El Comandante

Article excerpt

Byline: Boris Munoz

Nationalist, populist, charlatan, provocateur. Hugo Chavez polarized Venezuela--and the world.

As 2012 drew to a close, Commander Hugo Chavez boarded an A-319 Airbus and, standing at top of the stairs, waved goodbye to his people before takeoff from Caracas to Havana. The Venezuelan president had made this journey many times before, ever since Fidel Castro had first received him in Cuba with the adulation and honors of a revered head of state. Back then, Chavez had just been released from a Venezuelan jail, where he had spent two years for leading a failed coup that catapulted him onto the Venezuelan and Latin American stage.

This familiar 1,300-mile trip brought Chavez such good memories that he referred to the Caribbean as the "sea of happiness." But this December journey was different from the others that he had made over the past 18 years. Many of his ministers and closest collaborators, who were there to see him off, could not hold back their tears. They felt a premonition that this was a journey from which he wouldn't return alive. They feared he wouldn't be able to overcome his cancer.

Chavez did return to Caracas last month, though he was kept out of the public eye. His absence and the paucity of information about his health generated a wave of rumors that accentuated Venezuela's political discord and kept the deeply polarized country in deep suspense over what might come next.

On March 5, Chavez died in a Caracas military hospital after an intense battle against a cancer that forced him to undergo four operations and many bouts of radio- and chemotherapy since it was first detected in June 2011.

Demonized and idolized in seemingly equal measure, Chavez was a nationalist and populist leader with a larger-than-life personality. His government was a hybrid political regime--neither fully democratic nor openly tyrannical--that combined periodic elections with an ever-growing concentration of autocratic power based on the control of the justice system and the manipulation of the electoral game. Chavez ruled Venezuela for 14 years, redistributing oil wealth among the poor and winning many elections, but also pitting Venezuelans against each other. He called his movement the Bolivarian revolution and surrounded it with a vague ideological halo branded as 21st-century socialism.

Chavez achieved great international influence because of his strong charisma, his irreverent personality, and his revolutionary vision of a world emancipated from capitalism and imperialism. The U.S. government was a constant target, and the alliances he forged with countries such as Cuba, Russia, and Iran challenged the traditional subordination of Latin American foreign policy to the dictates of Washington.

Last July, Chavez announced that he was totally cured of his disease. But he had made the same announcement seven months before, on New Year's Day, and the cancer had reappeared. During the 2012 presidential campaign, his speeches brimmed with pathos and ruminations on death. On many occasions, he declared that he had transcended this mortal plane and compared himself with Simon Bolivar, the beloved Venezuelan hero who liberated five Latin American nations at the start of the 19th century.

The son of two elementary-school teachers, Chavez was born in the rural town of Sabaneta, on the western plains of Barinas, some 320 miles from Caracas. Means were modest in the household--Chavez was one of six brothers--so he was sent to live with his grandmother, Rosa Ines. She used to tell him tales about his great-grandfather, Pedro Perez Delgado, a.k.a. Maisanta, a regional caudillo--half bandit, half hero--who took part in numerous revolts against presidents and tyrants during the early part of the 20th century.

As a young man, Chavez demonstrated talent for public speaking in the town celebrations. But his childhood passion was baseball. …