I SEEM TO FIND MYSELF in this country during its most precarious and historic moments — many of them thanks to a leader who has left his indelible mark, in one way or another, on us all: Hugo Chávez.
I was born in the sleepy port town of San Pedro, California. My mother was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Most, if not all of mother's family lives in Venezuela, including my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends.
I started traveling back and forth in 2001 when the then newly appointed president was hosting his “big brother” Fidel Castro on his first official visit to the country. In 2004, I was living on the east side of Caracas when voters went to the polls for a referendum, the first ever in the nation's history, to oust Chávez from office. In 2006, when Chávez won the presidency by one of the widest margins in history, I remember what it looked like on the streets of Horizonte as people cheered over the defeat of an opposition candidate who wanted nothing to do with running for president in the first place.
After leaving Venezuela for the United States in 2007, I find myself back here now, six years later, in a Bolivarian state whose future is very much up in the air, and whose legacy after Chávez’s death is as difficult to define as the man who created it.
Whose Venezuela is this exactly, and can one truly be called “Chavista”? Is it the Venezuela of social programs and social equality for all, or the other Venezuela, with its genocide-like murder rate, incomprehensible inflation, protests in the streets, power outages, food shortages, rampant drug trafficking, unthinkable poverty, and infrastructure problems that would make India blush?
A solid percentage of the population loved their president. Chávez was one of the first politicians to not only speak to the poor, but to acknowledge their existence in the first place. His social programs weren’t so much about giving the people things they need as it was giving them an identity. There is confusion for many outside of Venezuela as to how Chávez could be so celebrated while the OPEC country he ruled for 14 years turned into one of the richest failing states in memory. When an impoverished people are given just a morsel of hope through some social programs, food banks, new housing and free health care, it buys political capital for years to come. While the roof caves in on their heads, they thank the commander for at least having the floor they stand on.
I flew to Caracas on March 1, 2013, to visit family and friends, and mend some fences with people I cared about. I’d intended the trip to be about embracing some new changes in my life, and coming full circle. Plus, I missed the country and my loved ones. I missed the weather and rhythm. I need to be there, to spend some time.
When I arrived, I found a tense city teetering with uncertainty. No one knew where Chávez was or what state he was in. Even while a mystery, the questioning, of ourselves, of our country, was already underway.
Is Chávez dead or alive? It was all anyone could talk about.
“He's dead,” said Antonio, a cab driver who lives in San Agustin. “Chávez has been dead for months.”
Cab drivers in the capital of Caracas are in many ways the true philosophers of the city. They deal with every walk of life, driving 12 to 15 hours a day. When I asked him why he thought Chávez was dead, Antonio's explanation was simple.
“This was a man who loved the spotlight. He couldn't get enough of it. He led from the front. He toured the countryside and spoke endlessly. Even if he couldn't speak due to the complications of the cancer, he would be in front of the camera, reassuring the people everything is okay. He's dead and the government doesn't know what to do.”
Not everyone felt the same as Antonio.
“Of course he’s alive. Nothing can kill Chávez,” exclaimed Roberto, a worker at a liquor store. I prodded Roberto just a bit and asked him how much he knew about pelvic cancer and if he could really survive all those surgeries and chemotherapy. He answered me rather quickly saying, “You don't have to be a doctor or a smart ass to know that Chávez could have a thousand forms of cancer. It doesn't matter. He will live forever. He will be here long after he dies. Nothing can kill Chávez.”
Roberto raised a good point. Even if he did die or if he was already dead, would he really go anywhere? This was a man who was determined to leave his mark, not only on the Venezuelan people, but also on its politics and the country as a whole. Whether it was adding a star to the flag or the national seal, changing the local time by a half hour (so as not to have the same time as Washington), imposing his likeness on billboards and walls across the city and country, building housing developments — or just the idea of “Chavismo” — it was clear that Chávez would be around for a very long time.
“The president is battling,” proclaimed a grandmother around 70-years-old whom I overheard explaining Chávez's condition to her young granddaughter. “The commander is fighting. He didn't stop believing in us. So we won't stop believing in him.”
Faith in someone and something can go a long way.
During the day and the early evening, the talk was of Chávez. At night, after eight o’clock, the streets belonged to the malandros: gangs that roam the neighborhoods looking to take from anyone and everyone.
The quiet at night in the capital was unsettling — the earlier sounds of street traffic, kids skateboarding and the random car blaring music now a distant memory. I can remember a time when it was safe to hang out with my “homeboys” on the avenue around a case of beer and bottles of rum. There's no more of that now. No more laughter, arguing, music, or the clap of skate decks hitting the concrete. The silence in the Caracas night was sometimes shattered by the sound of an automatic weapon in the distance.
As I went about visiting friends and family, it was clear to me how much Caracas had changed. The city where I had resided in my early 20s was gripped by fear. But along with the insecurity, the fear was from simply not knowing what was going to happen next.
For the first time in years, Chávez had disappeared. Chávez the revolutionary. The indelible firebrand. The biggest loudmouth in the Western Hemisphere. The man who called W the devil in front of the General Assembly at the United Nations. The man who brought television cameras into the crypt of the liberator Simón Bolívar and said he wanted the remains exhumed to find out if Bolivar had been poisoned. The man who made a point of taking a car ride with Saddam Hussein in a Mercedes-Benz, posturing for Western powers. For a man who branded himself as the people’s president but spent so much of his time talking and blustering, it’s a wonder to think that he ever stopped for a minute to actually listen to Venezuela speak, to hear what the people wanted from him — or needed from him — in order to live the kind of life he’d always promised. Now, this same man had been silent and out of focus of the cameras for months.
“This is why the city is in fear,” explained Erick, an old friend of mine. “With Chávez we know what we're getting. At least there was a strange stability. Without him, we just don't know what will happen.” I asked my friend what he thought would happen if the situation stayed as is with someone else in power. “Honestly, I don't think any other man can have the same broad powers Chávez has. It wouldn't work for anyone else.”
Erick was speaking to the executive powers Chávez had amassed over the years. It’s true. He was the most powerful president in the history of Venezuela. Now he’d disappeared, and no one knew if he was alive or dead.
I awoke on March 5th to my grandmother smiling and singing my praises; it was my birthday. I didn't have much of a plan that day, which was good because all plans were about to be cancelled. My uncle, who works for one of the government agencies (I won’t say which one) called my grandparents home around noon with the news that the president of Venezuela had died and that there would be an announcement soon.
I suddenly realized I had the scoop on everyone.
I called Dave Coelho, a producer at KPCC Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena, California for whom I interned last year, about the news. I left him a message, then called some friends in the city to warn them. I say warn, because honestly, I was starting to panic.
As Vice President Nicolas Maduro was going on national television to explain that Chávez was in grave condition, I paused, wondering if my uncle had somehow got it wrong. But I quickly decided otherwise: Maduro was stalling for time, probably to mobilize the National Guard. The government was panicking too.
By the afternoon, Maduro was back on TV flanked by advisors with the announcement. The president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was dead.
Aside from Maduro towing the company line with his claim that the United States gave Chávez cancer (I wonder if another president will exhume his remains to find out if its true?), his message was very somber, yet full of hope. The warrior had fought his last battle. It was time to come together and grieve.
As news spread through the city, people left their jobs early to be home with their families. Traffic in Caracas was jammed. Every television station was broadcasting reactions from people in the streets of Caracas and around the world. Women were crying, asking why God would take the savior of the Motherland. As some people went home, others made their way to the military hospital where Chávez had been staying. Crowds formed downtown to mourn.
If you ever want to gauge the general feeling of a people during a serious transitional period, go to your local supermarket. There were long lines and semi-empty shelves. Yet the scene was lacking a sense of urgency. People were stocking up, but this market was not buzzing with speculation and angst. Patrons were braving the long lines with a certain peace to them. "Surreal" doesn't even do it justice.
The city was quiet that evening. Though it was the same quiet as usual, it wasn't, I was convinced, out of fear of the malandros. There was something new in the air. There would be no more rallies to pray for the president. No more ambiguous government announcements. No more uncertainty. Chávez was dead, and whatever that meant for us, for Venezuela — the end of everything we knew, or more of the same — it was upon us now. At least that much was clear.
I blew out the candles and went to bed. Happy birthday indeed.
The sun rose the next day on the mountains and valley of the capital. Foreign dignitaries and heads of state were descending on Caracas to honor a political ally for some, and an economic necessity for others. A massive crowd had gathered in front of the military hospital where the late president's remains were being loaded into a hearse for the long procession to a military academy where his body would lay in state.
It was then that I saw them. The people. The legions of Venezuela, packing the boulevards and the streets. This wasn't a few hundred thousand Chavista patriots. These were millions. The red army was mourning the loss of its commander. Men and women were weeping throughout the procession. Camera crews passed microphones around to the mourning people, with producers saying simply:
“Tell us how you feel.”
The size and strength of the crowds seemed all the proof anyone would ever need that Hugo Chávez had won his elections outright. He was a true populist now, perhaps more than ever.
Along with the massive media coverage of Chávez's death came with it the conspiracy theories about exactly when the president died, why he died, where he died, and what was going to happen next.
For example: Chávez on more than one occasion said his Bolivarian revolution would last until 2021, at which time he would serve out his term in office if he won every election by then. The government pronounced Chávez dead on March 5, 2013. The third month on the fifth day. Five plus three equals eight. Add eight years to 2013 and it’s 2021.
Or: Chávez's dislike for Israel is well documented. The man never really had a kind word to say about the country, or its role in the Middle East. Recently, a rabbi was speaking to his congregation about the death of Chávez and the things he said against Israel. In his sermon, the rabbi played a clip of footage where Chávez continued his barrage of insults against Israel. “I say this now from all the way deep down from my gut, from my pelvis: God damn Israel!” The rabbi pointed out the fact Chávez died of a cancer in the pelvic region.
Or: Recall that Chávez had Simon Bolivar’s remains exhumed because he swore up and down the great liberator was poisoned by the Colombian oligarchy. In July 2010 the government made the tomb raiding into a national spectacle with camera crews and several thousand people standing outside of the national pantheon, where Bolivar’s remains are housed. Millions watched in shock as men dressed like forensic scientists (the truth is, they still don't who those men were) ripped apart the father of the republic’s skeleton and took relics to test for an actual cause of death. The results of those tests came back negative. Chávez, by the way, never wavered in his claims of foul play committed against Bolivar.
Some Venezuelans, including some santeros (practitioners of Santeria), think that to rustle the quiet tomb of Bolivar and steal away his bones, to steal away his strength, had rustled Bolivar’s curse as well. The liberator swore if anyone disturbed his crypt that a curse would be laid upon them. Since 2010, many of Chávez's closest friends, advisors, and allies in his own circle and in government have all died strangely and abruptly. These people were “untouchables” to the rest of the population, and somehow one by one they were dropping like flies.
“The bones are for the body. Not for the spirits,” a santero told me at his shop in the midtown district of Sabana Grande. “They start down a path and they cannot reverse the steps they take. The path becomes darker.”
Ominous words from a righteous ambassador of the other side.
Days after his death, it was reported that Chávez's family's net worth was in excess of $2 billion. That's a two with nine zeros.
Of the estimated $1 trillion dollars made by PDVSA (the state-run oil company of Venezuela) since 1999, an estimated $100 billion dollars has been taken by people in Chávez's government. If this is the new business model of modern-day socialism, I'm sure Wall Street would love to get in on the game.
On Friday, March 8, I watched a lavish state funeral with several foreign dignitaries pay homage to this polarizing leader of our country. In the face of all the decadence and memorial hypnosis, I saw two very stark images: one of the great warrior-poet who fought for the people, who challenged the world to stop his socialist revolution; the other, a collage of wet newspaper headlines and red watercolor, bleeding with lies. In between them, shuffled onto the table of a country now gripped by fear, were the many shades of Chávez that lay between these two extremes. Which one was the real man that had led our country for almost 15 years? Can it be said that any of them was truly responsible for the best, or the worst, that we had become? Did Chávez create Venezuela? Or did Venezuela create Chávez?
By the evening, Vice President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as acting president of the republic, which was technically illegal — giving it the look of a coronation. The government considered swearing in Maduro right next to Chávez’s casket, but thought better of it. The opposition would be sure to boycott the upcoming election, which would leave the country in yet another constitutional crisis.
For a country that has been blessed with so much, there's not much to show for it right now. But I believe in better days ahead. Change for me would be to hear the sounds of the Venezuela I once knew. The skateboard kids on the avenue trying to nail those tricks down. The homeboys drunk and laughing in the streets, calling out to each other, and telling jokes. Or just the noise of the eastside on a Saturday night, of car horns and music, of people coming and going, this way and that, on their way home, or to work, or who knows.
Even now, over the course of the days I spent back in Caracas, I did hear it from time to time. It’s out there, waiting. Waiting to speak. Waiting for someone to listen. To be heard. But not yet. On that night, the capital was completely silent. It unsettled me as I waited for morning.