‘Berated’ and ‘garlanded as stupid’ by Hugo Chávez: John Sweeney’s appearance on Aló Presidente

In an approving review of Rory Carroll’s Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez in the Literary Review, BBC Panorama investigative journalist John Sweeney says that ‘Chávez has conned a lot of people’.

Like Rory Carroll, Sweeney appeared on Chávez’s television show, Aló Presidente:

‘Five years ago I made a documentary for BBC Two about Chávez and ended up myself on Alo Presidente. Treading carefully, I placed my scepticism in the mouth of Boris Johnson, who, I explained, was the one who looked like an electrocuted polar bear (all of this translated into Spanish by a hapless BBC colleague). The mayor of London had asked why, under the terms of a deed signed by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, a poor country such as Venezuela should subsidise buses in a rich city like London. The president berated me: ‘This question can only occur to a stupid one’ – a garland I wear with pride.’

Noting the obnoxiousness of Venezuelan elites, Sweeney avers:

‘Venezuela imprinted four strong impressions on me: that Chávez is a crushing bore; that his sidekicks are revoltingly corrupt; that crime is worse there than anywhere else I’ve visited in South America; and that the previous regime was ghastly too. A restaurant in a posh hotel in Caracas frequented by the anti-Chavistas stands out in my memory: stifling formality and an unspoken snobbery were the order of the day. No wonder the poor love Chávez so.

And yet he has let them down, dreadfully. Two good tests of a reasonably well-run country are security and the ability to move around the capital city. Caracas fails dismally on both fronts: spasms of gunfire afflict it day and night; the traffic is like glue, because no proper thought or resources have been put into public transport. As a result many of the people who voted for Chávez end up bleeding to death, as Carroll reports from the crime-hit barrios, while the rich glide by in their blacked-out limos, full of fear and hate. Well-considered government, or thought-out compassion paid for by the taxation of a successful economy, does not exist in Venezuela. The economy is, in fact, a joke. The country should be a Saudi Arabia by the sea.’

He concludes:

‘Fluency and folk wisdom in a television age masked the reality: Hugo Chávez whipped the masses with a cathode-ray tube.’

Below is a translated transcript of John Sweeney’s appearance, along with his translator James Ingham, BBC Correspondent in Caracas, on Aló Presidente on 16th September 2007. The appearance can be seen at 2:07:15.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: International journalists. We have here Guillermo Galdós from the BBC in London, Guillermo Galdós. John Sweeney from the BBC in London, and James Ingham from the BBC in London. Where are the invited journalists? (To the group) Do you speak Spanish?


JOHN SWEENEY: (in English) Hello Mr President. Thank you very much for inviting me on your show. My colleague James will translate shortly. OK?

JAMES INGHAM: (in Spanish) Mr President, thank you very much for your invitation to Aló Presidente today. We are journalists from England. I am a correspondent in Caracas at the moment, my colleague John came here only yesterday to make a documentary focusing on the relations between Venezuela and England.

JOHN SWEENEY: (in English) Smashing, thank you. Mr President, lo siento no hablar espanol, the question is that we all know that Venezuela has given its oil to London. Some people in London think this is strange. For example, one of the Tories, a man called Boris Johnson. He’s the guy who looks like a polar bear who’s had an electric shock (shrieks, imitating polar bear having electric shock). That guy. He says that it’s crazy, it’s crackers -it’s a joke in English, Caracas – crackers- he says it’s crazy for Venezuela, which is poor, to give oil to London, which is rich. So the question Mr President is this: why not..you know, why is Venezuela giving its oil money to London? Shouldn’t Venezuela spend its oil money in Venezuela on Venezuelans?

JAMES INGHAM: (in Spanish) Mr President, we are interested in the relations between England and Venezuela, and specifically between London and Venezuela. (Reads from notes) Venezuela gives oil to London at low cost so that poor people can use the bus for free, so that they need to pay less. And officials from the Mayor of London’s Office are going to come to Venezuela to give advice on traffic and city management, right? But there is a candidate, from the opposition, for the office of Mayor of London, his name is Boris Johnson. He looks like an electrocuted polar bear (gestures at hair) with very ah, crazy hair.


JAMES INGHAM: He says that it is crazy that Venezuela, a country with a lot of poverty, is supporting England, and London, one of the richest cities in the entire world. So, why use the resources of Venezuela outside of Venezuela? Why not spend this in Venezuela? Why spend it outside, in England?

HUGO CHÁVEZ: OK. I’m very grateful for James Ingham’s contribution. He’s the correspondent in Venezuela. John – are you John?

JOHN SWEENEY: Yes, that’s me.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: James, are you James?

JAMES INGHAM: Yes, I’m James.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: You’re James?


HUGO CHÁVEZ: They’re the wrong way round here. James is the translator.

JAMES INGHAM: I hope you can understand me.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: We understand you perfectly. And John is the correspondent, no? John.

JAMES INGHAM: I’m a correspondent in Caracas. John is also a journalist from London…

HUGO CHÁVEZ: He’s come…

JAMES INGHAM: with more experience.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: He’s come to spend a few days with us.


HUGO CHÁVEZ: OK. Understood. Well, look. I don’t know who this -are you translating to him as you go along?-



HUGO CHÁVEZ: OK. (To person working on set) But without a microphone, you don’t need the microphone, please. He’s translating right beside him. Eh, well. It’s difficult to understand the question, no? So I’m not going to answer what the crazy polar bear -as you’ve called him, I didn’t call him that, he called him that- but tell him, are you translating for him? He doesn’t understand. Yes? (In English) Are you understanding me? Yes? OK.

JOHN SWEENEY: inaudible off-mic speech, followed by: The question is simple, why does Venezuela not spend its money in Venezuela?

JAMES INGHAM: Why not spend the resources of Venezuela here in Venezuela? Why do you need to help other countries with so much plaza (sic)?


HUGO CHÁVEZ: Look, it’s a stupid question.

JAMES INGHAM: It’s a question asked in London.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: I’m not going to answer stupid things. Because I’ll end up stupid too. It’s a completely stupid question. It doesn’t deserve an answer because whoever tries to answer it ends up stupid too (laughs). No? I have no answer for stupid things.


HUGO CHÁVEZ: I don’t have.. It’s stupid. Anyone with a forehead four fingers high (places hand on forehead – colloquial phrase to denote someone with a reasonable amount of intelligence) knows it’s stupid, what the gentleman over there, I don’t know what he’s called, is wondering in London.

What I can say is that Venezuela, now free, free and sovereign, the revolutionary government, has a completely autonomous and free foreign policy and besides having recovered control over our natural resources, I was explaining this the day before yesterday in Barquisimeto, we did a great revolutionary assembly in Barquisimeto, with the governors, some mayors, communal councils. Look John, I’m going to tell you.

In 2006-2007 alone. (in English) Only that. In one year. (in Spanish) By simply changing the colonialist laws that had been imposed on us, and through which transnational firms exploited the Orinoco Belt, where’s the Orinoco Belt, that way? (points) The Orinoco is over there.

They drilled for oil in the Orinoco Belt. And do you know how much they paid in royalties? (In English) One percent. (In Spanish) That is, nothing. We were a colony. They went off with the oil and left us a pittance. We changed the constitution (removes constitution from pocket), the laws.

(is passed a piece of paper) I want to congratulate Lieutenent Diez Rosario, who’s working as an assistant. Very efficient, he’s passed me the same file I had in Barquisimeto. Here are my notes from Barquisimeto from the day before yesterday. So this fine assistant I have is saving me time doing the numbers again here. Here I have them nice and fresh. Thank you lieutentant, today you’re spending the night in Anaco (laughter from audience). He goes off free every night, he behaves himself. He’s single so he doesn’t have many problems. I think that’s right, isn’t it?

OK, by contrast, Morales has got married. He has to be there…steady, always steady.

Look at this. The simple fact of bringing the royalty here from 1% to 33%, the royalty, which is the fair royalty, translated this year just past into a recovery of resources that previously left the country – do you know for how much? Take a guess John. Give me a figure, whatever one you think.

JAMES INGHAM: One million. He says one million.


JAMES INGHAM: One million..(turning to John Sweeney) dollars? (to Chávez) Pounds. English pounds.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: One million dollars?

JAMES INGHAM: Two million dollars. I think it’s a lot more than that.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: No, I’m going to tell him the exact figure. Grab hold of him because he’s going to keel over. Grab him, he’s going to fall, he might fall when I tell him the figure (laughs). (Loudly) Four thousand nine hundred million dollars! (in English) In one year! Only one year. (in Spanish) So, to say it in English, (in English) four, no, billion. Five billion dollars. Five billion dollars. In one year John. What do you think about that? Tell me. (Applause)

(in Spanish) They were robbing us. Ah, but wait, I haven’t finished. Look at this. On top of that, they were paying the same tax on oil revenue that anyone who makes tables pays on their revenue (knocks table). Or shirts (touches shirt). When we’re talking about oil. It has always been accepted that (to someone off-camera)…why are the girls going? Where are you going? Are you all going?

VOICE OFF-SCREEN: The ambassador.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: Ah, the girls were there (laughs). Here comes the Colombian ambassador, welcome ambassador. Welcome, ambassador and all his delegation from the Embassy of Colombia in Venezuela. Welcome, sir, welcome colleagues, welcome ambassador.

So, I am responding, ambassador, to a good question from our friend John (searches papers for second name) Sweeney from the (in English) BBC. London. (in Spanish) So look, they were robbing us, compadre. They paid taxes on revenue here until a year ago of 34%. We brought it up to what the old law always said. 50%. (in English) Fifty-fifty. (in Spanish) On revenue, half and half, the fifty-fifty of Medina Angarita. Ah, since my General Medina, in what year was that, in 1940, 41, the oil law of Medina Angarita that finally managed to break something of the colonialism that Gómez allowed the gringos here. And firms from other countries too, like those of England, who also often behave like colonialist firms, right now in the 21st century, and from other countries too.

Through simply changing the tax regime of tax on oil revenue, do you know how much it amounted to? The takings that we recovered in one year? (in English) One year. Two..(in Spanish) how do you say two point five? (in English) two point five. Two point five billions (sic) dollars. One year. (in Spanish) If you add up 4.9 and 2.5 well that gives you 7.4 billion dollars, to say in English.

As well as the extraction tax of 3.3%, 800 million dollars. In total, adding all this up, the migration of service contracts to the mixed firms of the Belt – that was another robbery. Ah, along came the firms, they invested in pipes over there (points). So PDVSA has to pay the investment in dollars.

Can you imagine, Ambassador? How tasty, how easy to invest. It’s as if I say to my friend President Uribe, well, Uribe, I’m going to invest there. And then Uribe has to pay me in dollars everything that I … if I have a pipe, and it breaks, you pay it for me.

That’s how they did it here, they overcharged, they invented works that they never carried out, repairs they never carried out. And PDVSA had to pay them.

That was imposed by the North American empire. And here there was a National Congress that approved that. And there was a management in PDVSA that facilitated that, and there was a gentleman in Miraflores who stayed quiet and signed that. It was a colonial country. It was a slave country.

Brother, to sum up. In just one year, by changing the tax regime, and breaking the Gordian knot that the colonial scheme tied us with, we recovered, in one year, eighteen thousand..sorry.

Sorry. 15…this is in Bolívars, I want to tell you it in dollars because I’ve been talking to you in dollars. 7,400, 9,600..10,000 million dollars. That is what is relevant.
Now. That Venezuela should have agreed with the Mayor of London, with my good friend (in English) Ken The Red, The Red. El Rojo.

JOHN SWEENEY: (Inaudible)


JOHN SWEENEY: We call him Red Ken.

JAMES INGHAM: He is Ken Rojo rojito.

HUGO CHÁVEZ: Rojo rojito. (Laughs) (in English) The Red Mayor. The Red Mayor. (in Spanish) That we should have made an agreement, to sell oil to the Mayor’s Office, at a discount, so that he can lower the travel costs for poor people…there are a lot of poor people in London (gently emphasises, in manner of primary school teacher). There are many poor people in Washington. (in English, points to eye) I have seen.. I have seen them. In London. In Washington. In New York.

(in Spanish) So, for the Mayor, who is a man who worries about the people, to receive, from Venezuela, oil, for buses, petrol, diesel and so on, as a discount, say 20%, 30%, so he lowers the price of public transport for the poor. Now, he is going to…let’s use the word but it’s not the right word…he’s going to pay, so you might understand it better, but it isn’t the best word, he’s going to pay us that differential with services that are going to be very useful to us in Caracas.

A city that grew in a terrifying and disastrous way in the 20th century, the product of the abandoment of the country, product of the lack of strategic planning, product of the lack of governments that attended to the people. Product of the 20th century.  One hundred years of solitude, to cite the great Gabo.

There you have the slums of Caracas – you have seen them, where the people clung on with their nails to build their huts. They have no services. Well, we have been helping, to bring drinking water, sewage services, electricity, gas. Now we are going to pipe gas to houses, but it costs a lot to restructure those barrios.

So, an overpopulated city, Caracas, which doesn’t have the luck of Bogotá (nods to Colombian ambassador) which is in a great valley, which looks more like a great plain. Or cities like Mexico, a great esplanade. Caracas is a very narrow valley where there shouldn’t be more than 2.5, 3 million of us living, and there are 5 million of us. And moreover a floating population every day, of people who live in the Tuy valleys, in Vargas, in Petare, in Guarenas, in Guatire, who go to Caracas to work, to study – the floating population. So, we have a metro. We have expanded the metro, with three additional lines, we did the Los Teques metro, it’s working. We’ve done the rail line to the Tuy valleys, it’s working, I inaugurated them last year. We are now starting the metro line to Guarenas-Guatire, we’re working on it. We’re going to do the metro to La Guaira. OK.

Despite all of that, Caracas is congested. The traffic. It is something infernal at peak times. There are too many cars! And this year historic records were broken in purchase of cars. Can you see the way the income of the middle class, of workers, of families has recovered? The car assemblies don’t let up, neither the ones here nor those in Colombia, you send us (acknowledges ambassador) cars here. Nor those in Brazil, and other countries. They can’t keep up. There is a very long list of people, we have even set up a car plant with Iran. Over there are the first cars, now operating on natural gas. There they are – look. The Centauro and the Turpial. The Samán. Natural gas engine cars.

Now, the help from London, the Mayor with his consultants, is going to be very useful to us, to take additional measures with regard to traffic, and another thing that is a serious problem in Caracas – I experience it myself. I go through it in battles with the Mayor, with the Head Mayor, even soldiers, even my security team, I sent them to gather rubbish.

Caracas is a city, well, since it’s overpopulated, no-one ever thought about installing a public system of solid waste. So yesterday I was coming from Maracay, in the Tiuna, we got caught in a downpour, got to Caracas – rubbish everywhere. It was Saturday. Lots of people. Also we did the Sancocho that broke Guinness records. The biggest Sancocho in the world. But (inaudible) sent me a little bit. They ate the whole thing, the Sancocho.

So, yesterday, the 15th, pay day, many people in the streets shopping, rubbish everywhere. In the centre. Why? It isn’t that people are pigs. They don’t have anywhere to throw the rubbish. And trading has grown so much, it has tripled in the last three years, trading, economic activity, the movement of people in the city, the mobile street vendors, all that has tripled.

So there is no system, we have brought two containers, we have set up thousands in Caracas, but they aren’t enough. There are cities like London, and other cities that have underground systems for handling waste. That is, there are hydraulic systems and the rubbish goes underneath the streets, rolling along, in the most densely populated areas. It’s even extracted down below, not by lorries, which what they often do is complicate the traffic, in narrow streets.

So, how useful the help from Ken el Rojo Rojito is going to be. It is I who am grateful to Ken. So that’s why I was saying to you, hey, the question – I wasn’t directing it at you, please, don’t misinterpret me. The question that this gentleman from the opposition asks is stupid.

And I am not going to respond to a question of that level. I prefer to give you this explanation, which tries to place the exchange between London and PDVSA, London and Caracas, at the right level. Ken el Rojo has invited me to London. Maybe I will go to London soon. I hope I can go. Sarkozy has invited me to Paris. I have to go to Paris. An invitation has arrived from Portugal for an international event. Perhaps I will go. I send out from here greetings to Europe. Do you want to say something, John, to finish up, and continue with the programme?

JOHN SWEENEY: Very good Mr President, when you come to London I’d like to buy you a beer if I could.

JAMES INGHAM: When you go to London John wants to buy a beer for you.

JOHN SWEENEY: And my next question, my last question, is about Iran. In Iran they torture people, they force the women to dress up in black, are you going to do that here too? And they deny the holocaust, the President of Iran denies the holocaust. Are you sure that Venezuela should be so friendly with a country like that?

JAMES INGHAM: Another question, if possible, about the relations between Iran and Venezuela. Iran has problems with human rights. There are many women there who suffer torture, and the President of Iran does not believe in the Holocaust (in English). I’m not sure how one says “Holocaust” of the world war. So, why do you have such good relations between the two countries?

HUGO CHÁVEZ: It’s a question, for me, that is, and forgive me once again, but it’s irrelevant. It’s irrelevant.

Imagine if I were to ask the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, why do you have good relations with the genocidist Bush? (Applause) Each country is free.

At any rate, I will make clear, I will make clear, as far as I know, Iran is not attacking anyone. Iran is an attacked country. The president, my friend Ahmadinejad, is an extraordinary human being, I know him. Believer in God, as humble as can be, the Iranian people is a great people, you know? They took that country out of the tremendous backwardness that North American imperialism submerged it in, precisely when they had over there as a pawn of empire the Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, overthrown by the people of Iran, and the Islamic Revolution.

 So I have a great respect for the people of Iran, I will not accept the people of Iran being singled out as a people that attacks others. I will not accept that my friend President Ahmadinejad should be singled out as a danger for anyone. He is elected by the people of Iran. He respects international peace. His ideas are his ideas, they are respectable, and I will tell you in the final instance, Venezuela is free to have relations with whoever Venezuela wants, because that’s why we are an independent country, a free country. (in English) Thank you very much, John. I hope I see you in London.


JOHN SWEENEY: (makes gesture of drinking pint)

HUGO CHÁVEZ: I hope so. Perhaps soon.

JOHN SWEENEY: (inaudible, making gesture of drinking pint)

HUGO CHÁVEZ: Yes. (in English) Probably. Yes. Do you know who is my English teacher? My English teacher is Fidel Castro. He is my English teacher, Fidel. What did he say? Give him the microphone.

JAMES INGHAM: He knew it wasn’t George Bush who was your English teacher (maestro)

HUGO CHÁVEZ: (Laughs) He is the counter-maestro. The anti-maestro. The anti-maestro. (in English) Thank you very much. (in Spanish) Let’s have a round of applause for John and the translator James. John, James. From the BBC in London. Always welcome to Venezuela.


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