Confronting the Chavistas in Berkeley

There’s still a lot to do when it comes to counter the pro-Maduro propaganda in the United States. This is what some of our well-informed friends are doing in that California stronghold of the American Left.

Photo by the author.

A month or so ago, my wife came home growling about a pro-chavista program she’d heard on KPFA radio. Of course, I thought, what’s new? Originally founded by Lewis Hill in 1957 as a “free speech” station that crossed boundaries and included broad swathes of countercultural and marginal communities (including many left-wing currents from communism to anarchism) KPFA has gradually settled into its institutional status as the “leftest” flagship of the Pacifica Network. Today, it’s as left-wing as Fox News is right-wing, which is to say that on the issue of Venezuela, there are only occasional departures from the chavista line at KPFA . 

But when Marcy went on to say that the station was sponsoring an event with Dan Kovalik on Venezuela, I got angry. I went online and sure enough, there it was: “The Plot to Overthrow Venezuela: How the U.S. Is Orchestrating a Coup for Oil.” 

All of Kovalik’s books include the word “plot” in their title, revealing the crusty old Marxist-Leninist and Cold War thinking he and his audience share (here he is, for instance, with a Che Guevara pic in the background). I wrote a comment on the ad and got the message that it’d be reviewed by the moderator. Needless to say, my comment never appeared. So much for “Free Speech Radio.”

That was when I decided to organize an informational picket.

That was when I decided to organize an informational picket. I wrote up the propaganda and over the next few weeks I passed drafts on to fellow writer and anti-chavista Michael McVey and, of course, my best editor, my wife Marcy Rein. She still considers herself a leftist (“life-long leftist,”) so her input was crucial in taking out the gratuitous inflammatory barbs and making the language as neutral as possible, to allow this chavista audience to actually hear the content.

Given how the KPFA audience would be, mostly, older folks who had, like me, been active in the Central American solidarity movement some 40 years past, I decided to focus the first flyer on the UNOHCHR Report, otherwise known as the Bachelet report. The headline, I figured, would easily escape the targeted audience’s immediate grasp, allowing them to hold onto the flyer long enough to read some of it: “Solidarity with the Venezuelan Government—or with the Venezuelan People.” I presumed that solidarity activists, long-steeped in Leninism, wouldn’t grasp the binary—it’d go right over their heads that there might be divergent interests between a “people” and their “vanguard party” government. I pointed out how the report says that one third of the murders in Venezuela, by the government’s own account, was carried out by the FAES and how people were denied access to food and had limited access to health, education and other basic necessities. 

In the second flyer (two pages aren’t enough to even begin explaining the ongoing disaster), I developed the binary: “Solidarity with the Venezuelan People=Opposition to the Venezuelan Government.” I offered a few facts backing up claims and statements in the first flyer, then went on to challenge three of the most common arguments chavistas use to address the Venezuelan crisis. First, there’s simple denial, like Max Blumenthal’s claim that “nothing is happening;” second, that “Venezuela’s economic problems result from sabotage by imperialists and the right-wing;” and, finally, that the cause of the disaster is low oil prices and U.S. sanctions. 

Any Caracas Chronicles’ reader would recognize the null merit of these arguments.

The only person I was sure would attend my summons was fellow Caracas Chronicler Rodrigo Linares, a brilliant, gentle and good-natured soul. Soon, Michael McVey showed up, a building contractor who lived in Venezuela in the 90s, where he worked as a journalist.  Then Roy Mash, someone on my mailing list, arrived from Marin County. Both Michael and Roy come out of the Left, on the sane vein of the genuine, heroic Left in Venezuela with folks like Americo de Grazia, and Rubén González, the latter being SintraFerrominera’s Secretary-General who, just the day before we leafletted these gringo chavistas, was sentenced by a military tribunal to nearly six years in prison for “insulting” representatives of the Bolivarian government. I had the honor of meeting and interviewing González for a movie I did with my friend Arturo Albarrán (co-produced, incidentally, with Caracas Chronicles) and during the course of our meeting I was impressed with the passion, commitment and courage Rubén displayed in his labor on behalf of the workers of Guayana.

One young woman gratefully took the flyers only to come back later, telling me that we had no business “blocking access” to the venue and “disrupting” the event.

Lastly, Guido Nuñez Mújica of Project Salto arrived. I’d met him a little over a year ago, when I wrote about him and his project for Caracas Chronicles; he’d come over all the way from San Francisco and, as he strode up to us, he joked, “Damn it! I forgot to bring my bullhorn!”

The five of us were the largest group passing out literature to those arriving for Kovalik’s talk, so really one or two of us would have been enough to cover the two entrances. Roy had his own flyer, 20 copies of an Amnesty International report on human rights abuses in Venezuela. When he wasn’t passing out flyers, he was practicing his Spanish on a very-delighted-to-help Guido. Rodrigo was caught up in a discussion with a man I recognized from demonstrations back in the 80s and who I associated with one or another of the numerous Marxist-Leninist parties active at the time. He’d introduced himself as Gerald, an African-American, and he was handing out flyers that made the claim that the Hong Kong demonstrators were all acting on behalf of the CIA, or something like that. I was impressed by how Rodrigo managed to patiently challenge, refute and correct Gerald’s arguments which, like those of the chavista left in the U.S., were based on (faulty) information well over a decade old.

The mostly white-haired Gerald, as it turned out, was fairly representative of the incoming crowd in other ways. The attendees were mostly geriatric and many only made it up the ramp to the venue by the use of handrails or walkers. Perhaps as much as a quarter of the attendees were between 20 and 30, with few people between 40 and 60. 

One young woman gratefully took the flyers only to come back later, telling me that we had no business “blocking access” to the venue and “disrupting” the event. I calmly pointed out that we weren’t blocking or disrupting anything at all: We were peacefully handing out our information. A few minutes after she left, a bald man who appeared to be speaking in an official role, came down the steps and, loudly, demanded to know who we were. “What’s the name of your group? Who sent you here?” I said that I had written the flyers and we were just friends, Venezuelan and Americans, concerned enough to give out information we knew Kovalik wouldn’t touch on. “It’s been years since I joined any groups,” I added. At this, I saw a smile flicker across his face. He nodded and returned inside.

It struck me, as the doors closed at the Hillside Club, that the crowd we’d seen of some 60 or 70 people, were more representative of Berkeley and its outdated institutions (like the Hillside Club and KPFA) than of the chavista supporter in general. The Berkeley left, and the KPFA radio crowd, is an aging demographic sprinkled with a mix of University of California students who pass through the city or stay as residents after graduation. And so, it’s the greatest irony that these people clinging to outworn institutions sheltering the obsolete and dysfunctional faith of socialism in both its 20th and 21st-century varieties would think of themselves as “progressives.” 

They convince themselves that the brief moment when oil was at $130/barrel and everyone in Venezuela was flush is the eternal truth of Venezuela.

But it is a faith, and I’m sure that most of these believers will view our fact-based flyers as unconvincing as the Trump supporters do the New York Times. Like believers of most faiths—and I say this meaning no offense to anyone—their dogma is impervious to the fact-based world everyone else lives in. In the case of the gringo chavistas, they see their world, as it were, enveloped in the amber of the Cold War and, in the case of Venezuela, they bask in what I call “The Golden Moment as the Eternal Now:” They convince themselves that the brief moment when oil was at $130/barrel and everyone in Venezuela was flush is the eternal truth of Venezuela, rather than a vanishing illusion. 

Still, as our group headed to a café, I thought about what Larry Diamond said at a conference a while back: that the opposition needs to begin to “develop a unified strategy and begin pulling away moderate elements from the regime.” To do that, the last thing we need (and I think Guido knows this very well) is a bullhorn. A friendly smile and a gentle, friendly response to anger serve us far better. Festinger, Riecken and Shachter told us that “when prophecy fails,” it’s the doubters who are most likely to defect. 

Maybe it’ll be the angry young woman or the outraged bald man, both of whom felt an urgent need to confront us, the ones who will one day find the cognitive dissonance so intolerable that they’ll turn around and go out themselves to leaflet a chavista event. 

That’s pretty much what happened to me.

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.