Here in Nicaragua, where this writer is now living, the news on December 8, 2012 that Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez Frias was to undergo yet another operation to fight the cancer which has plagued him since 2011 was reported in one of the country’s two major newspapers, “El Nuevo Diario”, under massive and thick black headlines, that in announcing his need for a 4th cancer operation, President Chavez had, for the first time, named his preferred successor to the presidency should he be unable to serve. Chavez asked the country to support his recently appointed vice president, Nicholas Maduro, should a new election be necessary.
Nicaragua, and much of the rest of Central and South America were stunned by the notion that President Chavez might be unable to serve out the new 6 year term to which he was re-elected on October 7, 2012. He conducted a physically vigorous campaign against the much younger opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, and had bested Capriles 55 + to 44 % with a more than 80% voter turnout.
The majority of Venezuelans were devastated by the news, and rushed into the streets do demonstrate their support and into the churches to pray for his recovery. Thousands of people, including many heads of states, in other Latin American countries did the same.
Most of the tattered opposition, including Capriles, had the grace to refrain from showing their glee at Chávez’s possible demise, some did not. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church which had long and viciously opposed Chávez, piously pointed out to their laity that Chávez was only a frail human being, like any other man. They likely highly resented that they had to open their churches and allow masses to be conducted for the heath of this man who had frequently criticized the hierarchy for its support of the wealthy oppositionists, while at the same time calling on Catholic saints for aid during his illness. Chávez had consistently identified himself as a Christian socialist.
In Nicaragua, front page headlines on the status of President Chavez’s operation and recuperation have taken precedence over everything (with the exception of the Newtown massacre) in Nicaraguan newspapers ever since the December 8th speech.
After Chávez announcement of yet another cancer operation in Cuba, Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega immediately used the occasion of a graduation speech at a police academy to honor President Chavez and indicate Nicaragua’s continuing support and prayers for his health. The Nicaraguan National Assembly passed an official bill thanking Chávez for his active assistance to Nicaragua. A large rock concert was sponsored by the government to show the nation’s solidarity with Chavez.
Nicaragua has benefited immensely from the policies of the Chavez government, not only because of the subsidized oil which Venezuela provides, but because President Chavez led the creation of the ALBA group of Latin American states which has invested heavily in Nicaragua’s economy. This year, that economy grew at the rate of 5%. Nicaragua’s agricultural exports have increased substantially. Venezuela’s needs for Nicaragua’s beef and grains and rice have contributed to the growth in exports, as have other ALBA countries needs.
Under Chavez’s international leadership, many countries in South and Central America have opened new paths to economic and social cooperation, such as CELIAC, from which only the United States and Canada have been excluded. These Latin American countries have a new strength in their unity to counter the whims of the U.S.’s massive economic and political power. Chavez’s visions for Latin American unity and independence from the U.S. behemoth are showing fruit.
But aside from gratitude for Chavez’s political and economic policies, why do the masses of people in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America demonstrate such a personal devotion to him?
Why is President Chavez so personally loved, as well as massively politically supported?
One can begin to understand this love and the extraordinary personality who has attracted it, thanks to a series of penetrating interviews published in August of 2004 by two Cuban journalists, Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Báez. For “Chávez Nuestro”, (Casa Editora Abril, Havana), Elizalde and Báez had interviewed those who knew Chavez well as he progressed in life from a poor child of Indian and Spanish blood living in the little village of Sabaneta, in cattle-producing Barinas state, to become president of his country and weather an opposition coup and oil company strike against his government in 2002. President Chavez himself contributed 6 hours of oral interviews to their collection, detailing critical events in his life from his own perspective
The interviews with family friends and relative about his early life reported in the “Nuestro Chávez” book, suggest that the deep love for Chávez, stems from the fact that Chávez genuinely loves the people of Venezuela and his policies and vision for Venezuela’s future physically demonstrates that improving the lives of his people are his highest priority.
Perhaps he is simply carrying out the dictates of his Indian grandmother, Rosa Inés. Based on interviews with neighbors, friends and family, Rosa Inés, despite her extreme poverty, was a respected force for human kindness in her little community. She demonstrated to the young Chávez boys the importance of treating others with kindness, helping others, and respecting the human dignity of every individual they encountered. Chávez has put these principles into action on a national scale.
The interviews with the family members, neighbors and friends from his youth, uniformly suggest that kindness and caring for others were his significant traits, while at the same time being very bright, studious and a natural leader among his playmates and fellow street baseball players.
Chávez had an absolute passion for baseball from a young age and his first dream was to become a professional baseball player. Politics only took the place of professional baseball it when it became obvious to Chávez as a student in the military academy and then graduate and military officer, that his government and especially their military leaders were only concerned with amassing their own personal wealth at the expense of the majority of the people, whose poverty and human needs the leaders ignored.
In the “Nuestro Chávez interviews, relatives and friends recount how Chavez loved to sing and could recount long, historical poems, often based on significant Venezuelano independence and freedom fighters, from memory, firing the imaginations of friends and family and teaching their history in the days before any of them had a television set.
For the last 13 years, President Chávez has done the same on Venezuela’s national television and radio. He treats the country like his extended family, seeking to inspire them to read, debate ideas and actively participate in the national political life on their own behalf.
We see from these interviews how Chávez became a socialist, not because he read Marx, although he has read Marx, but because he personally lived in the same conditions that impelled Marx to analyze conditions under capitalism and to call for its abolition. For Chávez, his Christian socialism was the way to share the work and the resources to improve the lives of everyone.
Chávez himself relates in the book that while a young military officer on patrol against “insurgents”, Chávez witnessed the torture of prisoners and personal corruption of his superiors, facts which fed his own rebellion. For attempting to stop the torture, he was officially reprimanded by his superiors and his military career damaged.
In 1989, when an extreme “austerity” measure imposed by the International Monetary Fund lighted the fuse of massive popular rebellion in Caracas, the government ordered the military to shoot its own citizens, thousands were killed or wounded. This horrible massacre is known as the Caracazo.
The Caracazo enraged Chávez and, together with the other young officers who shared his anger, they began to consider outright rebellion, which led to their aborted attempt at doing so in 1992.
Chavez frequently emphasizes that this poorly organized rebellion was an inchoate insurrection against corruption and injustice. It was not a coup to gain personal power or riches.
These interviews give a clue as to why Chávez, living in the presidential palace of Miraflores in the capitol in 2010, would have opened the palace to house refugees made homeless as a result of flooding from a series of rain storms. He had, after all, grown up with the practice of sharing, as he and his brother had shared their grandmother, Rosa Inés room in her tiny mud-floored, palm-roofed cottage. The Chavez government housed other refugees in government building and in private hotels, at government expense.
Although living only a block away from Hugo’s parents, the paternal grandmother, Rosa Inés Chávez, raised Hugo and Adam, the two eldest sons of Elena and Hugo de ls Reyes Chávez. Both were poorly paid elementary school teachers who ultimately had six children.
To support herself and her grandsons, Rosa Inés made candies from the fruit trees in her yard, while Hugo and his older brother, Adam, acted as her salesmen in their primary school and around the small town at social and sports events.
While grandmother Inés did the hot, sweaty work of cooking the candies, Hugo and Adam listened to her stories about the history of their family, village and country. Rosa Inés passed on the oral history she had learned from her own grandmother and grandfather, who had fought with the famed progressive General, Esquel Zamora in their own village of Sabaneta. The blood of those celebrated battles lay directly beneath the naked feet of the two Chavez boys. Their love for Venezuelan revolutionary history was born at home.
Hugo Chávez Frías was reported by his primary school teachers to be an excellent student. He wanted very much to go to high school, a desire Rosa Inés and his family shared. But, his first attempt to attend high school was a disaster when he was refused entry to the school because he did not have shoes. He had only rubber slippers which were not allowed. The usually stalwart and tough Rosa Inés broke into tears because she did not have money for shoes. Her extended family members came to the rescue, and Chávez, with shoes, was allowed to enter highs school.
In high school, Chávez was passionate about history and deepened his knowledge and respect for the actions and ideas of Simon Bolivar, who had successfully led the rebellion against Spanish rule in Venezuela, Colombia (which then included what is now Panama), Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Bolivar’s vision was for a free, independent and united Latin America without human slavery and poverty. Bolivar succeeded in abolishing slavery and attaining independence from Spain, but he could not keep the countries he liberated united or abolish the poverty.
When a young man traveling in Italy with his teacher, Simon Rodríguez,in the early 1800′s, Bolivar had taken a spoken vow to devote his life to winning freedom for his country from Spain.
In 1982, Chávez, then a captain in the military, gathered together three of his co-officers who shared his vision of liberating their country from dictators and their corruption. They took the same oath that Simon Bolivar had taken, but rather than freeing their country from Spanish rule, they vowed to free it from the hands of the rich and powerful.
Early during an abortive uprising by Chávez and other young military officers in 1992, Hugo Chávez was arrested. In face of government threats to bomb his own insurgent military unit in Maracoy (a parachutist brigade) the government allowed him to appear on television in order to call upon other officers in the rebellion to put down their arms and avoid getting bombed. Chávez spoke on TV and then was jailed, but his call to put down arms changed Venezuelan history.
Much of the nation heard Chavez say “It is over….. for now.” His statement inspired thousands with the hope that the fight was not over and they would eventually prevail, which they did six years later in 1998, when the nation overwhelmingly voted to elect Hugo Chávez Frías as president of Venezuela.
Upon taking office, Chávez proceeded to teach about Simon Bolivar’s actions and ideas on a massive scale. But first people had to be able to read them; so with the help of Cuba, whose own revolution had over-come a huge literacy gape, Chavez began a massive literacy campaign called Mission Robinson in honor of the pseudo name used by Simone Bolivar’s own teacher, Simon Rodríguez.
Mission Robinson sent thousands of high school and college students all over the country to teach everyone to read. According to United Nation’s surveys, that campaign has had great success: now some 99% of Venezuelans can read and write.
The Chavez government re-published in paper editions the works of major Venezuelan world writers, poets and political figures, which were then distributed free throughout the country. Chávez routinely reads to the country from his own significant reading, such as Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author of “Open Veins of Latin America”.
In “Nuestro Chávez”, President Chávez relates that one of the most significant events of his own political history came when he commanded a military unit in Elorza, where he lived for several weeks with an Indian tribe and personally experienced life in communal socialism.
While Chavez, who proudly shared their Indian blood, and his squad were investigating claims of Indian thefts from the white farmers in the area. On horseback, they encountered a group of Indians eating mangoes from a tree in the bush. The Indians reacted to the military presence with a hail of arrows against them, one of which nearly hit Chávez. He commanded his men not to fire back and ordered them to retreat.
Chavez himself retreated to a university to consult an anthropologist friend who had been working peacefully with Indian tribes in the area for twenty years. Discarding his military uniform and its identify, Chávez joined the anthropologist’s field researchers, living for three week with the same group of Indians who had attacked his military squadron.
While living daily life with the tribe, Chávez made many friends and learned about their principles of life. Several weeks after leaving the Indian group, Chavez returned – in uniform with his squadron — to the group. Upon seeing the group, Chávez called out to them. The Indians were paralyzed, caught between the impulse to fight and to acknowledge their friend. Friendship won out and soon the soldiers and the Indians were mingling peacefully with each other.
Thereafter the Indian group regularly visited Chávez and his family at their local home. His wife prepared food for the 60 or 70 Indians visitors, but later complained to Chávez that they returned her hospitality by stealing her children’s clothes that were drying on a clothesline. Chavez replied that, in their custom and communal practices, there was no such thing as private property; everything was shared; the Indians took the clothes like they would take mangos to eat from a tree.
Chávez had the benefit of living with native socialists, just as he experienced the poverty and its suffering that the capitalist dictators had visited upon his own village and state, while personally observing the cruelty and corruption in his military superiors and political leaders. Those experiences undoubtedly made him a socialist, but it was the loving kindness of his grandmother, Rosa Inéz, which he naturally radiates to all he meets and deals with that has made him a beloved socialist.
It is that mutual respect and love which has powered Venezuela’s march to socialism. Love continues to lead this revolution.