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Hugo Chávez

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Richard Gott on meeting Hugo Chávez a year after he came to power (LRB, 17 February 2000):

When I was first taken to meet him last month at La Casona, the Presidential residence in Caracas that his troops had once tried and failed to seize, he was standing in the garden with his back to me, gazing out towards the small forest of bamboos and palms fringing the far end of the lawn. Since he is on television most days of the week, making impromptu speeches, greeting protocol visitors at the Miraflores palace, or glad-handing his way through a flooded shantytown, everyone knows what he looks like. They are familiar with his pugilist’s face, his beaming grin, and the almost imperceptible asthmatic tic of his mouth as he takes a breath or is caught searching for a word in mid-rhetorical flow. He always seems decisive, confident, optimistic. Yet, alone in the garden, dressed in a grey suit, he appeared more vulnerable, a monochrome and ambiguous sculpture on a green lawn.

Finally he turned round and walked across the grass to greet me. I was reminded for a moment of Yo el Supremo, the magnificent novel by the Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos about José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the ascetic Robespierrean President of Paraguay who isolated his country for thirty years in the early part of the 19th century. Chávez has a similar messianic streak. The damp heat of the early morning, the lush colours of the tropical garden and the verandah columns of a replica 18th-century colonial building seemed to insist on the past as much as the present. Our lengthy conversation – much of it devoted to his plan to reverse the movement of people from the countryside into the urban shantytowns – had a timeless quality to it. This was an issue that Presidents and colonial Viceroys in Latin America had been wrestling with for centuries.

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