NEW YORK – While America’s politicians denounced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for calling President Bush “the devil” and criticizing U.S. imperialism at the United Nations, an audience of exuberant workers, intellectuals, labor unionists, artists, students and minorities embraced Chavez’s call for solidarity in the global struggle for social justice, equality, and human rights.
At the 61st session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York Sept. 20, Chavez called Bush a “devil” whose imperialist policies threaten the survival of the world. In the past, Bush has called Chavez “evil” and “an enemy of the American people.”
Politicians from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice united in Bush’s defense.
But a cheering, chanting crowd of people later welcomed Chavez in the historic 900-seat Great Hall of Cooper Union, a college founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, the son of a working man and a high school dropout turned wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist.
The atmosphere was repeated the next day when Chavez spoke to American Indians, blacks and Latinos at the inauguration of Venezuela’s U.S. heating oil program.
“We love him,” said Fredy Tejada, an El Salvadoran union organizer with the Service Employees International Union.
“We think what he’s doing is extremely important. He’s bringing changes that no one has ever done for the people of Venezuela and he’s sharing the oil wealth with the rest of Latin America,” Tejada said, citing a program that brings El Salvadorans to Venezuela for eye surgery free of charge.
More governments are adopting socialism, Tejada said, because “people understand we’ve been exploited and abused for many years by the U.S. government and multinational corporations that have brought poverty to our countries, and we want to change that.”
With a long and antagonistic relationship with Washington, Chavez distinguished between the people and the U.S. government.
“We are not the enemy of the American people – that is a lie. We are the friend of the American people. We want to seek roads of cooperation, friendship and full cultural and educational exchange,” Chavez said, adding he hopes Americans will choose an “intelligent president with whom we can talk like brothers, like equals, with respect and dignity.”
During the past eight years, Venezuela has implemented programs to combat disease, illiteracy, malnutrition, poverty and other social ills among the population’s 80 percent living in poverty.
Under its socialist economy, the country’s oil profits have shifted from private corporations to public projects to improve the lives of poor Venezuelans, Latin Americans and North Americas, including American Indians.
“We’re setting up cooperatives and eliminating the capitalist intermediate. [For this] they call me a tyrant. Well, tough, tough. What we’re doing in Venezuela is transferring power to the people. For the U.S., the rich get richer and the poor are getting poorer. That is not democracy; that is tyranny,” Chavez said.
Venezuela barters oil for needed products or services – pregnant cows from Bolivia, medical equipment from Argentina and 40,000 doctors from Cuba.
“How good it would be for the government of Venezuela to establish an energy agreement with the government of the U.S. with regard to health and education,” Chavez said.
Rounds of applause and chants of “Long live socialism for the 21st century!” and “The people united will never be divided!” punctuated Chavez’s lengthy speech.
He encouraged Americans to read the works of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy and Mark Twain, who espoused anti-imperialist politics.
“We are enemies of imperialism,” Chavez said, holding up a copy of writer and professor Noam Chomsky’s new book, “Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States,” which he also recommended during his U.N. speech.
Chomsky’s book shot to No. 1 on the www.amazon.com best seller list two days later.
Venezuela is vying with Guatemala for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a move the U.S. government has openly opposed in what Chavez called “an immoral attack.”
He also blasted the United States and Israel for their wars and military occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, but gave a warm greeting to a group of rabbis from Neterei Karta, an anti-Zionist group of Orthodox Jews founded in Jerusalem in 1938. Earlier, the rabbis demonstrated at the United Nations in support of Iran, with signs reading, “Judaism Condemns Zionist Provocations Against Iran.”
Chavez, who backs Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, warned of skyrocketing oil prices if the United States interferes in Venezuelan politics or attacks Iran. He said the United States funded a coup attempt against him in 2002, a claim U.S. officials deny.
“We have said if the U.S. is aggressive to Venezuela like they were before, then we would suspend oil. The same thing was said by the president of Iran. If the U.S. invades Iran, the price of oil could go up to $200 a barrel. You’d be paying $20 a gallon for oil, and only very wealthy people could afford that,” Chavez said.
Singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte introduced Chavez at the event, which was attended by dozens of dignitaries.
“I’m struck with the beauty and preciseness of the choice of Cooper Union for this event,” Belafonte said, referring to the building’s historic role as a public space where Lincoln, Twain, Susan B. Anthony and a host of social and political reformers and artists have spoken.
“This institution represents the best in our humanity. This platform is only open to people who have the thoughts and ideas that enhance our common humanity and, obviously, its tradition continues to unfold in this event,” Belafonte said.