Brandon Darby: How I Spent My Time in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela

chavez4Readers 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…

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