Hugo Chávez was a character of flesh and blood taken from the most imaginative novel of Gabriel García Márquez. A poor boy from Sabaneta (capital of the state of Barinas) who swore not to betray his infancy of deprivation and scarcity, he learnt very quickly to sow and to sell sweets. Son of primary school teachers, he grew up with his Grandma Rosa Ines and another two of his brothers. He lived in a house made out of palm, with walls and floors of mud, that would flood when it rained. A child that used to dream of being a painter and that carried in his soul the fantasy of playing Major League Baseball, his humble origins nourished his entire life.

From the hand of his grandmother, whom he used to call Mamá Rosa, he learnt to read and write before grade 1. By her side, he was made aware of injustice in this world. He learnt about economic hardship and pain, but also solidarity. She was an extraordinary storyteller and from her lips, he received his first lessons on the history of his fatherland into which she intertwined folk tales.

The young boy Hugo Chávez travelled through the world through pictures and stories he read in four huge and difficult volumes of the Encyclopaedia Autodidacta Quillet, a gift from his father. In the sixth grade, he was chosen to give a speech to the Bishop González Ramírez, the first to come to his town. From then on, he derived pleasure in speaking in public and others were enthralled in listening to him.

His idol was Isaías Látigo Chávez, a pitcher in the Major League. He never saw him but he imagined him, listening to his matches on the radio. The day his hero died in an airplane accident, the young Hugo, 14 years old, thought his world had fallen apart.

To be like Látigo, the mountain boy entered the army. In 1971, thanks to his talents as a baseball player, the doors of the Military Academy were held wide open to him. Four years later, he graduated as sub-lieutenant with a degree in military sciences and arts, with a diploma in counter-insurgency, with a compass that marked as his goal, the direction of his revolutionary path.

Raising his consciousness was a long and complex process. It combined lectures with knowing the key persons and political events in Latin America. One more episode of magical realism that marked his life: in 1975, in an operation, the sub-lieutenant Chávez found in Marqueseña, Barinas, a Black Mercedes Benz hidden in the mountain. On opening the suitcase with a screwdriver, he stumbled on a subversive arsenal comprised of books by Karl Marx and Valdimir Ilich Lenin, which he began to read.

The contours of his political activities were clearly moulded by his elder brother Adan, a soldier of the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR by its Spanish acronym). He also participated in Plan Andrés Bello, an educational experiment of the armed forces, concerned with providing soldiers with a humanist training. Similarly, discovering Simon Bolivar was key to his political formation. Chavez’s intellectual voracity, led him to read whatever documents he found on Bolivar’s life and his thought-process. But later on, Fidel Castro would imprint the final stamp on him. This is a man Chavez treated like a father.

The toppling of Salvador Allende in 1973 caused much contempt for soldiers under Augusto Pinochet’s instruction, so rife in Latin America. On the contrary, the knowledge of the work of the Panamanian Omar Torrijos and the Peruvian Juan Velasco Alvarado showed him the existence of another type of armed forces of national and popular vocation, so different from the guerrilla training in the School of the Americas.

Rebellious before the incident, he discovered abuses and corruption of his officers in service, and, how he could face them. “I came to the Palacio for the first time – related Chavez - to look for a box of whisky for an officer’s party”. To get ride of them, in 1982, on Simon Bolivar’s death anniversary, a small group of officials of the military body, which included Chavez, made oath under Samán de Güere, by which they founded the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200, by its Spanish acronym).
Almost seven years later, a spontaneous uprising (“Carazco”) arose in the slums of Caracas against the austerity measures of the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. The Carazco was quelled by blood and fire. The popular rebellion gave a huge impetus to the movement of the Bolivarian soldiers.

In 1992, Chavez and his companions took up arms. The riot failed and Chavez was imprisoned. Before the media, he took responsibility. His popularity and political ascendancy from then on were on the rise. On being released from prison, his political presence grew at an accelerated place before the collapse of the traditional political system. In the presidential elections in 1998, he triumphed with 56% of the vote. From that moment on, he was unstoppable. Time and time again, he won nearly all the elections and the referendum in which he participated, at the time he survived, miraculously, a coup d’etat and an oil stoppage.

For the near twenty years that he led the Venezuelan state, the lieutenant-colonel recast his country: he decolonized it, made the invisible visible, redistributed the oil profits, reduced illiteracy and poverty, increased phenomenally health indicators, increased the minimum salary and grew the economy. At the same time and in the international path, he strengthened the sway of oil-producing countries over big private companies, derailed the project for Free Trade Area for the Americas that was being driven by Washington, set up an alternative project for continental integration and set up the basis for socialism in accordance with the new century.

Hugo Chávez was a formidable communicator, a tireless storyteller, someone who would educate the people. His stories, a legacy of the tales that Mamá Rosa used to reward him in his childhood, blending the history of his fatherland, theoretical lectures, personal anecdotes, frequently in the current time. In all this, a sense of humour was always present. “If your wife asks you to jump out of the window- he joked – it is time for you to move to the ground floor...”

His accounts followed the classic model of musical sonatas, where two contrasting themes developed in harmonious tones. In his talks, he incorporates both poetry and song. “I sing very badly– he apologized–, but, as that plainsman said, Chávez sings badly, but he sings beautifully”, and now performs a country song or a ballad.

Anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, he began to achieve the miracle of building the foundations of utopia in a country that in the imagination was closer to Miami than to Havana. A full blooded plainsman, tireless story teller, Chávez dreamt of reliving the socialist ideal when very few would like to speak about it. And he did it, so as never to betray his childhood as a poor boy from Sabaneta.

Anoosha Boralessa
La Jornada (Mexico)