President Chavez of Venezuela in London - a personal view

Darrall Cozens, member of the NATFHE Regional Committee and Hands off Venezuela Committee, gives his personal account of the visit of President Hugo Chavez to London.

Darrall Cozens, member of the NATFHE Regional Committee and Hands off Venezuela Committee, gives his personal account of the visit of President Hugo Chavez to London.

After having spent the last three years campaigning in the labour and trade union movement for the defence and extension of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, now was the opportunity to see in the flesh the man who epitomises for so many the social advances that have been made in that country.

The first task was to get a seat in the limited capacity Camden Town Hall. The hall could hold only 800 people and on the Friday evening before this meeting Chavez had spoken in Vienna at a meeting organised by the Austrian section of the Hands off Venezuela (HoV) campaign and 5000 (!!) had turned up to listen to him. The meeting there had to be turned into an open air one in a large square next to the meeting hall. (See Vienna, May 12: Hugo Chávez addresses mass rally organised by Hands off Venezuela!.) What would the response be in London?

The organisation of the meeting was undertaken by Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Authority (GLA). Originally HoV were going to host a meeting on the Tuesday evening of Chavez's visit. Then the TUC sponsored Venezuela Information Centre (VIC) decided to hold one on the Monday evening. HoV proposed a joint meeting, but eventually the GLA took over responsibility. Before this meeting started on the Sunday afternoon, however, several events had already happened.

We arrived in London (travel down from Coventry would have cost £33 so I had organised a ticket for another NATFHE member Vincenzo Infantino and he drove down with the two of us buying day travel passes for London) and by 10.30am were taking part in a welcoming picket for Chavez outside the Savoy Hotel in the Strand organised by HoV and the Bolivarian circles in London (see pictures here and here). Chavez was supposed to arrive at about 11.30 am so we were in buoyant mood chanting slogans (oooooo...aaaaaa, Chavez no se va - oooo..aaa Chavez isn't going) and singing songs in a variety of languages, mainly Spanish and English. Quite a surprise for the usual clientele of the Savoy!

So we sang and chanted and waited... and time passed. The plane had arrived on time at Heathrow so why the delay? What we didn't know was that Chavez was at the airport in a press conference and he was taking his time. We began to flag! After almost 4 hours his cavalcade of cars swung into the entrance to the hotel and security popped out from everywhere. Understandable really as he has been threatened with assassination by the right wing in Venezuela and the USA, so no chances were being taken.

We had been told that he would come and talk to us before going into the hotel, but as he approached us the waiting crowds rushed forward and the orderly assembly disintegrated into an enthusiastic throng. Palms were pressed and hugs exchanged. Old ones like me kept at the back away from the crush. For about 30 minutes Chavez stayed and then disappeared with his entourage into the hotel. We then made our way to the hall for the meeting expecting it to start very late as the schedule was already way behind. Chavez was due to open a museum at Miranda House and then come to the meeting. So as not to disappoint the waiting crowd, however, he missed out Miranda House and came straight to Camden. By the time we arrived by tube we were at the back of the queue and so had to occupy the balconies upstairs overlooking the flag-waving chanting audience below.

The cries went up. Venezuela - presente! Chile - presente! Bolivia - presente! Haiti - presente! I wanted to shout Pais de Gales (Wales) but refrained. The dignitaries' filed out with Chavez occupying centre stage. As he appeared there was a rapturous ovation and much hand waving. The platform settled down and the composition was interesting. Ken Livingstone was there as the main organiser. Paul Mackney was there in recognition, I presume, of NATFHE's work on Venezuela. Earlier I had seen the Wilkins family outside unable to get into the meeting! Richard Gott was there as the Latin American correspondent for over 30 years of the Guardian. Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary, was also there representing HoV. Andy Goodhall from VSC was there as was a representative from the TUC VIC. At this stage I was beginning to wonder why certain people were up on the platform especially as there was Tariq Ali, the ex-Marxist who in the last election could not bring himself to vote Labour so had become a Liberal for the day. Strange bedfellows!

There were three speakers before Chavez. Ken Livingstone introduced and chaired the session, the speaker from VIC and Jeremy Dear from HoV. And then it was Chavez. For 3 and half hours he spoke without notes and with microphone in hand. From personal anecdotes to an analysis of the world today, from theory to practice, citing his heroes and ideas that he followed, from Jesus Christ (I am a Christian) to Karl Marx (I am a Socialist) with Lenin and Guevara in between. The basic message was that he had tried to find a third way between capitalism and socialism and found that the former offered no solution, so socialism had to be the answer.

What type of socialism was open to debate as the process of social advance deepened. Chavez, however, invited all of the audience to share in this debate and take the message out into the streets to combat the ideas of the mass media. He even suggested that a badge should be worn that declared the wearer to be a socialist in order to engage others in discussion. What was rejected was the dominant economic model of the USA that only meant slavery for the developing world. For Chavez, humanity had two choices - socialism or barbarism.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. More chanting, singing, hand pressing and hugs. By now it was nearing 9pm and time to hit the motorway as work was on the morrow. It was an exhilarating experience that rejuvenates the heart and soul. Forward with the work on Venezuela. Forward to the NATFHE conference and the debate on Venezuela.

The following day, however, the press and the media in Britain had a field day castigating Chavez for taking action against foreign companies in order to boost the income of the government to enable it to carry out its social programmes. The Convenor of HoV has written to the Press Council complaining of the bile that emanated from the Daily Mail. Other papers weren't quite as bad, but none were neutral or favourable. 

For those who are interested, it is worthwhile clicking on to venezuelanalysis.com for an analysis of how the media treats Chavez.

Thanks to the West Midlands Regional Committee for supporting the trip down. If the chance comes again to see the man in the flesh, I would recommend it to everyone.

Darrall Cozens, NATFHE Regional Committee and Hands off Venezuela Committee

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