Hugo Chávez, 1954-2013

Dear Melanie, Natalia, and Cecilia,

I’m writing this on a sunny, late-autumn morning in Santiago. You are out with your mother doing various things and, as has been customary for the past nine years or so, I’m sitting at my computer, channeling my nostalgia by writing about the place where I was born.

A few years ago, before you were born, a man called Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela. Countries elect different people all the time. Some of these folks are good, some of them bad, so this first election of Hugo Chávez in and of itself did not seem so important on paper. Presidents come and go.

But we all knew. Everyone could sense that this man, this election, would change everything.

I was at La Chinita Airport in Maracaibo one morning, right after that election, before you were born, and I decided to buy a copy of a green book that currently sits on our bookshelf, called “Habla El Comandante.” Your grandma, Uky, was with me. When she saw what I had bought, she badgered me as only mothers can. “Why did you spend money on that piece of junk?”

“Because,” I answered, “someday I will have to explain to my kids who Hugo Chávez is.”

That day is today.

The first time I heard of Hugo Chávez was a day none of us who lived through it will ever forget. It was 1992, and I was 21 years old and in college. Venezuela, a country blessed by God with immense oil riches, had been living off the easy wealth that comes from the ground for years.

But as usually happens with easy money, we’d forgotten that nothing is ever free. Your mother and I have told you many times that the only way to improve yourself and better society is through hard work and ingenuity. In Venezuela, by 1992, we had forgotten about this, and the country was in a deep trouble –  oil money was not enough, people were unhappy, and the politicians in charge were not listening to what the people wanted.

Early that February morning, a group of soldiers decided they wanted to change the President using tanks, planes, and guns. A huge fight broke out, but they were not successful. The leader of that group of soldiers was Hugo Chávez.

As the whole fight was dying down, the government decided to put this man Chávez on live TV to tell his soldier friends to surrender. Chávez did that, alright, but he also promised he would continue fighting for his goals. “Por ahora,” he said – “we didn’t meet our goals.”

For now.

That TV appearance, which lasted a little more than a minute, defined Venezuelan history for the next twenty years or so.

Ours was a country that seemed rudderless, but here was a strong, young mestizo man, speaking in a deep baritone voice, using perfect Spanish, sharing with the people his goals and his dreams. By pledging to continue working toward his objectives in spite of admitting his failure, in the face of a seemingly lapidary defeat, he showed more commitment, more humanity that most people do in a lifetime. Many people saw that, and they were smitten.

After that, he was rarely on TV any more. He went to jail for a little while, and then they set him free. The country continued on a downward spiral, and then 1998 came along.

For a few years before that, Chávez had been campaigning around the country in a blue liqui-liqui (a typical Venezuelan costume that you will never see me wear), saying that people should not even bother to vote. You know how sometimes you get fed up and something overcomes you and you start throwing things? We have talked about it, and we know you do it because you are so angry, you simply want to get our attention and will do anything to get it.

Some grownups, when they get really angry, think that the best way to deal with it is to walk away and not participate. It’s called “abstention,” and by doing it their hope is to convince a lot of people to not show up as a way of protesting, of getting your point across, of getting the people in charge to pay attention to you. That’s what Chávez was all about in those years: anger at an unfair system, and getting attention.

But in the beginning, his anger was not shared by many. The initial shock of his sudden appearance on the scene went away, and it was followed by the lull of the Caldera years, the last gasps of a whole way of doing politics. People were upset about the way the country was running alright, but they hadn’t reached a boiling point. They were simply carrying on, waiting to see if things would sort themselves out.

Then 1998 came.

Chávez took the country by storm in the latter part of the campaign. All of a sudden, he was everywhere. He had a pretty young wife by his side, and he ditched the liqui-liquis for, gulp, those sweater vests I always make fun of  people for wearing. He went on TV assuring people he was not the devil they made him out to be, that he was going to bring people together to solve problems, that he was not anti-American.

Little did we know.

People were now head-over-heels with him, and he took advantage of that. He rode this wave of popular support and insisted on getting extraordinary powers to rewrite the Constitution (like the basic rule book we have at home, but for the country), sack all institutions, and remake Venezuela in his image.

By the time his election came about, I was not living in Venezuela any more. I remember hearing about his victory in my car after I had voted against him, on the road from Chicago to Ann Arbor. A sense of doom came over me. It took many years to shake it off.

A few weeks later, I was in Maracaibo and got to hear a speech of his – now as President Elect – in the Teatro Baralt. I remember being mesmerized by his pure, unparalleled political talent. The guy simply oozed charisma. “This guy,” I remember thinking, “could be sooooo good … but he’s soooo bad.”

During his time in power, he did a lot, most of it really bad. He threw people in jail just because he wanted to. Bad people started killing, stealing, and kidnapping other people, and he did nothing to stop them. He took away stuff that did not belong to him – farms, buildings, companies. He said really mean things about people he didn’t like, or simply disagreed with him. He lied to the country all the time – about the amount of money we had, about the things he had done, and finally, about the disease that ultimately killed him. Natalia, one time you asked me why I didn’t like Chávez, and I didn’t give you a very good answer. Now I can answer using a term you can understand: because he was a bully.

He did some good stuff too – he gave away money to poor people, and he made them feel like they counted for the first time. But for me, the bad severely outweighed the good.

I spent a lot of his time documenting those things with a bunch of my friends on the pages of this blog. I hope you will get to read it sometime. Maybe you will get to leaf through our book. But more important than understanding what Chávez did, is to understand why he did them, why he was allowed to do them, and why – as a nation – we decided to embark on this journey.

The main reason is poverty. Venezuelans like to think of ourselves as filthy rich, and in some degrees we are. The natural resources God put on our tiny sliver of the planet can truly be counted as a blessing.

But for too long we got used to living off of what we had underground, and not from the work we did. True wealth, you see, comes from hard work, from finding ways of doing things better and more efficiently, not from money that simply falls on your lap. We forgot about this, so when the things we had underground became less valuable, we became very poor. And when we became poor, we didn’t know who to blame, so we blamed ourselves … and we jumped off a cliff.

As a country, we didn’t understand what kind of a society we are, and how we could become better. That lead us to this madman whose life ended when his body turned against him.

Girls, we’re not in charge of our destiny. God always has a plan for us, and it is sometimes different from ours. You can accumulate all the power and all the money, like Chávez did, and God can take it away … just like that. In the end, none of it mattered to Him. All that matters is what we do with our talents, the amount of good that we do.

Maybe some day you can leaf through this blog, just to get a better sense of your dad’s country, and of him. I hope, when that day comes, you will understand how important my beloved country is to me, and hopefully, to you. Perhaps you will get a glimpse of the values I hold dear in my heart, so you too can understand the importance of remaining true to yourself, working hard, and not taking anything for granted. And may you learn from the lessons contained in these writings, so that history does not have to repeat itself.

Much love, and keep the faith,