Published on Friday, December 10, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Americans in Venezuela to Support Leftist Leader
Bay Area Fans of Chavez Say he's Building a Better Society
by Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- When Katie Lahey arrived here in the spring, she didn't go to the country's scenic beaches or picturesque mountain villages like most U.S. tourists. Instead, the native of Kentfield in Marin County headed straight for 23 de Enero, a poor Caracas district known for monolithic housing projects, improvised red-brick dwellings and its love of the country's president, Hugo Chavez.
Lahey, 21, came to study, and to lend her support to Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," named for the country's independence hero, Simon Bolivar. Now, the community studies major at UC Santa Cruz spends her days walking the streets of 23 de Enero, working with community media groups and traveling around the country to see the government's social programs.
"This is not just about the dream of Hugo Chavez, it's about the hope and struggle of a people with their leader," said Lahey. "Chavez is teaching the Venezuelan people how to stand up to U.S. imperialism."
Regarded by his opponents as an autocrat and demagogue, Chavez has become a magnet for North American progressives and other international political tourists. In addition to marginalizing the country's traditional elites and establishing health and social programs for the poor, he promises to use oil revenues garnered by the world's fifth largest petroleum exporter to reduce spiraling rates of poverty. "Venezuela has become a major source of interest for social visionaries in the United States," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "The Latin American left was dormant during the 1990s, but it is now in revival -- and nowhere is this more evident than in Venezuela."
Chavez, who was jailed in 1992 after attempting a coup against President Carlos Andres Perez, was elected president in 1998 on an anti-poverty, anti- corruption platform. He has launched numerous social programs, ranging from literacy courses to land reform.
The firebrand populist paints the global struggle of the poor as a David- and-Goliath battle between good and evil, making him an instant crowd pleaser for the U.S. left, including Bay Area progressives.
Global Exchange, an international activist group based in San Francisco, organizes "reality tours" of Venezuela and elsewhere that squire participants around various government development programs and grassroots community organizations.
And with Chavez promising "a new phase of the revolution" after defeating a recall referendum in August, Venezuela is likely to be an increasingly popular draw for thousands of U.S. and European activists, much like Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s and Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Mamie Chow, 30, a community organizer from Oakland, said she knew she had visited the right place after watching a 75-year-old woman read her first words during a Chavez-sponsored literacy program.
"Venezuela is the place to see a peaceful social revolution happening in real life," said Chow. "You can't question what's happening here; it's so uplifting."
And unlike other poor countries on the continent -- 80 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, defined as a family of three surviving on about $200 a month -- Venezuela, many believe, has a shot at making Chavez's socialist reforms a reality because of its prosperous oil industry.
Angry critics accuse Chavez of turning Venezuela into another Cuba, politicizing state institutions -- especially the oil industry -- and using public funds for his own political projects.
His opponents say Chavez has devastated Venezuela's economy through mismanagement. Despite skyrocketing oil prices, the gross domestic product registered a 10 percent drop in 2003, according to the Central Bank.
Tension over Chavez's rule led to an oil strike in 2002 and a brief, ultimately farcical coup -- behind which some Chavez supporters saw a U.S. hand. The coup collapsed in two days with the help of tens of thousands who marched in protest, and it prompted the creation of pro-Chavez solidarity networks in the United States.
Chavez opponents call foreign visitors such as Lahey and Chow ideological tourists more interested in the romance of a far-away revolution than in Venezuela's political complexities.
"These people are like 19th century anthropologists who travel the world looking for primitive cultures," said sociologist Amalio Belmonte of the Venezuelan Central University in Caracas. "They appease their guilt about poverty in developing countries, and then return to their comfortable lives in the First World without having to deal with any of the consequences of Chavez's so-called revolution."
Belmonte said such simplified visions of Venezuela saw the light-skinned, wealthy elite as the problem and ignore that almost 4 million voters -- including a considerable fraction of the poor -- supported the referendum to recall Chavez.
Chavez's international supporters reject such criticisms.
Jonah Gindin, 24, a Toronto resident who arrived in March to work in a literacy program, said he had written his university thesis on the Chavez government. "I needed to see it first hand," he said. "Now, I get e-mails every week from people interested in doing the same thing."
Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities continue to cultivate international backing, arranging visits by U.S. celebrities such as actor Danny Glover, a San Francisco native who was part of a delegation of the TransAfrica Forum that celebrated Chavez's support for Venezuelans of African descent.
"Usually, revolutionaries have to fight against oppressive governments," said Lahey, "but this is one of the few cases where the government is actually in support of the revolution."
Added Oakland's Chow: "It shows that you can have your cake and eat it, too."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle