A Few Hours with Chávez
Hugo Chávez, military officer turned left-wing revolutionary, was one of the most important Latin American leaders of the twenty-first century. In My First Life, Chávez narrates the story of his life in the years preceding his election as president in 1998. His interlocutor is Ignacio Ramonet, a former editor at Le Monde diplomatique who previously produced a similiar book with Fidel Castro. The post below is excerpted from Ramonet's introduction.
To celebrate the publication of My First Life, the book and many other titles on Latin America are currently on sale at a 40% discount.
At the age of forty-five, Hugo Chávez became one of the youngest presidents in Venezuelan history.
His investiture was held on 2 February 1999. And less than two months later, on 25 April, he called as promised a referendum for a Constituent Assembly. He got 88 per cent of the votes. The Bolivarian Revolution was on the march. In July, members were elected to the Assembly. The Polo Patriótico, the president’s coalition, swept the board again, with 121 of the 128 seats. The new Assembly began work on the Fifth Republic’s Constitution, the text of which had to be ratified by a national referendum on 15 December 1999.
That was the political context in Venezuela when the possibility of my interviewing Hugo Chávez first came up. The president had read some of my articles and several of my books, and wanted to talk to me. The meeting was arranged through the president’s press office, run then by Carmen Rania, the wife of Miguel Henrique Otero. I knew this couple very well. When I arrived in Caracas at the beginning of September 1999, I visited them. Although today they are — especially Miguel Henrique — among the strongest opponents of Bolivarian policies, in those days they were sincere and enthusiastic Chávez supporters. The newspaper El Nacional, of which Miguel Henrique was the editor, had played an important role in bringing about the resignation of Carlos Andrés Pérez, and had campaigned for Chávez, contributing to his electoral victory in 1998. The couple had nothing but praise for the president, his ‘peaceful democratic revolution’, his political skill, his tactical and strategic genius, and the breath of fresh air that the Fifth Republic and the new Constitution represented.
Such was their enthusiasm that, before talking to the president, it seemed only normal and professional to also seek out critical opinions and analyses. For several days I listened to the views of various businessmen, economists, intellectuals and academics who were radically opposed to the policies of the new government. They had good arguments for expecting ‘certain failure’, namely that it was impossible for a Bolivarian Venezuela to go against the current of economic globalization, and they were wary of the Chávez brand of caudillismo. Some were betting on foreign pressure: ‘The United States will never allow a political adventure in this region, let alone in a country on which it depends for its oil supply.’
It was in this climate that I went to my interview with Hugo Chávez in the Miraflores Palace. I remember that first meeting very well. It was Saturday, 18 September 1999. He received me in his office. I noticed two conspicuous black-and-white photographs on his desk: one was of his great-grandfather Pedro Pérez Delgado, alias Maisanta, one of the ‘last rebels on horseback’ who rose up against the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez and died in prison in 1924; the other was of his grandmother, Rosa Inés. There were other framed photos of his parents, Hugo de los Reyes and Elena, and his four children, Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo and Rosinés. Also a pile of books, documents, a rough draft of a speech, and a big map of Latin America.
I was seeing him in person for the first time. It was immediately obvious that his reputation as a warm, spontaneous, good-humoured man was no fantasy. He gave me the traditional Latin American handshake and bear hug. With a big smile, he said he had read my articles on Venezuela, particularly my analysis of the rebellion of 4 February 1992. He was taller than I had imagined, at least one metre eighty, athletic and muscular. He looked elegant; his thick black hair was meticulously groomed; he had smooth cinnamon-coloured skin, a mole on the right side of his forehead, prominent cheekbones and closely shaven, lotion-scented cheeks; an impeccable set of teeth, with an endearing gap between the bottom ones; small, penetrating, slanted eyes; manicured hands with a gold wedding ring on his right hand; casually dressed for the weekend, without a tie, a gold and brown tartan shirt under a grey V-necked sleeveless jumper, and grey jeans. Being smart and well-groomed was clearly important to him.
Naturally enough for a connoisseur of the philosophy of history, he began by talking about the heroic founders of the Venezuelan Patria. I asked who, apart from Bolívar himself, were the three other heroes represented on the giant murals decorating the presidential office. He explained, ‘When I arrived, my desk was over there, with my back to Bolívar and facing Urdaneta [(1788–1845), Venezuelan statesman and general, the last presi- dent of Gran Colombia.]. I changed it around. The other two are Sucre and Páez.[Antonio José de Sucre (1790–1830), Bolívar’s comrade in arms, victor at the decisive battles of Junín and Ayacucho (1824). José Antonio Páez (1770–1873), general in the Venezuelan Independence War, ‘the Centaur of the Plains’, three times president. He is considered the archetypal Venezuelan caudillo, or strongman.] One of the four should not be there, whereas Zamora is missing.’ [Ezequiel Zamora (1817–1860), soldier and statesman, one of the heroes of the Federal War (1859–63), who championed agrarian reform for peasant farmers.]
During that first conversation, I tried to decipher the famous ‘enigma of the two faces of Chávez’ which Gabriel García Márquez wrote about. I was surprised by his excellent knowledge of Gramsci. He quoted, ‘We’re experiencing, at the same time, a death and a birth. The death of an old model, worn out, hated; and the birth of a new, different political movement, which brings the people hope. The old one is dying, and the new cannot be born, but this crisis is giving birth to a revolution.’
I asked him what he understood by revolution. ‘Look,’ he replied, ‘we’re inventing here. Revolution is a state of continual invention. After the economic crisis, Venezuela went primarily through a moral and ethical crisis because of the social insensitivity of its leaders. Democracy is not only political equality. It is also, and actually most importantly, social, economic and cultural equality; all within political freedom. These are the aims of the Bolivarian Revolution. I want to be president of the poor. I love the people. But we need to learn the lessons of the failures of other revolutions which, even while espousing these aims, betrayed them; and even when they achieved them, they did it by eliminating democracy and freedom. You need creativity to make a revolution. And one of the worst aspects of the current crisis is the crisis of ideas. Our objective is for the people to live with humanity, dignity and decency. Happiness is the ultimate aim of politics. We have to make the Kingdom of Heaven reality here on earth. Our aim is not only to live better but to “live well”.’
And he added, ‘Our project is simply to establish the “most perfect system of government”, along the lines which the Liberator set out in his Address to the Congress at Angostura: “The most perfect system of government is the one which creates the greatest possible happiness, the greatest social well-being and the greatest political stability.”
Although he had been in office for barely six months, some international media outlets were accusing him of ‘authoritarian Jacobinism’, ‘autocratic tendencies’ and ‘preparing a modern form of coup d’état’. Absurd. There was a series of democratic elections. And despite the atmosphere of heightened passions in Venezuela at the time – when the excitement of political discussion and debate were reminiscent of France in May 1968 — there was no serious violence, nor any form of censorship of the opposition, journalists or the media, many of whom, on the contrary, did not balk at ferocious criticism of the new president.
‘These accusations sadden me,’ confessed Chávez, ‘because what we want to do is move from a representative democracy to a participative, more direct, democracy. With the people playing a greater role at every level of decision-making. That is, we want more democracy, not less. This will enable us to fight human rights abuses of all kinds.’ He explained that the text of the new Constitution, then being debated in the Assembly, would give greater autonomy to local authorities. It would introduce the popular initiative referendum, and the ‘power-to-revoke’ referendum, which would force all elected representatives, including the president of the Republic, once they had completed half their mandate, to stand for their office again, if that were the will of the people.
The new Constitution would also envisage, among other things, the right to conscientious objection; gender equality; explicit prohibition of the practice of ‘disappearing’ people, carried out in the past by the forces of law and order; the appointment of an ombudsman; recognition of the rights of the indigenous or original peoples of Venezuela; and the introduction of a ‘moral authority’ charged with combating corruption and abuse.
On the subject of corruption, he gave me a typically witty account of how, during his first months in office, he had been courted by big business leaders and the rich elite, those who saw themselves as Venezuela’s ‘natural owners’, and offered all kinds of tempting gifts — expensive cars, apartments, business opportunities – just as they had done with numerous presidents in the past. They thought Chávez would be just another politician with a dual discourse and a dual morality. But Chávez had driven them from the Miraflores Palace, like, as he put it, ‘Christ driving the money-lenders from the Temple’. From then on, those oligarchs began to conspire against him. ‘We can’t buy him, so we’ll get rid of him.’ That’s when they launched the conspiracies, the attacks, the sabotage, the media campaigns of demonization, and the preparations for the coup of 2002.
And what was his economic policy? Chávez explained very clearly that he wanted to move away from the neoliberal economic model and resist globalization. ‘We want to build a more horizontal state,’ he said. ‘Work, and not capital, will be what really creates wealth. We will prioritize the human. We want to put the economy at the service of the people. Our people deserve better. We need to find the balance between the market, the state and society. We need to bring together the “invisible hand” of the market and the “visible hand” of the state, in an economic space within which the market exists as far as possible and the state as much as necessary.’
He reminded me that ‘a hundred years ago, imperialism assigned to Venezuela one single task in the international division of labour: that of oil producer. It paid a very low price for that oil, and everything else — food, industrial goods — we had to import. Now, one of our objectives is economic independence and alimentary sovereignty within, of course, the context of protecting the environment and ecological imperatives.’ Private property and foreign investment were guaranteed, within the limits required by the greater interests of the state, which would retain under its control (or take over) strategic sectors whose sale would mean the loss of part of national sovereignty. That is, exactly what the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) in France proposed at the end of the Second World War, or what General de Gaulle did when he established the Fifth Republic in France in 1958. In the context of neoliberal globalization and the fever of privatization, these measures seem even more revolutionary.
Listening to him discuss those objectives, I asked myself, ‘What else can the main protagonists of globalization, owners of so much of the mass media, do but demonize Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution?’
We spent hours talking. I asked whether he would define himself as a nationalist, and he said he considered himself a ‘patriot’. Quoting de Gaulle, he explained, ‘Being a patriot is loving your country. Being a nationalist is hating everyone else’s.’ In a typical gesture of a chief of staff, he opened the big map of Latin America on his desk and commented that Venezuela’s ‘backbone was in the wrong place’, a consequence of ‘past colonial planning’. He showed me how, in an ideal geography, the capital city would be situated in the centre of the country, and described the huge infrastructural projects that were indispensable to the creation of a cohesive state: railways, motorways, gas pipelines, oil pipelines, bridges, ports, dams, tunnels, airports.
He spoke of how imperative South American integration was, an integration announced and desired by Simón Bolívar, and ‘dreamed of by all Latin American revolutionaries’. He pointed out on the map how the Liberator had chosen to free South America via the ‘Andean axis’ of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and declared that to liberate it from neoliberal influence today, they could opt for an alliance of the ‘Atlantic axis’ of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. I was impressed by his acute understanding of Brazil, its history and economy, something that was not very common among Spanish-speaking Latin American leaders. He also revealed his intention to free the continent of vertical, North–South relationships, and establish ‘horizontal links’ with Africa, Asia and the Muslim Arab world.
The unusual way he reasoned, always mixing theory and praxis, history and society, and also the international scope of his thinking, to me made his political perspective unique. I was seduced by his original thought processes, always factual, never dogmatic, and often bolstered by quotations from progressive thinkers, chiefly Latin Americans. There was no doubt he thought like a man of the Left, structurally Marxist, but — mercifully — free of the academic references to the ‘obligatory pantheon’ of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. Chávez thought for himself, he had an original mind. He was nobody’s clone, nor the sequel to any existing system.
As I listened to him talk so passionately about such a plethora and range of projects, I became convinced that this man had not arrived at the presidency by accident. He was not just passing through the Miraflores Palace. There was no doubt he was going to create a discipline and a doctrine. He seemed driven by a burning and ambitious mission: to turn Venezuela upside down, stand it firmly on its feet at last, transform it from top to toe, make it a Latin America leader again as it had been in the days of Bolívar, liberate it from poverty and ignorance, give poor people back their dignity, and restore their pride in patriotism. In a nutshell, make Venezuela, as he said, ‘a great country’. At no time did I sense any personal ambition or greed. He hated caudillismo. But his desire to create a patria, a motherland, was boundless.
It seemed to me that the ‘enigma of the two faces of Chávez’ was resolved by simply observing that in his personality two temperaments existed side by side: a rational, logical, Cartesian, pragmatic mind cohabiting with an altruistic, affectionate, enthusiastic, chaotic, sentimental nature. Because of his social background, Chávez understood early on that the world gives you nothing for free, and that each individual has to deal with his circumstances. He realized that material conditions determine social consciousness. He had to overcome the weight of history and the powerful forces ranged against him. He discovered power relations and the different forms of violence, both material and symbolic. That could have made him bitter, spiteful or resentful. But he was not at all, because he had very soon decided not to accept society’s inequalities. In this sense, Chávez was always an ‘indignado’ — a rebel who throughout his life sought freedom, fighting coercion and refusing to comply with demands that seemed absurd or unjust. The one constant trait of his personality was his rejection of resignation. Hence his great spirit of resistance and his denunciation of an intolerable economic and social system under the hegemony of the relationships of power.
I came out of that first meeting convinced that something new was happening in Latin America. This man was bound to create a new current and doctrine. And it would not be long, I felt, before the Chávez ‘hurricane’ swept through the continent raising polemic and controversy; but also enthusiasm, passion and supporters. I contacted friends among journalists and intellectuals in Europe and Latin America, progressives all, to share my positive impression, and invite them to visit Caracas, to see with their own eyes this democratic revolution on the march. With few exceptions, they all replied the same thing: ‘Soldiers no! Golpistas never!’ They were wrong. But their reaction showed that it would be an uphill struggle for the leader of Bolivarianism to win them round.
My First Life is out now.