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.
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