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Hello Venezuela v Hello Propaganda!

20.03.05 | On the evening of 17 March 2005 three representatives of the Venezuelan government gave a presentation, "Hello Venezuela!," at the Walker Memorial Auditorium on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event was organized and sponsored by the Citgo Corporation, the Bolivarian Circle of Boston, the Venezuelan Consulate in Boston, the Embassy of Venezuela in the United States and the MIT UA Finboard and Office of Student Life Programs. The MIT student organization Western Hemisphere Project was the official host of the event, which included traditional Venezuelan music, hors d’oeuvres, and a lavish dinner with salsa music at the end of the evening. The three speakers were Venezuela's Ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's Foreign Affairs Vice Minister for North America Maria Pilar Hernandez and the mayor of Caracas Juan Barreto.

The visit of these government officials to MIT coincided with a series of public relations events in Boston showcasing a $1.5 million restoration of Kenmore Square's famous Citgo sign, which was paid for by the Venezuelan government. During his speech, Barreto proudly declared that the Venezuelan government had donated the money to the renovation project in hopes of a "fraternal vision" of dialogue, what he also poetically evoked as a "two-way bridge of love" between Caracas and Boston. Unfortunately, the tone and message of the evening contradicted this "vision" and instead revealed the totalitarian aspects of the "Bolivarian revolution" and its multi-million dollar efforts to market itself abroad as a political movement in favor of Venezuela's indigent.

To begin with, much of the audience evidently consisted of members of the Venezuelan Consulate in Boston, the Bolivarian Circle of Boston, the entourage of the visiting officials, along with their respective families and assorted security details. There were small pockets of Venezuelans from Boston but they were outnumbered by those affiliated with Chavismo. Two front tables greeted the public at the entrance. One featured a wide array of books by Pathfinder Publications; the other included stickers with questions as "Got Marx?" The audience included a mix of North American students and others interested in learning about Venezuela. The repeated cheers from the audience made it clear that this was a distinctly partisan affair.

What gave the evening the feeling of a farce were the lavish details of the "fiesta," from the grilled shrimp and duck quesadilla appetizers to the tables set up with bottled and sparkling water, a wide assortment of sodas and natural juices, to the Venezuelan Consulate ushers who led guests through the doors and to their seats beneath an imposing mural of MIT's Alma Mater. The evening must have cost a small fortune, judging by the amounts of food and entertainment and the notable size of the government entourage. All this while Venezuela is still recovering from the effects of recent rainstorms and mudslides throughout the country. All this extravagance, while Venezuelans continue to starve and suffer the effects of a populist regime that spends millions on international marketing, while overseeing one of the country's worst administrations in decades.

The event was also tainted by the amateurish translation of Hernandez and Barreto's speeches. There were two translators, neither of which managed to fully translate even the most elementary statements, which resulted in a sinister double-speak reminiscent of both a mediocre comedy show skit and a communist propaganda event. One statement that definitely became untranslatable was when Barreto took the stage and referred to the young Venezuelan woman from the Consulate who had been translating for Hernandez. Barreto was told that someone else would translate for him and he replied, in Spanish, "But I want HER to translate me," with a grin on his face. It was a moment when his "progressive" mask fell off and his machista nature was clearly visible.

Since Ambassador Alvarez was the only one of the three to speak English fluently, his words at least were relatively coherent. He spoke of the need for understanding between Venezuela and the United States: "In the essence, the people of this country have the same goals, the same dreams we're trying to achieve in Venezuela."

Mary Pili Hernandez (as she is known in Venezuela) remarked on how "marvelous" the process Venezuela was experiencing at the moment was, with "17 million people" receiving medical care for the first time in their lives and "1 million, 200 thousand" people having been taught how to read in the last few years. She claimed that at this moment "Venezuela, with humility, is an example to the world." One wonders, an example of what? A government that will spend millions of dollars to promote itself abroad but whose citizens are enduring the worst statistics of crime, joblessness, hunger and political turmoil since the country's independence from Spain at the beginning of the XIX century?

The evening's highlight was perhaps when Barreto was introduced as a "poet." His performance left one in awe at his abilities as an actor, so perhaps in the Shakesperean sense, he was indeed a poet. Never mind that their infallible leader, Hugo Chavez, recently declared that "I don't speak English and I don't have any interest in learning it." Barreto insisted to the audience: "I promise you that the next time I return to Boston, I will know English." Surely, the one thing Chavismo has developed is a skill for empty promises.

Barreto went on to describe his plans for Caracas, including the further development of community groups throughout the neighborhoods of that city, never once mentioning his administration's use of the Tupamaro militia, for instance, as part of the city's police force. Barreto waxed poetic about the wonders of baseball and the Red Sox. He said Venezuela was happy to donate money to the city of Boston, for the purpose of renovating such a wonderful piece of "pop art." And, speaking of pop, in reference to the Venezuelan opposition, he came up with the following allegory: "Some people like pop music but they don't like revolutionary pop." I'll leave the reader to ponder those verses from yet another of the Bolivarian revolution's brilliant poets.

During the question and answer session, a woman who grew up in Russia asked Barreto and Hernandez about the logic behind land expropriations: "What is the logic of taking someone's business and not their house? What logic are you using to decide what gets expropriated?" After the two translators whispered into their ears, there was a silence of about a minute while the panel figured out how to answer the question. That silence was indicative of not only their improvisation as speakers but of their desire to not deal with uncomfortable topics. Barreto and Hernandez pieced together an answer, starting with: "Let me explain the method of expropriation to you." To which the Russian woman interrupted: "I don't need to know your methods, I simply want to know your logic. How do you decide what gets expropriated?" Hernandez retorted: "In order to understand the logic, you must understand the method." Needless to say, the woman's question was not answered.

Among the opposition Venezuelans present that evening, several were handing out flyers during the question and answer session. I witnessed as the leader of Boston's Bolivarian Circle rushed up to one of them and wrestled the flyers out of his hand, grunting a thuggish "NO!" The threat posed by half a dozen individuals politely handing out flyers that countered the "pretty revolution" being advertised that evening was minimal. And yet, many of the Chavistas in the audience were visibly incensed that anyone would dare to question the marketing and PR work being done by these bureaucrats. I overheard a woman in fine clothes and jewels say to one of the opposition Venezuelans: "We're all Venezuelans here, of course. But it's just that we spent a long time planning this event." Free speech and democratic debate, then, were not welcome.

While the newly renovated Citgo sign glowed across the Charles, its generous benefactors settled down to forget uncomfortable questions with their glamorous catered meal and festive music. Viva Citgo Revolution!

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