After fighting cancer for more than a year and a half, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez died today at age 58. In the days and weeks ahead, much will be written about this leader’s political legacy; what he achieved for this South American nation, and what he took away.
In my 20 years covering the region as both writer and photographer, I never came close to Hugo Chávez. Close, as in the time I walked within a knuckle of Fidel Castro while he stepped out the elevator at the Tequendama Hotel in Bogotá at the swearing-in ceremony of ex president Ernesto Samper.
But my fellow journalists who did meet Chávez during his many press appearances always spoke of an effusive charisma, his warmth as a man who when greeted, would extend his wide arms and welcome the chance to talk on any given subject for hours. There was no stopping Chavéz. No media network could deny airtime to 5-hour deliberations on socialism, the promise of building tens of thousands of low-income homes for Chávez supporters, the importance of nationalizing foreign industry. The Chávez one met in person, who lent his ear and cracked jokes, often seemed to clash with the man covered by the news who in 1998 was elected President of Venezuela.
Chávez polarized Venezuela. So deep run the divisions that it will take decades for his countrymen to come to some middle ground as to what socialism can achieve for the oil rich nation.
I was born in Caracas during the so-called “golden years” of the energy bonanza. As foreign oil companies drilled the Orinoco belt, there was no shortage of excess in the cities. Life in the sixties was one big piñata for the sons and daughters of ministers and senators. Of course if you were poor, life was different. When it rained, as it often does in the tropics, the shanties surrounding Caracas would crash down from the mountains in giant avalanches of cardboard and aluminum.
The rich in Venezuela always had it all. The poor by contrast, far too little. This social gulf became more acute when big oil took hold of the country in the 1950s and a global commodity was needed to power cars, homes and international air travel.
When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela’s wealthy became nervous. Some gave up their country club shares in fear of being singled out as oligarchs. Many of the business elite fled the country, shuttering up their homes and firing their maids who still lived in the same avalanche-prone shanties, but now had access to free health posts run by Cuban trained doctors and nurses.
There is no doubt that Chávez and his cronies bullied Venezuela’s “establishment.” Those who acted out their parts well, supporting a scotch-tinted socialism, or at least pretending to, were handed political favors, high jobs in government, a recently-nationalized factory, a television channel or newspaper which once belonged to the “enemy” and plenty of free tickets to the Caribbean.
The high price of oil kept Chávez in power after he survived a coup attempt in 2002 by high-ranking military officers. Ironically, it was Chavez’s failed coup a decade earlier, on Feb 4, 1992, which propelled this paratrooper from a modest provincial home in Barinas onto the world stage.
No matter how much was squandered on ill-conceived public works, on military expenditure, and all out and blatant corruption, Chavez’s words will be quoted in political rallies across the country for decades to come. His legacy has yet to be fully understood. We wish peace and stability for Venezuela. With Chávez’s passing there’s hope for reconciliation and a real chance at democracy.