The Enigma of Chavez

[Translated by Mark McHarry]

On December 6, 1998, Hugo Chávez won the presidency of Venezuela, his sixth consecutive election victory. Who really is this man who has awakened as many hopes as fears? With his characteristic style, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude narrates the fateful political biography of Hugo Chávez. He concludes on a doubt. Now that Chávez’ administration is in power, the doubt should be resolved.

In the dusk of the evening, Carlos Andrés Pérez walked down off the plane which brought him from Davos, Switzerland. On the ramp he was surprised to see General Fernando Ochoa Antich, his defense minister. His curiosity aroused, he asked, “What’s going on?” The minister’s confident reassurances put him at ease, enough so the president did not go to the Miraflores Palace but instead to the presidential residence, La Casona. He had begun to sleep when the defense minister woke him by telephone to inform him of a military uprising in Maracay. He had scarcely entered Miraflores when the first artillery barrages exploded.

It was February 4, 1992. With his penchant for historic dates, Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías was commanding the assault from his improvised command post in the History Museum of La Planicie. The president realized his only recourse was the support of the people, and he went to the Venevisión TV studios to talk to the nation. Twelve hours later the military coup had failed. Chávez surrendered on the condition he, too, would be permitted to address the people on television. The young mestizo colonel, with his paratrooper’s beret and his admirable facility with words, assumed responsibility for the movement. He spent two years in prison until he was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera. But his address was a political triumph. Many of his supporters, and not a few of his enemies, believe his speech in defeat was the first in the election campaign which brought him to the presidency of the Republic less than nine years later.

President Hugo Chávez told me this story on the Venezuelan Air Force plane which took us from Havana to Caracas, less than 15 days after he took office as the constitutional president of Venezuela, elected by popular vote. We had met for the first time three days before in Havana, during his talks with Presidents Castro and Pastrana. The first thing that struck me was the power of his cement-reinforced body. He had an easy cordiality and the native grace of a pure blooded Venezuelan. We both tried to see each other again but for both of our faults it wasn’t possible, and so we went together on the plane to Caracas to talk about his life and its miracles.

It was a good experience for an otherwise unoccupied reporter. As he recounted his life, I was discovering a personality which had absolutely no relation to the idea of a despot we had formed from the news media. It was another Chávez. Which of the two was the real one?

During the campaign, the harshest argument against him had been his recent past as a conspirator and coup commander. But Venezuelan history has digested four other coups. Beginning with Rómulo Betancourt, rightly or wrongly remembered as the father of Venezuelan democracy, who overthrew Isaías Medina Angarita, a democratic veteran military man who had tried to purge his country of the 36 years of Juan Vicente Gómez. His successor, the novelist Rómulo Gallegos, was overthrown by General Marcos Pérez Jimenez, who would stay almost 11 years in power. He, in turn, was overthrown by a generation of young democrats who inaugurated the longest period of elected presidents.

The February coup seems to be the only thing which has turned out bad for Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías. He, however, sees it for its positive side, sort of a providential reverse. It’s his manner of understanding good luck, or his intelligence, intuition, astuteness—whatever thing which may be the charm which has guided his acts since he came into the world in Sabaneta, Barinas, on July 28, 1954, under the sign of Leo. A faithful Catholic, Chávez attributes his good fate to the more than 100-year-old scapular he has worn since childhood, inherited from a maternal great-grandfather, Colonel Pedro Pérez Delgado, one of his guardian heroes.

His parents had a hardscrabble existence on a primary school teacher’s salary. He had to help them since he was nine, selling sweets and fruits out of a wheelbarrow. At times he’d go on burro to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Rastrojos, a neighboring town which seemed a city because it had an electric plant with two hours of light at the beginning of the night and a midwife who had welcomed him and his four brothers into the world. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but he only got as far as altar boy. He rang the bells with such grace everyone recognized it by the pealing. “That’s Hugo ringing them,” they said. Providentially, among the books of his mother he encountered an encyclopedia. Its first chapter seduced him straight away: How to Triumph in Life.

It was in reality a cookbook of options and he tried almost all. Like an astonished painter in the presence of the works of Michelangelo, when he was 12 he won the first place in a regional exposition. As a musician, his mastery of the cuatro [a guitar] and his good voice made him indispensable for birthdays and serenades. As a baseball player, he was a first-rate catcher. The military option was not on the list. It hadn’t occurred to him, until someone told him the best way to get to the major leagues was to enter the military academy in Barinas. It must have been another miracle of the scapular, because on that day the Andres Bello plan took effect. It permitted high school-age students in military schools to continue on, up to the highest university levels. He studied political science, history and Marxism-Leninism. He was fascinated by the life and the works of Bolívar, his greatest Leo, whose proclamations he memorized.

But his first conscious conflict with real-world politics was the death of Allende in September 1973. Chávez didn’t understand. “And why, if the Chileans elected Allende, the Chilean military carries out a coup against him?” A little while later, his company’s captain assigned him the task of watching a son of José Vicente Rangel, who was believed to be a communist. “Just think of the twists life brings,” Chávez tells me, exploding with laughter. “Now his dad is chancellor.” More ironic still is when he graduated, he received the saber of the president whom 20 years later he would try to topple, Carlos Andrés Pérez.

“Furthermore,” I told him, “you were on the point of killing him.” “In no way,” Chávez protested. “The idea was to install a constitutional assembly and return to the barracks.”

From first we met, I saw he was a natural storyteller. It’s an integral part of Venezuelan popular culture, which is creative and joyful. He has a great sense of managing time and an almost supernatural memory, which allows him to recite from memory the poems of Neruda or Whitman, and whole pages of Rómulo Gallegos.

When he was very young, by coincidence, he discovered that his great-grandfather was not an assassin of seven leagues, as his mother had said, but a legendary warrior from the times of Juan Vicente Gómez. Chávez’ enthusiasm was such he decided to write a book purifying his memory. He scrutinized the historical archives and military libraries, and he roamed over the region, town to town, with an historian’s haversack to reconstruct his great-grandfather’s travels from the accounts of those who survived him. Since then, Chávez added him to the pantheon of his heroes and began to wear his protective scapular.

“Why am I here?”

One day he crossed the border on the Arauca Bridge without realizing it. A Colombian captain who searched his haversack found material cause to accuse him of espionage: he carried a camera, a tape recorder, secret documents, photos of the region, a military map, and two regulation pistols. The identity documents might be false, like a spy’s. The discussion dragged on for several hours in an office whose only picture was a portrait of Bolívar on horseback.

“I had almost surrendered,” Chávez told me. “The more I explained, the less he understood.” Until the saving phrase: “Captain, look at what life is. Scarcely a century ago we were in the same army and this man who is looking at us from the portrait was our chief. How could I be a spy?”

Moved, the captain began to speak about the marvels of the Great Colombia, and the two ended up drinking each country’s beer in an Arauca cantina. The next morning, now sharing a hangover, the captain returned to Chávez his historian’s gear and bid him goodbye with an embrace in the middle of the international bridge.

“About that time, I got the concrete idea that something was wrong in Venezuela,” says Chávez. They had designated him commander of a squad of 13 soldiers and a communications team to liquidate the last of the guerrilla holdouts.

One very rainy night, he and his patrol sought shelter in an intelligence colonel’s camp. They had a few supposed guerillas, recently captured, pallid, just skin and bones. Around 10 at night, as Chávez began to go to sleep, he heard gut wrenching screams from the adjoining room.

“Soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in towels so they wouldn’t leave marks,” Chávez recounted. He angrily demanded the colonel hand over the prisoners over or leave, that he would not accept the torture of any one under his command. “The next day they threatened me with court martial for disobedience,” recounted Chávez, “but they only kept me under watch for a time.”

A few days later he had an experience surpassing the previous ones. He was buying meat for his troops when a military helicopter touched down in the barracks patio with a load of soldiers badly injured from a guerilla ambush. Chávez carried a soldier in his arms who had several bullets in his body. “Don’t let me die, my lieutenant,” he asked, terrified. Chávez was barely able to put him in a car. Another seven died.

That night, lying awake in his hammock, Chávez asked himself, “Why am I here? On one hand peasants dressed in military fatigues are torturing guerilla peasants, and on the other hand, guerrilla peasants are killing other peasants dressed in green. This far on, when the war had ended, it didn’t make sense shoot at anyone. It was there,” he concluded on the plane carrying us to Caracas, “I was hit with my first existential conflict.”

The next day he woke up convinced his destiny was to found a movement. And he did it at 23, with an obvious name: the Bolivian Army of the People of Venezuela. Its founding members: five soldiers and him, with the rank of sub-lieutenant.

“With what end?” I asked. Very simply, he said, “With the end of preparing us if something should happen.”

A year later, now as a paratroop official in an armored battalion of Maracay, he began to conspire on a large scale. But he made it clear he used the word “conspiracy” only in its figurative sense of calling on like-minded people for a common task.

That was the situation on December 17, 1982, when an unexpected episode happened that Chávez considers decisive in his life. By then he was captain of the second paratroop regiment and aide to an intelligence official. When he least expected it, the regiment’s commander, Colonel Angel Manrique, assigned him to give a talk before 1,200 men, officials and troops.

At 1 in the afternoon, the battalion standing on the soccer field, the master of ceremonies announced him. “And the speech?” asked the regiment’s commander on seeing him mount the rostrum without any paper. “I don’t have a written speech,” Chávez said. And he began to improvise. It was a brief speech, inspired by Bolívar and Martí, but informed by the oppression and injustice in Latin America’s 200 years of independence. The officials, those with his movement and those not, listened impassively. Among them were the captains Felipe Acosta Carle and Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, who sympathized with his aims. Afterwards the garrison’s commander, thoroughly displeased, greeted him with a reproach meant to be heard by all: “Chávez, you seem like a politician.” “Understood,” replied Chávez.

Felipe Acosta, who stood more than 6 feet tall and could take on 1o contenders, squared off in front of the commander and said, “You are wrong, sir. Chávez is no politician. He is captain of a new generation and when you hear what he says in his speech, you piss in your pants.”

At that Colonel Manrique stood the troops to attention and told them, “I want you to know what Captain Chávez said was authorized by me. I gave him the order to give that speech. Everything he said, though he didn’t bring it in writing, he had told me yesterday.” He paused for effect, and concluded with a final order: “It won’t leave here!”

At the end of the ceremony, Chávez went jogging with Captains Felipe Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta to Samán del Guere, six miles away, and there repeated the solemn oath of Simón Bolívar on Mount Aventino. “Sure, in the end, I made a change,” Chávez told me. In place of “When we have broken the chains of the Spanish power which oppress us,” they said, “Until we break the chains of the powerful which oppress us and oppress the people.”

From then on, all the officials who joined the secret movement had to swear that oath. The last time was during the electoral campaign before 100,000 people. For years, they had held clandestine congresses, each time larger, with military representatives from all over the country. “For two days we held meetings in hidden places. We were in touch with civil groups, friends, studying and analyzing the country’s situation. In 10 years, we were able to hold five congresses without being discovered.”

At this point in the conversation, the president laughed wickedly, revealing with a smile, “Well, we’ve always said the first of us were three. But now we can say there was really a fourth man, whose identity we kept hidden in order to protect him. He was not discovered on February 4 and he remained on active duty in the Army, reaching the rank of colonel. But now we’re in 1999 and we can reveal that the fourth man is here with us on this plane.” He pointed his index finger at the fourth man, in a seat some distance away and said, “Colonel Badull!”

The Caracazo

In keeping with his philosophy, the culminating event of commander Chávez’ life was the Caracazo, the popular uprising which devastated Caracas. He would often repeat: “Napoleon said a battle is decided in a second of strategic inspiration.” Proceeding from that thought, Chávez developed three concepts: the historic hour, the strategic minute and the tactical second.

“We were uneasy because we did not want to leave the Army,” Chávez said. “We had formed a movement, but we weren’t clear for what.” Nonetheless, the tremendous drama which was to occur occurred and they were not prepared. “That’s to say the strategic minute surprised us.”

He was referring, of course, to the uprising of February 27, 1989: the Caracazo. One of the most surprised was Chávez himself. Carlos Andrés Pérez has just assumed the presidency, elected by a healthy margin, and it was inconceivable something so grave would happen in 20 days.

“I was attending the university for my graduate degree,” Chávez said minutes before we landed in Caracas. “On the night of the 27th, I enter Fort Tiuna looking for a friend who would spot me some gasoline so I could head home. Then I see they are taking out the troops, and I ask a colonel, ‘Where are all those soldiers going to?’ Because they were taking out logistical units not trained for combat, much less for street fighting. They were recruits scared by the very rifles they carried.” So he asked the colonel, “‘Where is that little crowd of people headed to?’

“And the colonel tells me: ‘To the street, to the street. That’s the order they gave: stop the disturbance as best you can, and so we’re going.’ My God, but what order did they give them? ‘Well, Chávez,’ the colonel answers me, ‘the order is stop this disturbance as best you can.’ And I tell him: ‘But colonel, you can imagine what can happen.’ And he tells me, ‘Well, Chávez, it’s an order and there’s nothing to do about it. May what happens be God’s will.’”

Chávez says that he would go too, feverish from a bout of measles. When he started his car, he saw a young soldier who came running, his helmet hanging off to the side, his rifle having been nicked by someone and his ammunition spilling out.

“And so I stop and call him,” said Chávez. “He gets in, all nervous, sweating, a boy of 18. And I ask him, ‘Aha, and to where are you running like this?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s that my squad left me, and there goes my lieutenant in the truck. Take me, sir, take me.’ And I catch up with the truck and ask the official who’s taking them, ‘Where are you going?’ And he tells me, ‘I don’t know anything. Hell, who’s going know anything.’”

Chávez takes a deep breath. Suffocating in the anguish of that terrible night, he nearly shouts, “You know, the soldiers you command on the streets, frightened, with a rife and 500 cartridges, and they use them all. They swept the streets with bullets, they swept the hills, the neighborhoods. It was a disaster! That’s how it was, thousands of them, among them Felipe Acosta. And my instinct tells me they were ordered to kill. It was the minute to act which we had waited for.” Said and done: from that moment, he began to plot the coup which failed three years later.

The plane landed in Caracas at three in the morning. I saw through the window the mist of lights of that unforgettable city where I lived for three years, as crucial for Venezuela as they were for my life. The President took his leave with a Caribbean embrace and an implicit invitation: “We’ll see each other here February 2nd.” While he moved off among his military escort and old friends, I shuddered at the thrill of having gladly traveled and talked with two contrary men. One to whom inveterate luck has offered the opportunity to save his country. And the other, a conjurer who could go down in history as one more despot.


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