- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

The rights conferred and guaranteed to citizens in the U.S. Constitution, adopted 214 years ago, endure as some of the most empowering ever written. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Constitution has had a profound impact on the framing of laws and constitutions in countries all over the world. People want to be governed by democratically elected leaders whose power is reflected only by those rights granted to them by the people through a constitution rooted in fairness and equality. Venezuela is no exception. Just 33 months ago, the people of Venezuela ratified a bold, dynamic constitution rooted in the same values used by Madison, Monroe, Mason and others.
Despite the fact that Venezuela's constitution grants rights to her citizens that it took the United States 176 years to accomplish (with the Voting Rights Act) and guarantees rights that might not ever be ratified in America The Washington Times uses its own constitutional freedoms to imply that Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, "might not keep his pledge to hold a binding referendum in August." Mr. Chavez cares deeply about following (and therefore not exceeding) the wording of the constitution and has and will continue to respect such a referendum this August. Mr. Chavez knows a great deal about the rights and responsibilities conferred in the Venezuelan Constitution. As noted by The Times, Mr. Chavez inspired much of the document. In fact, Article 72, which allows the people of Venezuela to hold their elected officials responsible for their actions halfway through their elected term was promoted into the constitution by Hugo Chavez. The Times' inference, made during a time of such economic turmoil in Venezuela, seems particularly unfair and irresponsible.
Government of, by, and for the people.
One of the values that truly place the United States as a shining city on the hill is the faith in and simplicity of her democracy and the peacefulness of her transference of power. America prides herself on exporting the ideals and values of democracy to countries around the world. In fact, America spends billions of taxpayers' dollars on programs to promote democracy. So why then question the legitimacy of a democratically elected president? Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998 and overwhelming re-elected in 2000 with 57 percent of the vote.
Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech?
The protection of those rights granted to Americans by the Bill of Rights has not been an easy road. The civil rights movement in the United States is a reflection of the length of that road. Change is not always easy it is not expected to be. And, predictably, the freedoms exercised by a small group of people in Venezuela the opposition's partial economic paralysis (more similar to a "lock out" in the United States) has, no doubt, caused economic challenges.
Although the results of the opposition's "strike" can and should be placed at the feet of those organizing the opposition and participating in the strike our constitution allows for and protects their speech.
It's like yelling "fire" in a very, very crowded theater and getting away with it.
Can you imagine the results in America if more than a third of the U.S. revenue base was literally "turned off" over night by a group opposing the policies of the Bush administration? Can you imagine how disruptive it would be to daily life if hundreds of thousands of working men and women were "locked out" of their jobs by their employers? Can you imagine the pressures of managing a government not knowing who will help you and who will work against you? Can you imagine George Bush trying to manage the United States if CBS, NBC, ABC and all of the nation's newspapers simultaneously attacked and questioned his policies around-the-clock for months? Those are some of the challenges Mr. Chavez has had to recently overcome. Remember how President Truman dealt with striking steel workers or President Reagan handled striking air-traffic controllers? A country must be allowed to act to protect the best interests of a majority of her people and the long-term growth of her economy. So, too, should President Chavez in dealing with lost oil revenue to Venezuela and the flight of capital during the "strike."
And, although the "strike" has been over for only a few days, our oil production is up to about 65 percent of our full capacity and normalcy has returned to our streets. We are proud of Venezuela's economic independence.
Or the press?
At the cornerstone of America's democracy is the freedom of the media to report, print, produce and broadcast what ever they want. Answering only to those consumers who purchase and use their information (and therefore not to the Government or special interests), the media in the United States has earned a hard-fought reputation for independence and fairness. That is why it is particularly disturbing to witness the uttering of false information and baseless opinions like some expressed in the Editorial to which this response is based.
For example, in your editorial it was implied that Venezuela has a paramilitary group which "according to their leader" has "over 2 million members." The Washington Times knows or should know that such an armed force would be the largest in the hemisphere (almost 30 percent larger than the U.S. Army) and know that such a statement is just not true.
The Times also accused the Chavez administration of somehow adding "instability" to the region by allowing "certain freedoms" to the guerrilla movement in Colombia. The Colombian government, the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in the world, is working closely with Mr. Chavez to stop illegal drug trafficking and guerrilla operations across the more than 1,200 miles between population centers of the two countries. In fact, just this past week, the Colombian government publicly praised the Chavez administration for its commitment working for democracy and peace in the region. No one who knows much about the situation along that border has anything but praise for Mr. Chavez and Colombia's President Uribe.
While The Times readily admits Mr. Chavez is "Venezuela's native son born of tremendous frustration with the politics of privilege," the complex social and political situation should not result in misleading articles or editorials based on illogical reasoning. That's not what your Founding Fathers had in mind or ours either.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is Venezuela's ambassador to the United States.

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