Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Barcelona.

OSLO: Thor Halvorssen has long been deemed a suspicious liberalist. We interviewed him about dictatorships, his native Venezuela, anarchism and meritocracy – so that you can judge for yourself.

When the State becomes too powerful

[Watch video interview at the bottom]

Venezuelan-Norwegian Thor Halvorssen starts the ninth edition of his Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) – featuring over 50 different talks and seminars – by bringing up the Thai military coup anniversary, in addition to authoritarian North Korea, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

He reminds us of the global crises, wars and conflicts where “65 million people are fleeing, about 280 million are affected by natural catastrophes, 793 million lack clean water and 836 million live in abject poverty.” He adds: “However, authoritarian regimes, dictatorships and democratic autocracies impact more people than all of the above put together. Which is more than half of the world’s population. This is what this year’s OFF is all about.”

The current OFF theme is “Defending Democracy”. To the 200-strong audience at Oslo’s Hotel Continental, Halvorssen states: “In our opinion, a true democracy has the following: freedom of speech, an active civil society, separation of power, and fair and free elections.”

From right: Antonietta Ledezma, Vladmir Kara Murza, Thor Halvorssen, Mohammed Nasheed, Wai Wai Nu and Kang Chol-hwan. Press conference. (Photo: Berit Roald / NTB Scanpix)

Background. Four days later, Modern Times Review meets up with the OFF-leader for an in-depth conversation. The motivation for his long term work for freedom and human rights is rooted in the experiences of his parents: His Norwegian father was falsely accused and imprisoned as a political prisoner until Amnesty and others finally managed to free him. Halvorssen’s mother fared worse. Some 13 years ago, he witnessed her being shot by the Venezuelan authorities, during a peaceful demonstration against President Hugo Chávez and his politics.

Every authoritarian system requires a lie

“The way I saw the event live on TV, I thought she had died. It caused me indescribable amounts of pain and anguish and a sense of unfairness. As a consequence, I bond naturally with people who have suffered this kind of violence – it does not matter where you were born or with what privileges. When someone you admire or care for is attacked, we understand what it is like to live in a country where authorities do not abide by the law. Even senior citizens, who only expressed their opinions during a non-violent demonstration, were attacked by the state. My grandparents were also present.”

Following this experience, Halvorssen wanted to establish the Human Rights Foundation – also because of his frustration over “Amnesty and International Human Rights Watch’s lack of focus on Venezuela – as Chávez –sympathisers”.

But, why hold an Oslo Freedom Forum, here on the other side of the globe?

“Because Norway puts human value high and has never incited war.”

The fact that his father was Norwegian is irrelevant, although the 41-year old Venezuelan reminds me that those of us who are born into freedom in Norway “have a responsibility for not forgetting those who incidentally do not grow up with the same opportunities”.

Individuals. The conference strategy was, as before, to present a series of witness statements from vulnerable individuals: “We believe, although this may sound strange to the collective mentality of Norwegians – that individuals really achieve things; that the truth is that individuals, not the group, is at the centre of society”.

“The suffering and survival of these people can make them liberating role models to others.”

Individuals make a difference. Someone else who spoke during the conference was Charlie Chaplin himself – in an extract from his film The Dictator (1940). Chaplin makes fun of Hitler’s use of mass suggestion; he talks about the dignity of life and that soldiers must not allow themselves to be subjugated into violence or blind aggression. Halvorssen introduced the excerpt by explaining the risks Chaplin had to take, and that he was forced to finance the film himself as The Dictator was banned at the onset of World War II. The enormously popular film was smuggled into France, where several soldiers – when they realised what they were watching – shot the screen to pieces.

Halvorssen has a vested interest in films. He has made several through his company Moving Pictures Institute – films aimed at promoting freedom: “But OFF is also a combination of politics, research, film and art. Early on, totalitarian movements understood the importance of films to influence people. We, the protesters, also know that truth and good ideas may need the help of a film. That is why we make the speeches here in Oslo into short films and spread them worldwide.”

I ask him about the witness statements of these individuals – whether the organisers also realise to whom, and what values they are providing a stage. “We do a series of investigations of every single person we want to invite; every single tweet or message they have published, we study every book or article they have written. Anyone who has defended the use of violence is not welcome as a guest here.”

TOPSHOT – Riot police clash with demonstrators during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on June 7, 2017.
The head of the Venezuelan military, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who is also President Nicolas Maduro’s defence minister, is warning his troops not to commit “atrocities” against protesters demonstrating in the country’s deadly political crisis. Tuesday’s warning came after more than two months of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. The opposition and a press rights group say security forces have run over, attacked and robbed protesters and journalists.
/ AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRA

Venezuela. We talk about Venezuela, although Halvorssen insists that he is not actively involved in its politics: “In Venezuela, the government spreads news of an imminent coup that is likely to happen any time. This is how the Turkish Erdogan recently gained enormous power – following the military ‘trying it on.’ Every authoritarian system requires lies.”

“Chávez stole as much money as the Norwegian Oil Fund possesses.”

Halvorssen is very critical of the Norwegian press coverage of Venezuela: “In 2010, we issued a public warning about the ongoing Venezuelan crisis, with children dying from hunger, and suffering due to malaria; the death rate in the capital Caracas was the highest in the world. During Chávez’s presidential period, more people died than the amount of people who were killed by the Farc guerrilla in Colombia!”

Hugo Chávez

We broach the corruption accusations: “Chávez stole as much money as the Norwegian Oil Fund possesses – over 1,000 billion USD disappeared. Before he gained power, no one starved, even when the price of oil was just seven dollar a barrel. So, why did more people become poor under Chávez, as the oil prices rose to 115 dollar? During Chávez, the National Health Service also disappeared. He blamed financial breakdowns. The government’s lies are obvious and plentiful.”

Halvorssen asks me how Norwegian journalists, “who defended this regime which caused so much destruction, are able to look at themselves in the mirror”. He lists journalists who defended Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. I am keen to know where Halvorssen stands in relation to the Venezuelan opposition, who now demand a new election or the removal of President Maduro who recently attempted to close down the national assembly through changes to the Constitution. Does Halvorssen support Julio Borges, the leader of the National assembly, or the presidential candidate for the opposition, Henrique Capriles? “No, I am not involved in Venezuelan politics other than in general. Otherwise, people would immediately react and say: ‘Oh, so you are from Venezuela, you must have money invested there!’ I do not like the candidates nor the politics of those you mention. No, my focus is on other countries such as North Korea, Ecuador and Singapore, where I cannot be accused of having investments. Instead, I am interested in explaining dictatorships.”

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