Original art by @modográfico

Hugo Chávez’ gift for timing struck me anew just after he died, when a colleague told me she had spent three days reporting in and around Caracas and concluded that “the place seems pretty much OK.”

It was March 2013 and there was electricity, food on the shelves, coffee, milk and sugar to start the morning, and no queues outside supermarkets.

My friend worked for a big TV network, spoke Spanish and wasn’t dumb. She knew statistics about employment and poverty reduction were dodgy and those about crime and inflation were grim. But Venezuela wasn’t Cuba, and certainly not the Mad Max hellhole depicted by the opposition.

And there was no denying of the grief swamping the streets. I saw it under a broiling sun on Avenida San Martín, as Chávez’ coffin bobbed on a human wave from the military hospital to Fuerte Tiuna.

“He was a world leader, a father” sobbed Yoceida Morales, a civil servant. “He will live in us forever.”

She pushed into the crowd to try to touch the coffin. Others chanted “Chávez forever! Chávez lives!”

This is what I wrote for the Guardian when I got back to my laptop, sweaty, dehydrated, buzzing with deadlines and the day’s psycho-drama:

‘They poured down the hillsides chanting he was alive, that he would always be alive, but as the cortege wound its way through the sea of red T-shirts, and the coffin appeared, a hush fell over the throng.

He was lucky to rule amid a historic oil boom, lucky to have fractious opponents at home and lucky to have Bush as an imperialist villain.

They gazed at the casket, absorbed its physical details, the flag draped over it, the flash of wood beneath, the glint of metal in the sunlight. Surrounded by so many people on Avenida San Martín, it looked puny, a raft buffeted on the tide.

How extraordinary, how perverse to think that Hugo Chávez was inside. That Hugo Chávez was dead.

… No matter how many poured down from the hills under a baking sun, walking, riding motorbikes, hitching lifts, squeezed into buses, there was no saving him. State media repeated the mantra Chávez no ha muerto, él vive en la revolución! – Chávez has not died, he lives in the revolution! – as if repetition could make it true, could deny death.

“I feel so bad. I feel a lot of pain,” said Astrúbal Sembrano, 47, a building site guard, holding a Venezuelan flag. “But the comandante is not dead, no, not dead. He has sowed something in us, the people, and that way he will live. He was our second liberator, our second Bolívar.” Sembrano corrected himself, appalled at the slip. “He IS our second liberator. He is.”’

It was feverish, infectious and, thus, much of the international media gave el comandante a decent review: some disappointments and concerns, an authoritarian slide, but a friend of the poor, the people loved him, and by God he stuck it to Bush.

Chávez, in other words, quit while he was ahead. In 2013, democracy still had a pulse and a spending blitz masked economic zombification.

It would be callous to call this “luck.” Succumbing to cancer at 58 was, for him and his family, a tragedy. But it fit a pattern; he was lucky to rule amid a historic oil boom, lucky to have fractious opponents at home and lucky to have Bush as an imperialist villain.

Venezuela’s hollowing was apparent to anyone who cared to really look, but try explaining Cadivi to foreigners and their eyes would glaze over. Try explaining PDVSA’s atrophy, or Jorge Giordani’s terminology, and they fell asleep. So Chávez bowed out while supporters at home and abroad could still laud the “Bolivarian process” without looking completely ridiculous.

That Maduro is still in Miraflores proves he’s no idiot when it comes to keeping power. But the cost to the country (and chavismo) is incalculable.

A lot happened after his death – a snap election, Nicolás Maduro’s squeaking victory, Henrique Capriles conceding, street protests and the long, belated slide towards an economic meltdown. That Maduro is still in Miraflores, four years later, despite everything, proves he’s no idiot when it comes to keeping power. But the cost to the country (and chavismo) is incalculable.

Would Chávez have done things differently? Corrected course, ameliorated some of the damage? He craved global approbation and fiasco, visceral, undeniable fiasco, would have stung his pride. He had the political strength, ideological malleability to shift direction and the creative gifts to cover a retreat with distractions. But he also ignored the smoke. The stage caught fire and he didn’t know how to put it out, or direct our gaze elsewhere.

By any rational measure, Chávez’ legacy is scorched. Even foreigners with the dimmest interest in Latin America nod sorrowfully at any mention of Venezuela. No longer a country, it’s an event, a word bracketed alongside hunger, crisis and disaster. That Chávez piled the fuel and started the blaze in a hundred different ways should be obvious.

But for apologists, the timing of his departure gives him an alibi – he was with Che and Bolívar, in the dubious luck of checking out before the dream crashed and burned.

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Rory Carroll was the Guardian's Latin America in Caracas correspondent from 2006 to 2012. He was famously berated by Chávez during an Aló Presidente broadcast. His book, Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, was published in 2013.