Interview with Hugo Chavez
Tonight, an exclusive conversation with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. I sat down with the outspoken and controversial leader in New York this week. Among the topics discussed, his continued war of words with the Bush administration, his recent comments expressing support for Iran and its president, and his efforts this week to gain a seat for Venezuela on the U.N. Security Council.
We're glad you've joined us.
My conversation with President Hugo Chávez is coming up right now.
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Tavis: Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.
Hugo Chávez: Thank you.
Tavis: The first question of this conversation I think has to be your comment calling President Bush the devil. There are some who have labeled your speech at the U.N. just days ago the most undiplomatic speech ever given at the U.N. To the American public, clarify or share with us why you chose to call George Bush the devil.
Chávez: Thank you very much for your question. Allow me to make the following comment. In order to come here, some considered my speech undiplomatic. How diplomatic is it to bombard cities? Is it diplomatic to command the killing of thousands of innocent people? I think today some stirred or smiled when I say what I said. I think it was rather a humoristic speech and caused no damage, no aggression. I said I smelled sulfur here. I think people were having a good time. They were smiling.
Now let's go to the bottom of the issue. Is it not a devilish action to order the invasion of a country? Lying to your own citizens? Throwing high-position bombs and highly destructive bombs against houses filled with people? Against entire peoples? You see, it is really an act of devils to use weapons of mass destruction, to use chemical weapons, against entire cities, poisoning the air, poisoning the water. In Fallujah, even the birds died. Cockroaches died. All traces of life disappeared in Fallujah. That's an act of devils.
My words are worth nothing. What matters is the truth and my words only reflect reality. It is nothing personal. It is something coming from ethics and morality. My words are just a cry, a scream, a clamor for justice, for reflection on the citizens that cannot support gross actions conducted by President Bush.
Tavis: Words do have meaning. You know that better than most. Words have meaning. I wonder whether you ever consider that the words may get in the way. That is to say, that the message that you want to convey gets shrouded, covered, by the methodology so that, when you use a use a word like devil, what you really want the American public to hear, they don't hear because of the language, because of the word.
Chávez: Well, that's a perspective. That's a point of view. It's very confusing that what you have said has some value, I might also say. There are words, in this case, one word that says very clearly what we can say with a thousand words and perhaps because it is a strong word, and it is indeed, it might move the consciousness of the people, of some people. But from my perspective, they're a little bit sleepy. They're sleeping.
They are not realizing what is going on or they are confounded and the United States president is supported by a powerful media mechanism or equipment power. It even manipulates in some religious ideas. He said, one, that he was the mandate of God. He considers himself a God and that's a terrible manipulation since this is obeying the interests that are against God. I think he considers himself like God. When I call him devil, it's just to strike a balance.
Tavis: You said a moment ago that, for you, this is not personal. This tension, this gulf between you and Mr. Bush you said is not personal. Yet in your U.N. speech, you reminded us of your personal feelings about what the United States did or did not do in terms of coming to your defense during the coups, that the United States looked the other way, that the United States immediately recognized those military leaders who overthrew you.
You said it's not personal, but yet you shared that story. There are many Americans who believe that President Bush going after Saddam Hussein was personal to avenge his father and there are those who believe that your words against Mr. Bush likewise are personal because of what happened in the coups, yet you say it's not personal. I ask again, is any of this personal or is it all political?
Chávez: Not at all. This is not personal. I do not think that President Bush invaded Iraq because of personal reasons. I think that him and those governing invented that colorful lie that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to go after Iraq's oil. In a century, you consumed almost all your reserves of oil. Today, the United States elite are in despair trying to find more oil for the next decade and the next century.
That is why they aggress Iraq. That is why they are threatening Iran and that's why the coups against Venezuela, one of the largest oil producers and one of the largest oil reserves in the world. When I say what I said about the United States government, I want to insist it is not personal. It is a matter of ethics and philosophical and ideological matter. Sometimes you use such words and, on occasion, I use other words. (Unintelligible) to an idea I want to convey.
Tavis: If then, Mr. President, you are not anti-American as some want to label you, if you are not anti-American, then what are you anti? If you're not anti the American people, what are you anti?
Chávez: Anti-imperialist. I'm against any pretension of hegemony in the world. I'm against capitalists in your liberal model that the United States elites want to impose on the world for its own weapons and bombs.
Tavis: How do you respond to people who say that you are using your country's wealth because of the oil to buy for yourself respect, position, attention around the world?
Chávez: Well, I would answer what Jesus Christ, my Lord, said one of the seven words, "Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing" or what they are saying because they are ignorant or because they repeat as a parrot what other people say or because they say it because of (unintelligible). The solid position that Venezuela has today is respect that Venezuela has gained around the world that we have never had in the past.
It's not at all due to the fact that we are buying support. It would be indignant not only of ourselves, but indignant of the world. Some might say that because of the Venezuelan oil, we also have a little poverty in Venezuela. We are reducing that poverty gradually and we have many needs in our country. What we are doing is sharing the bread with those who need it the most and those we can help in the smaller countries and (unintelligible). Can you criticize that?
Tavis: How should the American public view -- how do you want them to interpret what it means when you stand next to the leader of Iran, when you stand next to the leader of Cuba and when you stand next to the leader of Syria? You know that paints a picture in the mind of Americans. What picture do you want them to see? Because I know they see something. What do you want them to see?
Chávez: I could ask the American people what Mr. Ahmadinejad did against your people. Nothing. He has done nothing against the American people. Many Americans, however, have been poisoned by the mainstream media, and they repeat that he's the devil; he's the axis of evil. They now consider that Ahmadinejad is an enemy; that Fidel is an enemy. What did Fidel do against the American people? Nothing, nothing wrong. However, Americans or the United States government have done wrong against the Cuban people.
Some Americans say they see enemies where they only have friends, people who want to work with the United States people and with the United States government. But the devil is inside America, exploiting them and stealing their (unintelligible). How much is the United States government devoting to the armies they have around the world? Five hundred billion dollars.
How many poor people do you have here in Harlem? How many poor people in the United States who cannot eat three times a day, without health care and medicine and food? Why is this government spending five hundred billion dollars? That's eight times the Venezuelan subjects. With that money, they could just help not only the poor here, but the poor in Africa and Central America dying of AIDS and diarrhea. Every three seconds, there is a child dying from infection. Food for thought. That's just a moral problem for the United States people.
Tavis: Let me ask one last question about your feelings about the United States and then I want to cover some more issues, if I can. You said a moment ago that you're not trying to become popular in the United States. Do I take that to mean that you do not care what your image is here in the country? You don't care what Americans think of you? Is that what you meant to suggest, number one? And number two, is there anything you like about the United States? What do you like or respect, if anything, about the United States?
Chávez: Much more than caring about what the American people might think about me, I care much more about the future of the American people, the lot of the American people. That's not only because of the American people, but the future of the world. I am fully aware that what happens here in America, the events within America will have a strong impact on events around the world. That is why I don't care. It's for nothing. I mean, a straw in the wind. What people might think about me, it doesn't matter.
Tavis: I've heard you speak in Venezuela and I've heard you speak here in the United States. I've never heard you speak once without referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I happen to believe that Dr. King is perhaps the greatest American we have ever produced and, for whatever reason or reasons, his work has impacted your life and you are a student of him and reference him rather consistently. Why is that? What's that about?
Chávez: I share your opinion. He's not perhaps the greatest. One of the greatest Americans ever is Muhammad Ali. He's the greatest (laughter). I admire Muhammad Ali enormously. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s - he was assassinated in what year?
Chávez: I was born in 1954. In the 1960s, I'm just a young child, a youngster fourteen years old when he was killed. Kennedy was also assassinated in that period. Che Guevara also passed away in that period. I was opening my eyes to life when those events happened. We remember a lot of the 1960s. Among those events, that youngster I was in high school already, and one of the events that truly marked me was that Black man, as black as my father. He was the same color. My father was Black, my grandfather was Black and I am half Black, half Indian. I'm very proud of my color, of my roots.
My grandmother was an Indian, and my grandfather was a Black man, so I was truly touched by that courageous man, those crowds, the rebirth of the Black movement. My father used to mention that movement, the quality of the Black people, the Black people with the white people. I started to read and study the history at that time and started to admire the Black men with the Latinos and marches, and how the Black people joined the army of Bolivar. Bolivar freed the slaves and transformed them.
So I was impacted by him when I read the oration of "I Have A Dream." It is scarred in my soul, a world of peace, a world of equals, of social justice, and the way he was assassinated, it broke my heart.
Tavis: One of the tenets of King's life and certainly in the end of his life, he was working on a poor peoples' campaign. There is a conversation that has kicked up in this country certainly and in other parts of the world. But a conversation has kicked up about how and what needs to be done to end poverty. Can we find a way to end poverty? Your thoughts on this.
Chávez: I could draw with you a basic guideline in which I believe profoundly. It is essential to get rid of poverty. We need to empower the poor, empower the poor. Transfer power to the poor because themselves, with that power, will be the main actors in defeating poverty. That is a cross they're bearing.
The first power we should deliver to them is knowledge, life and lightness, culture. Jose Marti, the great Cuban revolutionary said, "You need to be cultivated to be free." Knowledge. Simon Bolivar, the great revolutionary, said, “A man without study is an incomplete genius.” And then he said, “We have been dominated far more by ignorance than by force.”
Tavis: Mr. President, I thank you for the opportunity to talk with you. Thank you for your time and for sharing with us.
Chávez: Thank you very much. My pleasure to be with you.
Tavis: That's our show for tonight. You can catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. Check your local listings. I'll see you back here next time, though, on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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