You would expect the New York Post to say Glad to see Hugo (get it?). Or Britain’s Daily Mail to label him a brutal despot (ignoring the fact that he won four elections). Toby Young in the Daily Telegraph, looking for the most obnoxious comparison possible, said he was the Latin American Kim Jong-il. More shamefully, Phil Gunson in The Guardian asked whether he could fairly be described as a dictator and said he was certainly no democrat. Photos appear of Chávez embracing such unpleasant allies as Mugabe and Assad, but (as Mehdi Hasan pointed out) when Thatcher dies will they publish a photo of her hugging Pinochet, or will they show Tony Blair with Mubarak?
Supporters and enemies of Chávez all agree that he was ‘larger than life’; the problem is that cynics in the western media simply can’t cope with leaders of stature, especially if they come from a continent of military dictators and banana republics. Perhaps it is because western leaders come to power promising much but then deliver little. Don’t they ask themselves why those like Chávez win election after election (in polls that Jimmy Carter has described as the cleanest in the world)? Don’t they ask why the poor and the young turn out in multitudes to support them? Or why he was one of the few left-wing leaders in Latin America to survive a military coup? Does the Daily Mail really think that the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Caracas accompanying his coffin are brainwashed? When the World Bank says he cut poverty in Venezuela from 62% to 32%, is this mere propaganda?
The press has leapt on suggestions that Chávez’s death might have been the result of a US plot as further evidence of Venezuelan madness. Of course his death was from natural causes, but given that the US had their fingerprints all over the 2002 coup against Chávez , and were behind the murder of numerous progressive Latin American leaders, is it so surprising that people might think otherwise? In the same week as Chávez died, the Guardian is turning up the connections between the US agents who trained the death squads in Central America in the 1980s and those who orchestrated the torture in Iraq after 2003. The revulsion felt in Latin America towards US military intervention is based in bitter experience: while an attitude that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ may be misguided, it is nevertheless highly understandable.
Struggling to find my own words to respond to Chávez’s death, I’m conscious that I’ve never been to Venezuela or (despite his many visits here) seen Chávez in the flesh. However, I’ve been sent a moving encapsulation of their feelings by someone who has lived in Venezuela since 1977, raising her three children in the barrios of Barquisimeto, and has met Chávez personally. Lisa Sullivan is the representative of the campaign to close the School of the Americas and worked for 21 years as a Maryknoll lay missionary. She says this:
In the past hours my inbox is bursting with messages of condolences from El Salvador, Haiti, Chile, California, Oregon, Spain, Michigan, Italy, North Carolina, Costa Rica, Miami, Nicaragua, Japan, Honduras, and just about everywhere in between, expressing solidarity with my loss. The notes are profound and personal. It’s as though Chávez were my father.
The truth is, Chávez is my father, and he is the father of all of my Venezuelan compatriotas with whom I have had the immense privilege of sharing my life and raising my children for so many years in this beautiful and generous land. Twenty of those twenty-eight years have been defined, in great part, by Chávez.
When I received the news of Chávez’s passing yesterday, the only feeling I can describe is that of being suddenly left an orphan. I immediately called my daughter in Virginia, as I knew she would understand. Several years ago when we went to live in the US for her high school senior year, Maia would tell me: ‘I miss papa so much. And, I miss Chávez. I miss hearing his voice on TV as I go to sleep. I felt so safe. As though nothing could happen to me, nothing could happen to Venezuela.’
Indeed, the people of Venezuela, the people of Latin America, the people of the Caribbean, feel suddenly orphaned from those strong and powerful arms that held us to his heart like a man defending his most vulnerable child against a raging storm. He believed in us. He told us stories and sang us songs and reminded us of our unique and dignified history. He affirmed and upheld our best qualities, he told us that we were as lovely as the stars, as bright the sun, as free as the wind, as deep as the ocean and as powerful as all the forces of the universe.
And now, he is gone. But as I took to the streets last night and this morning, like millions of other Venezuelans, to embrace strangers and cry in their arms, I found too that we had grown up. In those two decades on the Venezuelan public scene and 14 years at the helm, Chávez had given the most precious gift a surrogate parent can offer: the gift of adulthood. Let there be no doubt: the Venezuelan people have come of age. Chávez is gone, but this is what resonates on every street and every plaza today: ‘Yo soy Chávez. I am Chávez. I am the leader, the dreamer, the visionary, the teacher, the defender of justice, the weaver of another world that is possible.’