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

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Some, in fact, have been happening every Saturday, apparently, and we’ll show some images of that. But I’m wondering, also, when you were there recently and you saw the economic crisis that Venezuela is going through, what was your impression, and also, what – how do people perceive kind of the relative impact of the sanctions, versus to what extent, do you think they felt that those were things that the government was responsible for? I mean, how did people interpret what is happening, and how was their life as far as you could tell?

CHARLIE HARDY: And you know in some ways it’s kind of hard to tell, especially – I say if I walk down street in Caracas there are probably 10,000 people that would recognize me because I lived in barrio for eight years. I mean, you were there, you were part of that community. But, again, I would have contact with these people. But I don’t know much about the opposition people. I just never had that much contact that way. And to say this is what people are thinking here. Both sides. It’s tough. That’s what I’m going to say. It is tough. There’s no getting around that. But I also have to say, I saw more people on the street in Chicago a few weeks ago begging in three minutes than I saw in the two months I saw in Caracas. I heard someone on Fox News, Trish Regan, saying millions are starving in Venezuela. Now, when I think of someone starving, I’m thinking of people Africa or somewhere else. Skin and bones on a bed waiting to die. And I’m ready to say there’s no one starving in Venezuela. I just cannot believe that there is anyone starving, but it is a tough situation. And it’s a tough situation that you hear on the radio, you see on television, all kinds of commentaries about people who are suffering because of the economic situation, but they do not address the question of why are people suffering. And you look back, OK. Right now we’re talking President Trump is president of the United States, but President Obama, back in 2015, talked about Venezuela being a threat to our national security. And as a result of saying that Venezuela’s a threat to national security, it gave the right to begin imposing sanctions. And the example I use, I presume you have a bank account, I presume you have a credit card. What if you needed some medicine for your child and you went to the bank and said I need a thousand dollars from my account and they said you can’t have it? And you try to use your credit card and it’s being blocked, but you have good credit? Well that’s somewhat the same situation Venezuela’s in today. They want to buy some medicine from Germany, but the United States says the United Kingdom cannot give them their billion and a half dollars to buy some of that medicine. It just isn’t fair. The whole thing’s going on in these sanctions. There’s no doubt it’s hurting. I look back, though, to 2015 and wonder, how, why would President Obama declare Venezuela a threat to our national security?

And Venezuela’s never, you know, gone. There’s something pops in my mind – and I could be all wrong, but it’s something that’s not mentioned. When I say to my son about, it’s the oil. By the way, like a thousand five hundred B.C., the Arion people invaded India and they had no word for war.

Their word for war was the desire for cattle. And I wonder if 2000 years from now, people looking back will say that the definition for war in the United States was a desire for oil. I mean, that’s the way you define war. But there’s something else. I mention oil and my sons say coltan, C-O-L-T-A-N. It’s a word I’d never heard before, and it turns out it’s something that’s needed in cell phones, batteries, for electric cars it’s going to be needed. And the U.S. military, evidently, needs a lot of it, and we have none of it in the United States. And back in 2007, 8, and 9, long in there, it was said that Venezuela had like a hundred billion dollars worth of coltan beneath its soil. I just have to wonder how much of that is an element because you have companies up here who want to get into mining and in Venezuela everything beneath the soil belongs to all of the people. And there is that desire for privatization. Oh, by the way, going back to Guaido and RCTV, he has said that the first thing he will do when he gets this power is put RCTV back on television. And so, the same way, as much as possible, I think privatization will go forth and there’s still, I mean, capitalism is very rampant in Venezuela. Everyone talks about socialism, but, I mean, capitalism is still basically, I would say, the system that it is going on there. So, anyway, with regard to sanctions, why is Venezuela seen as a threat to the United States? It might be because of the natural resources. But another reason could be – and it’s being brought up now very much – Russian troops arrived in Venezuela, and, I think someone said Chinese troops, I don’t know. In my memory, Chavez was a military person, and concerned about protecting the country, and so, wanted to update military equipment. Airplanes, for example. And Venezuela have sixteens and they wanted to update them, but the United States would not sell replacement parts. So, they went to Brazil to buy planes, and they couldn’t because there were some parts from the United States in them. They went to Spain and they couldn’t sell them. And so, they ended up going to Russia and getting some of the finest military jets in the world. But they didn’t run to Russia. I mean, they were coming to the United States and they were being turned off by the United States. And so, right now, when President Trump talks about possible military intervention – I think there was a book by McCabe where President Trump says the country we should be going to war with is Venezuela. They have oil. Well, Venezuela has to think about, how do we protect ourselves? And so, it wasn’t matter of inviting Russians all this time, but now, suddenly, I see that is part of the thing. We’re involved in a war between two, three world powers, and Venezuela is – happens to be the source of that moment. There is a quotation by President Trump that I like a lot here. I have it written down.

December 7, 2016, President elect Donald Trump said in Fayetteville North Carolina, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about. This destructive cycle of interventions and chaos must finally come to an end.” Oh, that gave me so much hope. I mean, it’s so – “destructive cycle of interventions and chaos must come to an end.” That was after he was elected.

GREG WILPERT: Well, I think the operative phrase there is probably that countries that we know nothing about. The meantime, he found out about the oil and about the coltan and all the other opportunities to make money. And, of course, using as a pretext – I mean, the hypocrisy is just unbelievable when you think about it.

CHARLIE HARDY: Things changed.

GREG WILPERT: You know, when they talk about the human rights situation or the humanitarian crisis and so on, whereas, you know, vast swathes of Africa are, you know, suffering humanitary – Yemen, of course. The U.S. is supporting a war against Yemen, and that is a real, real humanitarian crisis that the Trump administration is supporting and fomenting, and in the meantime they’re saying, “Oh, we have to, you know, take care of Venezuela.”.

CHARLIE HARDY: Oh, in Cheyenne, where I live, there was an article in the newspaper. The kids were going to have a week off for spring break, and they’re concerned because the number of children who are receiving breakfast every morning and lunch that are not going to have that for the coming week, OK, of vacations. There’s a church in Cheyenne that every week pass out 500 bags or boxes of food and people can’t come back twice. I mean, Cheyenne, we’re only like 50-60,000 people, and yet there are hundreds of people looking for food. And then we talk about humanitarian crisis, which brings in a bit of press reporting on it.

GREG WILPERT: Right. That was going to be my next question is how you perceive that.

CHARLIE HARDY: Yeah. I arrived – I came back to the United States on February 2nd. And February 3rd, I looked at Yahoo News, and there I saw a headline that said – the headline was – it’s from the Telegraph: “Venezuela Crisis: Nicolas Maduro on Brink as Military Top Brass Turn Against Him”. And I thought, my golly, I was just there yesterday and top military, top brass turned against him. And so, I read this article. There were 47 paragraphs. Paragraph 18, there is one sentence that said, “The demonstrations came as a General from the Venezuelan Air Force announced he no longer recognized Mr. Maduro as the country’s president in what appears to be the highest ranking military defection to the regime.” A general living in Washington D.C., who probably has all kinds of friends among the military in the United States, said he no longer – and that was the headline, “On Brink As Top Military Brass Turn Against Him.” You’re up against that kind of thing. The United States sends on military planes, aid, humanitarian aid. It’s on the Colombian border in semis, waiting go across the border and these – two of these semis are set on fire. And I looked at the pictures and I’m saying – and John Bolton and the Colombian government is saying that the Maduro government set these trucks with aid on fire, and so on, and I’m looking at the pictures and I’m saying, “Hey wait, those trucks are in Colombia. How is that possible?”

An – but it’s all over. The Venezuelan government is not letting this aid get in. Not only are they not letting them get in, but – and then it turns out, finally a few weeks later, New York Times says, “Oh, no, we found the filming, and actually it was protesters throwing Molotov cocktails against the National Guard in Venezuela that set these trucks on fire.” Actually, there were other news services that had that before hand right away. But it’s that kind of stuff. You repeat something over and over and over again. And there was a U.N. Human Rights Commission that went down, I think the former president of Chile in charge of it, or whatever, and she says three million people have left Venezuela. When you start throwing figures around, 3 million people, and I say, were there maybe just two million nine hundred ninety nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine? But where did they get these figures? And then they keep repeating them and repeating them. A million children are not attending school now. I remember one time, it was the anniversary of the end of the Vietnamese war and – but there was a main article I saw, was about a common grave was found in Iraq with a thousand bodies. And the Washington Post or whoever said, “Our reporter wasn’t able to go there. There were only two taken to it,” and so on. I’m saying, you don’t just one day find a thousand bodies. There I was at that grave site which I mentioned, 68 bodies in garbage bags. You don’t just go and here’s one, here’s two, here’s three. It was a long process. And so, I was taught in high school by a nun lies, damn lies, and statistics, and yes, statistics have value, but many times they’re figures thrown out that don’t really represent the reality of what’s happening. So, the news, it’s been like torture for me. And it ends up being torture in many ways. I was at a Catholic church in Cheyenne, Wyoming a couple weeks ago. And ever since I’d been a kid, I fall asleep in church, and since I’ve been a teenager I fall asleep during the sermons. So, I was half asleep when I heard the word Hugo Chavez and I woke up and I thought, did I hear “Adolf Hitler, and in our time, Hugo Chavez”? And I wait until the end of Mass.

We Catholics don’t stand up and say, “Amen”, and even less to stand up and say, “What did you say?” I mean, I want to hear again what this deacon said, and so, at the end of Mass I went up and asked, “Did I hear Hugo Chavez and who else?” And he mentioned Adolf Hitler and I don’t know who else, and I said, “I don’t think you know much about Hugo Chavez.” Ane I tried to find a way to approach him gently, and I said, “I remember where I was when I heard on the radio that President Chavez had died. I pulled off the road. I was in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I pulled up the road and I cried.” The people who lived in those cardboard shacks were now living in decent houses, and their kids were studying at school, and they were working on degrees, and there’s all that, and people do not realize the difference that Hugo Chavez made. And now they don’t realize the difference that Nicolas Maduro has made either. I think there’s like two and a half million homes – I’m throwing out one of those million things – but I’ve seen them – of new housing that’s been constructed. I think we have, like, maybe a million of housing project homes in the United States for low income people. And there are the Venezuelan government, and people criticise the government because they use the oil money for social development.

GREG WILPERT: In the meantime, the country is being demonized and the president is being demonized.

CHARLIE HARDY: Yes. I mean, that – and this goes way back, again, I’m saying, I looked at the book. They called Chavez a dictator from the day he was in.


CHARLIE HARDY: And we never had so much freedom of the press as when he was there. And so, it’s just a story that continues on and on and on. And I don’t want to say the government there is perfect, and things are certainly not perfect right now, but you have to ask the question, why? I think of Dom Helder Camara in Brazil who said, “If I give food to someone who’s hungry, they say I’m a Christian, but if I ask why are they hungry, then suddenly I’m a communist.” And it’s somewhat the same thing. People – the media, we’re talking about media – is not asking the question, why are people having problems getting food, and getting medical attention, and so on?

GREG WILPERT: Right. Yeah. The issue keeps being simplified. We try to, of course, report on it, and try to present it in its complexity. But we’re going to have to leave it there.


GREG WILPERT: I’m speaking to Charlie Hardy, author of the book Cowboy in Caracas. Thanks again, Charlie, for having joined us today.

CHARLIE HARDY: Well, and thanks. It’s a privilege being with you and with the people who will be watching this.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.