March 6, 2013 Jonathan Watts / The Guardian & Oscar Guardiola-Rivera / The Guardian & Jon Lee Anderson / The New Yorker
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias, who died on Tuesday, from cancer, at the age of fifty-eight, was one of the most flamboyantly provocative leaders on the world scene in recent years. Chavez, the symbol of Latin American socialism, succumbed to a respiratory infection on Tuesday evening, 21 months after he first revealed he had a tumor. To his credit, Chavez was devoted to trying to change the lives of the poor, who were his greatest and most fervent constituents.
(March 5, 2013) -- Venezuelans began seven days of painful and public mourning on Tuesday night after the announcement that their president, Hugo Chavez, had died aged 58 after a long battle against cancer.
The country's vice-president, Nicolás Maduro -- tipped as a likely successor -- broke the news on Tuesday night, prompting a wave of grief in the nation's streets.
"We have just received the most tragic and awful information. At 4.25pm, President Hugo Chavez Frias died," Maduro announced in a televised address, his voice choking. "It's a moment of deep pain," he said.
Chavez died at a military hospital in Caracas, the capital of the country he has ruled since 1999. As soon as the news was announced, supporters gathered at the city's main square, Plaza Bolivar, and began chanting: "Chavez vive, la lucha sigue" -- "Chavez lives, the battle continues."
People wearing the red beret the president was known for sang a popular folk song with the words: "Those who die for life cannot be called dead."
As messages of condolence came from many world leaders, perhaps the most significant was from Barack Obama. He said: "At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez's passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the US remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights."
Chavez, the symbol of Latin American socialism, succumbed to a respiratory infection on Tuesday evening, 21 months after he first revealed he had a tumour. He had not been seen in public for three months since emergency surgery in Cuba on 11 December.
He will be given a state funeral in Caracas on Friday, likely to be attended by millions of supporters and leftwing leaders from across the globe who have been inspired by Chavez's doctrine of "Bolivarian 21st-century socialism", grateful for the subsidised energy he provided or simply impressed by his charisma. His death will also trigger a presidential election, to be held within 30 days, to decide who controls the world's greatest untapped reserves of oil.
His designated successor, Maduro, is likely to face Henrique Capriles, the losing opposition candidate in the presidential election held a few months ago in October 2012. Until then, according to the constitution, the interim president should be the head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello.
However on Tuesday night the Venezuelan foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said Maduro was the interim president. It was not clear whether this would only apply until the official calling of the election and beginning of the campaign, or whether Maduro would remain in charge until the election result was determined.
Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, called for free and fair elections to replace Chavez. "Hugo Chavez ruled Venezuela with an iron hand and his passing has left a political void that we hope will be filled peacefully and through a constitutional and democratic process, grounded in the Venezuelan constitution and adhering to the Inter-American Democratic Charter."
Replacing one of most colourful figures on the global political landscape will be an immense challenge. Born to a poor family on the plains, Chavez became a tank commander and a devotee of South America's liberator, Simón Bolívar.
A failed coup in 1992 propelled him into the limelight but it was his ballot box triumphs that made him an inspiration for the resurgent Latin American left and the most outspoken -- and often humorous -- critic of the US, the war in Iraq and George Bush, whom he described as a "donkey" and a "devil".
(July 12, 2007) -- Hugo Chavez sings in Alo Presidente. La cancion se llama "cuando yo quiera has de volver".
Formerly one of the most dynamic political leaders in the world with a globe-trotting schedule and a weekly, unscripted TV broadcast -- often hours long -- Chavez shocked his countrymen in June 2011 when he revealed that Cuban surgeons had removed a baseball-sized tumour from his pelvic region.
After that, he underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and two more operations in what he described as a "battle for health and for life". His medical records were never made public, prompting widespread speculation about his imminent demise, but he and his supporters insisted he was recovering.
Before the presidential election in October 2012, aides claimed he was well enough to complete a full term. During that campaign, Chavez was clearly affected by his illness. But although he made fewer and shorter appearances, he won more votes than in any of his earlier elections battles, prompting him to proclaim victory in a "perfect battle".
Fears about his health escalated after he rushed to Cuba for hyperbaric oxygen treatment on 27 November. Less than a fortnight later, he made a televised address in which he said that doctors had discovered malignant cells that required surgery and urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he was incapacitated.
Since his operation in December, Chavez has been visited by family members and several of his closest political allies, including Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa and Bolivian president Evo Morales.
Beyond a set of four photographs released last month that showed a remarkably hearty looking Chavez smiling in a hospital bed and flanked by his daughters, the president has not been seen or heard for three months. This prompted frequent rumours that the president was dead or on life support. The government denied this and said he continued to run the country by writing down his orders.
But officials acknowledged that Chavez suffered multiple complications after his surgery including respiratory infections and bleeding. He had to undergo more chemotherapy and drug treatments and could only breathe through a tracheal tube. He returned from Cuba on 18 February at his own request, said officials. Since then he has been treated at Carlos Arvelo military hospital in Caracas.
Hopes for a recovery dimmed on Monday, when minister of communications, Ernesto Villegas, said the president's condition had declined due to a "new and serious respiratory infection."
Constitutional questions have been raised by his long hospitalisation and absence from public life, which he formerly dominated with dynamic and provocative appearances on his weekly television address, Hello Mr President.
When he failed to attend his scheduled inauguration on 10 January, the opposition asked who is running the country. The ruling party responded with a rally of more than 100,000 supporters, many carrying banners declaring "We are Chavez."
(July 29, 2012) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in campaign for the October 7 presidential elections in Venezuela. Supporters sing "happy birthday" to Chavez during a rally in Petare, Caracas on July 28, the day of his birthday.
Hugo Chávez Kept His Promise to the People of Venezuela The late Venezuelan president's Bolívarian revolution has been crucial to a wider Latin American philosophy Oscar Guardiola-Rivera / The Guardian/UK
(March 6, 2013) -- He wrote, he read, and mostly he spoke. Hugo Chávez, whose death has been announced, was devoted to the word. He spoke publicly an average of 40 hours per week. As president, he didn't hold regular cabinet meetings; he'd bring the many to a weekly meeting, broadcast live on radio and television. Aló, Presidente, the program in which policies were outlined and discussed, had no time limits, no script and no teleprompter.
One session included an open discussion of healthcare in the slums of Caracas, rap, a self-critical examination of Venezuelans being accustomed to the politics of oil money and expecting the president to be a magician, a friendly exchange with a delegation from Nicaragua and a less friendly one with a foreign journalist.
Nicaragua is one of Venezuela's allies in Alba, the organization constituted at Chávez's initiative to counter neoliberalism in the region, alongside Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia. It has now acquired a life of its own having invited a number of Caribbean countries and Mexico to join, with Vietnam as an observer. It will be a most enduring legacy, a concrete embodiment of Chávez's words and historical vision.
The Bolívarian revolution has been crucial to the wider philosophy shared and applied by many Latin American governments. Its aim is to overcome global problems through local and regional interventions by engaging with democracy and the state in order to transform the relation between these and the people, rather than withdrawing from the state or trying to destroy it.
Because of this shared view Brazilians, Uruguayans and Argentinians perceived Chávez as an ally, not an anomaly, and supported the inclusion of Venezuela in their Mercosur alliance. Chávez's Social Missions, providing healthcare and literacy to formerly excluded people while changing their life and political outlook, have proven the extent of such a transformative view. It could be compared to the leveling spirit of a kind of new New Deal combined with a model of social change based on popular and communal organization.
The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe.
In that period, Chávez won 56% of the vote in 1998, 60% in 2000, survived a coup d'état in 2002, got over 7m votes in 2006 and secured 54.4% of the vote last October. He was a rare thing, almost incomprehensible to those in the US and Europe who continue to see the world through the Manichean prism of the cold war: an avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat.
To those who think the expression of the masses should have limited or no place in the serious business of politics all the talking and goings on in Chávez's meetings were anathema, proof that he was both fake and a populist. But to the people who tuned in and participated en masse, it was politics and true democracy not only for the sophisticated, the propertied or the lettered.
All this talking and direct contact meant the constant reaffirmation of a promise between Chávez and the people of Venezuela. Chávez had discovered himself not by looking within,but by looking outside into the shameful conditions of Latin Americans and their past. He discovered himself in the promise of liberation made by Bolívar. "On August 1805," wrote Chávez, Bolívar "climbed the Monte Sacro near Rome and made a solemn oath." Like Bolívar, Chávez swore to break the chains binding Latin Americans to the will of the mighty.
Within his lifetime, the ties of dependency and indirect empire have loosened. From the river Plate to the mouths of the Orinoco river, Latin America is no longer somebody else's backyard. That project of liberation has involved thousands of men and women pitched into one dramatic battle after another, like the coup d'état in 2002 or the confrontation with the US-proposed Free Trade Zone of the Americas. These were won, others were lost.
The project remains incomplete. It may be eternal and thus the struggle will continue after Chávez is gone. But whatever the future may hold, the peoples of the Americas will fight to salvage the present in which they have regained a voice.
In Venezuela, they put Chávez back into the presidency after the coup. This was the key event in Chávez's political life, not the military rebellion or the first electoral victory. Something changed within him at that point: his discipline became ironclad, his patience invincible and his politics clearer.
For all the attention paid to the relation between Chávez and Castro, the lesser known fact is that Chávez's political education owes more to another Marxist president who was also an avowed democrat: Chile's Salvador Allende. "Like Allende, we're pacifists and democrats," he once said. "Unlike Allende, we're armed."
The lesson drawn by Chávez from the defeat of Allende in 1973 is crucial. Some, like the far right and the state-linked paramilitary of Colombia would love to see Chavismo implode, and wouldn't hesitate to sow chaos across borders.
The support of the army and the masses of Venezuela will decide the fate of the Bolívarian revolution, and the solidarity of powerful and sympathetic neighbors like Brazil. Nobody wants instability now that Latin America is finally standing up for itself.
In his final days, Chávez emphasised the need to build communal power and promoted some of his former critics associated with the journal Comuna. The revolution will not be rolled back. Unlike his admired Bolívar, Chávez did not plough the seas.
Hugo Chávez canta en el Balcón del Pueblo Palacio de Miraflores Caracas Venezuela Regreso de Cuba
CARACAS (March 5, 2013) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias, who died on Tuesday, from cancer, at the age of fifty-eight, was one of the most flamboyantly provocative leaders on the world scene in recent years. His death came after months in which his health was a national mystery, the subject of obfuscation and rumors; he spent inauguration day for his fourth term in a hospital bed in Cuba. Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, who made the announcement, is one of the politicians now maneuvering to control Venezuela, where elections will be held within thirty days.
A one-time army paratrooper who served two years in prison after leading a botched military coup against Venezuela's government in 1992, Chavez emerged from behind bars, after an amnesty, with a renewed determination to achieve power, and sought the support of Cuba's veteran Communist leader Fidel Castro to do so.
In 1998, Chavez won Venezuela's Presidential elections, promising to change things in his country forever, from top to bottom. Since the day he was first sworn in as President, in February, 1999, he devoted himself to doing precisely that.
What he has left is a country that, in some ways, will never be the same, and which, in other ways, is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world's most oil-rich but socially unequal countries, with a large number of its citizens living in some of Latin America's most violent slums.
To his credit, Chavez was devoted to trying to change the lives of the poor, who were his greatest and most fervent constituents. He began by hammering through a new constitution and renaming the country. Simon Bolívar, who had fought to unite Latin America under his rule, was Chavez's hero, and so he changed the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and thereafter spent a great deal of time and resources attempting to forge what he called his "Boliviarian Revolution."
It was not, initially, to be a socialist or even necessarily anti-American endeavor, but over the following years, Chavez's rule, and his adopted international role, became both, at least in intention.
I met Chavez a number of times over the years, but the first time I saw him was in 1999, shortly after he had become Venezuela's President, in Havana, Cuba, giving a speech in a salon at the University. Both Castro brothers were in attendance -- a rare sight -- as were other senior members of the Cuban Politburo.
Fidel Castro looked on and listened raptly as Chavez spoke for ninety minutes, essentially laying out the rhetorical groundwork for the intense and deep relationship between the two countries, and the two leaders, that was soon to follow.
That day, a number of observers present in the room commented on what appeared to be a major bromance between the two. They were right. Chavez, younger than Fidel by nearly thirty years, soon became inseparable from the Cuban leader, who was clearly a father figure and a role model. (His own father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, and his mother, Elena Chavez Frías, were poor primary-school teachers in the Venezuelan interior.
Hugo was the second of six sons, and joined the Army when he was seventeen.) And for Castro, Chavez was an heir and something like a beloved son. Uncannily, or fittingly, it was Fidel who noticed Chavez's discomfort on a visit to Havana in 2011, and insisted that he see a doctor -- who promptly discovered Chavez's cancer, a tumor described as the size of a baseball somewhere in his groin area. Since then, and until he returned home in February, terminally ill, Chavez received virtually all of his cancer treatment in Havana, under Fidel's close scrutiny.
A warm and amiable showman, with a remarkable sense of occasion as well as strategic opportunity, Chavez grew in ambition, and global stature, during the Bush years, in which Latin America was relegated to a back burner for Washington. Chavez was alienated early on by the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush Administration in the post-9/11 period, and became increasingly acerbic about policies and attitudes of the American "empire."
He delightedly ridiculed the US President he called "Mister Danger" and "Donkey" and whom he regularly mocked on his weekly television show, "Aló Presidente," on which he sometimes made governing seem like reality television. (He once ordered his Defense Minister to send Venezuelan forces to the Colombian border live on "Aló Presidente.")
An attempted coup d'etat by a cabal of right-wing politicians, businessman, and military men in 2002 saw Chavez briefly and humiliatingly detained, before he was freed and allowed to resume office. The coup against Chavez had failed, but not before the plotters had apparently received a wink and a nod from the Bush Administration.
Chavez never forgave the Americans. Thereafter, his anti-American rhetoric became more heated, and whenever possible he sought to discomfit Washington. Chavez closed U.S. military liaison offices in Venezuela, and ended coöperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Even earlier, in 2000, Chavez had flown to Baghdad for a friendly visit with Saddam Hussein.
Later on, in his avowed ambition to weaken the U.S. imperio and create a "multipolar world," he would go on to embrace others with similarly anti-American stances: Iran's Ahmadinejad was one, Belarus's Lukashenko was another. He invited Vladimir Putin to send his navy to do exercises in Venezuelan waters, and to sell him weapons. And there was his increasingly chummy, and dependent, relationship with Fidel Castro.
Venezuelan oil was flowing to energy-strapped Cuba, effectively ending the country's almost decade-long penurious "Special Period" that followed the Soviet collapse and the abrupt end of three decades of generous subsidies from Moscow.
Cuban doctors, sports instructors, and security men were soon travelling in the other direction, helping Chavez by staffing some of the programs he called Misiones, aimed at alleviating poverty and disease in Venezuela's slums and rural hinterlands. Chavez and Castro took trips together, and frequently visited one another's countries, and it was obvious that they loved one another's company.
On a visit to Caracas in 2005, shortly after Chavez had announced that he had decided that socialism was the way forward for his revolution and for Venzuela, I saw him in the Presidential palace. He was manic with newfound revolutionary fervor.
In a meeting with poor peasant farmers, he announced the seizure of several large private landholdings in the interior, and instructed them euphorically to organize themselves into collectives and farm the confiscated farms.
"RAS!," he shouted happily, repeating it several times. "RAS!" An aide explained that the acronym meant "Rumbo al socialismo" -- "Onward to socialism." It never really panned out, though.
Chavez's attempts at collectivization and agrarian reform seemed ill-planned and out-of-time, somehow, much as he himself often seemed a throwback to earlier times, when Latin America was dominated by willful caudillos, and there was a Cold War with a world clearly polarized.
A couple of years later, I asked him why, so late in the day, he had decided to adopt socialism. He acknowledged that he had come to it late, long after most of the world had abandoned it, but said that it had clicked for him after he had read Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Misérables. That, and listening to Fidel.
Fuelled by billions of dollars from the spike in oil prices, Chavez had gained significant influence in recent years throughout the hemisphere, forming close relationships with a number of emergent leftist regimes that, in some cases, he also subsidized and helped mold, in Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador, and with Nicaragua, once again led by the old Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.
He also formed a trade bloc, called ALBA, aimed at countering American economic hegemony in the region. He predicted a waning of U.S. influence and a chance, after all, for a revival of Bolívar's grand vision.
In a sense, Chavez was right. U.S. influence has waned over the past decade or so in Latin America; his timing was good. But in the region, it was not Venezuela but Brazil, finally emergent from its slumber as a regional economic and political powerhouse, that began to fill that vacuum.
Brazil's last leader, Lula, who was also a left-wing populist, also made "the people" and poverty alleviation a priority of his Administration, and, with a better management team and without all the polarizing confrontation with the imperio, he succeeded to an impressive degree. In Venezuela, by contrast, Chavez's revolution suffered from mediocre administrators, ineptitude, and a lack of follow-through.
What is left, instead, after Chavez? A gaping hole for the millions of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans, mostly poor, who viewed him as a hero and a patron, someone who "cared" for them in a way that no political leader in Latin America in recent memory ever had.
For them, now, there will be a despair and an anxiety that there really will be no one else like him to come along, not with as big a heart and as radical a spirit, for the foreseeable future. And they are probably right.
But it's also Chavism that has not yet delivered. Chavez's anointed successor, Maduro, will undoubtedly try to carry on the revolution, but the country's untended economic and social ills are mounting, and it seems likely that, in the not so distant future, any Venezuelan despair about their leader's loss will extend to the unfinished revolution he left behind.
At the tail end of a trip that Fidel and Chavez took together in 2006, Castro fell ill with diverticulitis and nearly died, leading him to resign from Cuba's Presidency a year and a half later and hand over power to his younger brother Raul.
I was on Chavez's plane when he flew to Cuba, in early 2008, to congratulate Raul. In Havana, Chavez vanished, off to visit Fidel, who was still sick and in seclusion. On the flight back the next day, Chavez reported happily to all of us aboard his plane, "Fidel is just fine." He added, "Fidel asked me to say hello to all of you for him!" Five years later, the Castros, both octogenarians, are alive, and it is Chavez who has passed from the scene.
Read more: Boris Muñoz on Chavez's rivals and his possible successors; Jon Lee Anderson's 2001 Profile of Chavez; Anderson on Caracas's slums (January, 2013); Anderson on Chavez and Fidel Castro's relationship (2008); James Surowiecki on Venezuela's economic paradox (2007).