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The Weather Aboveground

Chesa Boudin, whose parents have spent most of his life in jail for a politically motivated crime, comes into his own as an author and activist.

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Chesa Boudin stood in front of a round table in a corner of 57th Street Books last Wednesday night and looked around at the packed house. It was his 28th appearance in just over two weeks for his new book, The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions--100 Answers. Earlier that day, as the honored guest at a lunch discussion sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, he'd addressed an intimate gathering of about 20 that included Venezuela's consul general to Chicago, two economists, and a banker as comfortably as a tenured professor before a class full of freshmen. But now he seemed momentarily on edge. "All of my friends and family are in the audience," the 25-year-old Hyde Park native explained.

Boudin, a Rhodes scholar, political activist, and writer, has had three books hit shelves in the last six months. In addition to his latest, a primer on Venezuelan politics, he completed in October an English translation of Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, a book of interviews with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez after the failed coup of 2002. Last November he buzzed through town to promote the collection Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, a book that's especially personal for Boudin: his adoptive mother, Bernardine Dohrn, wrote the preface, and his own contribution is a letter he wrote to his biological father, who was spending his 60th birthday in prison.

"I'm proud of you for standing up for your anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics," Boudin writes to his father in Letters. "However, your decisions had real human costs including the murders of three fathers and husbands, and the traumatic disruption of untold children's lives, my own among them."

In 1981, when Boudin was just 14 months old, his parents, David Gilbert and Katherine Boudin, both former members of the Weather Underground, were arrested for their roles in a politically motivated robbery of an armored truck that resulted in the shooting deaths of three people. Though neither was armed, both went to prison. Their only contact with their son as he grew up was through letters, phone calls, and prison visits. Katherine Boudin was released in 2003; Gilbert will not be eligible for parole until 2056.

"I've always had one foot in different worlds," Boudin says. "I grew up in a white, upper-middle-class household. On the other hand I always had to go through a metal detector and steel gates to hug my parents."

Boudin grew up with Dohrn and Bill Ayers, also former members of the Weather Underground, who offered to raise him after his parents' arrests. "There were never any secrets," says Dohrn, who now teaches at Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center, which she founded. "He visited his parents the week after they were arrested."

During his childhood, Boudin had trouble reconciling his unusual history with the normal challenges of growing up. "There are pictures of me at protests when I was three or four years old," he says. He remembers arguing with classmates in fourth grade over a No Blood for Oil T-shirt he wore during the 1991 gulf war. He struggled with learning disabilities and epilepsy during his early years--he didn't learn to read until age nine--and suffered from disruptive bouts of anger at school. "I would have regular outbursts and temper tantrums, especially after I visited my parents in prison," he says.

"He went through a very rough patch when he was young," says Dohrn. She and Ayers say that Boudin's intelligence and persistence and the support of his two adoptive brothers helped buoy him through tumultuous times. A tutor helped him improve his grades, and Boudin says he started to "read up a storm," pulling straight As at the U. of C. Lab School and finishing high school in just three years. Around the age of 16 he began to speak publicly about the issues surrounding children with incarcerated parents.

After completing his high school classes Boudin went to a small town in Guatemala, on the recommendation of a family friend, to study Spanish and work on a variety of community service projects. He enrolled at Yale the following fall and spent his junior year studying in Chile, traveling to the outskirts of Santiago every weekend to help build houses. Boudin won a Rhodes scholarship in December 2002 and went to Oxford for his master's, specializing in refugee studies. He returned to South America for a lengthy trip in 2004.

"Everywhere he goes he has family," says Dohrn, who has traveled all over the world with him. Bill Ayers says, "If you go to Caracas with Chesa, he's got friends that are cabdrivers and street people, and friends that are intellectuals and people in government."

During his 2004 trip Boudin visited Venezuela for the first time. "I had so many questions as an outsider," he says. "There was very little written in English about Venezuela, and it was very outdated." He partnered with two Venezuelans, presidential adviser Gabriel Gonzalez and journalist Wilmer Rumbos, to answer some questions he had in mind for a book geared toward an American audience. The result, The Venezuelan Revolution, is formatted as a question-and-answer exchange, arranged by theme rather than chronology.

That book was the basis of Boudin's talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. Clad in a striped tie and blue blazer, he presented a short introduction to Venezuela's geography and history, and gracefully fielded questions from the audience ranging from Citgo's recent offer of discounted fuel to the CTA to Chavez's rough political rhetoric to accusations that Chavez made anti-Semitic remarks in a Christmas Eve address. Only once did he struggle for a word--"extradite"--but Dohrn handily supplied it. "It's good to have a mom who's a lawyer," he says.

At 57th Street Boudin did his spiel again, sans jacket and tie, then moderated a nearly hour-long audience discussion, interrupting only to greet old friends who continued to sardine themselves in: "Catherine Chandler just came in, late as always," he teased. The conversation was mostly heady and polite until one Venezuelan man in the crowd raised his hand and said voting for Chavez was "the greatest mistake of my life," and nervously launched into a rebuttal of Boudin's portrayal of the situation in his home country. Another Venezuelan piped up in support of Chavez. Boudin kept his cool. "The reason I didn't focus on the criticisms [of Chavez] is because we get enough of that in the American media," he said, then cooled off the ten-minute debate by adding, "I think the last two comments are a great example of the extreme polarization in Venezuela."

Barbara Engel, who saw Boudin read from Letters in November, waited to get her book signed after the talk. "These things can turn into screaming matches," she said, "but he honored all points of view."

While Boudin signed books and exchanged e-mail addresses, his fifth-grade teacher, Bob Kass, came up to critique his former student's performance. Boudin asked Kass if he took too much time answering people's questions. "I have that problem, too, so I'm not going to criticize you for that!" Kass laughed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Verhoeven.

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