Area Venezuelans target Chavez

Petitions seek leader's removal


Published: Monday, December 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 11:16 p.m.

Facts

FYI: Close links to UF

  • UF has particularly close links to Venezuela.

  • Former UF President John Lombardi was an expert in Venezuelan history and was well-known among political leaders in the country.

  • Also, a Venezuelan scholarship program during the oil boom of the 1970s sent thousands of students to UF.

  • Several hundred Venezuelans signed petitions in Gainesville on Sunday seeking to oust their country's president from office, part of an international drive against Hugo Chavez.
    Chavez's detractors believe he has become a Communist-leaning dictator since his election five years ago and is now closely aligned with Cuban President Fidel Castro, said Rosa Pacanins, a University of Florida political science and mass communications student who coordinated the petition drive at UF's Reitz Union.
    "He has taken our freedom away. He is friends with Castro," Pacanins said. "I was just back there, and it is horrible. I am so sad. But I got this feeling that makes me work even harder. There was a march of people trying to throw him out. A peace protest. But his people were shooting and killing people."
    Chavez was elected in 1998 on a pledge to close the gap between rich and poor and end government corruption.
    He became a divisive figure and was overthrown in a 2002 coup. He was returned to the presidency a week later on the strength of his supporters, primarily the country's poor, said UF professor Terry McCoy, a Latin American specialist.
    The country, particularly its government-owned oil company, has been besieged with strikes during his tenure. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil producer.
    "He is a very controversial and kind of flamboyant character who has divided Venezuela. Students here largely hate him and think he is Castro incarnate," McCoy said. "But he does have his supporters. They are mainly the Venezuelan lower class and disenfranchised
    "He has won a series of elections that are basically a repudiation of the old order. I think the problem he faces is that he has not created a viable new order," McCoy said. "He has alienated the middle and upper classes with his left-wing populist politics while at the same time throwing the economy into a really deep slump, so even the people in the lower classes are less than enthusiastic about him."
    A drive to recall Chavez is under way in Venezuela. But the drive has an added twist for nationals outside of the country - they are not permitted to cast absentee ballots, so it is questionable whether their petitions will actually count.
    About 200,000 Venezuelans live in the United States, including more than 30,000 in Florida and about 400 in Gainesville.
    Pacanins said an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans living abroad oppose Chavez.
    "They violate our right to vote. They are afraid how many people are here and disagree with him," Pacanins said. "There are so many people who want that right to vote."
    Petition drives were held Sunday throughout the world, including the United States, Europe and Africa.
    Areas in Florida holding drives included Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and Palm Beach County.
    Pacanins said the Gainesville drive was primarily for Venezuelans from the Gainesville-Ocala area but also drew nationals from the Panhandle.
    Among them was UF business student Lorena Carvallo. She said her father worked for the oil company and participated in strikes against Chavez. He and many other strikers were fired, Carvallo said.
    "They went on a strike last December for two months. Almost 20,000 people who went on strike got fired," Carvallo said. "People who lived in houses owned by the oil company lost their houses. And there was no severance pay. Most of the people are living on savings. My mom is doing translating to make some money."
    The Bush administration has been extremely careful with Venezuela and Chavez because of the oil it supplies to the United States, McCoy said. He added that the administration's preference would be that "Chavez would go away."
    McCoy said UF has particularly close links to Venezuela.
    A Venezuelan scholarship program during the oil boom of the 1970s sent thousands of students to UF.
    Also, former UF President John Lombardi was an expert in Venezuelan history and was well-known among political leaders in the country.
    "John Lombardi was one of the pre-eminent U.S. historians who worked on Venezuela," McCoy said. "That was his country. He was extremely well-known there. That is one of the more unusual connections we have with Venezuela."
    Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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