How I Spent My Time in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela
Readers who know of my personal history will understand my accounting for what I experienced during my month-long 2006 stay in Venezuela. Realizing that many may not have heard any of my story previously, an explanation of the circumstances surrounding my trip is in order and will help readers understand the matter.
Why I was invited to Venezuela by Chávez’s government, why I traveled there, and why individuals there asked me to meet with a FARC-connected group can only be understood if readers understand the context and circumstances my experiences occurred within.
I had been a fairly radical left-of-center activist for a number of years and had, through circumstance, ended up with significant far-left leaders and organizers as my mentors and what we then called “elders.”
One of my then-heroes was a former Black Panther Party member named Robert King Wilkerson (King). He lived in New Orleans and continued “the struggle” for his incarcerated comrades. He was part of a group named the “Angola 3.” The Left narrative goes something like, “Three Black Panthers who spent 30-plus years in solitary confinement after being set up for the murder of a prison guard, after doing nothing wrong and only trying to organize prisoners to do good deeds.”
After meeting King, I went from being an activist who was radical about helping others to a radical-left activist who believed I was a revolutionary in the fight for social justice. In short, King had politicized me.
Much of my anger from having been a teen runaway and towards those who abused power all of the sudden began to fit into a narrative that identified capitalism and the US military and law enforcement as the protectors of that “evil world system” upon whose doorstep all of the world’s ills could be placed. My anger and hatred of bullies that came from being thirteen and fourteen on the streets of Houston, Texas—seeing just how exploitative and cruel the world could be—all of the sudden had deeper meaning. There now existed a system to blame and an outlet for my wrath.
King and I grew closer, and I read everything I could about the Black Panthers. I had chances to meet many of the famous revolutionaries I was reading and hearing about. King lived in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit, he was trapped there, and I was determined to get my friend.
I bought a small flat-bottomed boat and some gear and set out with another then-mentor to get King. We went through hell to get into the city. Horrible things happened, we saw horrible things, and we ended up having to leave without having found our friend or knowing whether he was alive.
We went back to Austin. Another former Black Panther named Malik Rahim called us and asked for assistance. Malik lived in Algiers Point, a less damaged part of New Orleans. Malik claimed that some of the New Orleans Police Department were working with a racist militia. He claimed that they were trying to run everybody out and that some young black men had been shot and killed and their bodies burned. We purchased and obtained a number of firearms, ammo, and other supplies. We set back out to get into New Orleans. This time we went a different way and finally made it to Malik’s house. It turned out that Malik’s claims were true (since then, a number of New Orleans police officers have received hefty prison sentences for doing just what Malik had claimed—killing unarmed black people and burning a body).
I found myself in the home of a famous former Black Panther Party member, refusing to leave and near what could best be described as an armed standoff with police. I was also finally able to get King. Through a set of bizarre and frightening circumstances, I got him and brought him back to Malik’s house.
Famous former Black Panthers and a couple of crazy white activists facing off with law enforcement and rescuing a Panther in the wake of Hurricane Katrina naturally got attention. Far-left media outlets and blogs exploded with our story. We decided to start the Common Ground Collective (aka Common Ground Relief) with fifty dollars and a dream. Michael Moore immediately kicked in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we turned our armed revolutionary effort into a grassroots relief organization. We were on the ground and able to meet needs when others simply weren’t due to their bureaucratic structures and fear of the violence plaguing the flooded city.
The far-left establishment immediately stepped in. Lisa Fithian left her post as Cindy Sheehan’s strategist at Camp Casey to come, Medea Benjamin showed up with her myriad of social justice organizations, and the Vanguard Foundation showed up. The anarchist movement joined the radical feminist movement, the Black Nationalists worked with the eco-terrorism movement, etc. In short, a predecessor to Occupy was formed.
All of the US far-left movements had converged through our relief efforts and decided to occupy New Orleans. Radical organizers from Western Europe came to see our new revolutionary effort. Palestinians sent delegates to meet us. Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolutionary movement began to seek ways to fund us. Many of the various camps and foundations on the left began to fight and position to be the conduit of Chávez’s money to us. Ultimately, the Venezuelan government invited us to travel to Venezuela and discuss the possibilities. The global social justice movement was on fire and excited about what we were doing.
Malik asked me to go with our group’s delegation. I decided I would. I did.
I was initially very impressed. We were invited to stay at the government's hotel, cleverly nicknamed the Anauco Hilton. We were to have a week of going on the Global Exchange tour of the barrios that Chávez was helping with the oil dollars he had nationalized. There were beautiful things happening, Cuban doctors for the poor, various collectives doing good things, etc.
A woman I had met back in New Orleans named Catherine Murphy showed up. She had been a reporter for TeleSUR while in New Orleans. However, now she was revealing her intimate relationship to the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. It turned out that Ms. Murphy was actually employed by Global Exchange. She revealed that she was the liaison between Assata Shakur, a convicted cop killer hiding in Cuba, and her US supporters and comrades. She introduced us to a Cuban intelligence agent, who in turn brought us to the office of the Director of Communications for Venezuela. They were all kind and asked me to return to the office on the next day.
When I returned, two men in suits were there to have coffee with me. They were PDVSA executives—that is, the nationalized oil company of Venezuela, CITCO’s parent company. One was named Fidel Cedeño; the other man’s name I do not remember. They knew a lot about me and what had occurred in New Orleans with the Black Panthers and the police. They asked asked questions and I asked questions. We had a great time sharing stories. They asked if I would accompany them to their offices at PDVSA the next day. I agreed.
I spent the rest of the day in a place known as Barrio 23rd of January, or Barrio Bente-tres de Janeiro. It was one of the larger barrios surrounding Caracas. It had been a hub of revolutionaries prior to Chávez taking power. In fact, it was named after the date of a revolutionary being killed by Venezuelan government forces prior to Chávez.
I was introduced by another employee of Global Exchange to a man named “Mao.” He was a professor of philosophy at the university and a former revolutionary leader. He had been appointed as the “jefe” of the barrio—basically, the mayor. The people in the barrio loved Chávez, wore red clothes in support of him, and didn’t allow anyone to speak ill of him. This became very apparent, as some would have criticisms but only say them quietly and without others around. Anyone who didn’t like Chávez was labeled an “escualido.”
Fidel Cedeño showed up at the Anauco Hilton to get me. I traveled with him to the PDVSA offices. This became an everyday occurrence, and I enjoyed the stories and histories the former revolutionaries-turned-oil-executives shared with me. Afterwards, I would travel to the barrio and listen to people there. I learned a lot from them.
I began to realize that there were indeed many poor barrios receiving help and aid from the nationalized oil company. But I also began to realize that many of Venezuela’s poor were not getting help at all. The help was primarily focused on the barrios that were part of the Global Exchange tours, but other barrios received little to nothing.
I learned of indigenous people is Venezuela’s oil-rich Zulia province who were being forcibly removed from ancestral lands for the oil. I learned that Chávez had been unknown in Venezuelan social justice circles prior to his initial attempted coup for power. He had tried to overthrow a democratically-elected leader and failed. He then began talking about social justice once he had the platform. Many of those who had been fighting for better conditions for the poor were surprised by his talk.
I began to feel that Chávez had cleverly duped the revolutionaries in Venezuela. He basically appointed all of the various guerrilla leaders to low-level government positions, like he had “Mao.” He threw some bones at them and the rest of their revolutionaries fell in line. Most of the core government decision-makers were of European descent—not indigenous at all. I began to look at Chávez with great skepticism. I didn’t share my concerns with my newfound friends from PDVSA, but I did start traveling to various barrios to meet with those who had criticisms of the way the Bolivarian revolution was playing out.
I began to realize that Venezuela was a country in the process of revolution and that various camps existed in the government—none of which trusted the others. All of them would inquire as to what another group said to me. All of them would press me to find out if another group criticized “the process.” I began to see that all of them were worried that everyone else was either CIA or somehow against the revolution. I learned that Hamas had a presence and relationships in the former guerrilla-laden barrios, and the Basque ETA had a strong presence as well.
I began to feel less than comfortable accepting money from a nation where I saw poverty like none I had ever seen in the United States—even in the aftermath of Katrina. I began to see that Chávez’s “care” for the poor in the US and his Kennedy Foundation-supported heating oil programs for the poor in the United States was carried out at the expense of those suffering from even greater poverty in his own nation.
Meanwhile, my meetings with the PDVSA executives began to take a strange turn. The discussions started veering off of potential funding opportunities for New Orleans relief efforts. Cedeño and his cohort began educating me about the US military and informing me that even the US’s fancy equipment couldn’t find guerrillas in the swamps due to heat and swamp gases. They felt that a guerrilla movement could exist there.
They began asking me about the black population and if they were turning on the US government enough yet that a guerrilla movement could be sustained. They began asking me to travel with them to northwestern Colombia to meet with a guerrilla group aligned with the FARC. I refused. They began pressuring me to at least travel with them to Maracaibo, which was close to Colombia. I refused. They began mocking me, saying, “What? You’re a revolutionary? Yet you’re afraid to go there with us? We thought you were a revolutionary? You’re not what we heard about.” This pressure kept up for two days.
I ultimately decided to tell Mao, back in the barrio, what was occurring. That’s when everything grew frightening. The rest of the delegation was set to leave, but the PDVSA executives informed me that I was not to leave. Then Mao informed me that I was not to leave. The rest of the delegation left. I stayed.
I began to get pressured to accept something akin to political asylum. They wanted me to claim that it would be unsafe for me back in the United States due to my efforts for the poor. The PDVSA executives began questioning me—why I was there, whether I was working for the CIA. They said my reluctance to go with them to the Colombian border made me seem like CIA. Mao began questioning me as well regarding the CIA. I was assigned two “bodyguards.” Though I’m sure they would’ve helped if someone attacked me, it became clear that they were not bodyguards at all; they were minders to watch me and watch who I met with or talked with.
Apparently, my meetings and visits to “escualidos” who were critical of “the process” had not gone unnoticed. I was questioned about people I had met with. I began to get the impression that the PDVSA executives I refused to go to Colombia with were causing major problems for me.
I couldn’t tell what was happening. I didn’t know if a camp working with the CIA was trying to set me up as an enemy combatant with the whole FARC thing, whether the Venezuelan government was really trying to get me connected with the FARC for a Louisiana guerrilla movement as the PDVSA executives had said, or if a few PDVSA executives were simply trying to set me up to get kidnapped. I was scared.
A lot happened in the month the Venezuelan government wouldn’t allow me to leave. Ultimately, through a series of my efforts and the efforts of prominent US leftists, I was told one day that I would be flying home the next day. My “bodyguards” took me from the Anauco Hilton to the airport.
I flew back to the US and didn’t know what to expect when I landed. A US Customs Agent said, “Mr. Darby, you really should be careful what you do in other countries.” I said, “yes, sir.” He said I could go. I did. I literally kissed the ground when I walked out of the airport.
I spent the next few months wondering what in the hell had happened. I wondered if it was some sort of setup, a kidnapping deal, or if Hugo Chávez really wanted a guerrilla movement in the swamps of Louisiana.
Regardless of all that, I learned to appreciate the stability of the US. I learned that foreign revolutions are never really what the US left claims they are, and I learned that there existed good reasons why the FBI paid attention to people like me and my then-friends and comrades.
Brandon Darby ultimately stopped associating with his former comrades and later went on to work undercover with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force on International Terrorism investigations. He has since become a conservative writer and public speaker.