By Marcel Duret *
Submitted to AlterPresse on March 17, 2013
In October 1999, after only 8 months in office, President Hugo Chavez made a state visit in Japan. I had the honor of meeting him at the Foreign Correspondence Club in Tokyo, where he gave a speech that remained engraved in my memory. In that speech he shared with the Diplomatic Corps and the journalists his answer when the Japanese Emperor asked him: “How come a country as rich in natural resources as Venezuela can have 80% of its population living under poverty level?” Hugo Chavez confessed that while he welcomed the Emperor’s concern, he had not anticipated such a question.
The Emperor pinpointed the very dilemma Hugo Chavez has been facing all his political life: the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. How can the natural resources of a country only benefit the so called elite? How does he reverse such a trend which had been plaguing his country so long? How does he convince Venezuela’s privileged classes that it is in their interests that the fundamental rights of all Venezuelans be respected? Is it acceptable that foreign companies control 95% of the petroleum reserve of his country?
President Chavez acknowledged that he was facing a daunting task as well as a great deal of resistance from those who had always controlled the country economically, politically and socially. But his determination and his resolve to provoke changes for the better in the lives of average Venezuelans remained unshaken and were reinforced day by day by the unconditional support of those who had suffered from misery all their lives.
Making references to the role of the army that he controlled, he reassured us that while he would be spending more than 15 days abroad, there would not be a coup-d’état. He said that “his” army was playing a very constructive role in bringing about positive changes for the underprivileged back home.
I remember a very sincere and charismatic leader, whose words seemed to be coming from the bottom of his heart. His perfect diction was only surpassed by his ability to articulate clearly and simply the problems of his beloved country.
President Chavez was travelling with a group of Venezuelan businessmen and women and paradoxically I do remember the statement made by one of them after the speech: “He talks too much; we should put a muzzle in his mouth”. How disrespectful to a President that you are traveling with? Can these so called elite be involved in the dramatic changes that are needed to make Venezuela a very prosperous and equitable country for all of its citizens?
As I shook hands with President Chavez, he told me that he would be going to Haiti in the near future. Because there were so many people in line to greet him, I did regret that we did not have a chance to talk more.
He did keep his promise and was received spontaneously and with triumph by the Haitian people a few months later. He called the Haitian people “The Black Angels”. And since then it seems that he had developed a profound and unconditional love for Haiti and its people.
How did Venezuela change since President Chavez took office in 1999?
Here are the key indicators:
I was home when the Vice-President Mr. Maduro announced that President Chavez had died. Although our encounter in Tokyo was very brief, I have cherished the memory of the moment I spent with the great Hugo Chavez during his speech in Tokyo. I was saddened by this premature death.
Throughout the evening and during the night I tried to think of the impact Hugo Chavez’s death will have on Haiti? What will the effect on the whole Latin-America and the Caribbean? What will become of the relationship between the United States and Venezuela?
Friday morning the day of Chavez’s funeral, I woke up from a dream that I was hoping would become reality: President Obama is attending Chavez’s funeral. While I was struggling to differentiate dream with reality, I do remember the statement made by President Obama in 2007 during his first campaign which was criticized forcefully by politicians of both side of the isle. Indeed this was probably the most important foreign policy statement made by a major public figure in American politics:
QUESTION: “would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?"...”
OBAMA: "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous." (CNN/YouTube Democrat Presidential Candidate Debate, Charleston, SC, 7/23/07).
President Obama also said: "Yeah, nothing’s changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries. I find many of President Ahmadinejad’s statements odious and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don’t have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate."
With all of these thoughts going through my mind, I was hoping that President Obama would seize the opportunity to demystify the cold war mentality that still prevails in the world! I was hoping that President Obama would free the world from the ideological divide of socialism, communism and capitalism and take the risk at home to meet President Chavez even in his coffin! I was hoping that President Obama would free himself from his “Damocles sword” and take the bold decision of being among the leaders of the world who have been at odd with United States policy! I was hoping……..until I realized that I was being as naïve as they called President Obama when he made the above statement. Well! I was dreaming.
For his generosity and for his commitment to help the underprivileged, the world is indebted to President Chavez. His death must mark the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity for the whole world. This is the only way that we, leaders and private citizen of the world, should express our utmost sincere thanks to President Hugo Chavez Frias.
* Ex Haitian Ambassador in Tokyo