Hugo Chávez, 1954-2013

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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,

Dad.

1 COMMENT

  1. Juan, this is truly your best article, maybe because it comes from the heart. Your girls surely will be proud of how much you have loved your country.

  2. This guy,” I remember thinking, “could be sooooo good … but he’s soooo bad.”

    My thought exactly when I meet him personally in a luncheon series my employee of the time organized for candidates to the 98 election.

    Good op piece. I’m with you 100% of it.

  3. Tus hijas son bendecidas, pocos venezolanos de éstos de ahora , jóvenes como tú que han hecho fortunas en tiempos records tendrán algún ejemplo que darles a sus hijos

  4. You really moved me, Juan. As a father of three non-Venezuelans I feel the same pain when trying to explain or sad paradise lost tale. Thank you.

  5. As Moraima says, this is great because it comes from the heart. This would have made a spectacular afterword to your book. Well done, Mr. Nagel.

    • Well, if I had included it in the book I would have been charged with magnicidio, for how would I have known he was going to die…?

      Come to think of it, we’re all magnicidas now, so what the heck, I should have added it.

  6. “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. ”

    It bears repeating. Well said. Really well said. And what a hugely mistaken journey.

    What were you thinking when you voted against Chavez… at the very beginning? Why weren’t you smitten? Was it clear to you at that time that he would turn out as he did?

    • I have a genetic disdain for the military, in case it doesn’t show. I simply cannot stand them.

      I apologize to all the honest, hard-working Venezuelan military people out there (all four of you), but that’s how I feel.

  7. Juan this is such a great post. It has the right combination of history, personal experience and political analysis. But more than anything, the writing style and personal feelings expressed in it make this post a mandatory reading for any member of the Venezuelan diaspora trying to explain their kids why we left our homeland . I just hope I get the opportunity to read it to my now 20-month old daughter at some point of her life as part of my explanation why I became a self-exiled.

    • Juan, your letter has great value as a personal-historical document. I have forwarded it to younger family members who did not grow up in Venezuela. And I did so because I wanted them to know, not just who Hugo Chávez was, but how to recognize the snake charming bullies from all walks of life. Your letter was brilliant in this regard.

      Otherwise, yes, Rory Carroll’s writing is at the very top of the heap. But the younger set would not easily understand it.

      Ves? Two different markets.

    • Some one should collect all the great pieces written for the ocassion , all together will help future generations understand the demons, delusions and dreams that made up his persona and dark legacy , the nyt piece is great , not the best writing to come our of this event but one of the most acute in emphatizing the ‘the gross mismanagement’ part of his history , that and the epopeyic bellicose megalothymia that so pervaded his tormented personality.

  8. [This is not a time for polemics of any kind. -ed.]

    Because he was the kind of bully that stood up to the other bullies, in favor of those who were the most bullied of all.

    • A bully nonetheless… Societies have little use for narcissistic sociopaths in positions where you need not bullies but great mediators and brokers.

  9. Hay hombres que luchan un día y son buenos
    Hay hombres que luchan un año y son mejores
    Hay hombres que luchan varios años y son fundamentales
    Pero hay los que luchan toda su vida
    Esos son los imprescindibles
    Brecht

      • agree.
        Juan,
        A similar type of behavior to that displayed by Hugo Chávez is most likely to flourish, in many countries of this hemisphere, for reasons we all know. As such, school-aged children in this region need a primer. And your letter excels in this regard.

        (The only thing that concerns me — and it’s just a personal observation — is the mention of God being the master planner of one’s life. I think that focusing on that concept can easily result in a sense of fatalism, and a lack of personal ownership for one’s actions. For if we say that God is the master planner of everyone’s life, then Hugo Chávez was not responsible for his actions.)

          • Yes, I believe that the God concept is a great comforter at the time of death. Whether it’s really true ….. es otra cosa. For there’s science, nutrition, lifestyle, illnesses and a host of other factors, both external and internal, many within our control, that come into play and converge on one’s time of one’s death.

            You can’t have it both ways. Either Hugo Chávez was responsible for his actions, or he wasn’t. And it’s the latter concept that is way too pervasive ‘en nuestras latitudes’.

          • This is not the place to debate this, but let’s just say I believe you’re really confused about what I’m saying.

          • Unless you can pinpoint how I’m confused, allow me to say that I’m very clear on the positives and negatives of the God concept.

  10. JC,
    Great article.
    On your 4-F analysis besides admitting failure and showing commitment, he took responsibility in a country that was accustomed to no accountability, I believe that was huge.

    What burns me the most is the “could be sooooo good … but he’s soooo bad.” bit. Is such a lost opportunity, with the oil wealth that he had at his disposal (after prices jumped) and his charisma, he could have really transformed Venezuela for the better: I would have gladly eaten my skepticism from 1998, but I guess we were not deceived and unfortunately we were right.

  11. I’m speechless. The clarity of your language is amazing. I plan on sharing it with my children who only know about Venezuela through our stories and traditions, but have been there, seen it, felt it, experienced it. Good job!

  12. Just a little clarification: it was the ’97 Asian crisis, the oil barrel at $12 and the August ’98 economic meltdown that propelled Chavez to the forefront. Not that he was there by chance, he clearly fought to win and he got it, but Chavez as President owes as much to the hard work of Hugo as to the favorable (for him) circumstances that took place from June ’97 to October ’98.

    And that exactly is what I would really add to your piece. I don’t know how you translate “La Diosa Fortuna le sonríe a quien la busca”. Yes, there is a “luck” component to the whole thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have to work hard and good things will come your way.

    Otherwise, it was a very touching, moving piece. Somehow it encapsulates what I feel as well.

  13. Great article, Chavez had the chance to do something truly spectacular but squandered all !
    Remember arriving in Caracas back in 2003 wanting to give him a chance and listened to Alo Presidente, what I saw and heard firmly placed me in the camp against Chavez despite his carismatic style, what happened later only confirmed my fears.

    Good luck in cleaning up and getting all Venezuelans with you

  14. Outstanding. This is the best piece of your article Sir: “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.” This situation opens up a miraculous opportunity to see if Venezuelan society learned its lesson. E.

  15. Very good until “Girls, we’re not in charge of our destiny. God always has a plan for us” I would never ever say something like that, much less to my daughters as an example to follow. In the words of Invictus “i am the master of my own destiny i am the captain of my soul”. Other than that. Kudos Juan!

  16. Very moving article. However, and despite the fact that I agree with you on the fact that our destiny is not fully under our control, it left me a bit heavyhearted. To me, one of the greatest tragedies of the Venezuela of the past 14 years is that for us Venezuelans, the concept of justice is so far removed from what we see on a daily basis. Thinking that at some point I will have to explain that to my children is a tough pill to swallow.

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