The Talented Mr. Chávez

A Castro-loving, Bolivar-worshipping, onetime baseball-player wannabe, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is perhaps the world’s most openly anti-American head of state. With Latin America in the midst of a leftward swing, how dangerous is he?
Bolívarian Dreams

During his run for the presidency in 1998, Chávez would sometimes convene political strategy meetings. The meetings were largely unexceptional, featuring quotidian tactical debates. But there was one notable idiosyncrasy: the conference table around which the meeting’s participants sat always had one empty chair pulled up to it. The chair was always near Chávez. No one was permitted to sit on it. According to one of his advisers, Chávez once pointed toward it and proclaimed, “This is the chair of the liberator.” He meant Simón Bolívar, who has been dead since 1830.

Hugo Chávez is hardly the first Latin American leader who has attempted to shroud himself in Bolívar’s aura. (Bolívar is revered throughout much of the region; through more than ten years of armed struggle and popular exhortation, he secured independence from Spain for Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.) But few others have done so with the same conviction. As a young boy, Chávez memorized Bolívar’s speeches and re-enacted his crossing of the Andes. “Instead of Superman, my hero was Bolívar,” Chávez told an interviewer in 1999.

When he first began plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government, in the early eighties, more than ten years before the actual coup, Chávez and his co-conspirators swore loyalty to one another on a spot beneath a tree where Bolívar had famously enjoyed resting. They would call themselves the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200—200 being the number of years separating Bolívar’s birth from their cadre’s founding. Chávez tends to invest these sorts of personal milestones with mystical significance, noting how fate has placed them on important anniversaries in his hero’s life. Alberto Garrido, one of the most respected analysts of Venezuelan politics, told me, “Chávez likes to quote a Pablo Neruda poem about how people return every one hundred years. He’s perfectly convinced that he has a historic mission, which is to assume Bolívar’s mantle.” In 1999, Chávez changed Venezuela’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Where Bolívar fought to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonialism, Chávez considers the United States the imperial power from which all of Latin America must now be freed. Traveling the motorways of Caracas, you can’t avoid the billboards touting Bolívar’s jeremiad, “The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”

Chávez’s hostility to “the empire,” along with his more specific goal of purging American influence from the region, has driven his foreign policy. He opposed the war in Afghanistan and has flamboyantly cultivated relationships with members of the “axis of evil.” He was the first democratically elected head of state to visit Iraq in its pariah years between the Gulf and Iraq wars. He has invited Iran to open factories in Venezuela.

His theatrics distinguish him as perhaps the world’s most anti-American head of state. Chávez has described Condoleezza Rice as an illiterate, and has suggested that she suffers from sexual frustration (though he has declined to offer to help her with this problem, saying, “I don’t make that sacrifice for my nation”). Bush he calls “Mr. Danger,” or simply “asshole.” Last year, Venezuela withdrew all of the assets that it had held in U.S. banks and transferred them to the Bank for International Settlements, in Switzerland.

Just as Bolívar fulfilled his revolutionary destiny with a gun, Chávez speaks incessantly about the coming military confrontation with the gringos, a war that he predicts will last for a hundred years. “It wouldn’t bother me at all to end up on a mountain with a rifle defending the dignity of this country,” he announced last November. “The leaders of this country have to be ready to make an example, even give our lives if we have to.” In part, this is just rhetoric designed to exaggerate the American menace and bolster his domestic popularity. In part, Chávez is slipping into his romantic mode, as you might expect of a president who has disseminated a million free copies of Don Quixote to his compatriots. But Chávez has also closely followed the Iraq insurgency, and has called on his armed forces to learn how to mimic the Sunni resistance in the event of an invasion. That is, he wants to arm the people so they can form a guerrilla resistance.

To this end, he has begun organizing citizen militias, purchased 100,000 new Kalashnikovs, and assigned books on asymmetric warfare to his top brass. Last year, he intoned, “If imperialism ever has the idea of challenging Venezuela, it [will] have to deal with Bolívar’s people.” When I asked Nicolas Maduro, a fire-breathing, mustachioed Chavista who heads the National Assembly, how his political benefactor views Venezuela’s relationship with the United States, he replied, “Conflict, in all likelihood war, is the future.”

Bolívar briefly united a northern swath of the continent into a single nation of Gran Colombia, stretching from Ecuador to Panama. Chávez speaks of fulfilling this aborted vision, or some version of it. During the first seven years of his presidency, he has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to buy himself a substantial leadership role in the region, signing deals to sell Venezuelan crude at pennies on the dollar to other South American countries. He has talked about creating a Bank of the South that would free the region from the international finance system. Last summer, he launched a new satellite news network called Telesur, which will be beamed across Latin America and is meant to counter CNN en Español. “That network provides a U.S. spin on the news,” Telesur’s director, Aram Aharonian, told me. In contrast, Telesur bills itself as the “anti-hegemonic network.”

This anti-American bent has helped make Hugo Chávez a hero of the international Left—a title that he has aggressively courted. Long before he took over the presidency, Chávez planned Bolivarian congresses bringing together Latin America’s indigenous movements and leftist parties. As president, he has built a public-relations machine to woo Americans and Western Europeans of a certain sensibility. His government has placed self-promotional ads in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He has hired staff from Global Exchange, which helped organize the massive protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, to run a Venezuelan Information Office in Washington.

This outreach has turned Caracas into a refugee camp for socialists displaced since the tumultuous events of 1989. Chávez’s presidential palace harbors French and American activists. Marta Harnecker, the Chilean Marxist who wrote the seminal defense of the Cuban revolution, has an office there, too. Chávez routinely holds court with star academics and activists—from the anti-war icon Cindy Sheehan to Princeton philosopher Cornel West to the British essayist Tariq Ali—who return from Venezuela announcing the marvels of Chavismo, his amalgamation of anti-Americanism, Bolivarian independence, and Castro-tinged socialism. “We in the United States [hear] so many lies about President Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution,” West declared in January. “This revolution is real.”

While this kind of talk from the ideological fringe may sound like mere agitprop, the revolution is indeed real. Chavismo represents a bigger threat to American interests in the region than anything the United States has seen in decades. Not since the Cold War has America faced such a well-financed ideological competitor on its left. And Chávez has played his opening moves so masterfully—and the American government has played its so ineptly—that he may yet realize his neo-Bolivarian dream.

It is strange to find Venezuela run by a revolutionary who bows in the direction of Fidel Castro—and even stranger to find Hugo Chávez leading the revolution. As Chávez came of age in the sixties and seventies, political scientists celebrated Venezuela as an island of social-democratic stability on a volatile continent, a kind of Norway on the Caribbean. It had abandoned dictatorship for democracy in 1958, decades before most of Latin America. Civil liberties, trade unions, and political parties flourished. Oil money—especially after the 1973 price shock—allowed the government to build infrastructure and keep the economy running smoothly.

But the shock also created unsustainable economic expectations. Perhaps more important, it permitted graft to spread unchecked throughout a rapidly expanding government, regardless of which party held power. By the 1980s, lower oil prices had left the country with a corrupt government and a citizenry that was deeply disappointed with its economic fortunes. In short, Venezuela’s mood in the late 1980s was in many respects similar to that of much of Latin America today.

Chávez exited adolescence dreaming not of politics but of a baseball career, as a pitcher. To get in front of Major League Baseball scouts in the 1970s, however, you needed to get to Caracas first. He enrolled in the military academy in the capital city, intending to stay for only a year. But he had overestimated the potency of his fastball, and so he stayed in the military, unintentionally landing on one of the great social conveyor belts in Latin America. More than any of its continental counterparts, the Venezuelan army transported fresh recruits from the slums to the middle class.

As a young soldier, Chávez worked to put down a persistent rebellion of armed leftists who had been inspired by Castro and were waging a mostly ineffectual guerrilla war from the hills. By his account, he reached an epiphany as he lay down to sleep in a camp run by an intelligence colonel. He heard the cries of captured guerrillas, beaten with towel-wrapped baseball bats. A moral crisis gripped him. He later told the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez that, as he hung in his hammock, he wondered, Why am I here? The next day he committed himself to joining the rebel cause. Through his older brother, a Marxist university professor, Chávez volunteered his services to the guerrillas.

For ten years, while rising through the ranks of the army, Chávez lived a double life, operating as a revolutionary conspirator under the monikers “José María” and “Che María.” “He would drive five hours in a beat-up car to attend an hourlong meeting,” his old friend Francisco Arias Cárdenas told me. “He led our group, because he was the hardest-working.” Chávez traveled secretly—sometimes bewigged, sometimes smuggled in the trunk of a car—so that his military superiors wouldn’t detect his subterfuge. The conspiracy he hatched to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected government was dubbed Plan Zamora. And when its zero hour finally arrived, on the night of February 3, 1992, Chávez assigned himself the most difficult task: he oversaw the assault against the presidential palace in Caracas, on which the success of the whole operation turned.

Ten percent of the military had enlisted in Chávez’s rebel army. On the day of the coup, the rebels seized military bases and other key positions across the country without much difficulty. But Chávez himself had no such luck. Military intelligence caught wind of his intentions, forcing him to alter his plans; then his communications equipment failed. These glitches didn’t inspire the confidence of his fellow soldiers. The broad majority of the armed forces declined to follow his lead. With dead comrades already lying by his side and the high command threatening to bombard his position, Chávez pulled the plug. He told the head of the armed forces, “It’s OK, my general; I give myself up.”

To encourage Chávez’s other battalions to surrender, the army allowed him just over a minute to address the nation on television, before taking him off to jail. Wearing his red paratrooper beret and speaking without notes, he went live at 10:30 a.m. on February 4. “Comrades,” he said, “unfortunately, for the moment”—por ahora—“the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved … now is the time for reconsideration; new possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move more definitively toward a better future … Comrades, listen to this message of solidarity. I am grateful for your loyalty, for your courage, and for your selfless generosity. Before the country and before you, I alone shoulder responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising. Thank you.” The television networks repeated this address over and over, hoping to dissuade imitators. Instead, they made Hugo Chávez a national icon. Venezuelan politicians of the time never took square responsibility for their failures, and those failures were numerous—Venezuela in the early nineties seemed on the path to economic perdition. And the phrase por ahora” provided a rare cause for optimism.

Red berets quickly emerged as trendy accessories in the Caracas slums. Celia Flores, who is now a militant Chavista and member of the National Assembly, had been a mother without political passions before Chávez’s television appearance. “The next day, I began putting up posters to free him,” she told me. “I hadn’t really considered what I was doing. I was just moved, like I had never been before.”

With the aid of new comrades like Flores, pressure mounted on political elites to release Chávez. In 1993, Rafael Caldera, an old lion of Venezuelan politics, won the presidency, in large part by exuding empathy for Chávez. Three months into his presidency, Caldera freed him. Five years later, after campaigning in the same red beret that he wore on television, Chávez won the Venezuelan presidency. He bested his closest rival by 17 percent.

What accounts for Chávez’s decision to join—and quickly place himself at the center of—a left-wing insurgency? Sincere ideological belief surely played a part. The groundwork for his conversion had been laid many years before. A friend’s father, a Marxist teacher in his town, used to send Chávez home with copies of Marx’s writings, as well as biographies of Bolívar and the other nineteenth-century Latin American revolutionaries. “It’s very fashionable to consider Chávez an opportunist,” says the political analyst Alberto Garrido. “But if you look back at his biography and examine his writings, you can see that ideology is central to understanding him. He has deeply believed in a left-wing form of Bolivarianism for much of his life.”

Even so, Chávez’s ambition cannot be traced to ideological belief alone. One need not peer too deeply into his personal history to find the abundant and overlapping personal insecurities that drive him.

Despite his strategic acumen, Chávez has at times been susceptible to gurus, some of them charlatans, like Norberto Ceresole, the Argentine Holocaust denier. Chávez’s revolutionary beliefs reached full bloom under the tutelage of Douglas Bravo, a legendary guerrilla fighter whose manifestos recast Bolívar as a great hero of the Left. These gurus have succeeded in cracking Chávez’s notoriously hermetic inner circle because Chávez likes to create the impression that he is a cosmopolitan intellectual. His speeches and conversations constantly reference the likes of Galbraith, Tolstoy, Negri, and Rousseau. (To be sure, he doesn’t always hit the mark, confusing Thomas Mann and Thomas More, or citing the cultural conservative José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses as a great leftist work.)

In fact, Chávez is a country boy from the interior plains. He didn’t see Caracas or the sea until after his seventeenth birthday. His longtime friend William Lara, who directs the president’s political party, comes from the same region as Chávez. Lara told me, “It’s like we’re from West Virginia or a place like that. We don’t have the same codes or cultures. City people know rock-and-roll; we don’t know rock-and-roll.”

When he was a young boy, Chávez and his older brother were sent to live with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a nearby town. (Their parents, primary-school teachers of limited means, continued to raise the brothers’ four siblings.) This early separation bred complicated feelings, even resentment, in later life; he once spent two years without speaking to his mother. According to his biographers Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, when Chávez’s mistress asked him if he loved his mother, he replied, “No, I respect her.”

Chávez the child imagined himself as the heroic Bolívar, scaling the Andes to free an oppressed continent. He moved to Caracas hoping to become a baseball star. The need to be seen as a hero—to feel adulation—seems deeply embedded in his character. He must have been disappointed (and perhaps something more) to find himself in an anonymous military career instead. His psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos told me, “The love of the people is a narcotic to him. He needs it, the same way he needs his coffee.” (At one point in his presidency, Chávez drank up to thirty demitasses each day.)

Like Bill Clinton, Chávez calls his friends late at night, with no particular agenda. After Chávez triumphed in the 1998 presidential elections, he telephoned the writer Ibsen Martínez. (In the early nineties, Martínez had written a program that Chávez adored, a popular telenovela celebrated for drawing attention to corruption and social inequities; they later struck up a relationship during Chávez’s presidential campaign.) Martínez recounted their conversation to me: “My wife picks up the phone. ‘It’s Hugo Chávez,’ he says. She didn’t believe him. But it was him. He said, ‘I’m calling from my motorcade.’ He was describing the situation like a kid. ‘I removed a black screen so that I can see my people. Look, I’ll put the cell phone outside and you hear them screaming to me.’”

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Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

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