‘Por ahora,’ Hugo Chávez remarked on television after the failure of his coup in 1992. He would be gone ‘for the time being’. Within hours of his death yesterday, the tweet on the streets was ‘Chávez hasta siempre,’ Chávez for ever. Now that he’s really gone, will he stay?
Few in Venezuela are likely to be saying ‘yes and no’. Unlike God in a place whose Catholicism is gaily pagan, an ebullient syncretism, carelessly superstitious and remarkably undark, at its best in street festivals, Chávez has not been an equivocal presence. Those whom the white upper classes used rudely to refer to as ‘los niches’, the brown, uneducated and poor, have unequivocally revered him. And the white upper classes have unequivocally not. Yet though Chávez was a perfect devil for the one, he was no true god, cultivating distance and lack of substance, for the other. He loved being out there, on the streets, often having slept overnight in a vehicle, popping up in front of a TV camera somewhere in the country on a Sunday afternoon, talking equably to whomever, going on for hours, inventing policies as he did so, and engaging his formidable charisma eye to eye rather than parading it from afar. Unlike Simón Bolívar, whom he did himself deify, his presence was all, as his absence in recent months was beginning to make clear.
To the country’s old politicians, therefore, he was a multiple nightmare. To anyone with a breath of life, Venezuela’s political television news used to be deadly. Item after item would be illustrated by men in suits filing gravely into a meeting, gravely announcing what they were there for, and filing gravely out again, no doubt smirking off camera at having arranged another self-serving fix. Dignity and public distance were all. Not only did Chávez have the gift of connecting with the contemptibles, and thereby gaining votes. He also had the nerve to expose the circulation of oil monies round a largely closed elite, and, after a Mexican PhD student at Oxford had exposed the state-owned oil company’s accounts, to challenge the ways in which that company enriched itself at the state’s expense. And he was dedicated to winkling out what Juan Carlos Rey, a Venezuelan political scientist, called the worms in the comfortably oiled furniture that business, unions, the church and the army had ordered for themselves in the politicians’ house.
No one can claim that Chávez has replaced the pieces with anything very solid. With money that he’s repatriated from oil, he’s certainly done much for many poorer people. The vast numbers of maids and handymen and janitors and drivers and all the rest who service the downtown elite now have a spanking new train that’s cut their two-and-half hour journey from suburbs and barrios in the east of Caracas to little more than forty minutes, and another barrio now has a cable car down into the city. There are more and better schools, health services and housing, and a vast number of pensions have been confirmed and paid. But the spread of all this is uneven, the economy to back it up is not in good shape, the currency is weak, public institutions, which always worked badly, often still do, and crime is high. There has also been a vindictive neglect of decent projects that were started before Chávez came to power. But ‘the social’ is now firmly on the agenda. Even the rather ghastly and fortunately divided opposition has had to agree.
If this is socialism, there’s nothing very 21st-century about it, as Chávez liked to claim, and by the standards of ‘good government’, which in modern states are largely managerial, his administrations may not have administered very well. But although other leaders in Latin America, like Lula in Brazil, may have achieved more, often in politically more difficult places, Chávez’s performance did more than any other to reveal the change in the continent. His was the loudest voice in what he called Latin America’s revived revolution. Old liberalisms had followed the old colonialisms there and failed, and the talk of socialism and all it’s thought to imply has always been anathema to what the old liberals among the new colonisers from the north have always regarded as their back yard.
One kind of Latin American still worships the United States. I remember listening to one (by the pool, I confess, of the luxurious Country Club in Caracas) just before Chávez’s victory in the 1998 election. It didn’t matter, he said, whether Venezuelans chose the provincial from the army or the former beauty queen who was also standing. The leader of the business community would as usual go to the new president to explain who should be minister of what, ‘we’ would convert to the dollar, and the government would be in ‘our’ pocket. Chávez, however, hated the other America, all the more so after what he suspected was Washington’s hand in the coup against him in 2002, and realised that people at home and leaders abroad did too. These men and women, not least through Chávez, though by no means through him alone, have found a new solidarity. Washington can no longer easily act against one without cries from the others.
He did of course take things rather far. Hugging men from Belarus, Iran and Libya wasn’t really necessary (he was embarrassingly silent about the so-called Arab Spring) and he didn’t obviously help himself in refusing to exchange ambassadors with the United States. Diplomacy was not his bag. But it would take a very forceful reaction indeed to put this brilliant populist’s pueblo back where some still think it belongs. I’ve been going to Venezuela for thirty years, and to me the most affecting change, beyond decent schools and healthcare and old people with teeth and pensions, is that even in the most distant and rundown places, people now walk and talk with confidence, look you in the eye, and joke as equals as they never did. It may be a pity that whatever socialism may now be, the Chávez governments haven’t been able to make a very persuasive fist of it. But Chávez the man has been remarkable, and it would be sour to deny the spirit that he’s infused.
Venezuelans are as inclined as anyone to value individuals over ideologies and institutions, and though Chávez has been too divisive to be consigned any time soon to the pantheon of dead men standing, a jollier Bolívar in a red beret, he had the advantage of dying before too long a political career and circumstance overwhelmed him. One can therefore hope that as the undoubtedly sincere, energetic, courageous, rarely cruel, not financially corrupt, often comic, plainly chaotic, insistently obtrusive, rather sensitive and highly theatrical person that he was, his very personal example will continue to inspire those that it should for some time to come. And rightly infuriate the others.