‘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.
With Hugo Chávez’s election victory, the uncertainty that had built up about Venezuela’s future, sloppily fostered by the media in Europe and the United States, was swept away at a stroke. Venezuela enjoyed one of those great explosions of popular joy and excitement on Sunday night that occur just occasionally in Latin America, and of which I have been privileged to watch not a few. It may not survive – the euphoria created by Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution may evaporate as quickly as it began – but it should be enjoyed while it lasts. Chávez is the most popular figure not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America, and it is high time that this was more widely recognised. Where in Europe can a politician achieve such popularity? On polling day I went to Zulia, a state in the far west that borders with Colombia.