Washington, March 6: The western hemisphere’s most charismatic leader since Fidel Castro, a man born in a mud hut whose ideology was fashioned as a child listening to radio tales of a fictional saviour of the poor called Hawk, is no more.
Hugo Chavez died at a military hospital in Caracas on Wednesday of respiratory complications resulting from recurring bouts of cancer, exactly eight years to the day he visited Calcutta, part of an itinerary which made him the only Venezuelan President to have travelled to India.
His real life paralleled Che Guevara and Castro, two men whose mantle he hoped to inherit in the 21st century before illness cut that dream short. Chavez told Bart Jones, an American Catholic aid worker in the slums of Caracas who later became an Associated Press correspondent in Venezuela that he was not a socialist when he was elected President for the first time in 1998.
Castro was also not a Marxist or a conventional socialist when his revolution became victorious in Cuba. In Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Bart quotes Chavez as attributing his conversion to socialism to the Bible. What an irony!
“I realised the Bible was profoundly correct when it says you can’t be okay with God and with the devil at the same time. Maybe before, I was trying to be okay with God and throw an olive branch to the devil. It is impossible. The devil will stab you,” Chavez is quoted as saying in the book.
Bart’s book is one of the few published in the West which does not demonise Chavez. But the author is not blind to the Venezuelan leader’s faults or the country’s weaknesses under Chavez’s 14-year rule either.
Having met the author, his accounts of how the book was written is as much of a story as the book itself.
When George W. Bush came into the White House in 2001, his original target was Chavez and the prize would have been Venezuela’s oil. The country has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia, according to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).
It was when a coup d’etat with mercenaries and US support in April 2002 failed and Chavez was restored to power after 47 hours in a loyalist, popular and military upsurge reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s return to power from a similar putsch in 1991 that the Bush administration firmly decided to shift its sights to Iraqi oil, instead, through regime change in Baghdad.
Chavez then went through a period of introspection. He has said on record that he became an “anti-imperialist”. He has since quoted Simon Bolivar, his South American liberation hero to explain that his version of “21st century socialism” merely means the “greatest amount of happiness for the maximum number of people”.
During the failed coup when mercenaries were about to kill Chavez, he relived Che Guevera’s final moments before being shot in a Bolivian jungle when Che told his executioner to let him stand up as evidence of how a man dies.
Chavez told Bart: “I remembered Che. I said to myself, I am not going to ask for clemency. I am not going to turn myself into a coward.” Loyal soldiers eventually rescued Chavez from the mercenaries.
For a radical and a virulent anti-imperialist, Chavez used to tell his interlocutors that he was an admirer of Manmohan Singh, although the Prime Minister bonded with the Americans and decisively moved India away from socialism and the licence raj, a feature of Bolivarian Venezuela under the Chavez model.
It had to do with Singh’s work for the South Commission and Chavez’s conviction that South-South co-operation was a key to the future after the global financial meltdown five years ago.
When the controversy over importing multi-brand retailing in India was raging, I recalled Venezuela’s swanky and sprawling malls in Caracas, Ciudad Bolívar and Isla Margarita, which had sprung up during Chavez’s rule. Isla Margarita is even a duty-free port, an idea that has not gone down well in India when it was proposed by potential Indian investors from abroad.
Many “Chavistas”, as supporters of the late President are known, explained to me that Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialism did not embrace Cuban austerity or Iranian politico-moral purity, although Chavez built close relations with those countries.
He did not need to. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela could liberally bankroll its social welfare programmes with oil money and the country’s wealth made it unnecessary for the government to get into people’s lives when those who could afford to do so aspired to engage in conspicuous consumption.
When Chavez came to power, a barrel of oil sold for $10. Venezuelans saw the country’s revenue rise by more than 10 times in recent years as global oil prices went through the roof. For that reason alone, “Chavismo”, as his ideology is often referred to, has a fair chance of survival after Chavez’s death.
In rural parts of Venezuela, the native population, treated as trash for centuries, showed me with beaming pride the schools that Chavez built for their children, who would otherwise have remained illiterate like generations that had passed by.
Healthcare was unheard of in these parts until Chavez built medical centres for these people. Shelves in co-operatives that distribute essential goods at low prices are full unlike in some east European countries under four decades of communism.
Mahatma Gandhi was more of a role model for Chavez than Marx. He prolifically read Gandhi’s writings and occasionally embarrassed visiting Indian leaders by quoting the Mahatma, which his guests from New Delhi were sometimes unable to do.
Voluble until the final phase of his cancer treatment, Chavez became loquacious when he talked about his 2005 visit to New Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. He wanted to visit India again, but that was not to be.
Five years ago, when Y.K. Sinha arrived in Caracas as India’s ambassador to Venezuela, heads of other diplomatic missions complained about the many months they had to cool their heels before presenting credentials to Chavez and beginning their formal work.
But when el Comandante, as Chavistas referred to their leader, heard that a new Indian envoy had arrived, Sinha was summoned to present his credentials within 10 days of landing in Caracas.
In part, that was because Chavez was very keen to attend the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement that was imminent then, at the end of January 2007. But the trip to New Delhi fell through later.