Controversy and intrigue have swirled around Venezuela's Hugo Chavez ever since he was elected president seven years ago and established himself as a leftist force. Chavez's rising influence in Latin American politics, his country's role as a major supplier of crude oil for U.S. refiners and his close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro have alarmed policymakers in the Bush administration. Last month, on his television show, the Rev. Pat Robertson actually went so far as to suggest the United States should assassinate the 51-year-old Chavez. (Robertson later apologized.)
While Chavez was in New York last week for the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, he sat down with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth. He spelled his dislike for the Bush administration and described himself as a revolutionary. Dressed in a bright red shirt, he noted that he was planning to stop in Havana on his way home so that he could spend several hours talking with Castro.
The opposition in Venezuela feels that it has no space. The leaders of Sumate [a group that supported a referendum vote on Chavez two years ago] say you indicted them for receiving money from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. Why?
You cannot forget that this very opposition governed Venezuela between 1958 and 1998. If they feel like they have no space, it is because they have been cooked in their own sauce. Between 1958 and 1998, Venezuela fell apart. We ended the 20th century with poverty as we have never seen it. The economy was totally destroyed. . . . Millions of Venezuelans were without education, health care, jobs, housing. So if they feel they do not have any room to act, it's their own fault.
But they have many rights: the right to demonstrate, the right to participate in elections. The opposition is utterly divided. The revolutionary forces are totally united. Recently, we had elections. We won 90 percent.
You have said that the U.S. is the most evil country in the world and you have called it a terrorist state. Do you want to have relations with the U.S.?
Of course. Indeed, we have relations and want to improve them.
Why did you call the United States a terrorist state?
The country is one thing -- we have lovely relations with the people -- like in the Bronx [where Chavez paid a visit]. We have economic relations. We have a company [Citgo, owned by the Venezuelan state oil company] that refines 800,000 barrels of oil [daily] . . . We have 14,000 gas stations in this country. We have sent Major League Baseball players here. We have many ties between Venezuela and the United States -- economic and social.
What I said is that this U.S. administration -- the current government -- is a terrorist administration, not all U.S. governments. I entertained the best of relations with the Clinton administration, and I consider myself a good friend of former President Carter.
So what's wrong with President Bush?
This administration invaded Iraq. According to Pope John Paul II, it is an illegal war, an immoral war, a terrorist war. The U.S. has bombarded entire cities, used chemical weapons and napalm, killed women, children and thousands of soldiers. That's terrorism.
In Venezuela they fostered a coup d'etat [in 2002] manufactured by the CIA . . . Recently, Reverend Robertson called for my assassination. This is a terrorist attack, according to international law. In Miami, on a daily basis, people on TV shows are calling for my assassination. This is terrorism.
This [present U.S.] government is a threat to humanity. I have confidence that the American people will save humanity from this government -- they will not allow it to [continue to] violate human rights and to invade countries.
Reportedly, one of your best friends is Cuba's Fidel Castro. Is that true?
He is one of my best friends.
Why do you admire him?
I admire many things about Fidel. I think the world admires Fidel for many reasons. His valor, his courage, the way he has led the revolution for more than 40 years -- in spite of a blockade and an embargo. Fidel is going be 80 very soon, but this guy is filled with vitality. I have never met a leader who is so well informed about what is going on in the world as well as in his own country as is Fidel. He is totally devoted to solving people's problems: health, education and work. Just to give you an idea, Cuba used to produce a lot of sugar. Now, as a result of economic crisis and the fall of the Soviet Union, they had to shut down 70 or 80 sugar production centers. But Fidel found a way that this would not lead to unemployment in Cuba. He invented a number of solutions to preserve the jobs of the Cubans.
For me, he is an exemplary friend, filled with a lot of solidarity. Do you know how many Cuban doctors we have in Venezuela today? We have 20,000 Cuban doctors. In Africa there are thousands of Cuban doctors and more in Central America, Asia and India.
Now we are conducting Operation Miracle, saving the eyesight of thousands of Latin Americans through eye surgery. I call upon all U.S. citizens -- especially the poor -- who happen to have eye problems that require surgery. Cuba and Venezuela are offering to pay all expenses so anyone can undergo surgery for eye diseases. Today, we signed an agreement to train 200,000 doctors in the next 10 years. This information is denied to U.S. citizens.
Who would you like to see as president of the United States?
I could deal with President Bush. I would like very much to be able to debate issues with him. I would like to transform this confrontation, this aggressive rhetoric, into a mature, serious debate on common issues. With President Clinton, we were able to sit and talk. But with this administration, it is impossible to talk because they want to impose things on you. If Mr. Bush changes his procedures and approaches, it would be excellent to talk and discuss current issues.
Regarding who is in the White House, it's up to you, the American people. Think it over. A government with so much power that it can start a war and destabilize a country but doesn't take care of its own people. Now, before the hurricane, they knew that Katrina was coming, and the government did not evacuate people. In Cuba, when they know a hurricane is coming, chickens, hens and people are all evacuated. A hurricane recently destroyed many towns in Cuba but not a single person died because no one was there. The government prepared its people and took them to shelters, whereas here they left the poor without protection, especially the blacks. That's horrible. Be careful with the government you have.
Reportedly, Venezuela is buying MiG planes, as well as rifles, from Russia. Why does Venezuela need these?
Who told you that I am going to buy MiGs? I am going to buy rifles, that's true. Our rifles are very old. Venezuela does not have spare parts or the workshops to maintain our equipment. It is high time for us to replace our old rifles. We could not buy rifles from the Americans because of the poor relations we have. We did not like what they had to offer in Europe because of the prices. We liked the Russian rifles. They are to defend our country. We are threatened by the empire.
Is the U.S. the empire?
The government of the United States, that's the empire. We have evidence that there are plans in this country to invade Venezuela. There is a plan called "Balboa." Our intelligence found this plan, and everything is spelled out there -- the target is Venezuela. They have even calculated how many bombings they should do, how many soldiers they will require. We now have the counter-Balboa plan. I hope that this will never happen because you're going to regret it. There will be such havoc in the whole hemisphere if this happens. The United States invaded Iraq, but Venezuela is not Iraq. The price of oil would shoot up and reach what -- $100 a barrel?
Experts in Washington claim you are encouraging radical groups throughout Latin America -- that you're helping the FARC in Colombia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Shafik Handal and the FMLN in El Salvador, and Evo Morales and the MAS in Bolivia.
Shafik is a great friend. We are together in this same revolutionary effort, of course. Shafik is a deputy member of the National Assembly, the [FMLN is] a legal party in El Salvador. Daniel Ortega is a close friend, and I think he will be a candidate in the next election. He is a great guy, very intelligent. Evo Morales is my friend, another great guy and an Indian leader. The parties they represent have excellent relations with my party. Do you want me to support the extreme right wing? I am a revolutionary. I have to support the left-wing movements in Latin America. We have to change Latin America.
Would you like to see these countries modeled on Cuba?
No country is going to copy any model. Cuba is Cuba and is based on its own circumstances. Latin American today is going to the left and not to the right.
In America, people believe in protecting minority rights and in a free press. What about the Sumate members who are on trial in your country?
Never before have we had so many political groups participate in the elections and debates in Venezuela -- right wing, left wing, center, radical left, radical right. They organize demonstrations and meetings; they go to the media: on TV, on radio. Not only have we not shut down any media [outlets] but, on the contrary, they have multiplied. . . . I doubt very much that in any other country in the world, there is more freedom of speech than in Venezuela. We will never jail a journalist in Venezuela because he does not want to reveal his sources. Here, yes. You have a journalist in jail here [New York Times reporter Judith Miller] because she did not want to reveal her sources.
In my capacity as head of state, I cannot comment on the legal aspects of the Sumate issue. It is true that they have been sued. But not only Sumate, other people and groups that took part in the coup of 2002 . . .
Weren't they merely gathering signatures for a referendum [against you as allowed by law]?
They did that as well and they lost.
So, why were they indicted for that?
I don't know if they are really going to be thrown in jail. We have a judiciary and an attorney general. If I had to make the decision, from a political standpoint I would prefer to ignore these people. We have evidence that they took part in the coup before gathering the signatures -- there is proof that they took part in a conspiracy. It is up to the branches in power to say what the decision is. It is not up to me to decide. In this country, from President Bush downward, everyone is defending Sumate. Sumate became an instrument of the U.S. government to intervene in Venezuela. I defend my sovereignty and the sovereignty of my country.