WASHINGTON, D.C. – Most U.S. citizens old enough to collect Social Security can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963 – the moment news broke of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
March 5, 2013, the day Hugo Chávez died of cancer, will also go down in the history books, but for very different reasons.
I learned about the Venezuelan president’s death at 4:58 p.m. Tuesday (last week), in an email from a trusted correspondent in Bogotá whom I had assigned earlier that day to draft a 500-word obituary of Chávez, just in case.
“Yes, he’s dead,” my stringer wrote, responding to my note asking whether the latest rumors out of Caracas were true. “VP [Nicolas] Maduro just announced it.”
And then it hit me.
Hugo Chávez – the man for whom Pre-sident George W. Bush was the devil, the man who famously declared he had “smelled sulfur” in 2006 after Bush had finished speaking from that very same podium at the U.N. General Assembly – was gone at last.
Chávez, 58, had finally been defeated by the one enemy he couldn’t crush: cancer. We don’t even know what kind of cancer did him in – other than that it had attacked his pelvic area – because the Cuban doctors treating him in Havana for all those months had guarded that information like a state secret.
To most people north of the Río Grande, Chávez was a comically anti-American villain, a temperamental “Moon Over Parador” Hollywood character who glorified socialism and ranted about Yankee criminals spreading their capitalist poison throughout Latin America and the Third World.
Yet there was nothing funny about Hugo Chávez.
Only twice in my life did I see the man up close and personal. The first was in 1999, when he came to Washington shortly after winning the presidency, hoping for an audience with Bill Clinton. At an impromptu press conference just outside the gates of the White House, the former army officer and paratrooper lectured a clutch of local journalists, including myself, about how bilateral relations should proceed (Chávez had earlier been denied a U.S. visa by then-Ambassador John Maisto out of concerns he was a potential dictator). He also visited the Big Apple on that trip.
“As impossible as it may seem today,” wrote Brian Palmer of Slate.com, “Chávez wielded the ceremonial gavel at the New York Stock Exchange and threw the first pitch at a Yankees game in 1999.”
My second encounter with Chávez fell on my 46th birthday – Dec. 2, 2007. On that day, millions of voters went to the polls to decide whether to declare Venezuela a socialist country and allow their increasingly dictatorial president to run for re-election indefinitely.
The morning before, I showed up at a pro-Chávez rally in Caracas with my brand-new Nikon D200 camera and two zoom lenses, straight off the shelf from B&H Photo in New York. This would be my first foreign assignment shooting digitally rather than with the Nikon FM2 film camera I had grown to love.
But before I could even remove the lens cap from my new baby, an angry crowd gathered around, murmuring obscenities and making threatening sounds.
“Buenos días. Soy un periodista norteamericano. ¿Todo bien?” I asked my harassers, in the friendliest Spanish I could muster.
“¡Traidor!” [Traitor], one of them hissed. “¡Gusano!” [Worm] shouted another.
I nervously looked around, wondering how to extract myself from this potentially dangerous situation. Just then, an attractive young Chavista came up and asked me directly what I thought of the president. I told her I had no problem with Hugo Chávez and was only there to do my job: report on the upcoming referendum for my newspaper back in Washington and take some pictures.
“¿Entonces porqué estás vestido de negro?” [Then why are you dressed in black?] she asked me.
Only then did it dawn on me that black was the color of the opposition – and that inadvertently, I had put on a black shirt and black pants that morning because they were the only clean items remaining in my suitcase. I made a dash for my hotel and changed into a red “Casa de Maryland” T-shirt and blue jeans, having learned my lesson forever: When in Caracas and surrounded by Chavistas, do as Chavistas do.
The main pro-Chávez rally took place later that day at Plaza Bolívar, a monumental square that quickly filled up with more than 100,000 supporters of the president, all screaming “¡Sí! ¡Sí!” every time the man with the megaphone asked how Venezuelans should vote tomorrow. Everyone in the plaza – myself included this time – wore red, the color of the Bolivarian Revolution.
At one point, an enormous helium-filled balloon resembling Chávez rose from the crowd, eliciting loud applause. Then the man himself stepped out onto the stage. The roar was deafening – hysterical, almost. After a few minutes of listening to these admirers chant “¡Viva Chávez! ¡Viva la revolución!” I wanted to escape into an island of sanity. How was it possible to say “no” to an eternal Chávez presidency when everyone around you was screaming “yes”?
As it turns out, not everyone loved Chávez, and more than a few were not afraid to say so.
That evening, I attended the wedding of Jessica Horowitz and Alberto Israel in suburban San Bernardino, just up the street from the four-star Hotel Ávila where I was staying. The Chávez referendum seemed far from the minds of Jessica, Alberto and their 900 or so guests celebrating at the Unión Israelita de Caracas synagogue.
In a country where whiskey is cheaper than milk, bottles of chardonnay and champagne flowed freely, and women decked out in diamonds chatted among the kosher treats in the synagogue’s enormous banquet hall.
In fact, many of Venezuela’s 12,000 or so Jews enjoy luxuries those elsewhere can only dream about: large sprawling houses with panoramic mountain views, full-time live-in maids, expensive cars and second homes in South Florida. Most of Venezuela’s biggest shopping malls and clothing factories are owned by Jews.
Yet that also fed the Chávez government’s blatant anti-Semitism.
“Chávez and his ideas are not enough to make us leave at this moment. But we have to be prepared,” one community leader told me that night, noting wryly that the president never made any secret of his distaste for “capitalists” – which includes the Jewish community. “Ten years ago, if someone asked you to work in the United States or Spain, you would have said no. But now, if a headhunter asks if you want a good job in the States, you won’t even think about it. You’ll accept.”
A few hours before the polls opened that Sunday morning, federal police raided the main Jewish social club in Caracas, La Hebráica, ostensibly looking for weapons and explosives. Though they left empty-handed and no major damage was done, the incident made local Jews nervous.
So when hundreds of people lined up a few hours later in San Bernardino to cast their vote under the watchful eye of soldiers toting machine guns, many said it was the most important political decision of their lives.
And when the results finally came in showing that the “no” vote had defeated “yes” by the slimmest of margins – 51 percent to 49 percent– Jews here were overjoyed.
“Baruch hashem” [Thank God], Alicia Truzman, the Moroccan-born owner of a nearby kosher bakery, told me, invoking an ancient Hebrew expression of gratitude. “All of us are happy. We can breathe easier now.”
I haven’t been back to Venezuela since 2007. And I have no idea if Alicia Truzman still lives there – or if she’s joined thousands of her brethren who have since emigrated to the United States (mainly Florida), Colombia or even Israel.
One thing is for sure: Chávez, whose mentor was Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, didn’t have a fraction of Fidel’s intelligence. Nor was he a saint, as some politicians throughout Latin America and even here at home would have us believe.
Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), whose district covers part of the Bronx, gushed on Twitter hours after Chávez’s death that the Venezuelan president had offered discounted home heating oil to struggling residents in his cash-strapped congressional district – and that Chávez’s “core belief was in the dignity and common humanity of all people in Venezuela and in the world.”
Did Serrano conveniently forget that Chávez also threw dissenting journalists and even judges in prison – some who were raped – in an effort to silence anyone who disagreed with his Bolivarian Revolution? The Ve–nezuelan prison system may be one of the worst in the world with countless reports of abuse, rapes and too many deaths to count.
“By his second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda,” Human Rights Watch said in a March 5 statement. “In recent years, the president and his followers used these powers in a wide range of prominent cases, whose damaging impact was felt by entire sectors of Venezuelan society.”
Under Chávez’s watch, Venezuela became the most dangerous country in South America, with a homicide rate exceeding 56 per 100,000. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a nongovernmental organization, puts the 2012 figure even higher, at 73 per 100,000 – making it the most violent nation on Earth.
But Chávez never once talked about the country’s soaring crime rate.
Instead, he demonized the United States and its allies with belligerent rhetoric, and used his country’s vast oil wealth to bankroll massive social programs and buy the support of the downtrodden. He also befriended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – agreeing at one point with the Iranian leader that the Holocaust never happened, and that Israel was the true enemy of mankind.
In a particularly shameful final touch, he relentlessly defended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – the man who’s responsible for the deaths of 70,000 of his countrymen and the refugee status of perhaps a million more.
For me, Serrano’s naïveté is only slightly less offensive than NBA star Dennis Rodman showing up two weeks ago in Pyongyang and hailing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “a good guy” who loves basketball. Talk about useful idiots.
Move America Forward, a grassroots organization based in Sacramento, California, found Serrano’s remarks disgusting.
“Hugo Chávez was a dictator who tried to take over the country by force of a coup before he ever considered using the democratic process,” the group said on its website. “As dictator, Chávez stole wealth from those who produced it, creating egalitarianism in Venezuela by reducing everyone to poverty and squandering the country’s oil resources. Chávez nationalized every sector of the economy, crushing private industry and driving out entrepreneurs. Most insulting of all, Chávez openly hated the United States and opposed any effort to spread freedom, democracy and free markets to Latin America.”
Michael Shifter, president of Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, put it rather nicely in an article for Foreign Affairs titled “So Long, Chávez.”
“It is difficult to predict who will take the reins in Venezuela. The country’s vice-president and designated successor, Nicolás Maduro, is in the strongest position, while the opposition remains weak and lacks a coherent, unified platform,” Shifter wrote. “Still, Henrique Capriles, the losing candidate to Chávez in the October 2012 election, has showed leadership capacity and could well be a major player in the future. Amidst this uncertainty, one thing is for sure: whoever takes over, Chávez’s legacy – and the damage he left behind – will not be easily undone.”
Which is why I say Baruch Hashem. Venezuela is finally rid of Señor Chávez, and not a moment too soon.