“Yesterday, the devil came here,”. “Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today…” Mr. Chavez said , in 2009 comments at the United Nations. Then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made the sign of the cross, brought his hands together as if in prayer and glanced toward the ceiling.
That is perhaps the most famous quote of a politician opposed to the US government, and one reason that Hugo Chavez was disliked by the US government. To Chavez , the Devil was George Bush. That’s what you get to say, when you are a third world leader who supplies maybe a million gallons of crude oil to an oil addicted country every day. You get to say anything you want.
I was a great admirer of Hugo Chavez, thankful for his generosity, his courage, his leadership, and his commitment to Indigenous peoples.
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My first memory of Venezuela, being an American educated child, was dim. But, I do remember pictures of Native people in the Venezuelan jungle being gunned down, and hanging like deer from trees- the result of gold prospecting in their territories. The year was 1977. That is a stark image- one where humans are treated like game animals, and I have never forgotten it.
So, when the first Indigenous president (Hugo Chavez’ mother was a Wayuu Indian woman) came to lead Venezuela, I, like many other Native people celebrated our ascension to power and recognition. For the first time, we had some basic dignity, and subsequently a vote and inclusion in the constitution and a host of cabinet positions.
At age 44, Chavez became the country’s youngest president with 56 percent of the vote. Chavez’s politic was populist, and that was counter to the history of a hundred years of entrenched power, which has so dominated Central and South America. I cannot speak to all of that, but I can say that when Chavez became president our people began to feel his generosity.
Heart to Hearth:
At a 2005 Congressional hearing , oil executives were being chastised because corporate earnings were matched with dire conditions in many communities. Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch/Shell reported total earnings last quarter of nearly $33 billion. In the meantime, many Americans were facing fuel poverty, absolute hardship about keeping their houses warm. Twelve U.S. Senators asked oil companies to donate some of their record-setting profits to people in need.
Citgo was the only company to respond. Citgo Petroleum, joined with Citizens Energy under the leadership of Joseph Kennedy and began distribution of fuel oil from the Bronx and Brooklyn to the Alaskan Sub Arctic. Our reservation was included. Our first year, we received roughly $l.7 million in fuel assistance, and this continued for six years since. Each year, tribes in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and elsewhere have benefitted from the largesse of the Venezuelan government owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. As the price of fuel went up, 240 tribal communities received hundreds of millions of dollars of fuel assistance as fuel prices skyrocketed.
Some politicians encouraged our tribes to turn down the money, but Wayne Bonne of the Fond du Lac tribe, commented, “to us, it would be a foolish move. We’re not a wealthy tribe,” Bohn said. “We could make a political statement, but making a political statement while your people freeze is not very wise.”
“The program is not a political program, it is an assistance program,” the Venezuelan Minister of Petroleum explained. “You don’t have to be politically loyal to us to be part of this program. “In his own country, Chavez’s social programs won him enduring support: Poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of his term in 1999 to 32 percent in the second half of 2011. But he also charmed his audience with charisma and a flair for drama .
He was a king of the stage, and he was a part of changing the terrain of the Latin and South American politic- where in the past several years, another Indigenous president, Evo Morales of Bolivia has come to office. The first woman came to rule Chile Michelle Bachalet ( 2006-2010, a former political prisoner of the US backed Pinochet government).
Venezuela’s oil is still flowing into America, although in part it’s rumored that the push for the Canadian tar sands is based on political disinterest in getting oil from Latin American leftwing political leaders. In his life and in his passing, I remember Hugo Chavez as a brave and generous man to Native and poor people.
I never had a chance to meet President Chavez, but I certainly benefited from his life and his example.