The MasterBlog: 'Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President'
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Saturday, September 1, 2007

'Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President'

'Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President'

By Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka
September 1, 2007

CHAPTER 1

The Revolution Has Arrived

On the night of december 6, 1998, a large crowd gathered in front of the Teatro Teresa Carreño, close to the center of Caracas. The atmosphere was festive. Moments earlier, the National Electoral Council had read the first official bulletin of the day's election results. With 64 percent of the votes counted, there was no longer room for doubt. Fifty-six percent of the Venezuelan electorate had voted for Hugo Chávez, while his principal opponent, Henrique Salas Römer, a coalition candidate representing the traditional political parties, had garnered only 39 percent of the vote. Venezuela now had a new president, a man who had tried to reach the presidency scarcely six years earlier by attempting to overthrow the government. What had been unattainable by military uprising in 1992 became reality via the democratic process. He was not a career politician, nor did he have any experience in the public sector. And he was barely forty-four years old, much younger than the average age of the presidents who had preceded him. Invoking the memory of the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar, Chávez vowed to end corruption and democratize the oil business, and he expressed his dream of a country free of poverty. And from deep within the shadows, he dragged out one of Latin America's mustiest ghosts: revolution.

[hugo chavez]

Though on the surface it may have seemed otherwise, December 6, 1998, marked the fulfillment of a deeply rooted obsession of the newly elected president. As his childhood friend Federico Ruiz recalls, on December 31 of 1982 or 1983, Hugo Chávez decided to take a day trip from the city of Maracay to Barinas, some 525 kilometers from Caracas, to visit their mothers and give their families a surprise New Year's hug. Five hours there and five hours back, at least.

"It was just the two of us, in a Dodge Dart he had, passing a bottle of rum back and forth," Ruiz recalls. Of their very lengthy conversations, one moment remains crystal clear in Ruiz's memory. "He said, 'You know something? One day I'm going to be president of the republic.' And I said, 'Damn! Well, you can name me minister of, of . . . I don't know!' And then we joked around about it." Clarifying that this was not an idle comment made during a lull in the conversation nor due to an alcohol-infused bravado, Ruiz adds, "Hugo was very serious when he said that."

Of course he was serious. He was dead serious. This wasn't the first time the idea had popped into his friend's head. As a nineteen-year-old cadet in the military academy, Chávez had marched in a procession shortly after Carlos Andrés Pérez had been elected to his first term as president of the republic (1974–79). The moment established an unforeseen link between the two men, though it is entirely probable that Pérez walked past the young Chávez without giving him a second thought. Why on earth would Pérez have bothered to think that this cadet, who hadn't even graduated from the military academy, would one day conspire against him during his second term as president by staging a violent military coup against his government? How on earth could Pérez have ever imagined that this young soldier would become president of Venezuela one day? Young Hugo, on the other hand, had a very different experience of this moment. On March 13, 1974, he wrote in his diary, "After waiting a long time, the new president finally arrived. When I see him I hope that one day I will be the one to bear the responsibility of an entire Nation, the Nation of the great Bolívar."

Twenty-four years later, he had finally done it. Most Venezuelans, however, were probably not aware of the fervent determination that had driven him for so long. Chávez had taken care not to publicize these aspirations. In a 1999 interview, Mempo Giardinelli and Carlos Monsiváis, two renowned Latin American writers, asked him, "Did you ever imagine that you would be sitting here today, in the presidency and in the seat of power?" Chávez's simple response: "No, never. Never."

Perhaps, on this December 6, the deeply personal meaning of this achievement was something he would celebrate on his own, for Venezuela was celebrating something else entirely: the triumph of antipolitics. The people of Venezuela had brought an outsider to the presidency, delivering a severe blow to the traditional political machine. A substantial sector of the middle class, fed up with the incompetence and corruption of the previous administrations, had fashioned a kind of revenge through the figure of this former military officer and coup leader. The media, dedicated as always to criticizing anything and everything in politics, were satisfied. The poor also identified with this message of "getting even," with this man who spoke of Venezuela's age-old debt to those who had always been excluded from the system. Chávez's victory, in this sense, was a new version of an old product, wrapped up in a bright, shiny package: Great Venezuela, the kingdom of magical liquid wealth; the paradise from which so many Venezuelans had felt themselves marginalized; the fantasy of instant success.

The candidate representing an alliance known as the Patriotic Pole won the election with an unprecedented majority. According to the final count, he earned 56.44 percent of the vote. But who was Hugo Chávez, really? Where did he come from? Where was he going? How would his dreams and those of his country merge into one? On that victorious night in Caracas, after his rivals and the official institutions had formally acknowledged him as the new president-elect of Venezuela, this is what he had to say: "My dear friends: very simply, what happened today had to happen. As Jesus said, 'It is accomplished. What had to be accomplished was accomplished.' " And beneath the long shadow of the early dawn hour in Caracas, Chávez began to sing the national anthem.

Scarcely six years earlier, when Hugo Chávez had appeared on television to claim responsibility for attempting to overthrow the government, all his family could possibly feel were shock and embarrassment. At that time, nobody thought that Hugo Chávez was on his way to a meteoric political career. One of his friends from secondary school said, "It's something very difficult to digest. You have to take into account the significance of never having been a councilman, a congressman, a [political] leader, never having been a goddamn thing in politics . . . and then suddenly ending up president."

Indeed, nothing indicated that this would be Hugo's destiny. Many people probably would have said that simply being born in Sabaneta was a great disadvantage. On the other hand, it was also the ideal beginning of a grand myth, that of the humble man who rises to achieve untold powers—a potent, emotional dream for anyone with a melodramatic vision of history. There may have been presidents before Chávez who had risen to the pinnacle of power from simple, humble beginnings—in fact, none of the presidents from Venezuela's democratic age had come from Caracas. Just like Chávez, all of them had come from the provinces—the majority from poor families, as well. Yet Hugo Chávez, the first one from Barinas, in the far reaches of the Venezuelan plain, was the first president to transform his geographic circumstances into a symbol.

Regionalism is a tricky thing. The simple recipes that use geographic ingredients to define cultural traits are so very easy to believe and are repeated over and over again: people who live near the ocean or sea are open, honest, spontaneous people, whereas those who hail from the Andes, who live in the cold, vertical silence of the mountains, are taciturn, withdrawn. These kinds of classifications are hard to avoid. According to the Venezuelan stereotype, the llanero, the man from the plains, is a reserved, skeptical type who, once you break the ice, reveals himself to be a loyal, talkative person who loves to tell a good story. They say that there is something about the plains, with their converging horizons and interminable, flat terrain, that produces an odd combination of silences and long musical corridos, filled with protracted screams and counterpoints. It is a territory that is also a climate of the interior, a place where cattle, ghosts, horses, and apparitions coexist.

Manuel Díaz, also known as "Venenito"—Little Poison—worked for some thirty years as a chemistry teacher at the Daniel Florencio O'Leary secondary school in Barinas, where Hugo Chávez was his student. According to Díaz, the llaneros "are hard to understand. They are very suspicious people. Always thinking about what people want from them. But once they know you, they are genuine. . . . They offer their friendship when they see that it is reciprocal." He also adds another bit of insight: "They are marked by machismo. The man is the one who does everything." According to a common maxim that the people of the plains often use to describe themselves, "The llanero is as great as the task he sees in front of him." Obviously, there is nothing terribly specific about this refrain: a multitude of regional identities could easily jibe with this definition.

Of all Venezuelan presidents, however, Chávez has most consistently invoked the spirit of the region from which he comes, frequently peppering his speeches with personal anecdotes, cultural references, and songs relating to the plains and its inhabitants. He loves to regale his public with childhood memories, and when he speaks of his retirement, he talks about going back to his roots and spending his golden years on the banks of a river, in some faraway outpost of those vast plains.

Efrén Jiménez, Hugo's childhood playmate and next-door neighbor, says of those days, "Sabaneta was made up of about four streets. At that time I think there must have been about a thousand people, maybe a little more. We all knew each other, we were all like one big family." There was no regular electric light, but the village had a generator that delivered electricity every day from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Hugo's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, taught at the Julián Pino school, the only one in the village. Another childhood friend recalls the elder Chávez as a good educator, "strict, demanding, and disciplined, but not arbitrary."

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born in Sabaneta, in the state of Barinas, on July 28, 1954, the second of six brothers. His mother, Elena, has admitted that during those years "my work was all family. I couldn't do anything else." They lived in a house with a roof made of palm leaves. That was where all her boys were born: "With a midwife. Like a pig, because back then there was no hospital, no doctor, nothing. It was just you in childbirth. And the pain was the same with all of them. All of them."

The Chávez family finances were very precarious; the money disappeared as fast as the children appeared. Perhaps for that reason, Rosa Inés Chávez, Hugo's paternal grandmother, would become an important figure in his life. Because of the family's strained budget, she was the one who raised young Hugo, and Chávez has openly acknowledged the tremendous role his grandmother has played in his life. When his second wife bore him a daughter, she was baptized Rosa Inés. Those close to Chávez's grandmother confirm that she influenced Chávez in a way that would have been all but impossible in his parents' home.

Elena Frías de Chávez was eighteen years old when she gave birth to Adán, her first son. A year and three months later, she gave birth again, to Hugo. Another year and three months later, she gave birth to yet another baby. At that point, her mother-in-law offered to lend a hand, and it was agreed that Adán and Hugo would move to their grandmother's house. Economically, it was probably not much of an improvement, but at least the responsibilities were spread around. In her kitchen, Rosa Inés would prepare arañitas, papaya sweets, and Hugo would go out and sell them in the street. In a diary entry dated June 12, 1974, Hugo recalled, "Around here, in the area nearby, there was lots of mountain broom and just looking at it brings back the distant but indelible image of my life as a child, in the fields of Sabaneta, with Adán and my grandmother, gathering handfuls of that plant to sweep our modest house with the dirt floor." Chávez's many fond references to his grandmother clearly reveal that her affection and love were and are of paramount importance to him. As far as anyone knows, she was a quiet, good-humored woman. Her death, in 1982, was a terrible blow to the two brothers whom she raised.

Elena eventually decided she wanted her children to return home, but by then it was already too late.

"Afterward, when I wanted to get my children back, my husband said to me, 'Elena, if you take those little boys away from her, my mother will have a heart attack. And if my mother dies it will be your fault.' And so I didn't say anything, because if she died, they were going to blame it on me. . . . After a while I brought it up again, I said, 'Hugo, I want my sons to come back here with me.' " The verb "take away" may sound harsh, but that is precisely what they would have been doing. The years went by, and the two little boys would never return to live in the home of Hugo and Elena. They would often spend much of the day at their parents' house, but at night they always went back to sleep at their grandmother's. According to Elena, her house was home for the two boys "until Hugo went to the Academy and Adán left for college."

The influence of his grandmother and the early separation from his mother have served as fodder for many hypotheses regarding the evolution of Hugo Chávez's personality and character. Some people feel there is a connection between the circumstances of his early life and the incendiary tone of his political rhetoric. Some people sense in him a perpetual aggression that they believe stems from a deep-seated resentment regarding his early childhood experiences. This would be supported by a related theory suggesting that Chávez harbors muted feelings of ill will toward his mother.

Herma Marksman, the history professor who was Chávez's lover for nine years, says, "I felt that he loved his father more than his mother. I think that he really missed the warmth of his mother during those early years. That is my personal perception." Marksman also recalls a heated discussion they once had as a couple, which ended with the following exchange. " 'So you don't love your mother?' I asked him. And he said, 'No. I respect her.' On two separate occasions," she says, "he brought up this distance from his mother. It was so extreme that, for a time, if the two of them crossed paths on the street, they would avoid each other so they wouldn't have to say hello. That's what he told me." According to Marksman, there was a period of two years when Chávez did not speak to his mother at all.

In an interview with the magazine Primicia, in 1999, a confession from Elena added more fuel to the fire: "I didn't want to have children . . . I don't know, I didn't like them, it didn't seem appealing, but since God told me, 'That is what you are going to do,' I got married and a month later I was pregnant."4 She also admits that she was very strict, and would often hit her sons to keep them in line, a common practice in Venezuela in those years.

When Chávez entered the military academy in 1971, the very first letter he wrote was to his grandmother Rosa Inés, and she was the person he would write to again and again after that, his letters filled with expressions that confirmed their closeness: "Dear Mamá," he often wrote to her, and he also referred to her on occasion as "mamita." His words reflect genuine warmth and affection, a strong, profound emotional bond. At the end of one of these letters, dated August 31, 1971, he said as much: "Finally, I want you to know that I have always felt proud to have been raised by you and to be able to call you Mamá. And I ask you to bless me, your loving son." This deep-seated devotion contrasts a bit with the feelings he expressed in letters to his birth mother. The correspondence with Elena de Chávez was also loving and affectionate but far more sporadic, which does seem to suggest that young Hugo's maternal bond was with his grandmother. That, at least, is how he put it on the eve of his graduation from the military academy: "I have been alive for twenty years, sixteen of which I spent with you. I have learned so many things from you: to be humble but proud, and the most important thing, which I inherited from you, was that spirit of sacrifice that I hope will take me far, although perhaps, if I am unlucky, it will cut my illusions short."

While some believe that the circumstances of his childhood were extremely traumatic, others feel the exact opposite is true: one childhood friend remembers Hugo as a happy child and points out that this type of family arrangement, in which grandparents or uncles and aunts raised grandchildren or nieces and nephews, was quite normal in the rural Venezuela of those years. In general, Chávez himself has also tended to recall his childhood as a happy time in his life; he has never spoken of his early years as a hell from which he needed to escape. On his Sunday radio show of October 17, 2004, he remarked that his early years had been "poor but happy," and he has often delighted in telling stories about his two great childhood passions: painting and baseball. Elena also remembers the talent and skill her son demonstrated: "He liked to draw a lot. He painted everything. He would sit down right here and look at a little dog, and in a flash he'd paint it. He would make drawings of his brothers, his friends . . . anyone who came his way would say, 'Huguito, make me a drawing.' And right away he would draw a little something. Just like that."

His other great passion was el juego de pelota: baseball. Almost all little boys in Venezuela, at one time or another, dream of being baseball players, and around that time, a Venezuelan pitcher whose last name also happened to be Chávez had made it to the American big leagues with a promising future. His first name was Isaías, though thanks to his superlative pitching skills, he became known as "Látigo"—the Whip. Huguito took an immediate shine to the Whip, who was ultimately more than just an idol—he was a model, a dream that Hugo could aspire to. Whenever Hugo played in the streets or in one of the empty lots in his village, he would daydream about one day becoming a real-life baseball player, a celebrity who could command ovations from the crowds in a massive stadium somewhere.

Others from Sabaneta who were close to the family during those years also agree that Hugo Chávez's childhood was not a wretched experience that warped his personality and made him resentful, aggressive, and vengeful. Aside from speculations about what went on inside the family nucleus, there seems to be only one distant story offering any suggestion of a childhood marked by humiliation. His aunt Joaquina Frías describes it: "The first day Hugo went to school they wouldn't let him inside. He was wearing an old pair of canvas slippers, the only ones he had. His grandmother Rosa Inés cried and cried because she couldn't afford to buy him shoes. It was heart-wrenching to watch that woman, so strong-willed in general, break down like that. I don't know how she managed to buy another pair of slippers, but the boy was able to go back to school." This scene hardly seems like something that could define the totality of a man's character, but yet again it does underscore the importance of his grandmother: after all, it was Rosa Inés who accompanied him on his first day of school, and it was Rosa Inés who confronted even the tiniest of everyday mishaps and troubles.

Edmundo Chirinos is a nationally renowned psychiatrist. Associated with leftist politics, he is the former rector of Venezuela's Central University and was once a candidate for the presidency. After the 1992 coup attempt, he became acquainted with Hugo Chávez.

When he was imprisoned in Yare, he didn't know many people in the civilian world. He called some of us who had a certain prestige or were known by people. That's how he called the current vice president [at that time, José Vicente Rangel], his mentor, Luis Miquilena, and many others that have come into his government. He called me because I had been a presidential candidate and had political experience; second, he had family problems, and required my services as psychiatric counselor. He was not perturbed; he only had common problems anybody could have had with wives or children. That's how I became his friend and counselor.

When Chirinos describes Hugo Chávez, he does not single out the president's relationship with his grandmother, but he does highlight some notable personality traits that are clearly linked to his life experience, including his childhood: "Chávez feels genuine scorn for oligarchic people, not only in the sense of possessing money but of affectation, through gestures, language . . . and so in that respect, he exhibits an evident bipolarity, of an affinity for the humble and a rejection of the all-powerful."

As time goes by, it will become more and more difficult to study the facts of Hugo Chávez's journey through life. His story already has an "official version," a party line that has been reconstructed and retold from his position of power. Any anecdote about his childhood, any distant event, is now seen in a different light, either magnified or diminished, reinvented or dropped. This is almost part of the natural process by which power invents a new kind of memory. When Elena was asked if she had ever known of her son's intentions of becoming president, she replied, "We hadn't planned anything, anything at all. Look, all this has come to us by the work and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nothing more."

But it was more than the Holy Spirit that shook the country on December 6, 1998. It is no coincidence that the person running Venezuela today came of age in the army. Nor is it anything new: between 1830 and 1958 the country was governed by civilians for a scant nine years. In 1958, the demise of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez's dictatorship marked the beginning of the longest period of democracy Venezuela has ever known. During this era the main parties opposing the military regime came together and, with the exception of the Communist Party, drafted an agreement of governance, later known as the Punto Fijo Pact. Ultimately, Democratic Action (the Social Democratic party) and the Christian Democrats' Independent Political Electoral Organizing Committee (known as COPEI, from its initials in Spanish) took control of the public sector in Venezuela. During four decades, the two parties took turns in the presidency. The adecos, as the Social Democrats are called, governed for five terms, and the copeyanos, as the Christian Democrats are known, led the government on three occasions. By 1998, this model was so deeply in crisis that Hugo Chávez's main promise to the country was to end "forty years of corrupt democracy." This was the central theme of his campaign: to do away with the past.

On December 7, 1998, the editorial page of the newspaper El Nacional neatly summarized the sentiments of the majority of the voting public:

The results of this Sunday's election speak very clearly about Venezuelan society, not just about the great hopes for change that have been evolving at its core, but also about the tremendous levels of frustration that have turned the majority against the old political leadership. It is absolutely clear that the entire country has chosen an option that is different from that which the traditional ruling class was trying to impose.

It was clear that the punishment vote had worked, and that democracy—at least the kind that the Venezuelan elite had engendered—was no longer a promise that people felt they could believe in. In 1998, everyone in Venezuela, even those who did not vote for Hugo Chávez, wanted a change.

This evaluation of the immediate past, however, may be unfair. It may also be influenced by the way Venezuelans relate to their own reality, to the culture of a country that has never quite figured out how to assimilate its oil wealth. There is little doubt as to how or why, in scarcely forty years, Venezuela's civilian-democratic project became so warped and so corrupt, dissolving in a debilitating crisis that touched every area of society and its institutions, from the economy to political representation to the delivery of justice and beyond. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that, at least in the beginning, the democratic experience modernized the country and served to interrupt the militarist tradition—and temptation—of Venezuelan history, introducing educational reform, agrarian reform, the decentralization process, the nationalization of the oil business, the creation of scholarships and specialized study programs abroad. No legitimate assessment can overlook the country's very deep complexities during this period. Even in economic terms, the verdict always requires a good deal of qualification.

In 1997, a group of academics and researchers decided to undertake a serious and exhaustive analysis of poverty in Venezuela. In 2004, they published the results of their study:

By the middle of the twentieth century, there was already a deeply rooted conviction that Venezuela was rich because of oil, because of that natural gift that does not depend on productivity or the enterprising spirit of the Venezuelan people. Political activity revolved around the struggle to distribute the wealth, rather than the creation of a sustainable source of wealth that would depend upon the commercial initiatives and the productivity of the majority of the Venezuelan people. Under democracy (starting in 1958), the income from oil (which represented almost 90 percent of exports and 60 percent of the national budget) was distributed more broadly, but this distortion in the mentality and the economic dynamic became a permanent factor in the country. Politicians rested on their promises—as well as some successful initiatives to expand public services—of distributing the wealth that was in the hands of the state.

More and more, the country harbored the illusion that it could advance toward modern consumer habits (through imports purchased with its petrodollars) without having to develop a diversified production through a modern culture of productivity. To a certain degree, this was possible for 10 percent of the population in a Venezuela of less than 5 million inhabitants, but there is no way that in Venezuela today, with 25 million inhabitants, 11 million workers will enjoy decent, steady jobs while clinging to the oil dynamic and the culture of easy money. Twenty-five years ago, after sixty years of growth from 1918 to 1978, a period in which the gross national product grew more than 6 percent annually and Venezuelans experienced the sensation of social mobility, the country fell into decline, and poverty began to grow at an alarming and sustained rate.

Hugo Chávez was born in that Venezuela of less than 5 million inhabitants. He benefited from the advantages of that first democratic, modernizing impulse of the governments that succeeded the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. But he also witnessed and lived through the decline. In this sense, he was a link between these two countries: one captivated by the quest to build a fairer, more evolved society with solid institutions and enterprises, the other in thrall to the great national illusion, a utopia in which the state is the providential benefactor, all structure and rules are dispensable, effort is a distraction, and destiny is not a future to build but a heaven that already exists, a treasure already won that needs only to be meted out properly.

Those who worked on Chávez's presidential campaign took brilliant advantage of the widespread desire for a clean break with the system. "The country had expectations for Chávez," says Juan Barreto, a journalist close to the president. "[This was] because he was the person who, in the most frontal way imaginable, had stood up to the symbolic forms of political power: the central government and Carlos Andrés Pérez, who at that moment was the living incarnation of corruption." Though the people who designed his electoral campaign say that Chávez did not let people advise him and "created his own image," it is clear that they did have to fix certain things along the way. For example, Chávez often sounded extremely aggressive when he made speeches. He also had a tendency to use a confrontational, macabre vocabulary—the word "death" frequently popped into his speeches, which led people to think of his candidacy as something frightening. In addition, the many groups that supported him, which were lumped together in an alliance called the Patriotic Pole, included the Communist Party and other leftist organizations with extremely radical postures. His campaign strategists soon realized that the real debate and the real issues were more than just a repudiation of the past and of the country's traditional parties and their corrupt practices. Nobody, they realized, could win an election without offering hope.

Rafael Céspedes, who served as an adviser to Dominican president Leonel Fernández on two occasions, played a key role in fine-tuning Chávez's public image. One of his principal strategies was to use Marisabel Rodríguez, the candidate's second wife, in the campaign. Marisabel was part of an elaborate plan intended to soothe the Venezuelan populace by softening the candidate's image. Marisabel is well educated, kind, attractive, and spontaneous. Her type of beauty was especially useful to the campaign because there is something about her that recalls the stereotype that so many people seem to adore: she is white, she has blue eyes, and in fact, she had even participated in a competition sponsored by Revlon to find the most beautiful face in Venezuela. At the side of the unpredictable, aggressive soldier, suddenly there was a real-life Barbie doll who even made sense when she talked.

All through 1998, Chávez and his team plugged away, and his campaign went from strength to strength. The statistics are overwhelming: in January the polls reported a 9 percent approval rating, whereas by October, just two months away from the elections, the same polls revealed that 48 percent of the electorate was on his side. It hadn't always been smooth sailing. In June, Bandera Roja (Red Flag), one of the leftist groups that had supported his candidacy, dissociated itself from the campaign and accused Chávez of working a "double discourse": "In front of the nation he acts like an avenger who wants to sweep the decks and start with a clean slate, turn the country upside-down, but when he is among the powerful he shows his true colors and confesses his true intentions, which are to carry out nothing but superficial changes." Also that month, Teodoro Petkoff, the leader of the Venezuelan leftist opposition and founder of MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, the Movement Toward Socialism party) and an internationally renowned activist, called him a populist and compared his demagogy to that of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez did not even flinch.

On July 24, the date on which Simón Bolívar's birthday is celebrated, Hugo Chávez registered his presidential candidacy with the National Electoral Council and declared, "Let the whole world know that in Venezuela, a true social revolution is now under way. Nothing and nobody will be able to stand in the way of the triumph of the democratic revolution." The parties that made up the Patriotic Pole and supported his candidacy were the Movimiento V República (Fifth Republic Movement), an entity founded by Chávez himself; Movement Toward Socialism; PPT (Patria para Todos, or Homeland for All); the Venezuelan Communist Party; and the Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo (People's Electoral Movement). This was not a massively organized machine by any stretch of the imagination—quite the opposite, in fact. It was a collection of relatively small leftist parties, united behind the personal figure of the candidate. With his unusual talent for communication, Chávez capitalized on the collective desire for change by cultivating and promoting the idea that his election, in and of itself, already represented a rupture in the historical continuum, a transformation. Jimmy Carter, who attended the electionJimmy Carter, who attended the elections that Sunday, December 6, 1998, as an observer, confirmed this by stating that he had witnessed a democratic and peaceful revolution.

Chávez's campaign chief, the retired general Alberto Müller Rojas, suggests a less heroic version of that election day: "The campaign won pretty easily. The victory had more to do with his adversaries' political errors than the quality of our own electoral campaign, which was relatively disorganized because that was the only way it could be. The elections were won more because of what the opposition didn't achieve than because of what chavismo [the Chávez movement] actively achieved. I am absolutely convinced of that." Anyone who studies the performance of Chávez's opponents will undoubtedly discover a number of grave miscalculations. First, his opponents seemed unaware of the fact that the country was changing. They never seemed capable of reading the reality of what was going on—neither in the very beginning, when Irene Sáez, a former Miss Universe without much substance, enjoyed tremendous popular support, nor at the end, when a number of parties and organizations, in desperation over Chávez's imminent triumph, came together far too late in support of Henrique Salas Römer, the only candidate with a chance of beating Chávez, according to the polls. The opposition simply had not offered any coherent political alternative for the Venezuelan voters—not even in their electoral demagogy was there the glimmer of a serious proposal. Their only objective was to avert a Patriotic Pole victory. Quite aptly, the press labeled the movement the "anti-Chávez front."

Nedo Paniz, another close Chávez collaborator during this period, clarifies that the campaign was not all improvisation and guesswork. It was very expensive, and Chávez doggedly pursued the strategy of nothing but ferocious, constant criticism of those in power. He also refused to take part in a broadcast debate with his main opponent, and it was this aloof, fierce attitude that ultimately brought the traditional political parties and the entire political class to their knees.

The rest of the country, however, was jubilant. It had been years since so many Venezuelans had come together to celebrate a victory like this. When he assumed the presidency, Hugo Chávez enjoyed 80 percent of the population's support. Müller himself confirms that Gustavo Cisneros, the wealthiest man in the country, supported the Chávez cause with cash donations and free airtime on Venevisión, his television channel. This gesture of confidence is an interesting example of the enigmatic and ambiguous relationship that has always existed between the president and the magnate. Cisneros has long since been the emblematic enemy of the Venezuelan left as well as the living image of the reactionary far right. Some years later, Chávez would say Cisneros was conspiring against his government. On a radio program in May 2004, Chávez bristled when he spoke of Cisneros: "The day will come, and hopefully it is not far off, when we will have a body of judges and prosecutors who are afraid of nothing and who will act according to what the Constitution says, and send capos like this Gustavo Cisneros to prison." Shortly thereafter, however, a private meeting was held between Chávez and Cisneros under the stewardship of Jimmy Carter. The Chávez camp claimed that Cisneros was involved in drug trafficking and had been one of the masterminds behind the April 2002 coup to remove Chávez from the presidency. Apparently, things have always been like this between the two men. Müller recalls that at one dinner together, both men were surrounded the entire time by their respective aides, who acted as intermediaries because the two refused to speak to each other directly.

"The compromise that Chávez reached with Cisneros was that he would give [Cisneros] a monopoly on educational television in Venezuela," says Müller Rojas. If that was the case, Chávez never made good on his promise.

With respect to support and alliances, this was far from the only bit of unexplained business on the path to electoral victory. In 2002, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Banco Bilbao Vizcaya had donated $1.52 million to Chávez's electoral campaign. Luis Miquilena, the head of finances for the Patriotic Pole, was involved in this relationship. One of Venezuela's veteran leftist leaders, Miquilena was Chávez's mentor and his first interior minister. He and his business partner Tobías Carrero were rumored to have accepted money from a foreign institution for an electoral campaign, which is a crime in Venezuela. This revelation led to another bit of information that raised even more eyebrows: on January 11, 1999, during his first trip to Spain as president-elect of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez met with Emilio Ybarra, president of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, and then with Emilio Botín and his daughter Ana Patricia Botín, of Banco Santander. At first, the new administration denied everything, but the situation soon became unmanageable: according to the Spanish daily El País, the central bank of Spain reported that BBV (which has since merged and is now Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) had diverted funds of "more than $1.5 million through two payments to the Chávez campaign with the intention of protecting itself in the event of a possible nationalization of the finance industry in this Latin American country." On April 6, 2002, General Müller acknowledged the BBV donations, adding that the majority of international banks operating in Venezuela had also contributed to the Chávez campaign.

A few days later, however, on April 25, Hugo Chávez said on the Spanish TV station Telecinco, "I have not received one dollar from these people, this bank . . . what is it called? . . . Bilbao Vizcaya." It is also rumored that the campaign had received $1.8 million from Banco Santander. In Spain, on June 20, Emilio Ybarra, the former copresident of Banco Santander, admitted to Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón that in fact he had donated money to finance the Chávez campaign in 1998. Müller has said that "Luis Miquilena handled these resources in a secret manner. Nobody—neither the parties that comprised the Patriotic Pole, nor the apparatus I had in place at campaign headquarters—knew how much money was there, what it was spent on, or how much was spent on each individual item." Venezuelan justice sank into these shadows. The charge against Chávez of illegal campaign financing, which was filed with the attorney general of the Republic, never went anywhere.

On the night of December 6, 1998, however, the country was in the throes of euphoria and had little interest in such details. In the gathering in front of the Teresa Carreño Theater, Hugo Chávez began to speak. The cameras of every media organization in the country were firmly fixed on the new president's face, and the entire country anxiously awaited his words. William Izarra, a retired military officer and the secret protagonist of many a military conspiracy, watched as if he couldn't believe it was really happening. As he walked past Izarra, Hugo Chávez stopped to embrace him. And in the middle of this emotion-filled moment, the president-elect whispered, "We did it, brother. After all those years, the revolution can finally begin."

Excerpted from HUGO CHAVEZ by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. Copyright © 2004, 2006 by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. Translation Copyright © 2007 by Kristina Cordero. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.


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