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'El Comandante''s way

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It’s really difficult to find a Venezuelan citizen in Texas (or U.S:) who liked President Hugo Chavez; but it wasn't so difficult to hear many voice their complaints and woeful wishes months ago during Venezuela's election cycle.

“That bastard is destroying what beautiful Venezuela was once,” said Houston resident Jessica Barbosa several months ago. “He needs to get out of the way and die fast.”

Granted, a lot of the the local immigrant Venezuelan residents are made up of middle to upper class and professionals who left Venezuela in the late 90s and early 2000s because of Chavez. They fled the country to avoid being further affected by his bold, "bullying" economic and political policy changes.

There are a few exceptions like Venezuelan Ricardo Moreno, a former pastor and an organizer for the non-profit Bread for the World, who upon learning about Chavez's death at the Washington D.C. airport, started crying and shared a moving story on Facebook about that moment.

After ruling for 14 years, President Chavez´s passing on March 5th came as a shock to many supporters and detractors despite his unusual long absence from the public eye since December 9th.

“El Comandante,” as he was referred to by his followers; had been battling cancer since June 2011 and had travelled constantly back and forth between Cuba and Venezuela.
His presence and influence can be described tritely, but literally as larger than life, and his biggest critics can’t deny that fact. That’s likely why many people were in disbelief through their grief or their joy for his sudden death.

He may have been harshly critical of United States, but many U.S. political leaders and pundits were eager to likening him to a dangerous dictator in the world arena. The truth is the former child of impoverished teachers never quite fit that mold, despite unproven accusations or paranoid assumptions (on both ends).

This was almost evident on my visit to Venezuela at the end of summer 2012 when the country was in full swing for the presidential election. However, my entrance into the country was very discouraging at first.

“You’d better not identify yourself as an American journalist if you don’t want to run into trouble with the authorities there,” warned Chief Editor Orlando Gamboa for La Opinion, a renowned Colombian newspaper near the Colombia-Venezuela border.

The concern, he said, is that I could be detained for possibly being a spy for the U.S. government if I asked too many questions or took too many photos as a freelance journalist.
There seemed to be a blend of tension and relaxation in the air through the journey in Simon Bolivar’s land, which made for an ironic but intriguing oxymoron. There were reserves of military armed squads everywhere on the highways, small towns and cities; but the odd aspect of it was that it felt absolutely non-threatening. The soldiers were not only stern watchmen; surprisingly, they were also friendly in many instances.

The prospects of Venezuela being a menacing rogue nation as suggested by some U.S. leaders seemed nonexistent. Even Venezuelan residents critical of “El Comandante” agreed that the imagery of political killings and nightmarish gulags was absurd; nothing similar to what some in Chavez’s political oil circle were accused of in the Middle East.

But the question really was if Venezuela’s nationalist government with its cult of personality could eventually evolve into a real merciless crackdown on detractors, and not by simply ridiculing or censoring them.

For now Venezuela does face the difficult challenge of controlling violent crime, which, of course, was already an issue in previous administrations. But the murder rate increased alarmingly under Chavez’s watch and there are possible explanations by some residents.

“Chavez has created an entitlement attitude from the people in the working class in Venezuela,” said business owner Cesar Carrillo. “If someone sees you with a nice cell phone or jewelry, they’re more likely to rob you because you owe it to them.”

On the same token there are those who feel having elitists like Yale-educated Henrique Sales or Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles in office would only benefit the affluent in the end.

Despite apparent shortcomings in Chavez’s leadership, his earthy charisma was undeniable and every speech (in his weekly TV address) he made to the Venezuelan people, seemed to be genuine and candid to the extreme. Some experts felt keen in calling him a political master, and surely he had attained that denomination by his many years in politics and his insatiable reading of philosophy, history and politics. But at his core, he was truly an extraordinary common man for the Venezuelan people.

Several channels promoting Chavez dominated the television screens, including some targeted at the youth. Music videos and shows pushed hip-hop or reggaeton lyrics that made you think of indoctrination of past historical nationalist structures.
While traveling around the country, one could witness the endless Chavez campaign enterprise in large and small signs through highways and towns with the charismatic leader’s smiling face stamped on.

Then-candidate Capriles's campaign message was scarce in contrast, and when found, it was many times vandalized with sprayed-canned name-calling or caricatured.

There seemed to be no interest by Chavez’s government in establishing a serious political debate with Miranda's governor. There were no typical negative campaign ads you may see in U.S. against the challenger. To call Capriles a “dummy” or to draw Mickey Mouse ears on his picture was enough to win.

There were many people campaigning for “El Comandante” in towns and roads around the country with such enthusiasm, even fervor, it was almost hard to believe what some of Chavez critics would say.

“They don’t care about Chavez. The government is paying those people to go out to rallies and to campaign on Chavez’s behalf,” said Oscar Yanez, a restaurant manager.

According to several of those interviewed, the reasoning behind their loyalty or servitude to Chavez was split into two groups. The ones that gave their support to keep getting handouts, and the ones that kept doing it out of fear of losing what they had with Chavez. There were many citizens eager to say they were strong supporters of Chavez in the early years, but had become disillusioned with his actions after some time.

Sometimes unproven quotes seem to carry a life of their own to start or spread a tale, but one case seemed probable among them. Dr. Dolores Prieto, a chief physician, has a nice house that would categorize her at least as upper middle class. Her home office had wooden walled-book shelves filled of literary works that could be considered progressive, artsy or even leftist.

“I used to support President Chavez 100 percent, but I changed my mind when I saw things going bad,” said Prieto. “The country is a disaster, just like our hospital has been the last few years.”

And there is Maria Gonzales, a Colombian woman who lives and owns her clothing business in Venezuela. “I’m forever thankful for having someone like Chavez. He gave me a chance in life to become successful and independent when no one else would in Colombia,” Gonzales said. According to Maria, Chavez gave her money to start her business in Venezuela many years ago.

Going against his advice to me in summer 2012, La Opinion editor Gamboa was in Venezuela in the middle of March to follow on the country's footsteps after Chavez's death, and he declared the Bolivarian revolution is still very much alive.

"It was an incredible experience. The people have decided to play this one for keeps, and they're in the streets by the millions to keep Chavez's dream alive," Gamboa said. "I think [VP] Maduro will win. The military supports him to the end."

A special election will pick an new president on April 14th. and while there are several candidates running in the ballots, Governor Capriles and Vice President / Interim President Nicolas Maduro are the only serious contenders.

“Many Venezuelans love and hate Hugo Chavez for the same reason. Because he reminds them of themselves; of the culture of social entitlement that exists in Venezuela, way before he came to power,” said Andres Segura, a physician who has mixed feelings about Chavez’s ways.

Generally, someone who’s bold enough to express himself in such a way about the Venezuelan people would probably be offending quite a few of them. But then again, He may be entitled to say it because he’s Venezuelan too.

  • The names of some of the people interviewed have been changed by request.

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