He was sitting behind a bank of microphones in a park in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, when we met. The grand leader was holding forth on his weekly Sunday radio program during which he typically talked for five or more hours nonstop without notes or guests. Wearing what would later become his signature outfit, a polyester track suit festooned with the red, yellow and blue colors of the Venezuelan national flag, he gave me a withering look that would have melted a less confident man.
In the end, he was less the heroic liberator Simon Bolívar than he was a male version of Argentina’s Evita; beloved, flashy, but impractical and ultimately counter-productive.
He knew I worked for Fox News, because for the preceding week, aside from reporting on the special recall election that then threatened his presidency, I had been excoriating this boisterous anti-American buffoon on Venezuelan television as an undemocratic, socialist thug.
With good connections in the country –from the decade my old daytime talk show, dubbed in Spanish, had been syndicated in Venezuela– my middle and upper class friends assured me that Chávez was about to be relegated to the garbage heap of history in a recall election that was a week or so away. My former syndicator at the private television network Venevisión and others I knew in the country convinced me that this ebullient character had no chance. His regime had been battered by broad labor unrest in the crucial oil industry, and aside from the country’s poorest residents, Chávez seemed to have no support.
Importantly, unlike his victories in the 1998 and 2000 elections, in which widespread voter fraud were suspected, this time the recall was being monitored by international observers including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
It was 2004 and his oil rich nation was deeply divided as the dramatic recall election approached. Huge demonstrations snaked through the sprawling capital. Everyone was passionately engaged, and it seemed the flamboyant man who channeled the liberator of his country, Simon Bolívar, was really just a Fidel Castro wannabe. And unlike his Cuban counterpart, he seemed about to be booted from his job. That was certainly the way I saw it at the time. Like most North American old hands I picked this mercurial former paratrooper as a sure loser. His erratic behavior and awkward embrace of Cuban-style militant socialism earned him the scorn of the Bush Administration and made him a laughingstock outside the notorious slums of Caracas.
Chávez did have most of those poorer folks in his corner; but his opponents seemed to consist of the entire Venezuelan business and upper class communities, and the middle class. So I was as dismissive of him as he was of me that Sunday afternoon.
In my Spanish language interviews, I compared April 11th, 2002 –the date of massive, violent anti-Chávez protests in Caracas– to our own September 11th catastrophe; a seminal, disastrous event. At least 20 protestors died in those demonstrations, scores more were wounded. For a time, a U.S.-sponsored coup even displaced Chávez from the presidency. Aside from the poor, his only friends were radical regimes like Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Assad’s Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, Ortega’s Nicaragua and Castro’s Cuba, or militant revolutionary movements like the FARC narco-terrorists, which he supported in neighboring Colombia.
Returned to power a few days after the 2002 coup, by the time of the 2004 recall, Chavez’s rule seemed to hang by a thread.
To make a long story short, Chávez shocked me and the rest of the world and defeated the recall with almost 60 percent of the vote. With that hurdle behind him, he became increasingly radicalized, using his country’s vast oil wealth to annoy the United States, branding us imperialists and comparing President George W. Bush to the “devil.” He made arms deals with the Russians, vastly beefed up his nation’s armed forces, and generally made himself a royal pain in America’s butt.
But Chávez was a more complex figure than just the anti-Yankee cartoon. Despite his radical posturing he did manage to improve the quality of life for his people. The rate of poverty which in 2002 was 48.6 percent, by 2011 had dropped to 29.5 percent. He inspired many of the disadvantaged in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. In the end, though, he was less the heroic liberator Simon Bolívar than he was a male version of Argentina’s Evita; beloved, flashy, but impractical and ultimately counter-productive.