An enthralling presence

Print edition : March 25, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on a four-day state visit, conquers Indian hearts.

in New Delhi and Kolkata

Hugo Chavez with Chief Minister Bhattacharjee in Kolkata.-BIKAS DAS/AP

IT was a visit many Indians were eagerly looking forward to. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's reputation as a radical had preceded him and he did not disappoint his countless admirers in New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. His visit was unlike one by any other foreign dignitary. Here was a statesman and a revolutionary who just wanted to mingle with the people. Chavez's communication skill was on full display during his interaction with students, peasants and people from all walks of life during his hectic four-day state visit to India.

On March 5, this correspondent accompanied Chavez in his official motorcade from the Kolkata airport to the Rabindra Sarovar Stadium. He arrived around two hours late from New Delhi, but tens of thousands of people waited patiently on a hot summer day along the main road. Huge arches, hoardings and banners welcomed the Venezuelan leader to the city. Standing out were giant bilingual posters of Chavez in a red shirt with a clenched fist. Coincidentally, Chavez chose to give up the business suit he wore in New Delhi for red Cuban-style shirts, which he wore throughout his stay in Kolkata.

Chavez and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee decided to travel together in the same car, though the External Affairs Ministry protocol stipulates that a head of state should be the only occupant in the car. Along the 20-km-long trip, Chavez briefly stopped his car on a couple of occasions to greet crowds that had congregated at vantage points. When Chavez reached the stadium, he was visibly moved by the response he evoked from the gathering. He said this was the biggest reception he got since his visit to Porto Alegre in Brazil for the World Social Forum in February. More than 20,000 people had waited for more than three hours to see and listen to the Venezuelan leader, whose name seems to be almost as popular as that of Fidel Castro on the streets of Kolkata.

Crowds were milling outside the stadium to watch the function live on big television screens. On his arrival, Chavez was greeted with the Calcutta Choir's rendition of revolutionary songs in Spanish. In his trademark style Chavez began his speech by rendering a popular revolutionary song in his rich baritone voice, asking the crowd to join him. Then he gave a fiery speech, his best on his India visit, according to the officials accompanying him. Unfortunately, some of the impact of his message was lost in translation. The Chief Minister had to step in to translate Chavez's quote from Rabindranath Tagore's "Where the Mind is without Fear".

Chavez's praise for the revolutionary traditions of Bengal drew great applause, especially when he repeated the phrase "What Bengal does today, the rest of India does tomorrow". He talked about replicating the West Bengal model of land reforms and political decentralisation in Venezuela. At one point in his speech, he said in Bengali "aami apnader bhalobhashi" (I love you all), eliciting a full-throated cheer from the crowd.

Reiterating his country's commitment to sell oil to India, he said Venezuela was determined to diversify its oil supply to China and India. Until Chavez came on the political scene, the bulk of Venezuela's oil was earmarked for the United States. He made it clear that the U.S. could no longer continue to grab all the prized commodities in the world. "We have taken a conscious decision to help India and China by providing them with supplies of oil," he said.

In his hour-and-a-half-long speech he spoke about the urgent need for the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia to come together and form an anti-imperialist bloc. "The 19th and the 20th centuries belonged to Europe and America, but this century belongs to Asia, Africa and Latin America. If we can unite we can be the strongest power in the world, economically and in other ways," Chavez told the cheering crowd.

Venezuela, he said, besides embracing India, was also extending its hand of friendship to China and Russia. The big oil and arms deal that Venezuela had reached with China and Russia respectively had infuriated the Bush administration. Chavez said that Venezuela would send its oil technologists to India to share Venezuelan expertise in the sector. Venezuela has the technology to convert heavy oil into light crude for use in refineries. Currently, its technologists are developing the Baghlewala oil field in Rajasthan.

Chavez later visited the Chandhpur gram panchayat near Kolkata. When three Bengali revolutionaries developed the panchayat in 1947, the literacy rate of the village was practically zero per cent. Today it is more than 70 per cent. Agricultural reforms have made it a model agrarian community. Since one of Chavez' top priorities in Venezuela is to expedite agricultural reforms, he was keen to have a look at the West Bengal model in action. While soaking in his first experience of rural Bengal, he told the village residents about his own humble rural background and how the scenery was so reminiscent of his rural homestead. He said his father was a humble farmer who taught him about the dignity of labour.

Chavez insisted on personally serving the simple mid-day meal to the children of the local school. Although a head of state had come visiting, the children were given the same food they get most of the time - rice and lentil soup. "Children are our most prized possessions. They are our future. Whatever may happen, children should live in peace. We will carry the message of West Bengal to Venezuela," Chavez told the assembled villagers.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodrigues, a former guerilla leader, told this correspondent that the visit to West Bengal was an eye-opener. The Venezuelan government has launched literacy, health and land reform programmes in a big way. The West Bengal model is particularly relevant to the Venezuelan government because it too has to face the electorate regularly. Chavez has won the mandate of the electorate six times since 1998 and has to face it again next year.

AFTER landing in New Delhi on March 4, his first formal interaction was with the country's top industrialists. Under Chavez, Venezuela is keen to diversify its economic links. He told the representatives of Indian big business that Venezuela had the capacity to meet India's annual requirement of 100 million barrels of crude. Chavez emphasised that Venezuela wanted to become a permanent partner of India in the hydrocarbon sector. He invited Indian oil companies to follow the example of their Russian and Chinese counterparts and become more active in Venezuela's oil sector. He welcomed Indian companies to set up joint ventures in his country, especially in science and technology.

Chavez seems to have enjoyed the interaction with the students and faculty of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He started his speech by reciting a Venezuelan song praising the solidarity of the students with the poor. Praising Cuba, he wondered why Fidel Castro had not been invited yet to visit India. He then gave the students a brief overview of Venezuelan history, from the time of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of Latin America.

Chavez said that until 1998, Venezuela's oil wealth was diverted to the North and the control of oil and land was in the hands of a few individuals. When he tried to rectify the situation, the U.S. tried to topple his government. "They only managed to depose me for two days. They met a wall in the shape of the people of Venezuela," Chavez told the packed stadium at the university. He said that from now on, every time "we are hit, we will hit back with equal force". According to Chavez, the Bolivarian revolution has increased its "political space" after the referendum held in mid-2004.

Chavez said that those who talked about the "end of history" after the collapse of the Soviet Union had been proved wrong. Calling for the revival of the "Bandung" consensus, Chavez said the need of the hour was to remake the international agenda with the main slogan "The South also exists". (This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference.)

Before leaving for Kolkata, Chavez held talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He came out strongly in support of India's entry into the United Nations Security Council, arguing that its membership would "strengthen and democratise the United Nations". The joint statement issued after the talks said the two countries agreed on the urgent need to reform the U.N. in keeping with the new international situation. The two countries signed six agreements, two of them relating to the hydrocarbon sector. As part of the agreement, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (Videsh) will acquire a stake in a major Venezuelan oilfield. The two countries stressed the need to revitalise the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) so that it could emerge "as a major pole in a multipolar world by becoming a collective, pragmatic and serious voice of the South".

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