Earlier this week Vice President Nicolás Maduro tearfully announced to the citizens of Venezuela that their President Hugo Chavez had died at the age of 58 of cancer. Chavez has been the strong man in Venezuelan politics since his election in 1998, after a failed military coup.
It’s difficult to convey the attachment and love many Venezuelans have for Chavez, and as an American, it’s difficult for me to understand. To get a sense, look at this picture. His illness has been called a “national misery.” But, that’s not to say there aren’t others who feel very differently about Chavez, especially Venezuelan expats, even hopeful about what this political transition can mean for Venezuela’s future.
The Chavez that Americans saw was impulsive and mercurial. Regularly lashing out at the US and George W. Bush particularly. It seems safe to say that he hated American influence in Latin and South America.
In office, he upended the political order at home and used oil revenues to finance client states in Latin America, notably Bolivia and Nicaragua. Inspired by Simón Bolívar, the mercurial Venezuelan aristocrat who led South America’s 19th-century wars of independence, Mr. Chávez sought to unite the region and erode Washington’s influence.
“The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species,” he said in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. In the same speech he called President George W. Bush “the devil.”
– From Hugo Chavez | 1954-2013 (NYT)
But did you know that he was also a regular on Venezuelan TV? Yes, you read that right. He hosted an unscripted television show called Aló Presidente every Sunday at 11 am. The show went on as long as Chavez felt necessary, but commonly ended as late as 5 pm. That’s 6 hours, every week! Can you even imagine?
Government ministers were required to attend the program. They may be questioned by the president about anything, and sometimes policy — even military policy — is made on the show. During the March 2, 2008 airing, Chávez ordered a top general to send ten battalions of troops to the border with Colombia in response to a bombing by Colombian forces inside Ecuador which killed Raúl Reyes, a top member of FARC. (Note: The battalions weren’t actually deployed, but it did result in a substantial diplomatic crisis.)
– From Aló Presidente on Wikipedia
Coincidentally, I’d recently watched a Frontline episode on Chavez and his TV show, called The Hugo Chavez Show, appropriately enough.
It’s 90 minutes of video worth watching to see coverage of Chavez grilling his ministers on live TV and governing from the hip. It’ll also give you a better understanding of the void they’re facing after his death.
I’m fascinated by Chavez, the cult of personality that follows leaders like him, and the vacuum of power their countries face on their death. I’m hopeful for a smooth transition for Venezuela and better relations between our countries in the future.
- Adiós, Presidente, The outsized life of Venezuela’s celebrity president. Photo slideshow. (Foreign Policy)
- POSTSCRIPT: HUGO CHÁVEZ, 1954-2013 (The New Yorker)
- Live From Caracas! It’s the Hugo Chavez Show, Poems to Taunts (Bloomberg)