup in 2002.
“[RCTV saw] their role as getting rid of the government,” Eckardt said. “Is it legitimate for the government to provide on public airwaves someone that’s actively conducting political campaigns?”
Herrera, who said the station “wasn’t convenient for the public interest,” also touched on Venezuela’s alliance with American rivals Iran and Cuba throughout the session.
“The United States puts people on lists,” he said. “We keep going back to the Cold War mentality that you have to identify ‘Who is my friend and who is my enemy?'”
Members of PASO, an organization that strives to illuminate the struggles of Latin American nations, said Venezuela has been received poorly by the U.S.
“If there’s one government that’s been maligned by the United States, it’s been the Chavez government,” said Dolores Ortiz, co-founder of PASO and a senior sociology and Latin American studies major. “We’ve been conditioned to see Venezuela as the enemy.”
Mel McKrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.