Waiting for Chávez
Part of a series of ongoing coverage on Venezuela following the death of President Hugo Chávez. Part I was published on March 7.
The first person I met upon entering the line at the Paseo Los Próceres in Caracas, Venezuela, to see the body of the country’s late president, Hugo Chávez, was a dark-skinned man named Feliz. He wore a green mesh shirt and jeans, and his wife stood next to him holding their daughter, who wore a red beret. I introduced myself, and said that I was a college student studying abroad from the United States. He smiled: “You’re a revolutionary, then?”
It was 5:18 p.m. on March 8, and in front of us stretched miles of red: t-shirts, hats, headbands, facepaint. They reference Chávez’s famous political moments (such as 4-F, or February 4, 1992, the date of his failed military coup and his subsequent early-morning proclamation that his Bolivarian movement had failed “por ahora,” “for now,”) and his campaign slogans (including “Yo soy Chávez;” “I am Chávez;” “Chávez, corazón de mi patria;” “Chávez, the heart of my homeland”).
A businessman from the neighborhood of La Hoyada in Caracas, Feliz had come on this day in particular because there were supposed to be fewer people—with luck, he told me, we would arrive by one or two in the morning. He emphasized that the wait did not matter, that the important thing was to see “el comandante” one last time. “Nothing like this would happen anywhere else,” he added.
In front of him stood Rosalie, a short, older woman in a blue Chávez t-shirt from the October elections. She offered me one of her water bottles and some snacks—eight or nine hours would be a long wait—and began spontaneously to explain what her president had meant to her.
“The first thing you should understand about Hugo Chávez is that he’s profoundly human. He cares. For the first time ever, a politician interacted with his citizens as a human being. He talked to us, he listened to us, he played with us,” she said, motioning toward her two-year-old niece, dressed in pink and sleeping in her stroller.
Venezuela, she claimed, is now one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t depend on anyone else, a development brought about by Chávez’s focus on nationalizing the country’s own industries.
She was a resident of Catia, a slum so notorious for poverty and violence that she didn’t deem it necessary to remind even a foreigner like me. But she remained proud, and thankful for what the president had done for her.
“We have our own house, now,” she said, “our own car, our own groceries, our own electricity, just like you do in the United States. When we want to travel, we travel. When we want to have fun, we have fun. When we want to have parties, we have parties. We live in Catia, but we live well.”
Aware of condemnations of Chávez by much of the international press, as well as of many Venezuelans—likening Chávez to a dictator, an autocrat, a communist—she declared that these were simply “lies.”
“How can they say that?” Her face tensed in anger. “How can they say that he’s a dictator? He’s a dictator for insisting that everyone follow the law? He’s a dictator for making sure our money stays in Venezuela? He’s a dictator for going to the U.S. and telling them the truth—that they have been making unjust wars on other nations?”
She motioned to a woman standing by her, who was speaking to an interviewer in front of a television camera.
“They can say what they want, and I respect them,” she was saying. “But we elected him out of our own free will, and we came here out of our own free will. They must understand”—she motioned to those in all directions around her—“that we are millions.” The hundreds in her vicinity erupted into cheer.
An hour and a half had passed, and the sun was setting behind Caracas, its sloping valley turning to gray with the dusk.