The President Is Dead! Long Live The President!

In Venezuela Hugo Chavez is everywhere.

In Venezuela Chavez is everywhere. “From your hands comes the water of life. We love you!” No false modesty there then. (Erik Jelinek

Hugo Chavez was pronounced dead at 4:25pm on Tuesday, the 5th of March. My bus arrived in Caracas at 6pm. I didn’t realise until I was on the local bus and heard it on the radio. Although I might have doubted my Spanish skills I couldn’t doubt my eyes when I arrived in the city centre and saw it invested with police and national guardsmen at every corner. Every shop was shuttered and there was a sense of an impending storm on the streets. I couldn’t find the hostel that I had noted from the internet and was wandering around trying to find somewhere affordable to spend the night without being too conspicuous. Caracas has an unenviable reputation as a dangerous city, and whilst I would scoff at such safety paranoia in Asia my experience of Latin America is not my area of expertise and so I thought it better to play it safe. After a deal of blind wandering I came across an open doorway in a deserted back street with people loitering on the threshold and the word hotel above the door. It looked like a den of ill repute but I was past caring, the rucksack on my back was making me feel uncomfortable and the price was reasonable.

Safely installed in my room I left my belongings and set off, devoid of anything but a little loose change, to buy myself some food … and to check out the action. I had no luck with provisions but, at the central Plaza Bolivar (the central square in every Venezuelan town seems to be called Plaza Bolivar, after the nation’s most famous son and independence hero), a thousand or more people were gathered wearing red, Chavista T-shirts and chanting slogans: “Chavez sigue! La revolucion sigue!” and “Yo soy Chavez! Nosotros somos Chavez!” (“Chavez continues! The revolution continues!” and, “I am Chavez! We are Chavez!”) Despite the handful of people shedding the odd tear the tone was more defiant than mournful. It was also surprisingly peaceful; far from the baying hordes beloved of the media. Unfortunately when I returned to the hotel to get my camera so I could take some photos the concierge refused to let me back out again; what I would come to characterise as Venezuelan customer service.

Red Shirts proclaiming I am Chavez

In the days following Chavez’s death central Caracas was awash with red shirts. The most popular one stating simply “I am Chavez” (Erik Jelinek)

The next day the city was full of Chavistas, a sea of red, flecked with yellow and blue, congregating everywhere, honking horns, waving flags, chanting slogans. A week of mourning had been declared; schools, universities, civic offices and many shops are shut for the week. People were streaming to the capital to participate in the mass gathering and the metro was running for free (that is the Chavistas were heading for the capital – many who have no love for the regime were heading for the beaches to take advantage of the unexpected, forced holiday, aware that voicing any anti-Chavez sentiments in Caracas would not be a wise move). I joined a river of people making their way down to the processional way in front of the presidential palace. It wasn’t where the body was, but people seemed to be amassing there anyway. If anything the atmosphere was almost carnivalesque: street vendors selling ice-creams, pick-ups blaring up-tempo beats, raucous groups of youths, most clad in red T-shirts with revolutionary slogans, Yo soy Chavez! seeming the most popular. Something was niggling me at the back of my mind though. Venezuela is no Switzerland. Things don’t run so smoothly here. There are delays and mix-ups with almost every facet of organisation, and yet here, within hours of Chavez’s announced death, people had T-shirts, banners, posters, the works. Maybe there was some truth in the rumours that Chavez had died some time ago already, as many critics of the regime speculated, fuelled by the absence of any concrete news about his condition over the past few months…

Crowds of Chavistas gathering at the parade grounds in front of the presidential palace to pay their respects.

Crowds of Chavistas gathering at the parade grounds in front of the presidential palace to pay their respects. (Erik Jelinek)

Be that as it may Hugo Chavez was undeniably dead. The man was larger than life, the most recognised Latin American leader in the world, and a highly polarising figure. For Venezuela’s upper and middle classes he was a populist scourge that had brought ruin to their once-prosperous country whilst for the poor he was a saint who saw their plight and was helping them. Both views are probably equally true. Before he came to power Venezuela had been alternately ruled by two parties, both pandering to the moneyed elite and toeing a pro-American agenda. There was stability, but at the price of large-scale corruption, persecution of political activists and the marginalisation (or complete disregard for) the poor. When Chavez came to power he inspired himself from Fidel Castro and Cuba and based his power on the long-disenfranchised poor whose lot he vowed to improve by taking back from the rich. In the process he milked the state oil company for funds, neglecting to reinvest and filling positions with loyal party cronies; expropriated many successful businesses; antagonised and insulted large swathes of the populace whilst simultaneously calling for national unity, often during his weekly TV show which could drag on for 12 hours or more; lambasted world leaders (especially American) in public with ridiculous claims and accusations; and kept some rather insalubrious bedfellows (his best buddies reads like a who’s who of world dictators: Qaddafi, Ahmadinejad, Lukashenko, Putin, etc.). Nevertheless, even objective domestic critics credit him with certain accomplishments: radically changing the national political discourse by including the poor and getting them to participate (until his arrival Venezuela had been ruled by a duopoly of equally corrupt, elitist parties that pandered to the moneyed upper classes completely ignoring the majority of the population); instilling a sense of national pride and patriotism; reinvigorating the Latin American left; and wrenching the continent (at least partly) from out of the shadow of American influence, which, under the Monroe Doctrine (more on this insidious piece of US policy in a later post), has generally been a negative force.

All this falls under the aegis of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Named after Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s favourite son and independence hero of northern South America. The term is rather vague, but the main aspects call for Latin American unity*, cooperation and and independence from outside (i.e. American) influence as well as an increase in grassroots political participation and elimination of corruption. To this end he used Venezuela’s oil, sold at bargain basement prices, to cement political alliances and create a counterweight to American hegemony. To be honest, if looked at objectively the aims of the Bolivarian Revolution are very laudable and I would be something of an ass if I didn’t agree with them. But actions speak louder than words. He has raised the living standards of the poorest Venezuelans, but at the expense of the middle classes, who have seen their purchasing power slashed. Unity means doing things his way, any criticism or questioning means you are stupid and treasonous. And rooting out corruption only seems to apply to political opponents. What I find most objectionable though is the cult of personality that he has created around himself. It doesn’t seem to be about the issues anymore, but just about him, his inflated ego and his latest whim.

Many Western critics, such as The Economist concentrate solely on the catastrophic mismanagement of the economy. Profitable companies are expropriated from hard-working owners and run into the ground. Domestic industry is largely ignored to the exclusion of petroleum so almost all goods are imported. The currency has been massively devalued whilst people are ripped off because the government maintains an official exchange rate that is four times the black market rate (a highly sensitive issue and one which the government cracks down on very severely – even talking about the market rate is a punishable offence). And the government is running a huge deficit despite record oil prices to pay for impoverishing subsidies (filling up a large car with petrol costs less than a small bottle of ordinary drinking water) and a slew of munificent handouts to party supporters. All are valid arguments, but fail to understand that a democracy requires majority acquiescence. The poor have benefited greatly under Chavez. The elitist Right only has itself to blame for marginalising the majority of its people and leaving them hopeless and in squalor. Now they are having to catch up with the bombastic, populist proclamations and try and slough off the self-serving, corrupt image that they acquired amongst the people. And to show you how low most politicians are viewed, even the fact that Chavez’s family has become super rich and that his daughter posted a photo of herself online clutching a wad of dollars, when ordinary Venezuelans have their access to dollars rationed, has done little to dent his popularity. Chavistas just shrug it off and say that the previous leaders were even worse.

Bigger and more intelligent children. Since the revolution we're 2cm taller.

One of the odder bits of graffiti proclaiming the wonderfulness of the Bolivarian Revolution: “Bigger and more intelligent children. Since the revolution we’re 2cm taller.” (Erik Jelinek)

What I found most telling though is the difference in perceptions that exist around Chavez and Venezuela. My first contact in Maracaibo told me “don’t believe all you hear about Venezuela, it’s not all that good”. This is because most foreigners he meets are other Latin Americans. In the Western media he is portrayed as a ridiculous crackpot spouting lunacies whilst the country goes to the dogs, whereas in Latin America he is held up as something of a messiah, speaking truth to power and standing up for the common man. In this case the truth is very subjective and depends entirely on your point of view.

So what happens next? That is the the truly interesting question. As far as Chavez is concerned it looks like he will be joining that rarefied list of Communist dictators who live on in posterity as embalmed corpses on display. There will be elections in mid April; more than the 30 days stipulated by the constitution, but not so much that people mind too much. Venezuelans are, at heart, a calm, forgiving people. The choice seems to be between a continuation of the current policies under Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor and one-time bus driver, or a shift to the right and rejection of the more antagonistic aspects of the revolution with Henrique Capriles. Maduro doesn’t have Chavez’s charm or personality, and there is likely to be infighting from within the Chavista camp, but he is playing the Chavez cult of personality card for all it’s worth. Capriles, on the other hand, has to confirm to political realities and is trying to portray himself more as a Lula (the Brazilian ex-president who successfully combined socialism with capitalism) rather than some neo-liberal free-marketeer. Despite a large bias in the media towards pro-regime declamations Venezuela is no North Korea: the opposition are given a shot (albeit not on a level playing field), differing opinions can be aired, and people will get to vote. In the last elections, held only three months ago, the margin of victory was only 12 points. Whether the loss of Chavez will turn people away from the revolution or draw out a sympathy vote is hard to say. The only thing that we can be certain of is that the world will be watching.

*When the Spanish colonies of northern South America first gained their independence they formed a single country called Gran Colombia. It was Bolivar’s dream to unite all the hispanophone peoples of the Americas. However, even in his own lifetime, that dream was to crumble to dust as bickering and infighting between the different colonies caused the union to break up. Ironically it was Venezuela that was the first to disassociate itself from the union, partly jealous of Bogota being declared the capital.

This article originally published on 10.03.13 courtesy of Erik Jelinek and Smoke Me a Kipper.

Erik Jelinek

Erik Jelinek

Erik is an seasoned traveler who started his own blog Smoke Me a Kipper on a 1-year holiday…but much to his liking ended up getting prolonged. He found out that the world is far bigger and far more interesting than you could ever imagine. Erik’s correspondence appears courtesy of his site.