The Conundrum in Caracas

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On a hot afternoon seven years ago, Vicente Fox went to Oaxaca to celebrate his presidential victory, which ended 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico. Thousands of Indians from Zapotec villages came to see the new president, who appeared in the plaza flanked by world leaders also hailed as champions of democracy, including Poland’s Lech Walesa and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Fox had likened his defeat of Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

When Walesa flashed a victory sign from the podium, few knew who he was. But the brightly dressed Zapotecans roared like delirious rock fans when Chávez was introduced.

“Chávez! Chávez!” they chanted as the Venezuelan leader, wearing a white Panama hat and mirrored sunglasses, smiled coyly, being careful not to steal the limelight from Fox.

“Hugo Chávez is fighting in his country for a profound change, like we are doing here in Mexico, to end corruption,” said Fox, a capitalist champion who once headed Coca-Cola in Mexico, of the former army paratrooper.

Strange bedfellows they may have been, but the Fox-Chávez dynamics exemplified how the former Venezuelan career military officer had obtained a popularity that reached even into small Mexican villages.

Hugo Chavez biography cover

Two years later, Mexico-Venezuela relations became strained after Chávez called Fox the “puppy dog of the empire,” meaning, of course, the United States. The tension was typical of the polarizing emotions that Chávez could elicit with his loose tongue and undiplomatic outbursts.

Chávez was elected president on Dec. 6, 1998, at age 44. Six years earlier, he had gained notoriety after attempting to overthrow the government of Carlos Andrés Peréz, a political stalwart serving a second, nonconsecutive term that had mired Venezuela in economic disarray, popular unrest, and government corruption.

After almost a decade in power, Chávez remains an enigma for many. Vilified by critics as a Latin American dictator who wants to emulate his good friend Fidel Castro and hailed by supporters as a democrat bringing social and economic justice to the masses, Chávez has political observers in perpetual conjecture.

Veteran Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka attempt to unravel the Chávez conundrum in the ambitiously titled biography, Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President.

Drawing on interviews with childhood friends, family members, army buddies, an ex-lover, political loyalists, archenemies, and political foes, as well as news reports and excerpts from Chávez’s diaries, Marcano and Barrera take on the complex personality of a man who emerged from relative obscurity to become one of Latin America’s most influential and controversial leaders.

Chávez is notorious partly because he embodies the myths that have shaped much of Latin America history. He is, by turns, regarded as the seductive “anti-imperialist” revolutionary, the populist who defends the landless against the oligarchy, the military officer with illusions of grandeur, and, many now fear, the caudillo who won’t step down.

The authors retrace widely reported events-Chávez’s failed coup attempt, his rise to power, the survival of an attempted coup on his own government, and general strikes in 2003 and 2004.

But the heart of the biography is the authors’ attempt to psychologically pinpoint where Chávez’s revolutionary passion came from: What were defining moments of his youth? When did his political awareness begin? Who were his heroes and mentors?

Marcano and Barrera depict a confident, cocky man deemed “common” by the upper echelons of society-he’s dark skinned, of Afro-indigenous descent-but also a leader often filled with self-doubt and remorse. He’s naïve, rude, a jokester, and a seductive speaker; his speeches last longer than Castro’s.

Before his election, Chávez never held political office. He showed no discernible interest in doing so growing up in a small town comprised of four streets and 1,000 people, “a place where cattle, ghosts, horses, and apparitions coexist,” the authors write.

Chávez, the second of six brothers, was born on July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, where children were brought into the world by midwives because there were no hospitals or clinics.

Chávez’s father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, was a teacher at the only school in town, Julian Pino elementary. Family finances were shaky, so Chávez and oldest brother Adan were farmed out to live with their grandmother on his father’s side, Rosa Ines, after Chávez was born.

Rosa Ines wasn’t better off financially than his parents. Reportedly a good-humored, strong-willed, quiet woman, she prepared aranitas, or papaya sweets, that Chávez sold on the streets. Together they gathered mountain broom from the fields to sweep the home’s dirt floor.

Chávez adored her, and she had a deep influence on him. He named his first daughter Rosa Ines. But what that influence may have been, exactly, isn’t explored.

When his mother, Elena Frias, wanted her children to return home, the brothers instead opted to stay at grandma’s. Chávez lived with Rosa Ines, whom he called “mama,” until he left Sabaneta at age 17 to study at the state military academy, the army being the only option for a continuing education for boys of his social class.

Early separation from his mother has given rise to many hypotheses about Chávez’s personality, the authors note. Many observers speculate that deep-seated maternal resentment fuels Chávez’s fiery political rhetoric.

That remains speculative. In rural Latin nations, it’s normal for children to be raised by extended-family members. Friends recall that Chávez was “poor but happy,” a boy who loved to read, paint, and play baseball, an average student and “ugly duckling” who seldom stood out.

He was also an avid reader of Venezuelan and Latin America history at a time when tumultuous events gripped the region.

Chávez was 13 when the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, was captured and killed by Bolivian forces.

“Why doesn’t Fidel send some helicopters to rescue him?” Chávez is quoted as saying in a 2004 interview.

He was also about 13 when he started hanging out with the children of Jose Esteban Ruiz, a communist intellectual who introduced Chávez to Karl Marx, Jacques Rousseau, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Ezequiel Zamora, the father of Venezuelan federalism.

During long hours in the Ruiz library, Chávez also discovered Simón Bolivar, the Venezuelan-born son of Spanish nobility who in the early 19th century organized military rebellions that led to independence from Spanish rule of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

While boys his age read Superman comic books, Chávez says he read Bolivar, widely known in South America as The Liberator.

When Chávez left Sabaneta to attend the Academy of Military Sciences in the capital of Caracas, he carried with him The Diary of Che Guevara. But his admiration of Bolivar is such that many people who know Chávez say it borders on “delirium.”

“I Hugo Chávez, am not a Marxist, but I’m also not an anti-Marxist. I am not a communist, but I am not an anti-communist … I am neither left-wing nor right-wing,” he has said. “I am a Bolivarian.”

It wasn’t until 2005 that Chávez declared himself a socialist, invoking a 21st century socialism model that remains in its infant stage. But it clearly rests on Bolivar.

“What we propose is the idea of reclaiming this primordial notion, beneath the aegis of which our Republic was born. Simón Bolivar’s idea,” said Chávez in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion. “We don’t need to go around copying other models from other latitudes. … Bolivar had a pluripolar vision of the world.”

From the biography, it appears Chávez’s political ideas were crystallized at the military academy, where he and a group of friends created a left-wing workers party called the Radical Cause. As a sublieutenant, he graduated eighth in a class of 75 students in 1975 with degrees in military sciences and art, concentrating in engineering, land management, and communication, at which he excelled.

During these years Chávez’s nationalism and anti-Americanism began to emerge, the writers note. But he was still hard to pin down.

“As far as anyone knows, Hugo Chávez began to lead a double life when he was around twenty-three,” the authors write. “In the presence of military superiors, he would feign obedience and discipline. With his family, he pretended to be ‘neutral,’ as his mother put it, exhibiting no interest in politics. In his clandestine life, however, he was another person entirely, forging ties with left-wing activists, debating Venezuela’s political future.”

At the time, Chávez’s older brother Adan, the one he grew up with in his grandmother’s house, was a physics professor and activist in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, a political party formed after Castro visited Venezuela in 1959. The long-haired, bearded ideologues didn’t mix well with Chávez’s uniform and short hair, but through Adan ties were established.

“We met on the basis of structuring a civilian-military movement that would make long-term plans for a revolutionary insurrection,” Adan said.

In the early 1980s-the writers say the date is hard to ascertain-Chávez as a military instructor created the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army with a team of similar-thinking army officers, Francisco Arias, air force Maj. William Izarra, and loyal cadets.

Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution came to a head during the second term of Peréz, who was re-elected president in 1989. Peréz, the son of a coffee plantation owner who became politically active as a teenager during a period of repressive military rule, was a survivor, a “foxy politician” who won re-election even though his first term as president, from 1974 until 1979, became known as “Saudi Venezuela” for his administration’s extravagant spending that exacerbated Venezuela’s great economic inequalities.

The same problems assailed Venezuela during Peréz’s second presidential term.

“We knew that the enemies of Venezuela were hunger, corruption, indigence, unemployment, and the misuse of our nation’s immense riches,” recalls Pedro Carreno, one of Chávez’s students at the military academy. Chávez was a captain and instructor of Venezuelan military history, imparting not only the greatness of Bolivar, but also “free land, free men. Horror in the face of the oligarchy.”

Chávez and Arias continued to lead the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army, all the time apparently under the radar as Chávez perfected plans to seize power. When Peréz was re-elected the second time around, the economic belt-tightening reforms invoked by international lending organizations, which had most of Latin America in a financial stranglehold, ruptured not only the poor but also the middle classes. Protests, riots, and looting broke out.

An earlier military conspiracy didn’t pan out. Chávez and members of the Bolivarian Revolution were charged with plotting to assassinate Peréz and were arrested. They were released for lack of evidence.

Chávez then began graduate political science studies at Simon Bolivar University. His thesis proposal was on how to transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy. His military rank was then commander.

On Feb. 2, 1992, Chávez led a small band of rebel soldiers that tried to take over key military and communications installations in what today would seem like a comedy of errors, were it not for the 14 soldiers killed and dozens of others wounded.

“There were fourteen deaths. Fewer deaths than any weekend in Caracas, fewer deaths than those of the children who die of hunger every month in Venezuela,” Chávez said years later. “Are your hands stained with blood, someone asked me. Yes my hands and everything is stained with blood.”

Ironically, the resulting two years in jail provided Chávez with the audience he lacked in the military. Venezuelans, curious about the revolutionary army officer, began pilgrimages to the prison, where the authors report Chávez signed autographs as if he were a movie star.

He also extolled the virtues of Bolivar. Marcano and Barrera make much of Bolivar’s influence on Chávez’s political thought. But they fail to draw parallels which could be an essential element in understanding Chávez.

In Bolivar’s “Cartagena Letter,” the “Jamaica Letter” and the “Angostura Address,” all still widely read, he makes a case for Latin American integration, a dream that never came to fruition.

Under Bolivar’s vision of government, a republic would have a life-term president akin to a symbolic monarchy, while the legislative branches and cabinet ministers ran the government.

After his election, Chávez renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and proceeded to nationalize the oil, electricity, and communications industries. He also wants to end the central bank’s autonomy to access foreign reserves and spend on social programs for the poor.

But what has raised flags is his proposal to change Article 236 of the Constitution from two six-year terms to indefinite seven-year periods, albeit through popular elections. These constitutional changes must be approved by the National Assembly, whose 167 members are mostly Chávez supporters, and then followed by approval in a popular referendum.

Chávez maintains he needs more time for socialism to take hold. He notes other nations, including France, also don’t have presidential term limits.

“I propose to the sovereign people the seven-year presidential term; the president can be re-elected immediately for a new term,” Chávez said recently. “If someone says this is a project to entrench oneself in power, no-it’s only a possibility, a possibility that depends on many variables.”

Key among those variables is the popular vote. As history has shown in Venezuela, voters haven’t been pawns of their leaders.

Today Chávez heads one of several populist governments in Latin America. Socialist leaders rule in Argentina, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. All have differing demographics. But all were democratically elected and promised to address the needs of populations mired in great economic disparities brought on in large part by the one-size-fits-all austerity measures imposed by U.S. and international lending organizations over more than two decades.

The austerity measures required adherence to fixed exchange rates, high interest rates, and low inflation. Governments that didn’t abide risked becoming pariahs and losing foreign aid.

With booming oil revenues estimated at $175 billion since he took office, Chávez has now begun spreading the wealth as loans and debt relief to many similarly minded Latin nations, strengthening the Bolivarian vision of Latin America integration.

The Bush administration has called Chávez a threat to regional stability, and Chávez has fired back numerous insults, calling Bush “Mr. Danger,” a pendejo, and an alcoholic.

But money talks louder than ideological differences; Venezuela-U.S. trade is the highest in recent history, some $50 billion a year, mostly in oil exports.

“Chávez is an argumentative and confrontational figure, devoid of any public relations skills. He’s incapable of self-censorship,” said Larry Birns, director of the nonpartisan Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington that monitors U.S.-Latin American relations.

“But everything he does involves elections,” Birns said in an interview. “The main ac
usation is that he
may be on the road to dictatorship. But it’s difficult to discriminate to what is, isn’t, or may become.”

For now, Chávez continues to enjoy the support of most Venezuelans. According to polls, he is riding high after the 2006 presidential election that he won with 60 percent of the vote, cast by 75 percent of eligible voters.

“In the ‘kingdom of socialism’ that he has promised for Venezuela … his popularity seems to know no end,” the authors conclude. “The revolution still needs a quarter century to achieve its dreams. That, it seems, is its new destiny-for now.”

Susana Hayward has covered Latin America and Mexico for the past 20 years, working for the Associated Press, The San Antonio Express-News, and Knight-Ridder.