Saturday, January 22, 2011

INTERVIEW - Venezuela's "sweetheart" champions Chavez

Fri, Jan 21 2011
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - When President Hugo Chavez's government held a ceremony in parliament's hallowed Salon Eliptico room to chastise foreign meddling in Venezuela, the keynote speaker was a petite and passionate American named Eva Golinger.

"The Salon Eliptico is reserved for the most important and prestigious events, and only two people from the U.S. have ever spoken there. One is me and the other is John F. Kennedy," the writer and lawyer recalled of the event in November last year.

Dubbed "La Novia de Venezuela" (Venezuela's Sweetheart) by Chavez, Golinger is one of the most vocal foreign champions of his socialism, writing prolifically to try to counter what she sees as a U.S.-led global campaign to portray him as a tyrant.

"Chavez has been demonized and there has not been enough on the other side to combat that," she told Reuters.

Such unflinching support has put Golinger at the forefront of Venezuela's ideological battle. The mere mention of her name raises hackles and prompts disgust in opposition circles, whose members like to mock the American lilt in her Spanish accent.

Golinger admits she was nervous speaking live on TV in front of Chavez in the room honoring Venezuela's independence and where former U.S. president Kennedy spoke in 1961.

But she shows no timidity in her daily work promoting the policies of a man who has become one of the world's most recognizable and controversial heads of state.

"This is not a horrible place led by some brutal dictator," Golinger said in an interview. "Chavez has recovered Venezuelan identity and made people proud to be Venezuelan ... there is nothing covered (by foreign media) in terms of social gains."

Chavez, who takes a hard line with opposition leaders, prompted an outcry last month when he secured special decree powers from the outgoing parliament after elections gave the opposition a stronger hand in the assembly.

The socialist president, who has led Venezuela on an increasingly radical path, regularly rails against the United States for being aggressive and imperialistic.

With dual nationality due to roots in Venezuela on her mother's side, Golinger, 38, who is a specialist in international human rights and immigration law, first left her New York home to visit the South American nation in 1993.

Living and visiting Venezuelan on and off since then, her political engagement crystallized with the brief 2002 coup against Chavez that Golinger sought to expose as CIA-backed.

Now she edits the international edition of the pro-government Correo del Orinoco newspaper and has met Chavez "more times than I can count," making her something of a confidante for El Comandante.

She accompanied him on a recent trip to political allies including Iran, Syria, Libya and Belarus.


Her most recent paper, "Setting the record straight on Venezuela," cites poverty reduction, Chavez's three presidential election wins, media criticism and grass-roots activism as evidence Venezuela is no dictatorship.

Critics have forgotten, she argued, what she called the economic chaos and repressive political atmosphere in the country, including the suspensions of constitutional rights, before Chavez won the 1998 presidential election.

"If you don't put it into context of before and after, then no one understands ... the major transformation," she said.

Though critics accuse her of being blindly partisan, Golinger has some criticism of the government too.

"Of course everything is not perfect," she said, acknowledging Chavez needed to combat "a horrific culture of corruption" and ensure he was not surrounded by "yes men."

"He is intimidating. Some people give it to him straight, others don't," she said.

The president's popular touch faded somewhat in 2006 and 2007, Golinger said, when information on assassination threats forced him to stop plunging into crowds so regularly.

But his recent personal handling of the response to floods that have left more than 130,000 people homeless showed Chavez is rectifying that despite security risks, she said.

"With the rains, he's been out there again ... He is a very sincere, humane person. His heart aches."

Despite September's parliamentary election that disappointed the government -- opposition parties took slightly more votes, though the socialists still won more seats in the National Assembly -- Golinger predicted Chavez would win the 2012 presidential election comfortably.

"2012 is still safe because the opposition does not have a nationally popular candidate and Chavez still has over 50 percent popularity," she said, adding that new house-building and other projects like more trains would swell his support.
Golinger scoffed at claims that Chavez represses freedom of expression, pointing to the plethora of mockery and criticism of the government in media and on the street.

"Freedom of expression here is excessive," she said, arguing that an aggressively pro-opposition TV station like Globovision would not be allowed in many other countries.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Storey)

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