Hugo Chavez is everywhere, even though he’s been dead almost three years.
Murals and stencils of the former president’s face decorate walls and buildings throughout the country, sometimes next to the faces of Latin American heroes such as Simon Bolivar or communist icons such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. The image of his eyes – a ubiquitous symbol in Venezuela – is painted on top of the administrative building for the National Assembly, the country’s 167-member legislative branch.
Chavistas sometimes talk as if they believe Chavez is still alive. That may have something to do with the countless message boards and murals across the country reading “Chavez vive” or “Chavez lives.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if people believe that figuratively or literally.
“We still have that attraction, that belief in him,” said Diocelis Mujica, who lives at the end of a small residential street in Sabaneta, the small agricultural town where Chavez lived as a boy.
There’s no telling how much of Chavez’s cult will survive now that his political offspring, the socialists, no longer control the country’s government.
In December, voters, blaming Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela for the country’s economic crisis and zooming crime rate, handed the opposition 112 of 167 seats in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch. The new lawmakers are scheduled to take power next Tuesday.
Many think an opposition-controlled legislature will try to remove Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, through a recall and unwind Chavez’s socialist policies by repealing laws that regulate prices and authorize the government to seize private property in almost any circumstance.
Such moves are likely to encounter opposition not just among socialist politicians but also among a sizable number of Venezuelans who still refer to Chavez as “el Comandante” – the commander.
“For us, he’s alive,” said Edgar Perez, a 54-year-old who said he’d known Chavez as a boy. “It’s something strange.”
Just after midnight on Feb. 4, 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez entered Venezuela’s Military History Museum and became a traitor.
His operation that night had been 15 years in the making. Dissatisfied with the rule of Venezuela’s elite, Chavez had plotted to overthrow them since the late 1970s, growing bolder and gaining collaborators with time.
If Sabaneta, where public buses sometimes carry the slogan “Chavez vive. La patria sigue” – Chavez lives, the homeland lives on – is the center of chavistas’ bond with their hero, the museum is the center of chavismo as a political movement. Located in the 23 de Enero neighborhood in southwest Caracas, the museum had become a nerve center for Venezuela’s military leadership, barricaded behind high walls on a knoll that offers an unblocked view of the city, including the presidential palace and government buildings to the north and east.
On the night of the coup, Chavez stormed the site with more than 2,000 troops. At the same time, his fellow officers seized key military and economic facilities around Venezuela.
But the rebels could not achieve one key mission: capturing Carlos Andres Perez, the president, who had come to represent the corruption and disregard of the poor that Chavez and his cohorts loathed.
Moments after learning of the coup, Perez escaped the presidential residence in east Caracas and arrived at the presidential palace in the center of the city, according to some reports by driving his own car. Perez’s forces repulsed Chavez’s collaborators there.
For us, he’s alive. It’s something strange.
Edgar Perez, who said he’d known Chavez as a boy
The coup failed.
But Chavez, in one of his most brilliant strokes, turned disaster into the moment that launched his rise to Venezuela’s presidency.
To this day, people in Venezuela talk about the two words.
Those words, “por ahora,” meaning “for now,” changed the tone of the brief speech he gave moments after his 1992 coup collapsed.
Chavez surrendered to Perez’s forces at about 8 a.m. – some seven hours after he’d arrived at the Military History Museum to unleash his coup. Some of his co-conspirators, perhaps not knowing their leader had given up, held their positions.
Eager to subdue the holdouts as soon as possible and discourage further uprisings, Perez allowed Chavez to announce his surrender on national television. Still in his military uniform, Chavez took responsibility for the coup, which he called “this Bolivarian military movement,” evoking Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator and chief founding father.
Then, he said something that slipped most people’s attention the first time they heard it: “Unfortunately, for now, the objectives we established in the capital were not achieved.”
In the weeks that followed, after Chavez was in prison and as Venezuelans processed what this mostly unknown military officer had plotted and attempted, the phrase “for now” became a topic of countless fascinated discussions, buoyed by the mystery of what he’d meant.
Chavez would later say it wasn’t something he’d planned, that it just came out. Chavistas say that was the moment the Bolivarian revolution was born.
‘WHERE WILL IT END?’
After Chavez died March 5, 2013, he was buried inside the museum, which is known as the “Cuartel de la Montaña” or the Barracks on the Mountain.
Four armed guards stand watch over his tomb, dressed in loud red and yellow uniforms, silent. Two large photographs of Chavez flank a computerized portrait of Simon Bolivar on the wall behind the tomb.
His death saddened his supporters, but it may have preserved his legacy.
Maduro has mostly followed the socialist policies Chavez set in motion during more than 14 years in office. But Maduro has had to cope with plunging oil prices, which have worsened the country’s already troubled economy, and he has never formed the personal connection with Venezuela’s poor that Chavez so effortlessly enjoyed. As Venezuela sinks deeper into crisis, many chavistas blame Maduro for failing to carry on his predecessor’s legacy.
Santiago Guaramato, a doctor in Puerto Ordaz, a large and relatively wealthy city in eastern Venezuela, thinks that Chavez, who “was considered a tremendous strategist,” would’ve outfoxed his political opposition, the capitalists, and avoided the worst of the pain Venezuela is feeling now. He gave Chavez credit for reducing illiteracy in Venezuela, improving the education system, reducing the worst effects of poverty and building tens of thousands of homes for people who didn’t have any.
Were Chavez alive, “At least things wouldn’t have worsened to the point of what we’re living right now,” Guaramato said. “I’m not going to tell you that he would have solved the situation completely, because the opposition isn’t national. The opposition is international.”
Mujica, who said she’d met Chavez once or twice, had a similar take. But where Guaramato thinks Maduro has tried to stay faithful to Chavez’s path but lacks his predecessor’s skills, Mujica thinks Maduro has abandoned it.
Jose Castillo, who lives in the state of Apure, was less charitable. He blamed Maduro for allowing crime to run almost unchecked across the country and for the shortages of things such as tires and food.
“Where will it end?” he said. “A war.”
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born July 28, 1954.
He was the second of six sons. His parents were schoolteachers.
Three months after his first birthday, with his mother nursing another newborn, Hugo’s parents sent him and his older brother, Adan, to live with their paternal grandmother, Rosa Ines Chavez, who also lived in Sabaneta. Rosa Ines became a central figure in Hugo’s life. In some ways, he showed more affection for her than for his mother.
It was a humble childhood. The home he grew up in, now a tourist stop, has a kitchen and two additional rooms. The bathrooms were open-air stalls in the backyard. Perez, Chavez’s childhood friend, said the man who would be president was a mischievous boy but had a philosophical side, especially as he grew into adulthood.
Young Hugo was obsessed with baseball, especially Nestor Isaias Chavez, a prospective San Francisco Giants pitching prospect known as “Latigo” – The Whip – Chavez who died in a 1969 plane crash. Hugo swore an oath that he would grow up to be a major leaguer.
Hugo was lanky and not very good-looking, not especially popular with girls. Some of his friends called him “Goofy” because his big feet and skinny frame called to mind the Disney character. He read every book he could find.
SEEDS OF SEDITION
Chavez’s Marxist conversion began when he moved to Barinas, a larger city a few miles south of Sabaneta.
There, he was introduced to Esteban Ruiz Guevara, a self-professed communist, and his sons, Vladimir and Federico. Ruiz Guevara introduced the adolescent Chavez to the philosophies and writings of Bolivar, Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others.
In 1971, at the age of 17, Chavez enrolled in Venezuela’s military academy. “He didn’t want to be a soldier,” said Perez. “He went into the military academy to be a ballplayer.”
When the governments of yesterday trampled us, we were sleepwalking. We accepted everything. And Chavez awoke us.
Once in the academy, however, Chavez’s priorities began to change. He still played baseball, but, as he recalled later, he began to feel a higher calling. He even visited the grave of Latigo Chavez to confess that he was giving up on his dream of being a major-league ballplayer.
Bit by bit, Chavez’s disenchantment with Venezuela’s ruling class grew. He came to believe that the government existed only to serve the powerful and do the bidding of a meddlesome United States. He found sympathizers throughout the military and the civilian worlds.
In 1977, he met in secret with two radicals, Alfredo Maneiro and Pablo Medina. According to reports, Maneiro convinced Chavez to begin building an insurrection in the military that would one day upend the country’s power structure.
Twenty-one years later, on Dec. 6, 1998, after two years in prison for his attempted 1992 coup, Chavez’s vindication finally came in the form of a 56.2 percent majority in the country’s presidential election.
In office, he enacted dozens of laws aimed, he said, at bringing his country closer to equality and freeing the lower classes from oppression.
He went on television for hours every Sunday to talk to the country, belittle his antagonists, crack jokes and even sing. His power over the country’s political apparatus grew until he alone virtually dictated what was law. He came to be seen in some circles almost as a saint or demigod. His enemies called him the devil, the antichrist.
He survived a coup, crippling nationwide strikes and, according to some reports and his own stated belief, a few assassination attempts. He presided over frustrating inflation and a burgeoning crime crisis. He blamed the United States, directly or indirectly, for everything. He was comfortable in his own skin.
Liberals, historians, economists and conservatives will debate whether the sum of all Chavez’s efforts helped, hurt or did nothing for Venezuela’s masses.
It seems unlikely Chavez’s cult will vanish, even if the murals of him are whitewashed, even if socialism becomes a dirty word in Venezuela.
The fundamental change he brought about, the empowerment of the masses and the belief that Venezuela’s well-being is their responsibility, “won't go back in the box,” Guaramato said
“When the governments of yesterday trampled us, we were sleepwalking. We accepted everything. And Chavez awoke us,” he said. “And now we criticize good, bad and what have you, but we’re more active politically. That’s something Chavez did. . . . We’re awake now. Even children of 8, 10 years talk about politics.”
Berg reports for the Idaho Statesman in Boise. @IDS_SvenBerg