Rory Carroll lifts the lid on a none-more-tumultuous presidency' than that of Hugo Chavez. This was written days before the Venezuelan President's death...
A long stare was aimed my way. Hugo Chavez was annoyed. He looked away from me to the Caribbean, lapping yards away, and wrinkled his nose. “Well. That is the question that Rory Carroll brings us.” The jovial atmosphere evaporated. The Venezuelan president’s aides froze. They seemed to know what was coming. From the corner of my eye I detected red-shirted neighbours inching their seats away from mine.
It was August 2007 and I was a guest on Hello, President – a weekly television show that Chavez presented. An unscripted, freewheeling affair, it started at 11am and could last until sunset, during which Chavez might announce a new agricultural policy, nationalise an industry, hire ministers, fire ministers, assail the US, mobilise troops, rap, recite poetry, blow kisses, interview guests, salute Fidel Castro, ride a bicycle, a horse, a helicopter.
It was rule by television, and you never knew what might happen.
This was episode number 291, broadcast from Valle Seco, Anzoategui, a run-down fishing hamlet with a golden beach far from the capital Caracas. As The Guardian’s Latin- America correspondent I had lobbied for an invitation, curious to see the show firsthand. Chavez’s desk was planted in the sand.
Things started well. Wearing black trousers and a red shirt, the president welcomed the audience and viewers. “How are you all? Here we are, look, how marvellous! By the sea, so inviting it makes you want to plunge in.” He joshed with local children, reminisced about his boyhood and after an hour, shuffling through notes, came to me.
“Here we also have a British journalist. What’s your purpose? What question do you have for me? Do you have a question? Usually, journalists come with lots of questions.”
The audience tittered, the camera zoomed in. After clarifying that I was Irish, I asked why the president should have exclusive rights to indefinite reelection while denying the same to governors and mayors lest they become authoritarian.
Might not the president himself become authoritarian?
Chavez, first elected in 1998, was campaigning to abolish presidential term limits in a constitutional referendum so he could run again in 2012. He did not want others to run indefinitely, he had said, lest they become ‘caudillos’ (strongmen). He greeted the question as if a fish had flopped on his desk. He flung it back out to sea, beyond the horizon and turned it into a harangue against European hypocrisy, media, monarchy, the Queen, the Royal Navy, slavery, genocide and colonialism.
“There is much cynicism in Europe, Rory, eh? There in Europe, where you’re from, I think that Europe competes with the US. It’s older and more cynical, it’s had more years to practise cynicism and I think the US has learned a lot from European cynicism, which celebrates the discovery of America, for example, while denying the African holocaust.” He extolled the African blood that ran in Venezuelan veins and lambasted Europe’s wars of conquest against dark-skinned people. He ordered the camera to focus on his skin to illustrate the point. “In the name of the Latin-American people I demand that the British government return the Malvinas Islands to the Argentine people.” Then, after another riff on colonialism: “It is better to die fighting than to be a slave!”
Losing his voice
On and on it went. Christopher Columbus. Queen Elizabeth. George Bush. A menu of indignation. Invited to respond, I said my opinion about all this didn’t really matter and repeated the unanswered question. Chavez glowered and resumed the onslaught, implying I’d said he didn’t matter, that Venezuelans and colonialism didn’t matter. “It matters to us, compañero, it all matters to us, the destiny of the people of Europe, of the people of Africa because we all share this planet, Rory.” Hours later, after drawing diagrams explaining Venezuela’s “new geometry of power”, quoting Marx, Engels and Jesus, and riffing on baseball, art and councils, he wrapped up. As the cameras were packed away he shook my hand and smiled. I had been a useful fall guy. No hard feelings. It was, after all, just a show.
Six years later (and, it’s worth noting, at time of press) the 58-year-old president is on the ninth floor of a hospital in Caracas, stricken with cancer, connected to tubes. A tracheotomy, to help him breathe, has stolen his voice. Supporters gathered outside fear the worst. “I want to see my president,” Alicia Morroy, a seamstress on the verge of tears, told a reporter. ”I’ve missed him a lot because Chavez is the spirit of the poor.”
The fate of Venezuela, and the president’s socialist revolution, hang in the balance. Economic and social problems are mounting, not least a crimewave, inflation and plunging currency, but Chavez remains popular. If he dies, an election must be held within 30 days. His vice president and heir, Nicolas Maduro, will face a stiff challenge from the expected opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles. Both sides are tense, unsure what will happen.
The People’s autocrat
What seems certain is that Hugo Chavez’s extraordinary rule is nearing its end. He has been compared to Napoleon, Nasser, Perón and Castro but there has never been a leader like him. Democratically elected but autocratic, he has reigned from a mobile television throne, seducing not just a nation but a significant chunk of world opinion, making people laugh, weep and applaud, as if on command. All this from a previously sleepy corner of South America. Historians will wonder how he did it.
A defining moment for young Hugo, his family has said, was when aged around seven he became fascinated by his voice, its timbre and range. A schoolteacher’s son, the second eldest of six brothers, he adored folk songs, poems and legends about rebels on the parched plains of Barinas. After joining the military he specialised in armour and communications, compering events and giving speeches. “Once we were on a war game in the field, and he was put in charge. It felt more like a work of theatre than a military exercise,” confides Guaicaipuro Lameda, a fellow officer who went on to become a general, and whom Chavez appointed to run the state oil company.
In 1992, Lt Col Chavez attempted a coup against an elected but unpopular government. It flopped, a military fiasco, but his televised surrender address electrified the nation and made him a hero. Six years later he won an electoral landslide. He started off talking about a Blairesque “third way”, but after surviving a US-backed coup in 2002 he radicalised and vowed to transform Venezuela into a socialist beacon. As oil prices exploded he spent billions on social programmes, subsidies and projects that reduced poverty and made him a hero in the barrios. He tightened control over the military, courts, assembly and state corporations.
And he talked. A relentless verbal torrent. Often he used a law to ‘chain’ all stations, public and private, so without warning regular programming would cut to a presidential event which could last five minutes or five hours, depending on Chavez’s whim. The strategy was to dominate the agenda, day after day, by turning power into a performance.
“What’s that building?” he once asked a mayor while touring a historic plaza in downtown Caracas. It was, as he and everyone else knew, a landmark corner block filled with jewellery stores. Informed of this, he professed indignation. Arm outstretched, finger pointing, he unleashed his bolt: “Expropriate it! Expropriate it!”
The president wheeled and pointed at the other side of the plaza. “And that building over there, on the corner?” Also filled with stores, replied the mayor. The comandante looked affronted. “[Nineteenth-century president Simon] Bolivar lived there when he was newly married, right there in that house with two balconies. Expropriate it!” It was theatre. Officials had quietly visited the stores the previous week, checking who owned what, to brief Chavez in advance.
Long before the Kardashians, he was happy to share intimate personal details. During a Valentine’s Day broadcast, he leered at the camera and addressed his then-wife: “Marisabel, you’re going to get yours tonight.” Another time he jovially recounted a battle with his sphincter during a previous televised event. “Nobody knew it, but I had colic. Yes, I had diarrhoea! I’m a human being just like the rest of you; at times people forget that. My God, oof! I was sweating so bad.” Some cringed, others laughed.
Chavez would phone a TV show in the morning, trail cameras around a tractor factory in the afternoon, address oil workers in the evening and banter with the host of pro-government chat show The Razorblade after midnight.
Behind the screen
A year after my encounter on Hello, President, the palace invited me to lunch, a ‘conversatorio’, an intimate chat with Chavez and a few correspondents. I turned up to find a grand salon milling with journalists, ministers and camera crews. Legend had it he never forgot a face, but my ‘British’ imperialism had left no mark. He asked where I was from. Ireland, I said. He beamed. “Ah, you’re Irish.”
He winked. “So, are you in the IRA?”
We munched black beans, grated cheese, minced beef and cornbread arepas while Chavez lauded his land reform and agricultural policy. This lunch, said the president, was bounty from the revolution. Enjoy!
A week earlier I had toured half a dozen private farms and state-backed cooperatives on the sweltering expanse of Barinas, Chavez’s home state. The scenes were discouraging. Withered crops, rusting machinery, bureaucratic chaos, policy dysfunction. Yet Chavez spoke of munificence, a thriving Eden.
I stayed in Venezuela until 2012 and saw the same story repeated again and again. Chavez would trumpet advances in the industrial heartland of Ciudad Guayana, but factory managers would show me abandoned warehouses and rusting machinery, the consequence of incompetence and lack of investment. Chavez announced plans for new power plants but regular power cuts dogged the country. New policing schemes were unveiled every year but Caracas became deadlier than Baghdad.
Chavez’s showmanship masked decay. The apogee came in last October’s election. He raided special state funds and borrowed billions to conjure an economic boom. And he pretended to be cured. Withholding medical reports, he said treatment had vanquished the cancer diagnosed a year earlier. Poof, it was gone. To bolster the fiction he gave an epic nine-and-a- half-hour speech – reportedly with the aid of steroid injections – and changed the revolution’s slogan from ‘Fatherland, socialism or death’ to ‘We will live and we will win’.
He did win, by an impressive 10 points. A victory bought with bread and circus, a venerable combination, but Chavez updated it for the era of confected reality television. In this, he was a very modern leader. Disease has called time on the show. Chavez ails in a hospital bed. The government insists he remains in charge but the patient is mute and certainly near the end. The final act will be a funeral the likes of which Venezuela has never seen.
Rory Carroll is the author of Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, published by Canongate