The Eternal Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Complicated Legacy
Hugo Chávez's supporters are relying on his cult of personality to hold on to power. In doing so, they are overlooking a different legacy he left behind in Venezuela: one of corruption and mismanagement.
There is a circular cloud surrounded by a rainbow in the sky above Caracas as Zuilma Blanco stands on the side of Avenida Fuerzas Armadas, waiting for the coffin containing the body of Hugo Chávez. She pulls out her mobile phone, takes a picture into the light, and exclaims: "A halo! I can feel that something is descending upon us, my president!" A man standing next to her says that he recognizes a face in the cloud.
Blanco, 41, a dark-skinned woman with fine features, is wearing a red polo shirt and a red baseball cap. She came to Caracas with her daughter in the morning from her village in the mountains. "Venezuela has never experienced anything this powerful before," she says. "I believe our president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, was too big for this country." She is simultaneously weeping and beaming with pride. "We lost him physically, but he lives on in us, his people. We are all Chávez."
The coffin, still an hour away, is driven through the crowds at a snail's pace. Walking in front is Nicolás Maduro, the man Chávez named as his successor in his last TV appearance, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a moustache, wearing a tracksuit top in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.
When the procession finally passes Blanco, she weeps and wails, clutching her daughter, who has just said that her mother loves Chávez "too much," though she is now weeping herself, too. Some of the bystanders faint, creating a scene of mass hysteria.
In the end, it will have taken six hours for the coffin, covered with flowers and caps, to arrive at the military academy, where the body will lie in state for the people. The entire procession is broadcast on the government-owned television station, a fitting end for a man who spent much of his time in office on TV. Chávez's appearances were always simultaneously broadcast on all stations, and he was known for chastising or dismissing ministers live on his program, "Aló Presidente." He sang, danced, showed photos of his grandchildren and told jokes, especially about the "empire" in the north, the United States.
A Painful Announcement
His last procession is also a TV marathon, presented in the tone of a sermon, during which Chávez, the freedom fighter Simón Bolívar and Jesus Christ merge into one person. It's been a long time since someone has been carried to his grave like the Venezuelan president, who died of cancer last Tuesday, at 58.
At first, he even staged his illness like a telenovela, appearing on TV as he did early morning exercises with his cabinet, and reading his blood levels aloud to the public. When he lost his hair after chemotherapy, young people shaved their heads in solidarity. Supposedly cured, he summoned all of his strength in October to win reelection, capturing 55 percent of the vote, against Henrique Capriles, the first opposition candidate to be taken seriously since Chávez came into office in 1999.
But the disease returned, and on Dec. 8, 2012 he said goodbye to Venezuelans on television before being taken to Cuba for treatment. He was no longer seen in public after that, and his true state of health remained a mystery. He was allegedly flown back to Caracas in late February, and by the beginning of last week the country was buzzing with rumors. Was Chávez dying, recovering or long dead? Was he really back in Venezuela, or was he actually in Cuba again? During a visit last Tuesday morning, there seemed to be little security at the military hospital where Chávez was supposedly being treated.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Maduro read a strange statement on TV, in which he indirectly accused the United States of being responsible for Chávez's death. That evening, his voice cracking, Maduro finally announced: "At 4:25 in the afternoon, today, the 5th of March, Comandante President Hugo Chávez Frias died."
In the hours after the announcement, militia members loyal to Chávez, their faces twisted with pain, drove through the streets. Anti-Chávez students, who had been protesting in downtown Caracas against the policy of keeping citizens in the dark, were beaten. That evening, tens of thousands held a wake on Plaza Simón Bolívar. One man carried a sign that read: "They poisoned him." The young people gathered in the square were hardly old enough to have experienced any president other than Chávez, who took office in 1999.
No Middle Ground
The 22 heads of state who attended his funeral on Friday included Cuban President Raul Castro and Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose presence attested to the fact that Chávez changed both his country and the entire continent. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kissed the coffin, and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko shed a few tears. Their appearance reflected the political alliances Chávez had forged with the help of Venezuela's oil and his brand of anti-imperialism.
His legacy, and how history will regard his 14 years in office, remains a complicated question. Was Chávez a great statesman or a dictator in disguise? Did he liberate his people from poverty or ruin his country's economy? It's difficult to find objective answers to such questions. After his death, Venezuelans are more divided than ever, and as in the rest of the world there are in fact only two opinions about Chávez: One must be for or against him.
A visit to the home of Zuilma Blanco in Capaya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Caracas, helps to explain his supporters' profound adoration for Chávez. The highway turns into a bumpy main road, passing government-owned filling stations along the way. There are still posters from the election in October, which Chávez won by a 10-percent margin.
Blanco is a member of the Consejo Comunal, one of the local councils established under Chávez. Hers is in charge of sports and social events. She constantly repeats the same refrain as we drive through the town: Here you can see what our president has done for us. This is the road Chávez paved, the hospital Chávez donated, the school for agritourism Chávez founded. She points out new buildings erected under one of the social programs paid for with oil revenues, a large-scale residential housing construction effort called "Gran Misión Vivienda."
Finally, she takes us to the "Casa de Alimentación," which provides free meals daily for 140 people. The manager, Rafaela Palacio, says that the people she serves hardly had anything to eat in the past, like some 20 percent of the population, but that those days ended when Chávez came into power. Palacio, 65, a matron wearing a brightly colored robe, receives a monthly pension equivalent to 300 ($390), which corresponds to the country's minimum wage.
"Believe me," she says, bursting into tears, "those who came before him did nothing for us. He was the first and the only one." According to Palacio, Venezuela was once a racist society, ruled by a corrupt, white oligarchy that had looked down on people like her.
Chávez, however, was from the rural grasslands. He spoke in the melodic singsong tone of the people, and he touched people wherever he went. He always had scratches on his hands after an election campaign. The lower class felt that he was one of them.
Blanco is one of the original Chavista. She still remembers the first time she saw him, in the early morning hours of Feb. 4, 1992. Chávez had staged a failed military coup against the elected government the night before. After he had turned himself in, he appeared on television to call upon his co-conspirators to follow suit. The appearance became one of his greatest moments.
"First of all, I would like to say good morning to the Venezuelan people," Chávez said. "Unfortunately, at least for now, we were unable to achieve our goals in the capital." He added that he hoped there were would soon be different ways to provide the nation with a better destiny.
The TV appearance transformed the previously unknown officer into a popular hero. Blanco, together with other women, visited him in prison. It marked the beginning of his uncanny popularity, which catapulted him into the presidency in the 1998 free elections.
"Do you believe me when I tell you how upset I am that we let him on TV at the time, without editing his appearance?" asked Diego Arria, as he sits under a 200-year-old wild cashew tree in his garden in Caracas's upscale Country Club neighborhood. The 74-year-old politician made his fortune with the country's first mobile communications company.
Arria, a former ambassador to the United Nations and close advisor to former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, was in the palace when Chávez carried out his attempted coup. Last year, Arria ran unsuccessfully in the opposition primaries.
When Chávez ranted against the country's old oligarchy, he was referring to people like Arria. Three years ago, he announced on "Aló Presidente" that he was going to confiscate Arria's farm because nothing was being produced and there weren't even any cows there. Arria then displayed images of cows on the Internet, but the army turned up nonetheless. Children were bussed in to swim in the pool. Arria still has the real estate magazines depicting the attractive house and sprawling pool.
"Well, the pool wasn't really that big," he says, noting that it was only a 400-hectare (990-acre) property. "I told Chávez on television: 'You are corrupting minors by teaching them to steal.'" But now the farm is gone, and Arria says that it is sadly missed. Even more so, he misses the good, old Venezuela of the 1970s and 80s, when he was governor of Caracas and the country was far from being as polarized as it is today
Opposition Alleges Corruption
At the time, power was divided between social democrats and conservatives. The political elite was considered corrupt, and a longing for change brought Chávez into power. While Arria acknowledges the failures of the old guard, he says the country is far more corrupt now. Never have so many people struck it rich by such dubious means as under Chávez, says Arria, "the government, the opposition, businesspeople, everyone."
The businessman is now one of the most radical members of the opposition. He calls the government a "de-facto regime" and says that Maduro and his cabinet lack all legitimacy. Since Chávez never officially began his fourth term in office, Arria explains, Maduro is not the official vice-president. It's a sentiment widely shared among the opposition.
"Maduro is the Cuban candidate," says Arria. He believes that the Castros control Venezuela. "The Cubans produce our identification cards and passports, they control record offices, the army and the intelligence service, and they know everything about us."
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro was a political and actual father figure for Chávez, his only idol next to Simon Bolivar. Castro, for his part, saw Chávez as his true political heir. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Venezuelans subsidized the ailing island economy with cheap oil, ensuring the Castro regime's survival.
The state-owned oil company PDVSA is Venezuela's economic engine. Chávez used its revenues to fund his social programs. But oil production has been declining for years, even though the country has enormous reserves. And despite its massive wealth, Venezuela has failed to create functioning institutions.
- Part 1: Hugo Chávez's Complicated Legacy
- Part 2: 'Chavism Is a Feeling'
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