How Chávez changed my life

When Hugo Chávez first became president of Venezuela I was sixteen years old and just coming into my political consciousness. Now I am in my thirties.  Through all that time I can think of no political opinion, no vote, no broad social view that has not been affected -- even defined -- by this singular man and his unstoppable vision. And now he is dead. Officially dead. The enormity of that one fact is such that the myriad uncertainties this news bring with it, for now, seem somehow unimportant. 

In Chávez's Venezuela I learned about fear. Both the small hyperactive fear of personal danger and the far more overwhelming fear that all is lost; that the revolution has won yet again. To many of us, each new victory brought with it new tragedies. The dispersal of my family to faraway continents. The persecution and imprisonment of friends and colleagues. The expropriations. The violence. 

That is all burned into me now, and countless others. Hugo Chávez: A man whose single-minded pursuit of whatever it was he was pursuing; power, social justice, immortality, redefined Venezuela's place in the world. 

Pre-Chávez, Venezuela was -- for the most part -- an invisible country. Unless you had a particular interest in oil, beauty queens, or baseball you might not even know it existed. During this period it became a weird joke among Venezuelans traveling to the United States that, upon telling Americans one came from Venezuela, because of lisped pronunciation, there would be a confusion with Minnesota: "Oh really? I have a cousin in Duluth. How about that?" 

Things could not be more different now. Venezuela's story might be many things to many people: An inspiration, a cautionary tale, a farce, a Shakespearean tragedy, yet Venezuela's story is known.  To some that is something that is itself worthy of celebration, to Hugo Chávez it certainly was. By spreading Venezuela's natural wealth far outside her borders, through oil giveaways and sabre-rattling, this midsized, middle-income country was able to cast an outsized shadow over global politics for many years. 

Client states have flocked to Venezuela as a source of oil largesse, as have others seeking to throw their lot in with the international anti-establishment. Venezuela's go-to alliances today read like a who's who of human rights violators: Iran, Belarus, Cuba. This from a country that was once so progressive, that it abolished capital punishment in 1863. 

On Tuesday, during a surprise press conference that said very little, acting president Nicolas Maduro explained his belief that Chávez's cancer had been secretly imposed upon him by some advanced United States technology: A desperate despicable act by an Empire who could not defeat him by playing fair. Irrational paranoid statements such as these have become common, an embarrassment to many Venezuelans and gospel truth to many others. 

It cannot be denied that Hugo Chávez has died as he lived, polarizing and forever unbowed. Yet for all that Venezuela remains the same nation of contrasts it was before Chávez: rich and poor, left and right. Only now these sides view one another as visceral enemies, not political foes. In Caracas tonight there are wails and fireworks, dirges and the sounds of champagne corks being popped. 

In the end, the world Chávez created once again teeters on the brink, as it has so many times before. Yet tonight it does so without its charismatic anchor into the hearts of the population. The future is uncertain and unsettling for all sides of the political spectrum.  Regardless there will be time tomorrow to worry about tomorrows. Tonight, for Venezuelans, will be about coming to terms with the past. 

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Photo by GERALDO CASO/AFP/Getty Images


How Chávez changed my country

Hugo Chávez died as he lived: shrouded in mystery, creating chaos and commotion, and leaving an indelible mark. His death leaves a void in the hearts of his many followers, but it also leaves his opponents in a daze. Chávez has been such a central part of our lives, of my life, that this is a blow to us as well.

I first began writing about Chávez in 2004. Of course, I was deeply concerned about what was going on in Venezuela, mortified at his ability to amass power and use it to...amass even more power. An opportunity arose to contribute to Caracas Chronicles, a respected opposition blog, and I jumped at it. Years of documenting the ins and outs of Chávez's antics have led to our recent book on the subject, "Blogging the Revolution."

Sure, there were good things. Chávez lifted many out of poverty, thanks in part to an oil boom that is ongoing. More importantly -- and this is certainly not part of the oil boom -- he made millions feel like they mattered. He empowered people by making them realize they could do anything -- learn to read, get health care, earn a high school diploma. Never mind that the actual effects of his policies are questionable, his followers felt like they were advancing, and that is a real and powerful thing. In the photo above, a supporter shows a picture of himself and Chávez, a man that many felt personally connected to.

Many who read this would think -- that all sounds great, so why would you be opposed to Chávez? Well, a lot of it had to with style. And there is nothing more that Chávez cared about than style.

Chávez helped the poor and made them feel empowered, but he did so at the expense of everyone else. The poor, he asserted, are poor because someone else took their money. The poor are poor...because the rich have been gouging the country's wealth, and here is Chávez coming to reverse that. Never mind that many of his policies -- free gas, subsidized dollars for shopping trips abroad -- were just as pro-rich as the previous ones. "Being rich is bad," became his leitmotif, and it was all code for something we understood: Anyone middle class or above, with light skin, and some education, is your enemy and does not belong in the country.

And so, an obsession was born. Every rant, every six-hour TV appearance in which he disparaged everything from foreign leaders to opposition politicians, was a cause for concern. Every dismissal of people who disagreed with him was shocking, and it mobilized us. People were being thrown in jail for political reasons, TV stations were being shut down for being critical to the President, and our sense of urgency was fueled by the fact that a majority...supported this.

Chávez commanded the life of Venezuela like few people before him. We have always had caudillos, but never on this scale, with this amount of economic muscle, with these few checks and balances. Simón Bolívar, José Antonio Páez, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, Juan Vicente Gómez, Marcos Pérez Jiménez...none of our past caudillos' power comes close to what Hugo Chávez wielded.

And then...he got sick. His appearances became rarer and rarer. His body began looking deformed, an obvious consequence of the heavy steroids used to treat his cancer. He managed to win October's election in spite of a limited campaign, after which he boasted that the beating would have been twice as bad had he been healthy.

Perhaps he was right about that. But it doesn't matter anymore. All the power and the money in the nation couldn't defeat the one enemy that couldn't be silenced.

As he departs for a (hopefully) better world, the void he leaves is enormous. Documenting Chávez has so consumed our lives, it's not joy or anger or sadness that I feel. It's the emptiness, the hollowness of victory.

After all, he may have won all the elections in the world and rubbed it in our faces, but we outlived him. May he rest in peace.    

Photo by RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images