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Chavez had power on his own terms
If fate had taken a different turn, Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias might have become a major league baseball pitcher in the US. As a 17-year-old who had joined the Venezuelan army, Chavez dreamed of being a baseball star until he discovered the story of Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century freedom fighter who had dedicated his life to liberating South Americans from the clutches of colonialism.
Suddenly, Chavez’s teenage view of the uncertain future became entangled in the glory of the past featuring a legend of leadership that appealed more to Chavez than swinging a baseball bat. Chavez propelled himself towards a new goal: leader of Venezuela.
It was a long, hard climb out of poverty to the palace of the president. Chavez grew up in Sabaneta with his grandmother in a home that was nothing more than a dirt floor, dried-mud walls and a palm-leaf roof, but he refused to be ground into poverty. Determined to rise above the appalling socio-political landscape that created an unspeakable divide between the rich and the poor, Chavez carefully borrowed images from the past to create a political future for himself.
Like Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chavez survived his first, failed coup attempt and landed in jail. Once released, both leaders made dramatic political comebacks that transcended political platitudes and transformed their countries into extreme left-wing nations. Chavez amassed the support of poor Venezuelans, but polarised richer countrymen with his reverence of Cuban President Fidel Castro. At best, his opponents considered Chavez an embarrassment.
But Chavez was no fool. He gave poor Venezuelans a sense of history and created a cause: a struggle against neo-colonialist forces who had robbed Venezuelans of their sense of self and their place in history. He told supporters that they had been robbed of their history and their money; that petrodollars had been squandered by his greedy predecessors and the poorest Venezuelans had received nothing from the vast wealth that had gushed from their oil wells.
Poor Venezuelans learned that protest was a duty—as long as it supported Chavez. He instilled a sense of power in poor, powerless people by assigning them the task of upholding Simon Bolivar’s political ideas.
Metaphorically speaking, Chavez re-invented himself as the reincarnation of Bolivar and this made him a larger-than-life figure who could turn people into a force that even the army would hesitate to crush. Chavez convinced followers they needed to stamp out any semblance of neo-colonialism and dispel the colonial legacy of Europe as well as the neo-colonialist culture of the oil-crazed US. Overly confident and often bombastic, Chavez knew how to manipulate emotion to elevate his position.
In his book Pirates of the Caribbean (available at NALIS), Pakistani author Tariq Ali (also known for his novels The Stone Woman and The Book of Saladin) writes about a story Chavez was fond of telling about one of those rare moments in which he says he questioned his place in Venezuelan politics.
Chavez said, “I remember one day I got fed up…I decided to go to the barrios on the hills and with one guard and two comrades I drove out to listen to people and breathe better air. The response moved me greatly. A woman came up to me and said: ‘Chavez, follow me, I want to show you something.’
I followed her to her tiny dwelling. Inside the room her children and husband were waiting for the soup to be cooked. ‘Look at what I’m using for fuel,’ she said to me. ‘The back of our bed. Tomorrow I’ll burn the legs, the day after the table, then the chairs and the doors. We will survive, but don’t give up now.’”
With stories like this, Chavez’s defenders passionately defended the late Venezuelan leader against any detractors who criticised Chavez as a power-hungry, self-serving politician. “If Chavez had simply been interested in power, he could have easily done a deal with the local oligarchy and won the support of the global financial press,” wrote Ali. In the minds of left-wing supporters, Chavez was a chivalrous knight in shining armour challenging corrupt politics in Venezuela that only served the rich.
Two years ago I wrote that it was far too easy to dismiss Chavez as a raving lunatic or a fool. He was far more than the YouTube clip where he sat in a cow pasture making his Mr Danger speech against former US President George Bush. Analysing Chavez was never that simple because his image and his life were a complex mosaic of many tiny pieces that created one big picture subject to interpretation by the viewer.
At best he was viewed as the champion of the masses, the protector of the poor and the caretaker of Venezuelan history. At worst he was viewed as pompous, arrogant, egotistical, crazy or shrewd. One thing for certain, Chavez had power on his own terms. After a two-year battle with another enemy, cancer, Chavez died at 58, giving his followers another description to add to his list: martyr.
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