I must confess that it took me some time to take Hugo Chavez seriously. The first time I heard of him was in 1992, the day of his botched military coup attempt against Venezuela’s then President Carlos Andres Perez. As I walked through the Miraflores Presidential Palace the next day, counting the bullet holes in the walls, I was quick to dismiss Lt. Colonel Chavez as a soldier with more illusions of grandeur and thirst for power than brains.
Seven years later when the obscure former military officer and paratrooper resurfaced to run for President – and actually got elected – I was more than surprised. Now I was really curious.
The first time I came face to face with Hugo Chavez in 1999 in Havana, shortly before he was to be sworn in as Venezuela’s President. I was the correspondent for CNN. When Chavez addressed students at the Aula Magna of the University of Havana, with President Fidel Castro in the front row, I knew that I had underestimated the man. Hugo Chavez was a man with a clear mission, driven by a sense that his destiny was to change the course of his country’s history. He believed he could become the modern day version of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s national liberation hero.
In the following years I was to come face to face with President Chavez repeatedly and interview him on a number of occasions. I watched as he became more and more sure of himself, using his extraordinary charisma to hypnotise not just the average person but even some who opposed everything he stood for. I also watched as he consolidated power, controlling practically all of Venezuela’s institutions as he declared Venezuela a Socialist nation. He even changed the nation’s coat of arms so that the white horse on the lower half would face left rather than right.
The Chavez I knew had the rare quality of being simultaneously extraordinary and like any ordinary man. He joked, danced, sang, hugged and kissed. He connected with Venezuelans, especially poor Venezuelans, like no one could. He was often straight out vulgar, but he knew his own people and they applauded his outbursts .
The Chavez I knew was kind and generous with his friends and allies , but merciless when it came to insulting, ridiculing and taunting his foes. He knew no limits. Chavez called US President George W. Bush a donkey, “Mr. Danger”, and Satan, and his neighbour (former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe) a fascist, an ignoramus and a murderer. He once went as far as to insinuate that former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so aggressive towards him because what she really wanted was to sleep with him! When I asked him how he could demand respect from the US government while making comments like that one, he excused himself by saying that when a person is constantly attacked by the world’s number one super power, he has to defend himself . His opponents were always referred to as “the squalid ones”, or the bourgeoisie. Never mind that some of them lived in the slums.
The Chavez I knew loved his people, or at least most of them, but I do not think he felt like a civilian. He was above all a soldier. Perhaps that is why it was so easy for him to give orders and demand obedience . (He loved wearing his military uniform, and even though he once promised to stop wearing it because he knew that it alienated many of his countrymen- who equate olive green with military dictators- he couldn’t help himself. When he felt threatened, defiant or angry , he would put it back on.)
The Chavez I knew would sometimes go into rages, with time becoming more and more frustrated because he could not prevent corruption and inefficiency within his government . His plans for transforming Venezuela, even with $90 billions a year in oil income, were not progressing fast enough. Like his friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, he attempted to micromanage everything. And the stress, I think, took its toll.
Chavez will undoubtedly go down in history as a man who above all believed in social justice and put the needs of Venezuelans millions of poor on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. But I am convinced that in the end Chavez was a victim of his own bigger than life persona. He created a political movement that has unquestionably transformed (his critics say destroyed) Venezuela, but like so many revolutions in Latin America, its success rested too much on one man, and Hugo Chavez did nothing to limit the cult of his own personality. When he came down with cancer nearly two years ago, his Socialist Party had just lost its two thirds majority in the National Assembly. He knew that to guarantee victory in the October, 2012 presidential elections, he and no one else had to be the candidate. According to sources close to him, Chavez refused to undergo the entire chemotherapy treatment that his doctors had insisted he needed to survive. He said he could not campaign if he felt ill. “He once said that if he had to consume himself, he would consume himself for the cause of the Venezuelan people. He gave himself to his people to such an extent that he put his health and his life at risk.”, National Assembly Deputy Jorge Chavez (no relation) told me the week before President Chavez died.
I remember being taken aback when I heard President Chavez refer to himself in the third person at a campaign rally last September. ”I am not Chavez. We are all Chavez, you are all Chavez. Chavez is the Revolution that cannot be destroyed.”, he roared, as thousands chanted CHAVEZ CHAVEZ CHAVEZ in unison.
In the following days, the catch cry became “We are all Chavez.” I am convinced that he was already beginning to try to pass on the torch, knowing that in all likelihood he would not be among his people much longer.