NEW YORK -- Black intellectuals, activists and political leaders honored Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the National Black Theatre in Harlem on Monday, praising his left-wing government’s education and health care policies as an alternative and possible remedy to U.S. policies they say foster racism.
Maduro is one of dozens of heads of state who traveled to New York this week to speak before the annual U.N. General Assembly -- and his stop in Harlem carried symbolic weight. Taking the podium in front of a banner displaying his own mustachioed image and raised fist, Maduro excoriated European colonialism and U.S.-led neoliberalism as the twin foundations of racism in the Americas.
“We’ve suffered with you,” Maduro told the crowd of about 200 people. “It hurts us to know that this old structure of racism continues to haunt our populations like a ghost.”
Latin America’s left has deep roots in Harlem. When Fidel Castro first addressed the United Nations in 1960, he chose to check in at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem instead of the more luxurious midtown Manhattan hotels where many foreign dignitaries stay when visiting New York. In the neighborhood, Castro met with Malcolm X and poet Langston Hughes.
Venezuelan leaders have kept up the tradition, cultivating economic ties to New York City as well. Through its state oil company, the Venezuelan government provides free home heating oil to 75,000 people in the neighborhood, according to Democratic state Sen. Bill Perkins, who presented the Venezuelan president with a proclamation from the New York Senate praising his leadership.
“We recognize that in the person of Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, we have an exceptional leader,” Perkins said, reading aloud from the document. He applauded Venezuela’s government for championing universal health care and developing an economy that he said "shares its resources instead of exploiting them.”
In his speech, Maduro praised the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations last week, calling them “truly extraordinary” and saying they should urge people to rethink the capitalist economic structure.
“We need to create wealth,” Maduro said. “But we also must distribute it among the people. This is an important detail. We need to create social and economic models that put people who work front and center ... We have to replace the dictatorship of capital.”
“Presidents can’t get accustomed to only being around elites,” he added. “If I have to choose, I’d rather be in Harlem.”
While Maduro received a hero’s welcome in Harlem -- where the crowd cheered and shouted “¡Viva Chávez!” and “¡Viva Venezuela!” -- he has struggled to find his footing at home after narrowly winning the country's 2013 election.
Maduro faced a months-long protest movement last year that led to dozens of deaths. A Venezuelan court convicted opposition leader Leopoldo López this month of instigating the violence and sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Critics view his imprisonment as politically motivated, while Venezuelan officials have accused the U.S. of financing the protest movement.
More recently, the Venezuelan government has deported more than 1,400 Colombians and closed off major border crossings. Another 18,000 Colombians have fled the country voluntarily, according to U.N. figures.
Government officials say the crackdown was aimed at containing illegal Colombian armed groups and people hoarding or smuggling scarce consumer goods across the border. Opponents, on the other hand, blame Venezuela’s complex system of price controls and multiple currency exchange rates for incentivizing hoarding and smuggling.
Maduro’s 30 percent popularity rating is among the lowest in Latin America, according to regional pollster Latinobarómetro's annual survey, which was released last week.
The Venezuelan leader touched on the topic of the deportations in Monday night’s speech, saying that last week he had spoken personally with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has repeatedly criticized the Venezuelan deportations.
“We looked each other in the eye,” Maduro said. “And we managed to at least take a first step.”
The event in Harlem provided the leftist Maduro with an opportunity to reach out to American progressives and to share a stage with black thinkers and activists, including actor Danny Glover, Democratic New York state Sen. Bill Perkins, and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter Opal Tometi.
"We experience the daily effects of the neoliberal agenda that guts the social safety net that was intended to provide some modicum of support and stabilization to marginalized communities,” Tometi said. “And instead, we’ve seen investments in apparatuses and systems that criminalize us and that displace us … That constitutes state violence. Let’s call it what it is.”
Glover praised former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez before introducing Maduro, calling him “my brother, my comrade and a great leader” and saying that Maduro embodies his legacy.
“He’s a trade unionist,” Glover said of Maduro, who began his career as a bus driver. “I come from a family of trade unionists. I really honor that.”
Maduro was followed by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who urged the audience to support Caribbean countries’ efforts to win reparations for colonization and slavery.
“We have a giant movement in the Caribbean seeking reparations for native genocide and African slavery,” Gonsalves said. “This conversation does not have to be belligerant… I don’t have to raise my voice with [British] Prime Minister [David] Cameron. We had that discussion today. But I told him that the issue of reparations for native genocide and African slavery has to be taken in the context of the post-2015 goals for development.”
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