WASHINGTON, D.C. — In retrospect, wearing a pro-Israel shirt probably wasn’t the best choice while trying to interview people at a Hugo Chavez commemoration.
"Not right now," one woman said at Saturday’s rally in honor of the recently deceased Venezuelan president.
"Sorry, my brain is baked right now," said another Chavista who was handing out flyers for an upcoming rally against United States drones in Africa.
"Yeah, I don’t feel like speaking to you right now," a woman wearing a red shirt emblazoned with the icon of the late Chavez and the words "resist imperialism" above it.
In most cases, the people glanced down at my "Ducks for Israel" shirt—a gift from the campus Hillel chapter at the University of Oregon several years ago—and contorted their faces as though I had tacked a rotting animal carcass to my chest.
I had thrown on the shirt in haste. It didn’t occur to me until I was walking up to Simon Bolivar Plaza, where roughly 100 Chavez faithful had gathered, how poorly the tee might go over with the "social justice and solidarity community of the Washington D.C. metro region," as the event’s Facebook page billed the attendees.
"Not with that shirt," said a young woman, also a member of the local socialist party, when I asked her for an interview. Her glare was so icy it cut through her sunglasses.
The crowd was mixed with Venezuelans sporting their country’s colors, black social justice activists who praised Chavez’ work with Africa, and academic-looking baby boomers still fighting The Man.
In the middle of the plaza, supporters left flowers and framed propaganda pictures ("Chavez is the people!") at the base of a statue of Bolivar. Above the offerings, the namesake of Bolivarianism—Venezuela’s brand of socialism—sat upon a horse and lifted his saber to the sky.
Next to the statue, a microphone was set up where people could offer thoughts on Chavez.
"Since I cannot speak, I will sing," a woman with a trembling voice said into the mic as a man began playing guitar behind her. A teenage girl sitting on the periphery of the plaza sniffled and wiped away tears as the woman launched into an ode to Chavez. Waiting in line to sign a book offering condolences to the country of Venezuela, another lady wept into the shoulder of a friend.
It was not all doom and gloom, though. Shouts of "¡Viva Chavez!" rang out occasionally. Men waved tiny FMLN flags. "Mi Comandante, se queda!"
"Our brother Hugo Chavez was not only a friend of black America but a friend of Africa," a member of the group Friends of the Congo said. "He will definitely be missed, and the spirit of Hugo Chavez will live on. It will live on throughout Latin America, throughout Africa, and throughout America, but it’s up to us to continue that spirit and keep it moving on."
"I think Chavez provided an inspiration for the peoples throughout the Americas and the world, the underclass," attendee Eric Wingarder told me. "It’s sad the man died, but we want to make sure the movement and the sentiment behind him stays alive."
Walter Teague, a grey-haired man in an "end the embargo!" baseball cap, said Chavez represented "hope and potentiality for poor people to have a decent life, the hope that Latin America can unite around what the majority of the people need instead of an oligarchy."
Supporters at the event praised Chavez’s work to improve education and literacy rates in the country.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, though, have criticized the Chavez regime for demolishing judicial independence and freedom of the press in Venezuela.
"By [Chavez’s] second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda," Human Rights Watch wrote on March 5.
But that, the Chavistas said, is simply the imperialist American media smearing the egalitarian Chavez—estimated net worthat the time of his death: $2 billion—and ignoring his work to lift up the poor of Venezuela.
"When you realize the media is owned by six different corporations in the United States, it’s no wonder they’re saying these things," said Marba Conway, who described herself as "a socialist and a historian."
"Chavez was for the people, and he was for land-reform, so a lot of those rich people were not happy they got their privileges taken away," she said.
"I’ve spent a lot of time in Venezuela and there’s eight daily papers, half of which are trashing Chavez every day," Wingarder said. "My understanding is the only time there’s ever been any penalties against media has been against the media outlets that actively participated in the coup against Chavez. It’s not about freedom of speech the way they talk about politics, but in their using the institution to participate in the overthrow of the government. I can’t imagine if that had happened here."
The Chavez regime yanked the licenses of dozens of radio and television stations in Venezuela that it said "harm the interests of the state," "cause panic," and/or "disturb social peace."
There were also Chavez’s chummy relationships with the world’s foremost tin-pot despots such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is currently massacring his own people; Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, leader of what is commonly called "the last dictatorship in Europe"; Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, whom Chavez called a "martyr"; and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government brutally crushes dissent and executes homosexuals.
"I think the media that’s reporting that is slanted toward hypocrisy that thrives on dividing people and exploitation," said Cheryl Labash, a former national organizer for the Workers World Party. "If you look at that media around the world, you’ll find a very different view."
The Workers World Party is notable for its full-throated support of "anti-imperialist" leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il. It also called the Tiananmen Square massacre "a myth."
As the meeting drew to a close, attendees joined hands in a circle around the statue of Bolivar and sang a dual Spanish/English version of "We shall overcome."
As they were singing I thought about the thorny question of Chavez’ heated—some might say anti-Semitic—rhetoric against Israel. Chavez once said Mossad agents were trying to kill him and his nationalized police force raided Jewish community centers. Half of Venezuela’s Jewish population left the country during his terms in office.
But, considering the reaction to my gauche shirt, I didn’t ask the Chavez faithful about that. I could guess the answer well enough.