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.
By 9 p.m., the citizens in line were weary. Vendors passed by hawking arepas, sodas, apparel, coffee, and cigarettes. Children, some wearing the green beret popularized by Che Guevara, played with each other on old military tanks on the grass. On a bench nearby, two red-clad teenagers snuggled together.
A new member had joined our small group, a public accountant named Ramar. A former lawyer trained at the prestigious Universidad Central, he had worked for four years at the presidential palace of Miraflores under President Rafael Caldera, leaving after Chávez’s election in 1998. It was a “tough hit,” he said, but one that was necessary.
“Before then, before I left my job [at Miraflores], I thought that everything was perfect, that there were no problems,” he told me. “Then I left, and I realized that yes, there were many.”
His view of Chávez was nuanced. He praised the heavy investment in education and social programs, but expressed concern over concentration of power in the executive branch.
Several years before, Ramar continued, while leading a workshop in one of the neighborhoods of Caracas, he had the opportunity to meet the president. Judging from the media, “I had always seen him as this massive, aggressive, almost angry personality. But I found out that he was a human being. He listened, he had ideas. I was impressed.”
Among Feliz, Ramar, Rosalie, their respective families, we had formed our own group among the thousands, and they agreed to save my spot in line while I stepped aside to take pictures at a nearby plaza. The vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, had been sworn in as Venezuela’s president, and the people around me cheered as they watched him speak on a large projector screen, calling for the preservation of Chávez’s legacy and for unity during these troubled times. He defended his decision to expel a member of the US embassy for attempting to conspire with the military, declaring that he wanted the country free of American infestation.
I recalled the anti-American rhetoric I had heard in recent days, which had initially unsettled me. But now, at the center of Caracas, amidst the loud applause at the condemnation of the misdeeds of the American empire, I did not feel afraid. After all, as a woman near me pointed out, the real yanquis wouldn’t be there, with “the people.”
I went back in line, and watched from afar images on the projector screen of the funeral proceedings earlier that day. It was now 10:30 p.m., and a series of trucks rode in, about 10 red-clad workers on each. They weaved through the lines as they handed out blue bags to each person. A woman in a white tank top and purple pants—the same one who had sanctioned me as a unique American—made sure that I got one.
I opened the bag to find a carefully-wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwich with juice. I was astonished. Where had this come from, I asked? “The National Guard,” she responded, pointing to a truck near us, where workers were handing out water bottles.
“What is it?,” she asked, noticing my puzzled face. I explained that I had never seen anything like this before, and she laughed.
“This,” she said, motioning around her, smiling, “is the revolution.”
She took her place back in line, but turned back toward me. “I’m Julianna,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
At 12 a.m., after nearly seven hours of waiting, we entered the military zone surrounding the academy where the body of Hugo Chávez lay. The change in mood was palpable: the numerous vendors dwindled, and the line merged into single-file. In the distance, groups were waving the Bolivian and Colombian flags. People slept, or simply sat with droopy eyes in the bleachers around us, but the majority remained in line.
Assured that my spot was secure, I too went to the bleachers and spent a couple hours sleeping, or trying to. When I returned, I met Arturo, a 22-year-old from Valencia, a city three hours away. He had arrived earlier that day with his mother, Maggie, who stood next to him; his father and brother lay asleep on the bleachers toward the front of the line.
As we talked through various formalities—my abroad program, impressions of Venezuela, the food here—a woman in front of us detected my accent, and chimed in.
Her name was Doris, and she came from Barcelona—“The one in Venezuela, not Spain.” She wanted to see her president, who was “beautiful” and whom she loved, the man who had changed her life by advocating for her, and her family. She laughed as she asked me questions in her accented English: “Where are you from?” “How old are you?”
During my time learning Spanish, the tendency of Latin Americans to break into English upon detecting my foreignness had always bothered me. But this struck me as genuine: She was not trying to show off her English; she wanted simply to make me feel comfortable. All around us, people broke into laughter at her accent, myself included.
In the background, the audio system played songs of Alí Primera, a Venezuelan musician and political activist—among them songs against the American occupation of Vietnam—and audio of Chávez’s speeches. Television screens above played clips from “Aló Presidente,” Chávez’s weekly television program.
Doris continued asking me what I was doing in Venezuela, what college I went to, what I studied. When I said history, her eyes widened.
“Look around you. This is your story: a president who loved his people, and a people who loved their president.” She glanced down and looked up at me smiling. “That’s a great story.”
By 3 a.m., the prospects of seeing the late president seemed bleak. The line had stalled, and the people around us had grown restless and begun screaming, “¡Queremos ver a Chávez! We want to see Chávez!”
Someone returned after investigating the end of the line, and informed us that there was not just one line remaining, as we had thought, but four. One person, we were told, had been waiting 34 hours—since 5 p.m. two days before. I decided to remain until at least 7 a.m., when, I figured, the bus terminal would be open and I could buy a return ticket to Mérida.
I went back into the bleachers and looked around: No one from our initial group, it appeared—not Feliz, not Rosalie, not Ramar—remained. The air had grown cold, and I shivered, eyeing jealously the people with the foresight to bring blankets, towels, and extra Chávez shirts.
I had been sitting alone for an hour, sometimes drifting to sleep, occasionally munching from the bag of granola, when Ramar, the lawyer who had worked at the presidential palace, appeared. He’d been visiting with one of his friends toward the front. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “Gone home, tired,” I replied. The line didn’t seem to be moving, I myself would probably leave around seven. He encouraged me, at the very least, to walk with him toward the front so that I could see the military academy.
We passed a few thousand people before arriving at a grassy area near the entrance to the academy, where several separate lines—for the military, for officials, for the elderly—converged into one. Pointing to one of the lines, Ramar told me that, had he wanted, his qualifications would have permitted him a much shorter trip to see Chávez. But considering the grandness of the moment, he had refrained. “I wanted to see the people,” he said. “That people like you were also in line. This is an experience, this is history for all of us, you know.”
We walked over to the front of the line, and I asked a man how long he had been waiting. 19 hours, he replied, with some excitement; it wouldn’t be much longer to see “el comandante.”
Suddenly, the line began to move; Ramar and I quietly moved along next to it. We were just observing, I told myself. But when the line stretched into single file, Ramar edged himself in and I followed.
Earlier in the night I had noted the collective vigilance of those in line: no one, it seemed, could cut in without being called out by shouts of protest. But at that moment—perhaps because the line had just started to move; perhaps because of sheer weariness; perhaps because, as Ramar later explained, my innocent question had settled whatever tension existed—we passed by undetected.
Within 10 minutes, we had entered the snaking network of bars that formed the line—the final line—to see Hugo Chávez. We were at the walkway leading to the entrance of the Military Academy, whose broad white walls stood out against the darkness.
It was a little after 5 a.m., and by the early morning light we could see specks of color in the shanties that covered the surrounding hills. Down below, on a wide, blocked-off grassy area, a group of soldiers played “reveille.”
At 6:06 a.m. on March 9, after 12 hours and 48 minutes in line, I passed the body of Hugo Chávez. The inside of the military academy was expansive and white, and officials sat in rows of chairs on either side of the casket. There were two lines, one on each side, and two suited guards stood at the head of the coffin. The bottom half was enclosed in dark wood; the top half covered in what appeared to be clear glass. The pace of the line, ensured by the guards, was swift: Each person had a little over a second, to glance at the president, cross himself, and move on.
When my turn came, I peered inside the transparent covering and continued walking. In my one second to take in the late president, I did not manage to detect the color of his skin or his lips. His eyes were closed, and he wore a dark suit with a red tie, the presidential sash over his right shoulder. He looked a bit surreal, like a wax replica.
In that second, however, one feature stood out: this man, who was a savior to the millions in line and a tyrant to millions watching contemptuously on TV – this man who proclaimed the grand changes of 21st century socialism and stood as a mighty antagonist to the United States – was smaller than I had expected. His face, magnified thousands of times, sometimes in caricature, on posters, billboards and graffiti, seemed delicate, the cheek bones shallow. I remembered what Rosalie had told me thirteen hours before: that above all Chávez was human.
As I walked down a long hallway with Ramar, citizens exchanged loud greetings of “buenos días” with the soldiers on duty. Ramar smiled at me, and I thought what a thrill this had all been. Maybe we could go again?
Then I noticed that the woman in black in front of me was shaking with tears. I looked at the family behind me, their eyes reddened to the color of their clothing. And I looked out across the lawn of the military academy, where the sun now shone on hundreds of thousands of similarly red-clad Venezuelans who patiently waited their one-second turn.
Whether or not Hugo Chávez truly was a cult leader, a communist, a populist dictator, or a savior, he meant more to these people—many of them young, but of all ages—than I could yet comprehend. They had seemed warm: They offered me food; they talked intelligently about politics and culture and the world; they did not care that I was American. Perhaps this was a sleep-deprived early-morning delirium, but I felt at that moment that they were not deluded.
On our way out of the Military Academy, Ramar told me that he had always wanted to go to New York, and asked about the dangers of the South Bronx.
Then he paused. “Wait a second. You just went to Caracas, the most dangerous city in the world, during one of the most volatile political events in its history. You were out all night with Venezuelans you didn’t know—and you were fine.”
He laughed. “If I go to the United States,” he said, “I’m going to the Bronx.”