Aló Presidente - episode 291: When Chávez reclaimed Las Malvinas
Tuesday August 28, 2007
The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Photograph: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
It was a rare moment of silence in a seven-hour talkathon and did not last long. Venezeula's president hurled the question back out to sea, far over the horizon, and turned it into a harangue against Europe, the British navy, the Queen, racism, imperialism and that embodiment of old world vice, the Guardian. By the end of it, Mr Chávez had urged the Caribbean to reconsider membership of the Commonwealth, Latin America to recover the Falklands, and this newspaper, which he named about a dozen times, to stir republican sentiment in Britain.
"In Europe they still talk about the 'discovery' of America. Never has a European journalist asked our opinion about the arrival of Christopher Columbus. 'Cultured' Europe, and us the barbarians. What cynicism!"
What prompted the ire was a Guardian query about a draft constitution and its most contentious provision: the abolition of presidential term limits to allow Mr Chávez to run again when his period in office expires in 2012. Given that he had ruled out a similar change for governors and mayors, on the grounds that they might become corrupt in power, why risk it with the president?
This was not a press conference but Aló Presidente, a TV show hosted by Mr Chávez. The live broadcasts have been called government by television, because it is here that important decisions are often announced.
To his supporters, the soldier-turned-president has won consecutive landslides through giving the poor oil wealth and political power, reversing decades of neglect. To his opponents, he is squandering a bonanza on to perpetuate his power. Sunday's episode of Aló Presidente, the 291st, came from Valle Seco, a picturesque coastal hamlet. Mr Chávez sat at a desk placed in the sand at the water's edge. In the audience sat ministers, mayors, legislators and ambassadors, almost all wearing red.
It was a freewheeling affair. Outside the official cordon, local women and girls stood up to their waists in the ocean cheering and blowing kisses to their leader. Several times a dog wandered up to the desk to receive a presidential pat. A green insect which landed on a book by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci was flicked away.
The carnival mood curdled when Mr Chávez was asked about term limits. "Why don't they ask for a referendum in the Caribbean [Commonwealth] islands and ask people if they want the Queen to be their head of state? Why doesn't the Guardian make an investigation in Britain about the monarchy?" he asked. There was no chance to explain that the paper has advocated republicanism. "In the name of the Latin American people, I demand that the British government return the Malvinas islands to the Argentinian people."
Later, his voice softer, Mr Chávez said he needed to be able to run again because Venezuela's socialist revolution was like an unfinished painting and he was the artist. Giving the brush to someone else was risky, "because they could have another vision, start to alter the contours of the painting". Other officials were not responsible for the big picture and so did not need to run again and again, he said, looking at a row of governors and mayors. "Nothing personal." They smiled wanly and applauded.