As we remember the life and legacy of Harry Belafonte, we look back at his antiwar activism, including his outspoken opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. On February 15 of that year, amid global protests against the war, Belafonte addressed hundreds of thousands who rallied in New York City and called for peace. “We have let the world know that we are in solidarity with those who seek to have other ways than war to settle our grievances,” he told Democracy Now! Belafonte later made worldwide headlines in 2006 when, on a trip to Venezuela, he called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: “Sing Your Song”: Remembering Harry Belafonte, Who Used His Stardom to Help MLK & Civil Rights Movement
- Part 2: Harry Belafonte in His Own Words on Opposing Iraq War & Calling George W. Bush a “Terrorist”
- Part 3: “Get Down to Business”: Harry Belafonte in 2016 on Trump, Socialism & Fighting for Justice
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our coverage of the life and legacy of Harry Belafonte. He died Tuesday at the age of 96 here in New York of congestive heart failure.
In 2003, on February 15th, he spoke before hundreds of thousands of people in New York City. It was a freezing cold day. It was a massive rally calling on the United States and President Bush not to invade Iraq.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Today is a historic and a proud day in the name of America. The world has sat by with tremendous anxiety and with a great fear that we did not exist. They had been told and they had felt that what our country, with its press and the leaders in the administration have said, we, today, invalidate all that. We stand for peace. We stand for the truth of what is at the heart of the American people.
This is not the first time that we as a people have been misled by the leadership. We were misled by those who created the falseness of the Bay of Tonkin, which falsely led us into a war with Vietnam, a war that we could not and did not win. We lied to the American people about Grenada and what was going on in that tiny island. We lied to the American people about Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and many places in the world. And we stand here today to let those people and others know that America is a vast and diverse country, and we are part of the greater truth of what makes our nation. Dr. King once said that if there is — if mankind does not put an end to war, war will put an end to mankind.
AMY GOODMAN: On that day, February 15th, 2003, Harry Belafonte also spoke to Democracy Now! during our live broadcast right behind the stage of the global antiwar protest. Harry detailed his criticism of George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell for his role for pushing for the invasion of Iraq.
HARRY BELAFONTE: My comments about General Colin Powell is really not a personal confrontation. Black Americans and many peoples of color have always taken great pride in what those of us who have come from a history of oppression have achieved. And when an individual breaks through and comes into the place where decisions are made that can make a difference, we then have high expectations. Once that is rejected by those who have acquired this position, we may sit in quiet disappointment. But when the person who achieves that distinction then puts him or herself in the service of our oppression and those who create new ways in which to oppress us, that is morally unacceptable. And that is my argument with General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. I expect, as do others, that their history should have prepared them for a much better articulation about how to treat people globally.
Most of the people in the world who suffer from tyranny, most of the people who suffer from the tyranny of oppression, the tyranny of hunger, the tyranny of ignorance, the tyranny of HIV/AIDS, there sits terror. And when you look very carefully at what it is that has caused this constant oppression, you will see that somewhere in there, America plays the game. And this gathering here today helps us understand that there is another America that is strong, that is resolute and is made of millions and millions of people. As a matter of fact, we do make the majority voice in this nation, and that we have let the world know that we are in solidarity with those who seek to have other ways than war to settle our grievances.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, Harry Belafonte traveled to Venezuela, where he met with President Hugo Chávez. Belafonte’s trip made international headlines when he described President George W. Bush as the “world’s greatest terrorist.”
HARRY BELAFONTE: No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people — millions — support your revolution, support your ideas, and, yes, expressing our solidarity with you.
AMY GOODMAN: President Chávez was standing right next to Harry Belafonte. Shortly after Harry returned from Venezuela, he came into our firehouse studio to talk about why he called President George W. Bush a terrorist.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When Katrina took place, there was a great sense of tragic loss for many Americans who saw that terrible tragedy. What we had not anticipated was that our government would have been so negligent and so unresponsive to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. And in a dilemma that we all face as to what we could do as private citizens to help the folks that were caught in that tragedy, we began to listen to voices that were outside the boundaries of government, the United States government. We listened to voices that came from as far away as Denmark, who offered to send goods and services in emergency, and we also heard the voices of people from Venezuela through their leader, Hugo Chávez, who said that “In this moment of your great tragedy, we, the Venezuelan people, extend all the resources we can summon up to help the plight of those people caught in the Gulf region.”
The United States very abruptly and very arrogantly rejected that offer, while in its stead, we did nothing to bring immediate relief. And as a matter of fact, I must tell you, we’re still quite delinquent in what the peoples of that region need, because we still failed to fully mobilize and meet the needs of the people, particularly in New Orleans, but other places within that region.
I and many other private citizens decided that we would listen very carefully to what people outside of the government were saying, because there was no immediate sense of relief and response to what we were experiencing, the people in Katrina. And so, like others, I went with a delegation of 15 people, at the invitation of the Venezuelan government, to come and to meet with President Chávez and members of his Cabinet to talk about what we could do to help American people caught in this tragedy. …
It is quite curious that we can find billions and billions of dollars to sustain an illegal and immoral war in the Middle East, invading a country that did not provoke us and moving into this this conflict unconstitutionally, even though it had the approval of the Congress. Even the Congress violated the statutes of the Constitution. We were not invaded. There was no threat of an enemy. We unilaterally walked into a country that had no threat to this country, and we invaded it. That’s against the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: You call President Bush a terrorist?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I call President Bush a terrorist. I call those around him terrorists, as well: Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld, Gonzales in the Justice Department, and certainly Cheney. I think all of these men sit — and women — sit in the midst of an enormous conspiracy that has been unraveling America for the last eight years — six years. It is tragic that the dubious way in which this president acquired power should have begun to unravel the Constitution and the peoples of this country.
Yes, I say that there are people in this country who live in terror. Poverty is terror. Having your Social Security threatened is terror. Having your livelihood as an elderly person slowly disappearing with no replenishment is terror. Students who are dropping out of school because there are no resources to keep us in school is terror. You find people in the streets, watching drugs permeate our communities and destroy our young, it’s a life of terror. And men who sit in charge of that distribution mechanism, which can help the American people overcome these problems and refuse to do so, while giving the rich more money than they’ve ever dreamt of having, while turning around our institutions and redirecting resources from those who are truly in need to those who are already generously endowed, if not hedonistically so, it’s a great tragedy.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Harry Belafonte on Democracy Now! January 30th, 2006. After that interview, we learned Coretta Scott King had died. A dear friend of Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte was invited to speak at her funeral. But the invitation to speak was rescinded after George W. Bush announced he was attending Coretta Scott King’s funeral.