Whom to trust? In a world full of manufactured truths, it's hard to know. But this much is true. If we'd trusted the Bush administration, our group of singing ambassadors would have missed the chance to interact with some of the hemisphere's most astonishing vocalists and musicians.
We would have missed the mating dance of the chacha laca bird in Cerro Copey National Park. We would have missed being in a country that promotes the articles of its new constitution (ratified with massive popular support) on bags of rice!
But we weren't so trusting. So off we went -- to Venezuela. This oil-rich Caribbean country is a traveler's paradise. The only problem is that President Hugo Chavez is demonized by the U.S. He, in turn, demonizes our leadership.
The State Department warned us with the following: "Venezuela is an enemy of the U.S." Something about Chavez's unwillingness to combat terrorism, but we weren't convinced. Maybe it was a disagreement about oil. Nah, we like that stuff. The State Department couldn't be against the country's beaches, national parks, birds, night life or people, could they? All were fabulous and welcoming. Maybe it was the way Chavez was redistributing oil revenue. Hmm. We were curious.
First, we needed to do what the Venezuelans had asked us to do. Sing! The Seattle Peace Chorus accepted the invitation to sing at Venezuela's 5th Annual International Choral Festival on Isla de Margarita. We were the sole U.S. representatives and took our mission seriously: to engage in peaceful communication through song. Our signature piece, "Si Somos Americanos" ("We Are All Americans"), written by Ricardo Alarcon, won the award for Best Song.
Naturally, between singing gigs, we engaged in conversation with as many people as we could. Opinions were strong, both pro- and anti-Chavez. For the remainder of our visit we hooked up with Global Exchange, a U.S.-based "reality tour" agency. We met with school principals, college and public school teachers, students, community leaders, opposition party spokespeople, Venezuelan-based journalists and a Fulbright scholar.
This is a thumbnail sketch of what we learned. The Chavez government has been very active in redistributing wealth, not only through its rural and urban land reform programs, but through oil revenue-funded social programs that now provide free health care, education and basic food stuffs, as well as loans and subsidies for cooperatives. A short explanation: At the time Chavez was elected in 1998, poverty had been on a constant rise since the '50s. Agricultural lands had been consolidated into the hands of a few, displacing millions of farmers who migrated in large numbers to cities in search of work.
Neoliberal policies embraced by Chavez's predecessors such as privatizing state-owned businesses and deep cuts to social spending had put 80 percent of the country in poverty.
Chavez, who was re-elected in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote, turned the country's economic and social systems inside out and upside down. Widespread literacy programs were introduced. It will be hard to ever forget the tears of an adult woman, literate for the first time, who now had the ability to learn a new profession in a technical college free of charge. Public schools, once only half day, are now all day, with free lunch available for all.
Three weeks isn't long enough to learn everything about a country, to dig deep and determine what's true and what isn't. But it was long enough to learn that Venezuela is not our enemy. And long enough for us to want to learn more about this diverse and complex country, bring it back home and return, again and again.
Martha Baskin is a member of the Seattle Peace Chorus.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer