Former Catholic Priest and Wyoming native Charlie Hardy talks about his recent experiences in Venezuela and looks back on 25 years living among the poorest of Venezuela’s poor
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. Daily life in Venezuela continues to get more and more complicated. Over the past few weeks, there have been four national power outages and the water supply’s intermittent at best, with people often waiting in long lines to get water. The reasons for the difficult situation are very diverse, but are clearly getting worse every day because of the U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela, which are dramatically reducing Venezuela’s ability to export oil, and thus to pay for badly needed imports that would keep the electricity going and also the water pumped. Joining me in the studio to talk about the situation in Venezuela is someone very special who I’ve known for a very long time. His name is Charlie Hardy. He’s a former Catholic priest who lived in Venezuela from 1985 to 2011 and returns there regularly. Most recently, he returned last February. Also, he’s the author of the book Cowboy in Caracas, and is also the subject of the documentary Charlie Versus Goliath, which chronicled his 2014 run for U.S. Senate in Wyoming. Thanks, Charlie, for being here today.
CHARLIE HARDY: It’s fun being here.
GREG WILPERT: So, last time you were in Caracas – you happened to be there actually during the inauguration of the opposition leader and so-called interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido. Tell us a little bit about how you experienced that event and what was going on, what you were thinking and people around you were thinking when that happened.
CHARLIE HARDY: When I was in high school – I attended a small high school and there were like three courses in social studies. Current Problems, U.S. History, and World History. And maybe thinking in that context, Current Problems. I was there in January. And on January 10, I believe, President Maduro signed – was sworn in in the supreme tribunals – Supreme Court as president of Venezuela. He had been involved in the election back in May. Got about 67-68 percent of the vote. Like 6 million out of the 9 million people voted for him. But I heard a word that I’d never heard before. You could say I’m bilingual, having lived there for 26 years or so, but I don’t know every word in the English dictionary, and I don’t know every word that the Spanish dictionary. And so I heard this word, Guaido, Guaido. And I’m wondering, you know, is Guaido animal, a vegetable, a mineral? It’s just a new word. And it throws you because you’re trying to figure out what is going on. And then it turns out that not even one in five Venezuelans had ever heard the word Guaido before. And then, January 23, Juan Guido stands up in a plaza in Caracas and announces that he is declaring himself president of Venezuela. And almost immediately is recognized by President Trump. He had already been in touch with Vice President Pence. And you’re saying, “This is strange.” And then, before you know it, other countries, the European Union and so on, and countries in Latin America saying, “Yes, Guaido is the president.”
And you have to ask yourself, “How is it possible that here is Nicolas Maduro, who received millions of votes to be president, and the United States is recognizing someone who didn’t receive any votes to be president?” So that’s the context, that was what I was witnessing at that time. But I’d like to – it might be helpful drawing – not a comparison but, in some ways – between Charlie Hardy and Juan Guaido. I tell people now I was born in Venezuela. OK. I was 45 or 46 at the time I was born. But in 1985 I went to Venezuela with a group of missionaries from the United States. But our job was not to make conversions. It was to live among the people and share the life of the people. As a matter of fact, at the end of it I was given the privilege of living in a cardboard shack for eight years without running water, without sewers. We stole our electricity and so on. And I tell people at the end of that time I was only aware of one conversion and that was of myself. So let’s say I was born in 1985 and I would – I’d ask people who are watching this, don’t think about me, think about what was happening around me. And so, my experience, see that as the experience of people around me.
Juan Guaido, in 1985, was one and a half years old. So he was eating baby food when I was looking at children with bloated stomachs full of parasites. A whole different reality. Mother Teresa’s Sisters, some of them came to the barrio one time, and this one said to me she had never seen poverty in India that she was seeing where I lived. I don’t think she saw the poverty that exists in India, but for her, it was a jarring experience to see where I was living. So that was when Juan Guaido was one and a half. When he was five and a half, there was a popular explosion in Caracas. There wasn’t food. There was. Tremendous inflation. Prices went up like 600 percent in a week or so. And – an explosion – and suddenly troops were turned loose on the people. A kid could get killed for running down the street with the package of spaghetti that he took from the store. And I found myself – one night, people said, “Charlie, go home, don’t come out of your house no matter what happens. They’ll kill you. You step out of your shack. And you live in a cardboard shack, I mean. But stay inside.”
I ended up stepping outside because someone came. Said their sister was dying and would I please take her to the hospital. And we’d just received a vehicle. I’d been there already for years but we finally – someone gave us money and we got the vehicle. I ended up going to the hospital that night. We made it alive and. There – someone took me to the hospital morgue. It was a funny situation, because this – I didn’t want to step out of a house, but a kid across the way open the hole in his wall and said, “Charlie, I’ll go with you if you go.” And he came and he said, “Dress up so you looked like a priest.” And before that, I mean, I had been standing on the street with my hands up in the air in front of a soldier holding an automatic weapon.
And I’m just saying, this was the reality I was in. I can laugh now, because what I said was, “Hi, my name’s Charlie.” I mean, that’s the way I introduce myself with this guy. But he could have killed all of us. And then –
GREG WILPERT: I think it’s important to note also that, you know, somewhere between 400 and 1000 people are – at least, maybe – were killed in those days in February of March of 1989, and most people never got reported anywhere in the world.
CHARLIE HARDY: No.
GREG WILPERT: And this was the same year that the Tiananmen Square massacre happened which was everywhere.
CHARLIE HARDY: Yes. This was in February-March of 1989, and in June was Tiananmen Square. And I really think we maybe had a worse massacre in Venezuela than there. But again, you don’t hear about it. But anyway, made it to the hospital. This kid said, “Dress up so you look like a priest.”
So I think we cut some paper and made a litle collar, and came and said “That’s not going to help us. Put on everything when the cardinal’s here.” So I put on the white alb and the stole and so on, and off we went. We made it there. But anyway, took off the robes.
And someone said, “Come.” And I thought they were going to me this sick woman. But instead took me to the hospital morgue. There I saw the naked bodies of young people just strewn on the floor. Juan Guaido was five and a half when I was looking at naked bodies of young people, teens and early 20s and so on, just strewn on the floor because there was no place else to put them. When he was six and a half, we were sleeping in the cemetery. Charlie Hardy. But, also, people from the barrio to protect the site where there were 68 bodies in garbage bags that had been dumped there. And again, the government said a couple hundred people this year. We had more than 400 names, 500 names of people who disappeared. That was the reality that we, the people in the barrio, were experiencing when he was just a little kid. He became very involved in 2007. The government was not renewing the license of a television station, RCTV. And he was out protesting for freedom of expression. That was what he saw it. Actually that – I guess there’s a limited amount of space for television stations in the air and it was going to be turned into a public service kind of station for getting independent people their programs. And instead of Marcel Granier who owned it, a very wealthy person having the right to decide what would go. So there was Juan Guaido demonstrating in favor of freedom of expression. But Marcel Granier was also the publisher of a newspaper called [inaudible]. I have copies of that newspaper where whole pages were censored. Someone wrote an article and it just didn’t appear there. And so, here he’s defending this guy who was involved in censorship over the course of time. And also involved in overthrowing the government. So I just bring that up saying. Don’t think of Charlie Hardy, think of the people who grew up in a whole different world than Juan Guaido grew up in. And today, when you see demonstrations, massive demonstrations and he is there and. Look at the color of the skin. It’s largely white people. You look at the demonstrations – if you can find pictures of the demonstrations in favor of the government – it’s largely people of darker colored skin. Now, I’m not saying that there are not people in barrios who do not like the government. And there’s always been. I mean, it’s a free country. But at the same time, predominantly it’s white and it’s colored people. And when you look back to – I think it’s important realizing the – you mentioned the book Cowboy in Caracas. I wrote that back in 2007, but it still – if anyone would read it – it’s still the repetition of what is happening today. I forgot in 2002, April 11 2002, Hugo Chavez was overthrown in a coup. He was back. Pardon me. Pardon me. In April. It was April 11th of 2002, and April 13th he was back in power again. And there was a massive demonstration on April 11th against him. There was also one May 11th, June 11th, July. I mean, this did not let up. And so, the same way. I mean, you can get 100,000 people out in the street. There’s, I don’t know, six, seven million people who live in Caracas. It’s a big event. It’s like a rock concert or whatever. I mean it’s a chance for white people, wealthy people, and others to get on the street and celebrate something. But you don’t see the demonstrations in favor of the government. And it was true back in those days too. So I don’t think people should be particularly surprised when you see a demonstration in favor of Juan Guido and there’s lots of people there. It’s a free country. At the same time, you don’t, I don’t see the demonstrations that much in favor of the government.