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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Supporters of Chávez gather on campus for International Venezuela Solidarity Conference before Sunday election

By Patrick Malloy

Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez spent much of the weekend before Thanksgiving—Nov. 17 through 19—on campus for the International Venezuela Solidarity Conference. The event included a range of speakers, as well as entertainment, lasting from Friday evening through Sunday morning.

The Minnesota Venezuela Committee, a pro-Chávez organization, sponsored the event to counter what some see as a buildup to U.S. intervention in Venezuela to end Chávez’s presidency.

History professor Shari Geistfeld, a member of the Minnesota Venezuela Committee, served as a principal organizer of the event.

“This is an important weekend to have this conference,” Geistfeld said in an interview prior to the conference.

“This is a strategic conference to get the information out and let people know what’s going on in Venezuela,” she said.

Presidential elections will take place in Venezuela on Sunday. Chávez is widely favored to defeat his main opponent, Manuel Rosales, Governor of the Venezuelan state of Zulia, and win another six-year term.

Chávez faces intense criticism in both Venezuela and the Untied States from conservatives, businesspeople and some moderates. These groups say he has autocratic tendencies and wants to establish Cuban-style communism.

Nelson Pineda, Deputy Ambassador of Venezuela to the Organization of American States, a regional governance body for North and South America, set the tone for the conference with his keynote address on Friday. As with most other speakers at the conference, Pineda spoke in Spanish through a translator.

Pineda spoke about the Bolivarian Revolution, the name Chávez uses to describe his socialist reforms in Venezuela and his goal of achieving more economic, political, and social integration throughout Latin America.

“We are building a new social hegemony,” he said. “It is not domination, but a more intense way of relating between the state and civil society.”

The Venezuelan government frequently uses direct referendums to pass measures.

Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution are reversing much of the poverty, corruption, and underdevelopment caused by Venezuela’s former government, which was dominated by two parties, Pineda said.

“For the first time, many Venezuelans have access to good housing, education and healthcare,” he said.

Critics argue that Chávez will destroy the economy if he continues programs that directly provide social services to the poor.

Pineda also strongly criticized the alleged role of the United States in an unsuccessful coup attempt to overthrow Chavez in April 2002.

Elegguá, an Afro-Venezuelan women’s music group, performed after Pineda’s address.

Reverend Luis Barrios, an Episcopal minister in New York, was the other principal speaker at the conference. He gave a speech on liberation theology on Saturday afternoon.

Liberation theology advocates for a society that provides for all of its members and helps to make them socially and economically independent. The body of thought has close ties with socialism, and liberation theologians generally view religion as a vehicle for improving the condition of the poor.

Barrios called on people at the conference to take action and implement the ideals of liberation theology.

“You have to change yourself from thermometers of society to thermostats,” he said. “You must regulate the process.”

Barrios led a Sunday morning mass in the chapel in support of Venezuela and liberation theology.

A number of speakers, including Economics professor Raymond Robertson, director of the Latin American Studies program, and Adina Bastidas, Vice President of Venezuela from 2000 to 2002, presented on Saturday morning. They discussed the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution. They also focused on the role of women and minorities in the Revolution.

Saturday afternoon featured workshops during which speakers presented to small groups, as well as a presentation by Pineda on the global importance of the Bolivarian Revolution and Barrios’ speech on liberation theology.

The conference was generally smoothly-run, but planners faced a number of obstacles. Jorge Valero, Ambassador of Venezuela to the OAS, was originally scheduled to be the keynote speaker. However, Chávez appointed him to be Foreign Minister of Venezuela just days before the event, so he had to return to Venezuela. Pineda came on one day’s notice.

The U.S. State Department also denied visas to two presenters, both of whom live in Venezuela. One is a sociology professor and the other is the official translator for the event. Organizers found members of the Minnesota Venezuela Committee, as well as Macalester students Fiorella Ormeño-Incio ’09, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz ’07 and Natalia Espejo ’07 who were able to translate.

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