Twelve hours after President Hugo Chávez died, the central square of Caracas was still occupied by his red-clad supporters. Through the television lens, broadcasting into homes around the world, the scene looked terrifying. Waving their arms and stomping their feet, the bereaved chavistas shouted out socialist chants, screaming “Long Live Chávez!” as grown men wailed openly beside them, for as far and as wide as the frame could see.
From where I was standing, just out of frame, the group was an annoyance rather than a riot risk. The crowd of perhaps fifty people followed the cameras wherever they went, competing to put on the most extravagant hysterics in order to have the news channel director point their cameramen towards them.
Away from the zealous exhibitionism, Caracas was in a somber mood. People didn’t want to talk to me about the future of Venezuelan socialism for my stories, they wanted to tell me about their personal grief at having lost what one resident described as “a part of herself”. Speaking from Chacao, a district affiliated with neither political persuasion, Marela Contreras told me “It’s a very great pain, he was part of us, we were part of him. My soul is hurting”. There was no violence in Caracas, as the news channels portrayed, only hurt.
On the night Chávez’s death was announced, I was on the streets of Caracas. The mood was not one of anger – although gunshots had been heard in the pro-Chávez western barrios immediately after the announcement – but of quiet contemplation. One anti-Chávez resident, José Sardinia, speaking from opposition stronghold Altamira in eastern Caracas told me, “today the country has lost the greatest man who ever appeared in Venezuela”. Extremely high praise given the vitriolic hatred which emanated from those districts when the leader was alive.
I originally started work in Venezuela as a Rough Guides author to the country and seeing up closing an entire nation, as a job such as guidebook writing enforces, teaches one to appreciate all aspects of the culture. Venezuela is a country that lends itself to tourism with all its weight, boasting gorgeous people, distinctive food, a passion for partying and one of the widest ranges of physical beauty found anywhere. It was now that I found myself, as a foreign correspondent in the capital, aiding the country in perpetuating the dreadful international reputation that keeps the tourists away. The same reputation that made my father, on the phone from active service in Iraq years before, tell me “Alasdair, don’t go to Venezuela. Hugo Chávez is not good news”.
The amazement with which the western world received the news last October that Chávez had won yet another election, and by a considerable margin, displayed the misunderstanding that we have of Venezuela.
Chávez came to power in 1999 after an immensely corrupt government was ousted by a military coup. The then-imprisoned officer, who had spend the previous two years in prison following a failed military coup, was remembered for his speech to the nation from the presidential palace in Miraflores, Caracas before he was taken away to prison. He said to his nation, sincerely and honestly, looking into the camera as the chavistas throughout Caracas today have learned, “we have failed in our attempts. For now”.
If Chávez’s death encourages more visitors to the country, then the boost it will give the ailing economy and the education of international affairs it will bring to her people can only be a good thing. If there’s a general trend of global tourism, it’s that first the adventurers arrive, the backpackers follow, and then the parents of the backpackers bring up the rear, jealous of their children and keen to visit to a country which they describe as accessible. Venezuela is still stuck firmly in the first category. So if you’re a backpacker, could you promote yourself to adventurer? Colombian tourism is booming, and the country is perfectly positioned to supply its neighbour with a steady stream of backpackers.
Chávez represented the voice of the people, to the people who listened to him. After years of oppression as Venezuela’s vast oil reserves made the few capitalists richer, Chávez was a breath of fresh air. He came to power and began giving things to people who had nothing before, for free. He appeared every Sunday on his weekly television program Alo Presidente, when he would sort out people’s problems live over the phone and wax lyrical for hours at a time.
He postured mightily against “the imperialists”, the American government who he blamed for the immense suffering throughout the country before he came to power. Chávez was loved throughout Venezuela, and once we come to grips with the full force of the adulation felt towards the controversial leader, the immense grief that the country is feeling, and the shock of having lost so great a character, then we can begin to see why those Chavistas were crying in front of the cameras, because they were crying behind them too.