"The idea is to find an alternative"
03-21-2006, 02:41 PM
"The idea is to find an alternative"
March 21, 2006
Visitors Seek a Taste of Revolution in Venezuela
By JUAN FORERO
CARACAS, Venezuela — The actor Danny Glover has come. Harry Belafonte has also been here. So has the antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, the prominent African-American writer Cornel West and Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales.
But most visitors are like Cameron Durnsford, a 24-year-old student from Australia who decided to study at a new government-financed university in Caracas. Mr. Durnsford was, admittedly, put off some by the cult of celebrity around President Hugo Chávez, which he says "seems a little bit Maoist." But Venezuela's revolution, he quickly added, was not to be missed.
"You've got a nation and a leader trying to prove an alternative to neo-liberalism and the policies that have ravaged Latin America for 20 years," he said. "That's why people are coming here. There's a sense that it's a moment in history."
Mr. Chávez is decidedly unpopular with the Bush administration, which he has branded a terrorist regime out to get him. That antagonism, coupled with Mr. Chávez's huge oil-generated outlays for social spending, is drawing a following from all over and turning Caracas into the new leftist mecca.
Evoking other cities transformed by revolutionary leaders, like Managua, Nicaragua, in 1979, or Havana 20 years before that, Caracas is attracting students and celebrities, academics and activists, grandmothers and 1970's-era hippies — a new generation of Sandalistas, as some call them.
Some, including many Americans, have come to stay. But others come for a new brand of revolutionary tourism organized by the government or by private groups.
Venezuela welcomes them all, but rolls out the red carpet for high-profile visitors like Mr. Belafonte, the 79-year-old singer and activist.
In January, he led an American delegation that included Mr. Glover, Mr. West and Dolores Huerta, the farm workers' advocate. They met with Mr. Chávez, toured a neighborhood and visited government-run programs promoted as a way to shift the country's oil wealth to the poor.
"We respect you, admire you, and we are expressing our full solidarity with the Venezuelan people and your revolution," Mr. Belafonte told Mr. Chávez during the president's weekly television program. He called President Bush, a constant target of Mr. Chávez's barbs, "the greatest terrorist in the world." Then he shouted, "Viva la revolución!"
Other recent visitors have included the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Ollanta Humala, a leading candidate in the election for president in Peru on April 9; the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and the Argentine Nobel laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.
For less well-known Americans, the new vacation trail no longer goes through the famed beaches of Margarita Island. Rather, groups like Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, take visitors who pay $1,300 on a two-week jaunt through the tumbledown barrios where support for Mr. Chávez is strongest.
The tours include visits to literacy classes, cooperatives and government-financed media outlets. Visitors chat with government ministers, see "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a documentary favorable to Mr. Chávez, and meet with state oil company officials, who explain how petrodollars are funneled to social programs.
Among the speakers who have met with visitors is Eva Golinger, a New York lawyer who is dedicated to unearthing what she claims is evidence of Washington's support for Venezuelan opposition groups, something the Bush administration has denied.
Americans like Pat Morris, 62, from Chestnut Hill, Mass., who never had a good impression of the Bush administration, are usually left speechless. "I thought that our current government was lying and greedy, but I had no idea of the long-term investment in destabilizing the country," she said, tears in her eyes after hearing Ms. Golinger speak.
Reva Batterman, 27, a graduate student, said she had wanted to come to Venezuela to show its people that "we're not all just Bush supporters or imperialists."
"I wish the people in the U.S. would try to understand Hugo Chávez," she said.
Not everyone is as enamored. Julio Borges, an opposition politician, said that while Mr. Chávez certainly had showered aid on the poor, he was also a strongman out to crush dissent.
Instead of lionizing him, Mr. Borges said, visitors should be aware of government ineptitude and growing abuses, like attacks on the press, charges the government denies.
"We always tell people who come with this romantic idea of Venezuela that despite the changes here, the people who carry out the transformation are the armed forces, that Venezuelan democracy is basically a militarized one," he said. "You have to have a profound concern about that. We want to take off the democratic veil the government uses."
Referring to American visitors, an American diplomat in Caracas, who could not speak on the record because of embassy rules, echoed the concerns, saying, "Come down here and get your consciousness raised, absolutely." He added, "My only request of them is that they try to get the other side of the story."
Emily Kurland, a 26-year-old social worker originally from Chicago, said that was exactly what she and the others here were getting.
"They're frustrated with Bush, frustrated with not being listened to, frustrated with Iraq," said Ms. Kurland, speaking in the Caracas house she shares with several foreigners. "They don't trust Fox News. They don't trust the mainstream news. They want to see with their own eyes what's happening here."
She came to Venezuela thinking she would stay just long enough to get a taste for Mr. Chávez's grandly titled "Bolivarian revolution." A year later, she said, she has no plans to leave anytime soon.
She has taught English in government-financed classes for the poor and talks about volunteering at a state-run microcredit bank for women. She spends most of her time, though, leading tours for Americans who flock here for a look at how Mr. Chávez is changing his country.
There is a precedent, of course: Fidel Castro's revolution, which in its early years placed emphasis on "people to people" contacts that enhanced support among vocal members of the American body politic, while neutralizing opponents.
Activists, intellectuals and leftists have gravitated to other governments, from Allende's Socialist Chile in the early 1970's to Sandinista-run Nicaragua in the 1980's, which also declared ambitions to overturn the old order in their countries.
"Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Chile at one point became the mecca for many leftists around the world," said Fernando Coronil, a University of Michigan professor and the author of "The Magical State," a book about Venezuela. "That has been capitalized upon by the governments of these places, in eliciting foreign support but also as a way of focusing on certain elements of foreign policy that have wide appeal, and not focusing on internal problems."
Some of the people who have visited Venezuela or have moved here acknowledge having some doubts. Chesa Boudin, 25, a New Yorker who has worked as a volunteer here, notes that some on the left glorify Mr. Chávez simply because he has positioned himself as the anti-Bush leader in Latin America.
But Mr. Boudin, one of the authors of a book favorable to Venezuela's government, said many people who had been dismayed by the advance of globalization saw the possibility of a better world in Venezuela.
"The fact that we have a country that's trying to create an alternative model is bold and ambitious and unique, and that's why people are wondering, 'Is this possible?' " said Mr. Boudin, whose parents, Katherine Boudin and David Gilbert, were members of the 1970's radical group the Weathermen. "The intellectual in me is curious."
Perhaps nothing so illustrates the intertwining of Mr. Chávez's rhetoric about serving the poor and the government's policies as the three-year-old Bolivarian University, which offers free tuition to its mostly poor student body.
Jerome Le Guinio, 23, from France, came a year ago and works in the university's administration. He lives in Catia, a poor neighborhood where support for Mr. Chávez is solid. "The idea is to find an alternative," he said, "and if you don't find it in Venezuela, you won't find it anywhere else."
Jens Gould contributed reporting for this article.
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