Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez and Me

The death of Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez likely ends an era of firebrand populist leftism in Latin America, creates new questions for Colombia and gives me reason to be nostalgic about some of the most memorable journalism I ever did - or am likely to.

Still, the way he died was a pathetic episode fitting for a man whose rule was both dynamic and destructive for his country.

Caught Up in a Coup

I moved to Venezuela just weeks before the April 2002 quasi coup, which swept him from power for 48 hours before he came roaring back on the shoulders of loyal military men. That was great journalism, and sort of makes me wonder whether this man, who overcame his enemies time and again and became such a presence over Latin America, could now just return from the dead like the messiah he seemed to believe himself to be.

Covering the coup and counter-coup in an unfamiliar city full of paranoia and confusion was naturally an unforgettable experience. I had just moved to Caracas, knew almost nobody, had no home Internet connection, and had only an old laptop whose floppy drive was broken - fatal in those pre-USB. When the turmoil began I was at the mercy of taxi drivers whose priority was not to find me an open internet cafe, but to maximize their fare by driving me across town and back.

Read All About It! Selling El Tiempo's
special edition about Chavez's death.
Still, frantic and confused, I managed to work. I participated in the huge marches which culminated with Chavez's kidnapping by coup leaders, who spirited him off to a Carribean island. But the coup quickly turned tyrranical, as its leaders - who included businessmen and Catholic Church officials - suspended the Constitution and civil rights. Even people who had wanted Chavez out agreed they didn't want this, and popular opinion and loyal military brigades brought him back.

One evening, amidst it all, I was in a taxi headed towards Miraflores, the presidential palace. Frantic crowds were milling around in the streets. On the tops of high-rises were sillhoueted figures. Were they snipers? Both sides were charging that their supporters had been shot by snipers. Suddenly, the taxi driver stopped, still blocks from the palace. He was too scared to continue.

I got out, into the crowd, and an editor called from a U.S. newspaper.

"Who's in control there?" he asked.

"How can I possibly know?" I replied.

I went home, wrote frantically, and then raced to an Internet cafe, where I retyped the stories from my laptop's screen and sent them in. Often, I did this while surrounded by teenagers chatting and playing video games, oblivious and uncaring about their nation's fate.

One evening near the end of this drama I was in an Internet cafe frantically writing a story, when an employee approached me.

"Would you mind changing machines sir?" he asked. "Then you can continue chateando."

"Chateando??!!!" For the love of god, I protested, I was not chatting, but documenting their nation's drama for the world. But the young kid didn't care. I had to change machines, losing valuable minutes. But, a few minutes later, he was back again.

"Sir, the boss has asked for you to leave."

"What! Why?" I almost screamed. "I'm very busy."

The employee was unmoved. "The other customers are complaining," he told me.

My further protests didn't help, and so, furious and panicked, I saved my work and ran out the door.

Miraculously, there was another open Internet cafe across the street. Here, however, several people were sitting waiting for computers. The minutes until deadline counting down in my head, I sat down beside another foreigner and proceeded to tell him my story, hoping for sympathy and assistance. He nodded with understanding.

"You don't smell too good," he observed.

Of course. I hadn't showered or probably even changed clothes for three days.

But the man was helpful and let me move ahead of him in line. This Internet cafe was less olfactorily sensitive and I was able to finish and file my stories just in time.

Later, I did a memorable investigative story about links between the opposition groups involved in the coup and U.S. 'pro-democracy' financing, which won me points with Chavistas.

A Hollow Revolution

I had moved to Venezuela with real hope that Chavez's 'revolution' offered real answers for the poor of Latin America, a region where tremendous poverty coexists with wealth and abundant natural resources. But, as time went on, Chavez's 'revolution' seemed to me like more and more of a fraud, designed more to buy power and votes than to help his country. I visited a literacy program in which the readings consisted of propaganda about the wonders of Chavez and the evils of the opposition. A few years later, the government boasted that illiteracy had been eliminated. That would have been news to many of my neighbors if they could only have read enough to understand it.

I visited public hospitals where the elevators and air conditioning didn't work, the intercom system had been stolen and basic supplies such as gauze and alchohol simply didn't exist. Chavez did import Cuban doctors to work in poor barrios. that program undoubtedly did some good, but I had doubts after interviewing leaders of pro-Chavez medical organization whose policy was supposed to be prevention. They were all obese, and I had to ask them to please put out their cigarrettes, as the office's air was stifling with smoke.

A Killing on the Border

And then there was the crime. During my last several months in Caracas, three or four people were murdered in the lower-middle-class street where I lived. And the galloping inflation, about which my neighbors, many of whom were poor, struggling people, complained constantly. All sort of corruption also spun out of control in Chavez's Venezuela. It seemed as tho nearly every cop and border official was looking for a bribe.

One time, I was returning to Venezuela from Colombia, crossing the border in the semi-desert La Guajira region. There, I passed the Colombian border post, crossed a forested no man's land where money changers hung out with wads of bills, and then came to the Venezuelan border post. At the Venezuelan post, the guards proceeded to search my few bags until they discovered my old laptop.

"Look, he's got a laptop," they announced, as tho it were a bomb. "What's the meaning of this? We must report this to our chief."

I knew that there was nothing wrong with having an old, used laptop, especially when you're a journalist. But I also knew that if these officials wanted to mess with me, they could, and they would, until I forked over a bribe. While I pondered we to do, we suddenly heard gunshots come from the no-man's-land. Robbers had run out of the forest, shot and robbed one of the money changers and disappeared back into the trees.

The border agents, ashamed to be trying to extort a petty bribe while people were being murdered in their area of responsibility, told me to take my laptop and go. I did, feeling very bad.

A Revolution Run on Free Gasoline

But to an environmentalist like myself, probably the most infuriating and hypocritical of Chavez's policies was his gasoline subsidy, which pushed the price of a gallon of gas down to just a few cents a gallon - and had it constantly dropping.

The results are obvious: waste, pollution, endless traffic jams - and all for a subsidy which took money which could have funded schools, police and hospitals and gave most of it to the rich (and to Colombians, who buy smuggled gasoline). Of course, Chavez didn't let his own policies stop him from warning the world about environmental destruction and climate change, and denounce the United States for burning oil irresponsibly.
Meanwhile, by tilting the electoral playing field, eliminating government checks and balances and getting rid of term limits, Chavez was turning himself into an elected autocrat.

while living all of this, I recieved a steady stream of hostile e-mails from idealistic young Chavistas celebrating La Revolucion - from far away in the U.S.

A Yanqui-Caused Cancer?

Now that Chavez has died - soon after getting himself reelected by assuring his people that he was cured of cancer - there will probably be elections, and Chavez's hand-picked succesor Nicolas Maduro will probably win. (Maduro showed his stripes tonight with a long tirade about how the opposition had certainly caused Chavez's cancer. The proof? That Israel supposedly poisoned PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

It was only the latest evidence-less assassination charge against dark powers. Much more likely, Chavez's cancer came from the cigarettes he smoked, or the air polluted by his populist policies.
Vice President Maduro, altho uncharismatic, will likely win an election thanks to sympathy for Chavez and the fact that the state has been transformed into a Chavista electoral machine.

Maduro will inherit lots of problems from El Comandante Chavez, including huge budget deficits, the region's highest inflation and soaring crime rates, particularly homicide.

Chavez's death removes a charismatic leader and deep-pocketed financier for the region's leftist regimes in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua.

As for Colombia, Chavez's death raises lots of questions. He evidently was supporting the government-FARC peace negotiations in Havana. Will his succesor have the desire or the stature to do the same? During Chavez's 14 years in power, Colombia and Venezuela had many confrontations, altho relations have recently improved. Who knows what Chavez's succesor might do. Will he be more ideological? A guerrilla sympathizer? Will he blame Colombia for all of Venezuela's ills?

Time will tell.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

A great day when the Devil's disciple is returned to hell.

I am happy for all the people of Venezuela today. For the good and for those that don't even know or appreciate it yet. It is a great day.

On the day when so many airheads, illiterate and sinister lot are reminiscing over this pig, I too would like to quote a few from the Devil work himself.


"I'm not the devil."

"Cuba is a dictatorship."

Nationalization plans? "No, absolutely nothing."

Hand over power in five years? "Of course, I am willing to give up power even earlier."


"Christopher Columbus (the Italian-born explorer) was the spearhead of the biggest invasion and genocide ever seen in the history of humanity."


"We go from summit to summit, while our people go from abyss to abyss."


"Being rich is bad, it's inhuman."


"Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today."


"Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ - who I think was the first socialist - only socialism can really create a genuine society."


"Expropriate it!"


"I chew coca leaves every morning, and look at me!"


"If God gives me life and health, I'll be with you until 2021! Hey ho, Chavez will not go!"


"I want to be your friend."


"We thought he was a cannibal ... I have doubts ... Maybe he was a great nationalist, a patriot."


"I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet.


"It would not be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it until now."


"Bombing the brave Libyan people to save them? What a brilliant strategy by the mad empire. Where are the international rights? This is like the caveman era."


"Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people. Do not take me yet."

So today he joins his idols; Che, Stalin, Mao, Marx, Hitler and the rest in hell.

Next up: Fidel.

Miguel said...

Right now I'm listening to an ambassador of Syria, a dictatorship massacring its own people, who is praising Chavez as a 'great man' who 'battled against injustice.' With allies like that...


Ally Brown said...

you're crazy, Stuart. Obviously Chavez was a far-from-perfect character, but comparing him to the devil, calling him a pig, and then equating him with lunatic mass-murderer Stalin and the (extreme right-wing, ffs!) Hitler is beyond ridiculous. Chavez had a lot of faults but he also cared about the poor people in his country, something that couldn't be said about the Colombian government, nor indeed the US.

Stuart Oswald said...

Well Venezuela as a whole is a whole lot poorer now. He didn't give a damn about the poor they were just a tool for his power. A pig from animal farm. If he idolises Stalin then he's as good as him. Same for all the fools idolising Chavez now.

mauricio forero l said...

Hey Mike, for the love of God and, thous that have some intelligence and a normal knowledge of what history and facts are...can you block this guy ( Stuart ).
It is so painful, to read his heat full rhetoric and ignorance. I know that this sounds very drastic, but he is really getting in OUR nerves, just take a look at his comment in your post about the Disappeared, it is just unbelievable. Chavez was in did a man that love power to much, but, i agree with Ally, he did a lot for the poor, and for this he has my respect. take a look at John Lee Anderson's articles about Chavez work, Anderson is a journalist that was in Venezuela for some years and, witness some of Chavez good ideas and work in action.

clemente said...

Mauro- I'm surprised that you are asking Mike to block this guy. That's not you! I know you have a temper but come on even lunatics have theright to express themselves. Just takethe time again to read what he wrote. How can you react to stuff like that? Just ignore him. That's what I've been trying to do since I've been getting into Mike's blog. Some blogs are just llike those good restaurants that serve amazing food, but somehow have huge flies. In the beginning you get bothered by the flies, but after a while you learn to just ignore the flies.

mauricio forero l said...

Hey Stuart, I'm willing to give you $500 dollars if you get lost and, stop making comments from this blog for at least 5 months. We would give you 100 first and, if we see that you fallow our request for one month, then we give you another 100 for the next month and, so on. What do you think??? I think that you can use this money for some books about modern and contemporary history. Let us know ASAP.

clemente said...


clemente said...

You are such a badass Mauricio...lol...Let us know ASAP lal.

Miguel said...

For the record, I don't know of any way to block comments from a particular person even if I wanted to. (And even if that were possible, the commentator could just change their name and keep commenting.)

But, in any case, I believe in freedom of expression as long as it doesn't involve racism, slander, etc.


Stuart Oswald said...

Miguel, you are correct. Technically individuals cannot be blocked on a Blogger site. If you wanted/needed/desired to do so, you could moderate all posts and then approve or delete individual comments. This would be the only way.

However, if you did consider restricting my feedback/comments, (if you were to ask me) I personally would prefer you to delete my comments on an individual basses. I wouldn't be too impressed but would be happy in myself that I was permitted to make an expression in the first place.

Stuart Oswald said...

Mauricio, seeking to ban my comments and view points in an open space really does show your demeanor and really comes as no surprise to me and other free thinking people. There is a massive difference from your left (right) wing stance that you fail to break ground in a logical debate/discussion. You resort quickly to abusive language towards your counterpart and when that doesn't work you simply try to ban free thinking comments that are opposed to your ideological thinking.

Two wolves and a sheep voting on whats for dinner.

Stuart Oswald said...

Mauricio, I admire your capitalist offer of $500 in seeking to shut my free thinking up.

As you know, I am a capitalist and I will gladly accept your offer.

I am not able to receive your $$$ from were I am and am not sure when I will be back in Colombia again. So I personally am not able to accept the cash (sadly). I am still prepared to accept your deal but on these terms.

-I am prepared to cease but not desist my free thinking expression here in the way of comments.
-I will cease "all" comments for 10 Months (or longer).
-Instead of paying me the money, I will require to give it as a donation in a secure money box or to the priest's own hand (without any comment to the priest or strings attached) at your nearest or most convenient to you Catholic Church (must be Catholic) without any further demands of myself or of the receiving Catholic Church.
-You can offer it as US$50 (value in local currency) installments or in lager installments equating to US$50 (value in local currency) per one Month of no comments from myself.
-The donation must be made in a secure donation box.
-When you make the donation I require you to comment here in this thread as soon as possible to the donation being made. I only require you to state the amount, the churches name and address. If you feel the need to offer other proof of donation you must request my authorization/agreement before hand.
-I will cease comments for as many months as you have donated for from the date of the donation comment.

Please reply with your acceptance as soon as possible. I will give you a few days grace from now.

Miguel said...

I don't intend to eliminate anybody's comments, as long as they're not racist, slanderous, etc.

I appreciate comments on the blog, altho I often wish the comments were more about the blog's content.

I'd also like to point out that nobody HAS to read either this blog or the comments. If you object to someone's comments, the easy solution is not to read them.


Stuart Oswald said...

Thanks Mike.

On the subject of this very interesting insight into your time in Venezuela, I would like to ask. What was the outlet you were reporting for? It would be amazing if you could attach any pictures you might have of this time to this post.

Even though I have no interest in visiting countries where such oppressive regimes function, I am still immensely interested in the people and stories that originate there.

Miguel said...

Hi Stuart,

In Venezuela, and other places, I contributed to some U.S., British and Canadian newspapers and magazines (some of which are closed or near bankruptcy today, which is sad for both journalists and society). If you're interested in seeing my work, the easiest way is probably to Google my name and Hugo Chavez or Venezuela.

I'm not sure where any photos I took there would be. That was many computers ago.