Venezuela is eliminating poverty, achieving democracy, ambassador says

By Matthew Stone

Poverty will only disappear if the poor become empowered, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States said Friday. Charity is not enough in the fight against poverty because poverty signifies a lack of power, the diplomat, Bernardo Alvarez, said.”This is thinking outside the box. Even some of the leftist thinkers are shocked,” Alvarez said before an audience of students and community members in Macalester’s Weyerhaeuser Boardroom.

Alvarez visited the Twin Cities at the end of a tour through the northern Midwest and parts of Canada. He and his delegation had plans to attend Friday’s match up between the Twins and the Detroit Tigers at the Metrodome following the address.

Alvarez noted that, even as relations between the United States and Venezuela have frosted over in recent years, the two countries share baseball as a tradition. Major League Baseball teams count 57 Venezuelan players on their rosters.

The Venezuelan ambassador became the latest diplomat to visit campus this week, which started last Monday with appearances by Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Walter Mondale ’50, a former ambassador to Japan. Mondale will return to campus Monday to moderate a session between an Israeli Knesset member and a Palestinian legislator.

In a speech that lasted more than an hour, Alvarez called the Venezuelan government’s efforts at eliminating poverty through “Socialism of the 21st Century”-as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and supporters label their political philosophy-a “power struggle.” The result of that struggle will be a more participatory democracy, Alvarez said.

“We think representative democracy is good. But, first, it does not help correct inequalities,” the ambassador said. “So, we are trying to go for a different model.”

Alvarez called the Venezuelan government’s issuing of identification cards and documents to the country’s poor as a key step in including that sector of society in a democracy. It is also a symbol that the poor have been left out in the past, he said.

The Venezuelan approach to combating poverty and governing the country represents a change to a model accepted by the world’s power players that assumes that neoliberal economics is a natural counterpart to democracy. The Chavez government’s refusal to follow this model has caused ongoing tension-though not necessarily intended-between Venezuela and the United States, Alvarez said.

“I wish we could do it differently,” the ambassador said. “This is a very painful process.”

Alvarez spoke largely in broad terms about a “new reality” in Latin America, as Chavez allies have been elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Argentina and Uruguay.

“Now it’s possible again to think about radical political change in democracy,” the ambassador said.

The success of this “challenge to the prevailing model” will require the participation of other Latin American countries and a refusal to accept U.S. “hegemony” over the region.

Alvarez also addressed criticism that constitutional reforms taking place now in Venezuela will not be conducive to democracy. Chavez, who is seeking to eliminate presidential term limits, will not become president for life because he will periodically have to face reelection and, inevitably, citizens will tire of him and vote him out of office.

“Is he going to be president for life?” Alvarez asked. “Impossible, because unfortunately we are humans.