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Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela

Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: Una historia personal

by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Caracas: Random House Mondadori, 413 pp., $19.95

La Revolución como espectáculo

by Colette Capriles
Caracas: Random House Mondadori, 213 pp., $16.75

On the reality show that Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, stages at irregular but frequent intervals for the benefit of his nation, he is the only star. Most Sundays, he can be seen on the all-day program Aló Presidente, which is obligatory viewing for anyone who might be interested in knowing what will be on the political agenda the following week, but there are also unscheduled interruptions to the evening newscasts and telenovelas, when the President takes over the networks to discuss whatever might be on his mind.

Television is his natural medium: articulate, artless, more than a little hefty, completely at his ease, open-faced and just-folksy even when he is denouncing the press or a laggard member of his own cabinet, Chávez is indisputably fascinating, and often even endearing, when he takes over the airwaves. On Aló Presidente, which tends to start around 11 AM, he might reminisce about an episode of his past life, like the failed military golpe, or coup, that first brought him to public attention back in 1992, when he was an idealistic lieutenant colonel. (At times like this, he is likely to recite a poem, or sing.)

The President also briefly shares the screen with the studio guests. He asks beneficiaries of a particular government program to describe their part in it. Visiting intellectuals and ambassadors are asked to greet the crowd. Members of his cabinet give an accounting of themselves. Front-row guests listen and applaud, and also, perhaps, think longingly about supper and the bathroom—for once admitted to a performance that lasts much longer than the Oscars, guests cannot leave—while Chávez discourses on politics, Jesus Christ, history, the week’s events, baseball, and, at great length, himself. The Chávez show goes on forever, but, like any reality program, it never lasts quite long enough: Who will he rebuke, or dismiss, on the air? What will he say to his wife on the eve of Valentine’s Day? (The correct answer is: “Marisabel, tomorrow I’m giving you yours.”) And, since he has already persuaded the aging world-famous crooner Julio Iglesias to warble “O Sole Mio” along with Jiang Zemin, then president of the People’s Republic of China, and himself, who will he sing with next?

When he takes over all the private television stations for a talk—forming a “national network”—he is usually on his own:

Hello, my friends! A very good evening to you. National network. No time limits. We’ve gone back to the original strategy. We’d made a change, a curveball on the outside corner for a few weeks with the Thursday national networks, but no, tonight we’re going back to the original pitch; that is, whenever it’s convenient, every time it’s convenient. It could be one national network a week, or three or four a week, according to the dynamic of events. Or once a month. We’ll see. We’ll evaluate as we go according to what might be happening in Venezuela and the world. And also, no time limit. It’s nine fifteen, and I think we’ll end around midnight. We’re going to talk about a series of topics which I’m greatly interested in explaining to you, in reflecting on with you, because we’re living in times that require a great deal of reflection, a great deal of thought—and action, of course. We’re living in a peak moment of Venezuela’s history, and all venezolanos and all venezolanas must be worthy of the peak of this supreme moment. Keep your eye peeled. Alert. Careful, because there’s many campaigns that try to disinform, every day. So we revolutionaries must be clear about this. We Bolivarians must be very clear. What is going on? What path is the revolution taking? How is the revolutionary process advancing? Every day with greater optimism. I have more optimism every day. More joyfulness every day: this morning I was singing, and this evening I was singing, some song or another. Perhaps I’ll remember it later. Singing! Joyful! Taking care of people! Solving problems. Looking to the future.1

Somehow, on the screen it all makes sense.

It’s hard to imagine any other chief of state carrying off a performance like this week after week, for nearly six years. Fidel Castro is too inhibited, George W. Bush lacks the imagination, and virtually any other ruler who comes to mind lacks the power, but this the President of Venezuela has in plenty. Ten years ago, a failed golpista and retired military man, he was dependent on friends for pocket money and transportation. Today, at the age of fifty-one, he heads a state with one of the world’s great cash flows, enjoys popularity ratings of 80 percent, faces a vehement but demoralized and perhaps terminally disorganized opposition, and appears to be a magnet to women. It has been a remarkable rise to power.

1.

Hugo Chávez was born into a dirt-poor family at a time when oil was making his country immensely rich. The Chávezes lived far from the provinces of the fantastic oil boom, in a village on the edge of Venezuela’s vast grasslands. His father, Hugo Sr., finished sixth grade and eventually qualified as a rural schoolteacher, but he still didn’t earn enough to keep his family. Accordingly, after Hugo was born, he and his older brother were sent to live in a small nearby town, Sabaneta, with their paternal grandmother, Rosa Inés. Chávez has told one of his biographers, Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, that he was an active, happy boy, scampering around Sabaneta after school to sell the caramelized fruit sweets his grandmother cooked in a pot at home. An engaging raconteur, he talks about clambering up avocado trees for the fruit, sneaking off to the movies to watch Mexican comedies, and helping the woman he called Mamá Rosa water down the yard, while she chatted to the plants to help them grow and he sang to them. But there is also this:

[After his younger brother Narciso was born, his parents also moved to Sabaneta] and my father built a little house…diagonally across from my grandmother’s house, which was made of thatch. My parents lived there with the other children as they came along…. [Theirs] was a little house made of [cement blocks], a rural house, but it had an asbestos roof and a cement floor.

Chávez does not say what he thought of this arrangement, but although he has remained on perfectly cordial terms with his parents (his mother, Elena, is very much the matriarch of the Chávez brood), his loyalty and family love are reserved for the memory of Mamá Rosa.

Hugo Chávez Sr. seems to have passed his unquenchable desire to be someone, and his love of politics, to his son. The older Chávez would eventually become director of education for his home state of Barinas (he is currently state governor), but this had not yet happened when the younger Chávez, against Mamá Rosa’s wishes but looking for his own way up through the world, decided to apply to the army academy in Caracas.

In their indispensable biography, Hugo Chávez sin uniforme, Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka provide an account of the future president as a backcountry cadet, shy and well mannered—no reckless escapades or wild drinking nights for him—constantly measuring his social possibilities against his ambition. He loves the army, feels at home in it, graduates eighth in his class. He plays baseball, the national sport, better than well, and his fellows are surprised to see him, the provinciano, emceeing a beauty contest—and not badly, one assumes. He is articulate and likable, and by the age of twenty-one, having obtained a degree in army engineering, with a major in communications, he is the star of his own radio pro-gram. Never an outstanding student, he is nonetheless full of ideas, and soon is at the center of a group of youthful leftist conspirators in the army.

For nearly twenty years Chávez would foster his vague, romantic complot, inspired not by Marxism or any other ideology but by intellectual politicians and nineteenth-century fighters who were his heroes even before he became a cadet. Richard Gott usefully provides chapters on them in his biography, Hugo Chávez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. One was Ezequiel Zamora, a leader of the federal forces in the unending civil wars of the nineteenth century: he fought under the slogan “Land and Free Men, Popular Elections, and Horror of the Oligarchy.” There was Simón Rodríguez, the wonderfully cosmopolitan thinker and political adventurer who signed himself “Robinson”—as in Crusoe—and was mentor to Simón Bolívar. And Bolívar himself, supreme: the daring, restless hero who liberated the Andean provinces one by one from the Spanish Crown, and who realized too late that, once separated, the new nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia would never coalesce into the grand union he had dreamed of.

Chávez worships Bolívar, memorizes his proclamations, makes it a point to visit his shrines: the hero’s home in Bogotá, the sites of all his great battles, the tree under whose shade the Liberator used to rest. Marcano and Barrera point out that from an early age the future leader of Venezuela would make a point of tying all the founding moments of his own political life to Bolivarian dates. Once in power, he would also amend the name of his country to “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” But the unforgettable image is one that they report as rumor, told to them by one of Chávez’s many disaffected mentors, who says he saw it happen: during the early cabinet meetings in Miraflores palace, the official residence, President Chávez would pull up an empty chair for Bolívar.

How in the world did he get to the palace? As they watch him sing and expostulate and scold on their living room screens, the members of Chávez’s disconsolate opposition struggle to understand. Largely, he wanted to. He formed his first clandestine cell within the army at the age of twenty-three, worked constantly to expand it, traveled the country consolidating a core group of conspirators who dreamed with him of a better Venezuela and of their heroic role in creating it. They could change their homeland for the better, Chávez insisted, not quite sure how. He was good at hortatory speeches, both to his troops and in front of the students he ended up teaching history to at the military academy.

When he met Herma Marksman, a young, very pretty historian (his first wife, Nancy, and their children were back in Sabaneta2 ), he told her right from the start that he couldn’t marry her (partly because his mother would not give him permission to divorce Nancy), but that he wanted Herma to share his life and dreams. She did, for nine years, carrying messages around the country, taking notes at meetings, making the calls needed to keep the conspiracy going. Conspiracy to do what? Chávez seemed to be waiting for some inner voice to let him know. He contacted former guerrillas and leftist leaders, lived modestly, came up through the ranks. The country would need him; it needed saving. Oddly, he seems never to have thought of becoming active in politics.

  1. 1

    The complete text of this broadcast on the failings of the press, which took over the private television stations for more than four hours, can be found here.

  2. 2

    Chávez is currently estranged from his wife, the former Marisabel Rodríguez. He has three daughters and one son.

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