Yes, it’s true. A An Ecumenical Prayer Service was held for the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez tonight at the austere and outspoken Riverside Church in New York City, the heart of the Evil Empire. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro is rumored to plan on attending as well as Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
8pm at Riverside Church
490 Riverside Drive
Manhattan (New York, NY)
Review of the Prayer Service
The prayer service for the health of President Hugo Chávez was quite disturbing. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said absolutely nothing, as usual. The Cuban Foreign Minister was the most offensive and bold-faced in his grins, grimaces and expressions. Evo Morales was calm and short-winded, despite being more celebrated than the rest (by the press corps anyway). Maduro and Evo both used translation devices for all the English language portions of the service.
Attendance was poor despite the row of half-empty buses (at least four) bringing people from Washington, DC and other further-off destinations. One woman–strangely–waved an Argentine flag throughout much of the evening. Sean Penn left 10 minutes after the service started, without apparent reason.
The church was less-than well informed or connected regarding the event, evidenced by the preacher’s introduction of “community leaders” (pause). “It says here that there are some community leaders present who would like to say a few words (longer pause).” This indicates to me a certain level of ignorance as opposed to outright complicity on the part of Riverside Church. While one should not excuse them for failing to do due diligence, it seems they were suckered (fooled, tricked) into being part of a political event.
The Venezuelan State was clearly in control of the event. While all private and independent media were relegated to a roped-off corner, VTV (Venezolana de Televisión) aka Telesur had free reign to set up several cameras in advantageous positions. CNN and others were treated particularly poorly, both by Venezuelan embassy personnel managing media and by a well-meaning Riverside Church staff member.
Regarding the appropriateness of such an event, or the mixture of politics and religion, I have mixed feelings. While I see the value and legitimacy of a Martin Luther King, Jr. anti-war speech against the US war in Vietnam, Chávez appropriation of the sacred space for his own well-being certainly seems like foul play (or at least somewhat stinky). King had a legitimate and universally supported message of peace and humanity and had been working for justice in real, tangible ways for many years. Chávez, on the other hand, has made no significant progress in terms of peace in justice in Venezuela or elsewhere in the world. His greatest achievement–in terms of peace and justice–has been the mastery of utilizing peace and justice rhetoric to further an authoritarian, divisive and power-grabbing form of governance.
Merely taking into consideration the massive amounts of weapons Chávez has purchased from Russia and others in the past 12 years firmly places him outside the peacemaker category the prayer service intended to brand him with. Reverend King and Riverside Church would surely blush (if not cry) should they learn of the billions of dollars (USD) in arms continuously flooding into the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. It is difficult to imagine how they might respond to a request for such an event by the Venezuelan Embassy after living the Venezuelan reality for a few months or years. But just as Oliver Stone refused to accept Leopoldo López’ challenge to live in Venezuela and see for himself (see HuffingtonPost), neither Riverside Church clergy nor Sean Penn nor the few hundred pro-Chávez US Americans in attendance will ever do so.
It should not be overlooked that in terms of public relations, the event’s date is not insignificant. Aside from being the International Day of Peace, US President Barack Obama gave his address to the UN General Assembly on the same day. Being sick and stuck in Havana, it is no surprise Chávez held a PR side show of his own this week in New York City. He has long appreciated the world stage UN General Assembly meetings can provide.
As an additional personal anecdote, the Venezuelan I attended with was so disgusted and offended by the event (mostly from a religious perspective) that he left after a mere 20 minutes. He didn’t even know about Chávez’ virtual attendance (via telephone and loudspeaker while broadcasting video from the service on Venezuelan State TV) until I told him an hour later.
- Hugo Chavez Cancer Treatment: Venezuelan President May Undergo More Chemotherapy (huffingtonpost.com)