Chávez: From a poor boy to a leftwing figurehead

No one imagined it would end like this. A ravaged body, a hospital bed, a shroud of silence, invisible. Hugo Chávez's life blazed drama, a command performance, and friend and foe alike always envisaged an operatic finale.

He would rule for decades, transform Venezuela and Latin America, and bid supporters farewell from the palace balcony, an old man, his work complete. Or, a parallel fantasy – he would tumble from power, disgraced and defeated by the wreckage of revolution, ending his days a hounded pariah.

Instead, the 58-year-old leader, whose death was reported on Tuesday by his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, succumbed to cancer at a hospital in Caracas, departing this world behind drapes of official secrecy. The boy from the plains of Barinas who loved to draw and sing and grew up to be an army officer, a coup plotter, a president and world figure, leaves an ambiguous legacy of triumph, ruin and uncertainty.

It was a surreal, slow-motion death. He announced his cancer in June 2011 to a stunned nation. The comandante, sick? He was indestructible: possessor, as Gabriel Garcìa Márquez once noted, of a body of reinforced concrete. Chávez drank more than 30 cups of black coffee a day, worked till 3am, talked on his weekly TV show without script (or interruption) for eights hours straight.

"We will beat this," he told Venezuela, enlisting the country in his fight for survival, and, until late last year when he disappeared from view for treatment in Cuba and officials turned grave, the government insisted for a year and a half that, no matter how bloated and haggard he looked, he was recovering.

During 2012 Chávez would break spells of seclusion by appearing on TV clutching that day's newspaper, like a hostage's proof of life video. Many Venezuelans were convinced the cancer was a ruse, that he was faking it to wrongfoot opponents.

Immortality in death
But he was dying. The type of cancer and its prognosis were official secrets, kept in the same vault as Fidel Castro's medical records.

Death will return Chávez to the spotlight. His funeral promises to be a vast, tumultuous affair of weeping throngs and foreign leaders' cavalcades. The millions of mostly poor Venezuelans who considered Chávez a champion since he was first elected in 1998 will be bereft.

"Uh, ah, Chávez no se va," went the chant. Uh, ah, Chávez won't go. A gleeful, defiant riposte to opponents who tried in vain to oust him. Now he has gone, but whither his "21st-century socialist revolution", a unique experiment in power fuelled by charisma and bountiful oil revenues?

The Constitution mandates an election within 30 days, a speedy timetable that will pit Chávez's anointed heir, Maduro, against an opposition coalition that will struggle to organise in time. Its candidate is likely to be Henrique Capriles, a young state governor who waged a vigorous but doomed challenge against Chávez in last October's presidential election. The government launched an unofficial campaign weeks ago, ramping up rhetoric and innuendos against Capriles.

Questions abound. If Capriles wins, will Chávista civilian militias and factions in the armed forces accept it? Will the public sector, a swollen, politicised bureaucracy, sabotage his administration or bin its red T-shirt and embrace the new dispensation, a venerable fence-jumping tradition known as saltando la tanquera? If Maduro wins, and he is seen as the favourite, will he be able to control the fractious Chávista coalition of grassroots activists, civilian ideologues, military pragmatists and Cuban mentors? Will rumps of Chavismo endure the way Peronism in Argentina has outlived Juan Perón?

Another question, one that historians and political partisans will spend decades debating, is Chávez's legacy. He inspired adoration and revulsion at home and abroad, a polarisation that often blinkered both sides. There was Chávez the dictator who jailed opponents, sponsored terrorists and left his people hungry. And there was Chávez the hero who empowered the poor, deepened democracy and stood up to the US.

The reality was more complex and fascinating. Chávez was a hybrid, a democrat and autocrat, a progressive and a bully. His "Bolìvarian revolution", named after the 19th-century revolutionary Simón Bolìvar, embodied these contradictions. He created a personality cult, abolished term limits, curbed private media and put the armed forces, legislature, judiciary and state oil company, PDVSA, under his personal control. He turned a blind eye to Farc guerrilla camps near the Colombian border and hailed the likes of Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad as brothers.

But the most damning critique of Chávez's rule concerned not democratic credentials but managerial competence.

After a decade of record oil revenues totalling around a trillion dollars, an unprecedented bounty, Venezuela is falling apart: roads crumbling, bridges falling, refineries exploding. A wheezing power grid produces regular blackouts. Public hospitals are dank, prisons filthy and barbaric. Murder and kidnapping rates have soared, imposing a de facto curfew in many cities. The currency was recently devalued for the fifth time in a decade. Many young professionals have emigrated.

The economy is warping from subsidies and controls. You can fill a car's petrol tank for around 50 cents but battle for months to start a company. High-rolling parasites nicknamed "boligarchs" exploit government links to siphon off billions.

Harassed by expropriations, private agriculture and industry have shrivelled. Huge imports fill the gap, the containers stacked into pyramids at ports, though you would never guess it from Orwellian rhetoric trumpeting "food sovereignty" and "manufacturing independence".

Venezuela now depends on oil for 96% of export earnings, versus 80% a decade ago. That is why so many Venezuelans end up on pavements selling knick-knacks (they are counted as employed), or watching the clock in decaying state enterprises. This does not add up to collapse, or hunger. There has always been money to stuff into cracks.

The fact remains that Chávez was revered by millions. The slums of cheap brick and corrugated tin that ring the hillsides felt he was on their side, understood their struggle. He won free (if not always fair) elections, spent lavishly on health clinics, literacy courses and social programmes, slashed poverty, devolved power to communal councils, stood up to George Bush over Iraq, encouraged regional pride and assertiveness across Latin America and did it all with charisma and flair.

'Poor boy form the plains'
To understand how Chávez reached this point means travelling back three decades to 1982. The poor boy from the plains who adored folk tales and baseball joined the military academy in Caracas to advance his dream of pitching in the major leagues. Instead, as he moved up the ranks, he felt a vocation to complete Bolìvar's unfinished liberation, to deliver his people from misery.

This corner of South America was supposedly a model democracy – but corruption and waste lay beneath the sheen of petro-dollars and liberal democracy.

Chávez led a coup attempt in February 1992. It was a military fiasco but its mastermind turned his televised surrender address into a political triumph. Eloquent and dashing in his red beret, he introduced himself to a startled nation and said his objectives had not been met por ahora, for now. He deserved 30 years in jail, went the joke: one for the coup, 29 for failing.

Released after just two years, he was adopted as a figurehead by grassroots movements and small leftwing parties and stormed to victory in the 1998 election, cheered not only by the poor but also the middle class. Few outside Venezuela, until then best known for beauty queens and oil, knew what to make of this mercurial arrival, who praised Castro and promised revolution but said he was neither left nor right but seeker of a Blairesque "third way".

Chávez's early economic policies were moderate, even conservative. He retained the previous government's finance minister and spoke of fiscal rectitude. He crafted a new constitution that was in many ways progressive but also greatly enhanced executive powers.

'Rich pigs'
Tirades against the wealthy as "squealing pigs" and "vampires" endeared him to the poor but alienated the middle class and traditional elites. The country fractured into a third who adored the president, a third who despised him and a third, the ni-nis who floated in the middle, an enduring tripartite division.

In April 2002 the elites briefly ousted him in a George Bush administration-backed coup, and tried again with an oil strike, then a recall referendum, dramas which stained the opposition and burnished Chávez's legend.

Even so, he would have lost the 2004 referendum, he admitted, were it not for the recovery in oil prices and help from Castro, who sent thousands of Cuban doctors, nurses and teachers to staff social programmes. They consummated Chávez's bond with the poor. Poverty tumbled, health indicators improved and thousands got jobs in the expanding state sector.

Emboldened, the president became more radical, declared himself a socialist in 2005 and started nationalising "strategic industries" and expropriating millions of acres of "unproductive" land. He stormed to a second term in 2006 with 63% of the vote. He declined to debate with his challenger, a gruff, opposition governor named Manuel Rosales, on the grounds that "an eagle does not hunt flies".

It was Chávez's apogee: the economy roaring, globally feted for condemning the US invasion of Iraq. He called Bush a "donkey", "an asshole" and, during one UN speech, "the devil". Supporters such as Ken Livingstone, Sean Penn, Danny Glover and Noam Chomsky paid homage in visits to Caracas. He dominated airwaves, commandeering radio and television for folksy speeches which lasted hours.

But problems began to mount. Pulling the plug on RCTV, an opposition TV station that had backed the 2002 coup, triggered student protests that climaxed with Chávez losing a 2007 referendum to abolish term limits.

Election pressure
​The opposition made inroads in 2008 regional elections, winning Caracas and even slums such as Petare, previously chavista bastions, on the back of discontent about crime and the economy.

Chávez tightened control over his own movement, as well as the armed forces and judiciary, and won a second attempt to abolish term limits in a 2009 referendum. Some opponents were jailed, purportedly for corruption, and others fled to exile. He spoke of ruling until 2030, an ambition echoed by a sycophantic state media empire.

Rolling power cuts and crumbling infrastructure cost Chávez's PSUV party the popular vote in 2010 national assembly elections. "We are the majority", crowed the opposition.

Chávez, a muddled philosopher king when it came to the economy, was utterly professional and pragmatic when it came to elections. He raided special government funds, borrowed from China and unleashed a housebuilding blitz to confect a boom before the October 2012 presidential election.

The cancer, revealed in June 2011, threatened to derail his strategy. Rumours swirled that it was terminal, that he would die within two years. The comandante dismissed that as imperialist propaganda. "I am cured!" he declared. State media went along with the fiction. Even supporters were sceptical but in the absence of medical records – kept under lock and key in Havana – they gave him a handsome victory, 55% to 45%, for a third six-year term.

Chávez did not wait for his inauguration, due on 10 January, to prepare the transition: he appointed Maduro, his veteran foreign minister and arguably the only heir who could unite the ruling factions, to the vice-presidency.

In his pomp, the comandante crushed the idea of "Chavismo without Chávez", the idea the movement could exist without him, as heresy. But when the body of reinforced-concrete cracked and betrayed him, there was no alternative. Before passing into legend, Chávez, ever the pragmatist, did all he could to save the revolution. – Guardian News and Media 2013

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Rory Carroll
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