Almost nobody is neutral about Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías. In his 14 years as President of Venezuela, the large-ish country southeast of Morant Point, Chávez managed to evoke equally intense passions among both supporters and opponents.
He thrived on controversy and was able to roil up some with almost every public statement. He was bumptious, bombastic, even boorish at times, and was a constant source of irritation for the Yanquí giant to the north as well as to his better-off compatriots. Among the poor though, he was an almost God-like hero for his attention to them after decades of inattention, neglect and animosity from the upper classes. It is those people who will miss most their larger-than-life idol who died on Tuesday after a two-year-battle with abdominal cancer.
Chávez's rise to power was dramatic and he was, in fact, a pan-Venezuelan figure, carrying in his blood the genes of all three major ethnic streams of the Americas — aboriginal, African and European. He was of humble origin, the second of seven children to a couple of poor rural school teachers who, like many in our own experience, had to send Hugo and his older brother to live with their grandmother.
His childhood passion was baseball but the young Chávez joined the army and attended the military academy in Caracas. This was in the early 1970s, when the academy had adopted a new approach which emphasised a balanced curriculum of military and civilian studies. Living in Caracas, Chávez observed at first hand the grinding poverty endemic among the working classes who barely eked out a living among the garbage-riddled hovels sprawled across the capital's hillsides.
He explained his world view this way: "From the time I left the academy I was oriented toward a revolutionary movement ... The Hugo Chávez who entered there was a kid from the hills, a llanero with aspirations of playing professional baseball. Four years later, a second lieutenant came out who had taken the revolutionary path. Someone who didn't have obligations to anyone, who didn't belong to any movement, who was not enrolled in any party, but who knew very well where I was headed."
He was a self-made person then, who lived by his own rules and ran his own show.
Upon leaving the academy, Chávez was posted to an area where a hard-left revolutionary group was active. The army's callous violence and torture against the group as well as the disdainful attitude of the wealthy classes put off the young officer, and he formed a secret revolutionary group along with like-minded junior officers. Eventually, he led a coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had been elected president in 1989, promising to oppose the US government's Washington consensus and the restrictive financial policies recommended by the IMF. He did neither and instead adopted those very policies — resulting in widespread protests and looting. Pérez ruthlessly put down the protests.
Appalled at the way the demonstrations had been crushed, Chávez organised the coup in 1992 but it ended in disaster. The government allowed him to go on television in full uniform to call off the insurrection and he used the opportunity to his own advantage. Invoking the name of Venezuela's national hero, Simón Bolívar, he declared that "unfortunately, for now, the objectives that we had set for ourselves were not achieved ... now is the time for reflection. New opportunities will arise and the country has to head definitively toward a better future". While the coup d'état he had embarked upon had failed, the television appearance proved to be a coup in itself, as it resonated with many Venezuelans, particularly among the poor, who were struck by his daring attack against public corruption and raiding of the national treasury. He was sent to prison, and while there, yet another coup was attempted, leading, ironically, to Pérez's impeachment for misappropriation of funds and malfeasance.
Rafael Caldera of the National Convergence Party, a centrist group, won election as president in 1994 and delivered on a campaign pledge to free Chávez and other plotters. But Caldera forbade them from returning to the military for fear that they would immediately begin plotting again. Upon his release, Chávez found himself mobbed by crowds and set out on a 100-day tour of the country, supported only by a meagre military pension and donations. He also travelled to Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Cuba to seek support for his movement. This is when he met Fidel Castro.
Enter Chávez the democrat
By 1998, Chávez became convinced that he could win power by democratic means. The election took place towards the end of the year and he collected 56 per cent of the votes cast. In his victory speech, Chávez declared that "the resurrection of Venezuela has begun, and nothing and no one can stop it."
That remains to be seen. According to the constitution, an election has to be held within 30 days, but one has yet to be announced. The man Chávez designated as his successor, vice-president Nicolas Maduro, was sworn in as acting president last night and says he will run for the job.
The funeral was held yesterday, and the interim leaders have extended the period of viewing of the body for an additional week, in order to give Chávez's adoring supporters more time to view the body of their fallen idol, which these leaders say they will embalm and put on permanent display at the same academy where Chávez began his storied career.
Chávez did much to raise the standard of living of the country's poor after generations of neglect. When he took power, the benchmark price of oil was $13 a barrel, but within months it began to climb and Chávez realised that he had a source of support denied to very few developing countries. He seized control of the oil industry and used the proceeds to subsidise food and housing for the underclass. He shipped oil to Cuba and other Caribbean countries through his PetroCaribe programme.
Cuba paid him back by sending doctors and dentists to operate new clinics in impoverished areas. He beefed up education and social services. The army of poor people returned the favour by re-electing him three times.
Sadly, Chávez has also undermined state institutions and neglected to build up the country's infrastructure -- mundane things like electricity and water supplies. He failed dismally to attack a nightmare familiar to our people -- Venezuela is one of the most violent places on earth. He has populated the state oil company and government departments with pliant puppets, appointed sympathetic people to important the judiciary and has hobbled the mass media. Much remains to be done if his Bolivarian revolution is to amount to anything.
The future, therefore, is very uncertain. Like the proverbial banyan tree which squeezes out any other plant trying to grow in its shade, Chávez occupied the entire political space and consumed most of the oxygen in any room he entered. Chávismo, the political ethos he inspired, is unlikely to continue for very long, since it is more of a personality cult than a political philosophy. We await the end of the mourning for the real show to begin.