Hugo Chávez, unplugged

Three years ago today, when the announcement came, I was stuck in traffic. It was an oddly fitting way to receive the news that were no longer new by then.

I was stuck in traffic when Chávez’s death was announced. Roman Lozinsky was interviewing NASA scientist Tico Campins, a Venezuelan astrophysicist with a multi-million dollar budget at his disposal to explore, you know, the far reaches of the galaxy. A Government broadcast interrupted the fascinating interview.

“March 5th, 2013,” said Vice President Nicolás Maduro. No further detail was needed to guess what would come next.

The news didn’t sink in right away. It was disconcerting. Chávez had that, even in death. He could create impossible moments.

I backtracked in my mind to the very beginning, to the first time I felt concerned with Chávez, the first time he lodged in that part of my brain that has tormented me for so many years. I searched, and what I found wasn’t the “por ahora” moment or anything like it. I didn’t alight on the one time I saw him in person, when he was invited to speak at UCAB while he was a candidate and clumsily dodged students’ questions with prefabricated answers and a talk show host smile.

The image that came to me wasn’t Chávez’s, it was my Dad’s. It was the look on his face when the now deceased President first took office. When he unbuttoned his shirt and struck his right palm with his left fist.

“We’re fucked,” dad said.

There was no symbolism there, the message was explicit.

The Vice President’s tone contrasted an earlier broadcast where he menaced the opposition, “que nadie se equivoque” (make no mistake), and made wild allegations of the US inoculating Chávez with his deadly condition. This message was different. It was heartfelt, melancholic even.

I felt lonely, I admit it. All by myself, in my car. Having no one to riff with, I looked for some solidarity in other windows. And what I found was disturbingly close to the beginning of the Everybody Hurts video by REM.

Everybody paralyzed in their cars, keeping each other company in their silent air conditioned pods. Faces of relief and hopelessness, which, when you stop to notice, look the same.

Then I remembered the last time I saw him on TV.

During his final message, before returning to Cuba for one last surgery, Chávez addressed his people. Flanked by Diosdado Cabello and Nicolás Maduro, he spoke to those “who felt the fatherland in their hearts.”

I remained an optimist, expecting that at some point of his speech, conscious of his fate and understanding the hard months the country would face, he would call for union and understanding. A last chance at redemption.

But no.

He spat a generic “que nadie se equivoque,” and then went on to close his epic in a similar manner to that dramatic scene under the rain a couple of months earlier during the closing of his campaign.

Chávez excluded half of the country in his last speech, denied them recognition, and after giving instructions on how the succession should go, he broke into song and gave an acapella rendition of the now infamous “Patria Querida” song.

Chávez’s death left a hole in both his supporters and detractors. He missed the chance to acknowledge half of the nation he claimed to love so fervently, but in fact hated enough he spent untold billions and, ultimately, his life to defeat. And he failed to prepare his own followers for what would come after him, this brave and confusing new world that lies beyond the rubble.